My family and I spent a few days in York last year. It rained, it was cold and one of my children suffered from a severe case of insomnia. Nevertheless, I came away thinking what a brilliant destination York is for a family city break.
What are the key ingredients for a successful city break with children? If you’re travelling with young children, as we were, it helps if the centre is compact for easy exploration on foot. Somewhere central and cost effective to stay rates pretty highly for us; interesting sights to explore, car-free spaces to expend some energy and a few good restaurants in which to refuel are all important factors. It also helps if the city is easy to reach. York ticks all of these boxes. Here are some of the city’s highlights:
The National Railway Museum
This was, predictably, the key highlight for my rail enthusiast sons. The museum is free, it’s vast, and it is packed with all of the big names from the locomotive world. You’ll find the Mallard, the Shinkansen and Eurostar to name just a few. The museum hosts special events during the school holidays and there was an impressive number of volunteers on hand to answer questions during our visit. There’s a great indoor toddler play area for budding engineers complete with a foam Stephen’s Rocket which can be endlessly “dismantled” and reassembled. We spent many, many, hours here.
The city walls
Despite the dodgy weather, we managed to circumnavigate York twice via the 3.5km medieval city walls. It’s a great way to get your bearings, there are magnificent views over the city, particularly of the Minster and the excitement of running along the ramparts means that children will travel a lot further than they might on a traditional walk.
At a time when so many high streets are offering up ubiquitous chain restaurants, I was really impressed by the number of independent eateries in York. There was also a really great selection of cafes, which proved essential for those of us who needed a little energy boost. Yorkshire staple Betty’s was doing a roaring trade during our visit but after sharing York’s highlights with so many other half term families, we opted for more low key destinations for our caffeine fixes.
Jorvik Viking Centre
I was expecting this interactive experience charting York’s Viking past to be our favourite attraction during our stay (I have fond memories of it from my childhood). However, I made a slight error and didn’t book our tickets online in advance. When we arrived at the Jorvik Centre we were informed that there was a 2 hour queue as October half term is the most popular week of the year. Well, we now have a reason to return to York.
The Yorkshire Museum and Gardens
If your kids just need a bit of green space in which to tear around, the Yorkshire Museum Gardens, complete with medieval abbey ruins, are a handy central place to visit. The museum, which includes a Roman mosaic floor, plenty of dinosaur bones and a Playmobil Viking ship, is really enjoyable and a manageable size for children with some fun interactive exhibits and useful trails which you can download from the website. My boys particularly enjoyed dressing up as prehistoric Yorkshiremen and taking to the stormy seas in a Viking ship.
Where to stay
There are some good value hotels in York but we opted for an AirBnB apartment. The city has some very central apartments, ours was next to the river and a 5 minute walk from the Railway Museum.
York Castle Museum
So many museums, so little time. Housed in former prison buildings, this is another attraction we didn’t get the chance to visit as my children were rather keen on returning to the railway museum. However, with recreated Victorian streets complete with people in costume, and a toy museum, it is somewhere I would definitely like to take the kids next time.
As castle settings go, that of Clifford’s Tower is rather underwhelming and you wonder whether the town planners were all on holiday when this part of the city was being redeveloped. Imagine a hilltop castle in the centre of an important historic city. Would you surround it with a car park? Well, despite the trick photography, Clifford’s Tower is surrounded by vehicles (apparently the car park earns the council over a million quid per year). However, if you’re 6 years old, this isn’t a big issue and there’s a pleasingly steep set of steps to race up and plenty of opportunities to reenact battles and fight your little brother at the top of this Norman ruin.
Although St Paul’s Cathedral was a hit with my kids, they declined the opportunity to visit York’s Gothic masterpiece despite its striking facade. The entrance charge is rather steep at £10 per adult plus an extra £5 if you wish to climb the tower but as you have to be aged 8 to do the climb, which neither of my children are, I was happy to forgo a visit. However, the Minster, one of the largest cathedrals in Europe, is definitely worth a visit. There’s plenty to keep children’s interest with trails to follow and backpacks to hire, the website has a useful section for families.
As with the restaurants, York has plenty of independent shops. Tourists flock to the Shambles, a warren of medieval streets with overhanging buildings which make for a fun history lesson (provided you don’t misplace your children amid the crowds, we only did this briefly).
York’s Chocolate Story
I’m not sure how this attraction got bumped off the list in favour of a second walk around the city walls… perhaps we all needed a bit of fresh air. Anyway, I’m keen to brush up on my chocolate knowledge so I hope we’ll be paying the chocolate museum a visit when we return to York.
The River Ouse
Exploring by boat is, in my opinion, a particularly enjoyable way to travel through and learn about a city with children. We had a brilliant trip on the Thames in London and I’m sure if we’d had more time and better weather in York we would have taken to the water. As well as organised sightseeing cruises, it’s also possible to skipper your own boat for an hour which looks really appealing.
Getting to York
York is well connected by rail: London (just 2 hours), Edinburgh, Liverpool and Bristol all have direct services as do many other cities. Otherwise, York is close to the A1M motorway. If you opt to take the train, book as far in advance as possible.
For more details York’s museums and the city’s art gallery along with information on discounted entry, see the York Museums Trust website.
Have you visited York with your family? Do you have a favourite city in the UK? Let me know in the comments below.