Looking for things to do in York with kids? My family and I spent 3 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 staycation – we’re keen to return for another York city break to cover some of the attractions we missed. There are so many brilliant things to do in York with children, even when the weather and a lack of sleep are stacked against you.
Why visit York with kids?
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 city centre is compact for easy exploration on foot. You can easily visit York with a toddler as well as with older children.
On a family city break, 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 with kids ticks all of these boxes. There are lots of family friendly museums in York as well as some rather unusual York child friendly attractions.
Our family trip to York was during October half term. We spent 3 days in York and didn’t manage to visit all of the sights. For a compact city, there’s a wealth of interesting places to visit in York with kids. In this post I’ve put together a list of the best York family attractions. I’ve also detailed some of the best family days out near York in case you have more time to explore.
York has an epic history, it’s a brilliant city to visit if you’d like an overview of the UK’s tumultuous past. Enclosed by well preserved medieval city walls, York pays homage to Viking and Saxon settlers in its excellent museums. There are medieval lanes to explore and elegant Georgian buildings line many of the streets. York’s place in more recent history is what appeals to many children visiting the city: railways and chocolate are both well represented in York.
The National Railway Museum in York: the best thing to do in York with kids
The National Railway Museum was, predictably, one of our best things to do in York with kids. It was definitely a highlight for my rail enthusiast sons. If you’re looking for free things to do in York with kids, you should make a beeline for the National Railway museum.
Not only is it 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.
If you’re looking for things to do in York with kids when it’s raining, the National Railway Museum is perfect. There are some attractions outdoors – there’s an outdoor play area and miniature railway to ride on – but otherwise everything is indoors.
Walk York City Walls
Despite the dodgy weather, we managed to circumnavigate York twice via the 3.5 kilometre medieval York 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. Along with the Railway Museum, the City Walls are one of the best free places to visit in York.
York with kids: Jorvik Viking Centre
The brilliant Jorvik Viking Centre is one of the most popular things to do in York with kids. Visitors are taken on small carriages through Viking-era York where recreated streets are full of waxwork figures and artefacts reflecting this period in York’s history. There are sights, sounds and even smells (rather pongy ones your children will be pleased to hear) bringing 10th century York to life.
Ensure you book tickets for the Jorvik Viking Centre well in advance.
The Yorkshire Museum and Gardens
If your kids just need a bit of green space in which to tear around, the Yorkshire Museum and 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.
York Castle Museum
So many museums, so little time. Housed in former prison buildings, the York Castle Museum 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 to York Minster 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.
Shopping in York with kids
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 the York Chocolate Story got bumped off our York itinerary 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 in York
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.
This Merlin attraction is one for older kids (aged 8+) which runs along the same lines as the dungeons in London. The York Dungeons tells the story of York using gruesome live shows covering the Vikings, the plague, the War of the Roses and plenty of other moments from York’s rich history.
I know one of my sons would really love the experience of being an archaeologist for the day, so I’m keen to take him to Dig when we return to York. There are four replica excavation pits covering the significant periods in York’s history where children can try their hand at archaeology. I think this sounds like one of the best things to do in York with children.
The York Pass
Is the York Pass worth it? Unlike London, quite a few of the best places to visit in York with kids are quite pricey. Aside from the National Railway Museum, you’ll be paying to enter most of the museums in York. The more days you stay in York, the better value the York Pass is. The pass would definitely be a good option if you’re planning to explore the main sites over two or more days.
Where to stay in York with kids
If you’re staying in York with kids, I’d recommend finding a central base from which to explore. There are some good value hotels and hostels in York and of course plenty of self catering apartments to rent.
Churchill Hotel in York
If you don’t want to compromise on that luxury boutique style of hotel which you enjoyed pre-kids, the Churchill Hotel is a good option. This Georgian mansion looks like a country hotel but is right in the centre of York.
York YHA is a really good value base for exploring York with kids. There are en-suite family rooms available, some with a double bed. The hostel has a kitchen so it’s perfect it you want to visit York on a budget. The hostel is a 20 minute walk along the River Ouse to the city centre.
Family friendly apartments in York
We stayed in a two bedroom apartment in Woodsmill Quay on the banks of the River Ouse. The apartment is perfect for families and incredibly central. There’s a small supermarket just around the corner and we were able to walk to all of the main York attractions with our children. We booked through AirBnB (there’s a link to the apartment we stayed in below) but there’s another apartment in the block which you can book through Booking.com.
York Marriott Hotel
If you would like a hotel in York with a swimming pool, the York Marriott is a really good value option with family rooms. It isn’t in the centre of the city (1.5 miles to the south) but what it lacks in location it makes up for in price and facilities.
Things to do near York with kids
There are enough York attractions for kids to keep you busy for several days. However, if you fancy escaping the city, there are plenty of things to do near York with children. On the doorstep of York is some of the UK’s most spectacular scenery so if you have longer than two or three days in York, it’s worth heading out of the city to explore a little bit of rural Yorkshire.
Brimham Rocks and Pateley Bridge
28 miles / 1 hour drive
I visited York as a child myself and one of the key things I remember is a day out to Brimham Rocks. Located on the edge of the Yorkshire Dales National Park, Brimham Rocks is like a giant natural playground for kids. The rocks, perfect for clambering on, are all shapes and sizes, having been sculpted by the elements over millions of years. Of all the places to visit near York, this would be my top pick.
If you can drag the kids away from Brimham Rocks, the pretty market town of Pateley Bridge is a great place for a wander. Frequently somewhere near the top of those annoying “best places to live in the UK” lists which newspapers like to print, Pateley Bridge has a charming high street with lots of independent shops and cafes. The town is surrounded by the beautiful scenery of Nidderdale, an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
6 miles from York / 20 minute drive
I know my kids would absolutely love York Maze or rather mazes: as well as the maize maze you’ll find a dinosaur maze, a mineshaft maze and various other places to lose your children in. There are lots of play areas including a volcano-corn fusion.
Yorkshire Air Museum
7 miles from York / 20 minute drive
My children are fascinated by aviation and so I know they’d love the Yorkshire Air Museum. Around seven miles east of York, the museum is a great day out of the city. There are cockpits to investigate, a control tower to explore and a Dakota aircraft to clamber into.
15 miles from York / 30 minute drive
The impressive stately home of Castle Howard was built in the 18th century and offers a really wonderful day out near York. If your children aren’t temped by a tour of this grand pile, they’ll no doubt enjoy exploring Castle Howard’s vast grounds. There’s an adventure playground as well as a new island adventure area called Skelf Island which looks like a lot of fun.
Getting to York with kids
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 to York, book as far in advance as possible to secure good value tickets.
For more details of 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? What are your favourite things to do in York with kids? Let me know in the comments below.
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