A historic guide of York for the informed traveler

Having lived in England for more than 2 years, I decided it was time to explore north of London and visit York.

On my way up I couldn’t stop thinking: why haven’t I done this in summer? But then I found out that York is a lovely city and possibly even better during the Christmas season. Karim and I were blessed with 2 days of sun and relatively warm weather, so we couldn’t have asked for more.

York is a small city in northern England with an old history. From Roman occupation to the Viking one to the invention of the railway, the history of the city is written in its walls and buildings, easily accessible for anyone who wants to read it. In this guide I will show you how.

Roman York and York Minster

A bunch of criminals

The Romans conquered Britannia (i.e. England) and fought with the various tribes that populated the island. In York, they defeated the Brigantes tribe and called the city Ebocarum. If you’re not Italian this probably won’t ring a bell, but I was excited when I read this, as in modern Italian a “brigante” is a criminal!

York minster

I’ve learned about the Brigantes visiting the museum of the York Minster. Minster is a honorific title for important churches in England. It’s different from a cathedral, as only the residence of an archbishop can be a cathedral. The name minster comes from Latin monasterium, and in Old English the word was actually a synonym of monastery. York’s minster is one of the most important in England, although the most famous is probably Westminster in London. Sounds familiar, right?

York Minster
York Minster

York minster was built on the remains of the Roman fortress, making it basically a 2,000 year old building. You can visit inside for £10. You can climb the tower for £15 and get the best view of York. If the ticket is worth paying, that depends on what you like. The cathedral itself is beautiful, and you have access to the museum that tells the story of the building. The best finding for me was learning about the Brigantes and looking at a version of the Bible written nothing less than 1,000 years ago!

Karim and I climbing the tower
View from York Minster
View from York Minster

Climbing the tower can be a bit claustrophobic. Karim had his backpack with him, which almost blocked him on the way up! Once on top you can see the city. Nice view but honestly not the best I’ve ever seen.

Karim stuck on the stairs

City walls

The other big Roman remain is the city walls. You can actually have a walk there, and I recommend to go as you get a very nice view of the city and the minster. This time for free!

View of York Minster from city walls
View of the Minster from city walls

The Viking age: discover Jorvik

Jorvik was the name of York in the Viking period, around 1,000 years ago (J pronounced as Y). In the 70s archeologists found an impressive site with many remains of this age. Analysing all these findings, they were able to understand many aspects of the everyday life in that time.

Today you can visit the Jorvik museum for £10. I really recommend it as it’s very different from most museums. They have reconstructed the ancient village of Jorvik and you can take a tour of it on a train. The audioguide is included and available in many languages.

Jorvik museum
Jorvik museum

You will see typical houses, the market with people selling various products, women dyeing textiles, children playing a popular board game (similar to modern chess), and even Viking loos! I think this is a great way to learn about microhistory. It’s very entertaining and good for both adults and children.

After the tour, you can visit the most traditional part of the museum and look some of the remains found by the archeologists. You can see ornaments, tools, musical instrument that technically could still be played, a perfectly conserved sock, and even a piece of stools!

What I liked most was the 3 human skeletons found intact. You can learn how to read a skeleton to discover who these people were and how they lived. For example, it’s possible to find out where they were born and where they lived based on their diet and how it changed from childhood to adulthood. You can also read diseases and accidents in the bones.

The Shambles

The Shambles is the most ancient street in York. You can still see the buildings as they used to be many centuries ago. The street is very narrow and the houses on the opposite sides seem to be pushing forward and almost touch each other! In modern English “shambles” means a state of confusion or untidiness, which I think perfectly describes the street.

The Shambles in York
The Shambles in York

It’s not sure how old it is, but I’ve read the the most ancient mention of it dates 1080. Just imagine how many people have ever walked there!

Guy Fawkes

Remember, remember!

The fifth of November,

the Gunpowder treason and plot;

I know of no reason 

why the Gunpowder treason

should ever be forgot!

This is the start of the The Fifth of November, an English folk verse from 1870. It’s talking about the Gunpowder plot that saw 13 Catholic men trying to blow up the parliament to stop the persecution of their religion by protestant King James I. Guy Fawkes wasn’t the leader of the plot, but being an expert in fireworks he was supposed to match the fire that would blow up the parliament.

Only he didn’t.

