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York city guide: Where to eat, drink, shop and stay in the north’s historical gem

A city of character, culture and cocktails that hasn’t been held back by its rich past

Lizzy Dening
Friday 23 August 2019 16:39 BST
York perfectly mixes culture and history
York perfectly mixes culture and history

York is a city that’s truly living among history, with modern, independent shops tucked beneath Roman walls and contemporary restaurants down the road from Viking digs. It hasn’t let its future be held back by a rich past, and is instead forging new ways to combine ancient culture with a thriving student population and (like it or not) an increasing number of hen dos.

What to do

Unusual artworks

York Art Gallery packs a mighty punch for a small space, and fans of ceramics in particular are in for a treat. Visit before November to catch an exhibition of Dame Lucie Rie’s elegant pots and wartime ceramic buttons. Entry costs £7.75.

York Art Gallery is small but perfectly formed

Mighty Minster

Meanwhile there’s plenty to marvel at in the Minster too – with some of the world’s finest stained glass windows on offer. Many have been painstakingly cleaned and restored, revealing their jewel colours and the incredible details on some of their inhabitants’ faces – bring binoculars for the full effect.

Entry £11; free tours are available at regular intervals. The famous wren and spider panel is easy to overlook. It’s tucked away inside the Zouche Chapel on the right-hand side of the building.

A trip isn't complete with a visit to York Minster

The play’s the thing

York Theatre Royal (currently celebrating its 275th anniversary) has a fantastic range of shows – we saw Emma Rice’s fabulous Wise Children – from Shakespeare to modern theatre, and the ever-popular panto. Grab a bite in its friendly bar-bistro area beforehand.

Indulge yourself in York Theatre Royal’s wide variety of performances

Where to stay

For a sense of history with modern day style, try Grays Court – the oldest inhabited building in York, with parts dating back to 1091. Today it has elegant rooms, generous bathrooms, a bar packed with cosy nooks and a chic restaurant (more below). The garden is rimmed with Roman walls, and in summer these can be accessed directly. Doubles from £140.

Grays Court packs plenty of historic charm dating back to 1091

Hop aboard the Luxury Houseboat Till, just half a mile from the Minster, for a shipshape self-catering stay. Central heating will keep you cosy whatever the weather, and there’s room for six. Two nights from £494.

Where to eat

The Bow Room at Grays Court has made a name for itself in modern dining – think blind tasting menus and small plates packed with local ingredients. While some of the flavour combinations might not be to everyone’s taste, experimental eaters will be in their element.

For brunch with a continental twist, head to the Press Kitchen, Walmgate. There are plenty of veggie and vegan options, including breakfast burritos and buttermilk pancakes, available daily until 5pm. An evening menu is also available from £18.50 for two courses.

Where to drink

Cocktail fans are spoilt for choice in the city, but rough and ready Evil Eye on Stonegate frequently appears on national lists of best bars. It has the best stocked bar you’ll ever see (it’s in the Guinness Book of World Records for largest gin selection) and great deals on mojitos. What’s not to like? Buy gifts to take home at the onsite gin shop.

For a non-alcoholic option, it has to be a cup of Yorkshire’s finest at the famous Bettys tearoom – which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year. While there are usually queues for a table, you can always slip up to the counter on the left to buy fat rascals, curd tarts, elegant fondant fancies and more to take away.

Bettys is the ultimate stop for tea and cake

Where to shop

Make your Instagram pop with a trip to Botanic, Walmgate. A veritable greenhouse of plants for every desk, mantelpiece and room in your house, this independent shop has staff who really know their stuff.

Harry Potter fans will be in their element in The Shambles, where there are multiple shops dedicated to the Boy Who Lived. The original is The Shop That Must Not Be Named, which had queues around the block for its first months. Now the fuss has died down, but it remains a popular spot to pick up house clothing, stationery and cuddly toys.

Nuts and bolts

Public transport

Walking or cycling are good options, but there’s also a comprehensive bus network.

Best view

While there are gorgeous views around most corners of central York – from the atmospheric Shambles to the top of the Roman walls or Clifford’s Tower – one of the best spots for sunny days is the 10-acre botanical gardens surrounding the Yorkshire Museum. Picnic beside the ruins of St Mary’s Abbey, the River Ouse and plentiful flower beds.

Rock up to the ruins for a cracking view (Getty/iStockphoto)

Insider tip

For some of the finest examples of stucco decor you’re ever likely to see, pop into Fairfax House. The Georgian property’s ceilings – which were painted shocking red when the building was a dance hall and cinema – have had every inch painstakingly scraped from the plaster to restore them to their former glory. Entry £7.50.

More information

Go to the Visit York website:

If you’re seeing multiple attractions try the one-day York City Pass for £45 (covers 25 attractions and sightseeing buses).

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