He was caught just in time and later tortured and executed. That day was the 5th November 1605, and since the following year the British started a tradition of bonfires, today known as Guy Fawkes day.

So, why am I talking about it in this post? It turns out that Guy Fawkes was born nothing less than in York. I discovered this simply wandering around and stumbling across the Guy Fawkes inn. Initially thinking it was just a marketing exercise, I then researched and found out that this is actually Guy Fawkes’ birthplace.

Guy Faukes Inn
Guy Faukes Inn

Guy Fawkes also attended St Peter’s school in York – the only place in the UK that refuses to light up the bonfire on the 5th November!

National Railway museum

When Karim told me he wanted to bring me to the National Railway museum I initially tried to find all excuses not to go. The museum is a bit farther away from the city centre (it’s close to a Network Rail’s headquarter – the company that manages the railways in the UK). But he works there and seemed very excited to show me the trains, so in the end I said yes – and did the right thing!

As you probably know, the British invented the train (which BTW is also why all trains worldwide run on the left, like the cars in the UK). And since York has always been an important railway hub, it seems like the right place to visit this kind of museum.

Homage to George Stephenson at National Railway museim, York
Homage to George Stephenson, inventor of the train, from Ferrovieri d’Italia

There you can find various examples of trains and their history. I’ve learned that one of the first trains ever invented was the Rocket, designed by the father of railways, engineer George Stepehenson. I’ve also seen a model of the Flying Scotsman, the first express train connecting Edinburgh and London since 1862. And a quirky fact: in the past you had to pay a ticket to enter the platform, even if you were only accompanying someone and not actually taking a train!

Platform ticket machines railway museum
Platform ticket machines

Other things to do in York

If you’re visiting York during Christmas time, you should definitely visit the market in the city centre. If possible, try to go on a weekday because during the weekend it was so full of people that you could hardly walk and you had to queue to do anything – even outside of the market.

Many shops had a queue to enter, which was quite frustrating. I hate queuing, but eventually gave up as it was the only way to do anything. To take a break from the cold, we decided to have an afternoon tea. This is a typical British tradition since the 19th century. Following the example of the queen, the upper class used to have tea with some light sandwiches at around 4pm. The lower class also had a similar tradition, called high tea, which was heavier than afternoon tea and consumed a few hours later as a substitute for dinner.

Today you can experience afternoon tea in many cafes in the UK, but mind that they are not light at all, as they serve tea with a few sandwiches and tons of sweets and cakes. The food can vary from place to place, but you would normally find a scone, a typical English cake best eaten with cream and marmalade.

Afternoon tea
Afternoon tea with scone in the middle

For our afternoon tea we went to Bettys café. This is a traditional tea room, I had received a recommendation to go there by a local and wasn’t disappointed despite the 30 minutes wait.

You can also take a boat trip along the river and join a ghost tour. These are quite traditional things to do in UK so you can have similar experience in other cities.

Goodbye from York!
Goodbye from York!





8 Replies to “A historic guide of York for the informed traveler”

  1. I though I was going to read all about New York but reading about the York in England was very intressting to because I just discovered a new city thanks to you! And I just learnt that the railway was born in England! The Shamble street seems cozy but hopefully I will visit on a week day. Must feel very crowded othervise! And absolutely yes for a ghost tour!

    1. Glad you’ve learned about a new place! York probably wouldn’t be the reason to visit England, but if you are in the country I would recommend a visit. As you’ve seen, it’s quite small but it has so much heritage.

  2. I love that you took an atypical place to visit in England and made it seem totally worth the visit! I’ve always enjoyed English history, so York is 100% on my list for when I finally visit the UK one day. Thanks so much for the tips, I’ve got to see that viking museum!!

    1. Glad that you’ve discovered a new place! Definitely include it in your tour of England 🙂

  3. Can I go to York instead of my workplace this morning? haha Would love so much to walk on Shambles street!

    1. Haha that’s 2 of us! The Shambles is a very unique street, you feel like the buildings are falling over you!

  4. I love learning new words, and the history of words! Brigante! I also never thought about the fact that there are cathedrals, and there are minsters; therefore there must be a difference. I actually was under the impression that all of them are cathedrals and some are minsters, and it appears to be the other way around!

    1. yes I didn’t know that either, that’s why I love traveling and blogging, it makes me research more and learn so many things!

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