Things to do in York with kids

view of york minster from york city walls

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 city break. 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 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 Roman 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.

Model of Stephenson’s Rocket, National Railway Museum

Model of Stephenson’s Rocket, National Railway Museum

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. 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.

Green steam engine at the National Railway Museum in York

National Railway Museum: essential if you’re in York with kids.

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.

city walls of york with york minster in the background

Only a short stretch of the walls lack a barrier to contain children…

York with kids: 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 Viking 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 with kids.

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.

boy dressed as prehistoric man at yorkshire museum

Prehistoric Yorkshireman

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.

Clifford’s Tower

people climbing Cliffords Tower in York

Clifford’s Tower, York

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.

York Minster

York Minster

York Minster

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).

people shopping in the Shambles, York

The Shambles, York

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.

Things to do in York with kids: take a boat on the River Ouse, York

The River Ouse, York

York Dungeons

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.

Dig York

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.

Check availability at the Churchill Hotel

York YHA

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.

Check availability at the York YHA

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.

Check availability at Woodsmill Quay through AirBnB

Check availability at Woodsmill Quay 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.

Check availability at the York Marriott

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.

York Maze

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.

Castle Howard

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 with kids? Do you have a favourite city in the UK? Let me know in the comments below.

Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links. Should you click to purchase, it is at no additional cost to you, although I receive a small commission that goes towards the running of this blog.

You might also like to read these other posts about UK holidays:

The best UK beach breaks for families

Family short break ideas in the UK

6 great farm holidays in England

Family friendly places to stop just off the motorway

things to do in york with kids

things to do in york with kids

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81 Comments

  1. Anisa
    23rd February 2018 / 9:28 pm

    York is one of my favorite cities in the UK with or without kids! I love the city wall walk and the overall atmosphere of the city. Last December, I went for the Christmas markets which were really nice. Thanks for sharing on #TheWeeklyPostcard.

  2. 24th February 2018 / 3:19 am

    York does look pretty beautiful! The cathedral is absolutely lovely, but even the ruins are nice. I love the gothic architecture and the small stone streets!! #TheWeeklyPostcard

    • 24th February 2018 / 9:11 am

      I would love to have gone in the Minster, it’s pretty impressive inside.

  3. 24th February 2018 / 4:14 am

    I have only been in London, so I don’t know much about York. I’ve heard it’s beautiful though and from what you are describing it’s a great place to visit with or without kids. #TheWeeklyPostcard

    • 24th February 2018 / 9:10 am

      Yes, I’d quite like to pay it another visit without kids to try out a few more bars and restaurants!

  4. 24th February 2018 / 9:02 am

    We’re headed to York in March!! I can’t wait to see the Shambles and walk the walls! Nice to know there are local eateries and not just chain restaurants! Thanks for linking up with #TheWeeklyPostcard!

    • 24th February 2018 / 9:09 am

      I’m sure you’ll have a brilliant time. There’s some great pubs too!

  5. 24th February 2018 / 5:23 pm

    We are so anxious to visit York! We have a definite fondness for Medieval cities, castles and cathedrals. And we’re with your boys on wanting to see the National Railroad Museum. 🙂 Great post – really makes us want to book a trip. Like, now! 🙂 Thanks for sharing on #TheWeeklyPostcard.

    • 24th February 2018 / 6:15 pm

      Glad you enjoyed it, York is definitely a fantastic city.

  6. annette @afrenchcollection
    25th February 2018 / 4:24 am

    Your photos look like such fun – I will have to add York to my next UK trip. #TheWeeklyPostcard

    • 25th February 2018 / 9:50 am

      It’s certainly on our list to return to before too long!

  7. 25th February 2018 / 2:21 pm

    I love York, it’s such a beautiful city with so much to see & do. The history of York is fascinating. Great post 😊

    • 25th February 2018 / 9:52 pm

      Thanks. I love it too, can’t wait to return!

  8. Toimas
    25th February 2018 / 2:53 pm

    I haven’t spent so much time exploring the UK yet. Anyway, York is now very high on my UK bucket list thanks to your post. We don’t travel with kids, but I think we would enjoy the city. #TheWeeklyPostcard

    • 25th February 2018 / 9:51 pm

      It’s definitely a great city for everyone.

  9. 25th February 2018 / 9:22 pm

    Having also two rail enthusiast sons, I guess we cannot miss the rail museum 🙂 it seems like a lovely city

    • 25th February 2018 / 9:49 pm

      If your boys like trains you HAVE to go!

  10. sensetheplace
    26th February 2018 / 12:16 pm

    I have been to York once when I was young(er). I do remember it being beautiful. I really want to discover more UK cities, I would love to spend a weekend there! The architecture is just incredible.
    #TheWeeklyPostcard

    • 26th February 2018 / 12:44 pm

      Yes, I’d like to see more of our cities. Hopefully Bath next!

  11. 27th February 2018 / 7:39 am

    I hadn’t thought of York for a family break – I haven’t been since I ran the marathon there pre-baby (great marathon if anyone is looking for a challenge!) My little one would love the railway museum and I remember enjoying the Jorvik Viking Centre as a child too, thanks for the reminder. #citytripping

    • 27th February 2018 / 7:42 am

      That must have been a great destination for a marathon, plenty of distractions from the task at hand!

  12. 27th February 2018 / 9:12 am

    I’ve heard the name York, but that’s it 🙂 Thanks for giving me a peak into it. Like Clifford’s Tower! #citytripping

  13. 27th February 2018 / 10:49 am

    I went to York last year and loved it! York Castle Museum really surprised me – it was kinda a last minute ‘why not’ but it was super fun. We used the YorkPasses and saved some cash on attractions too! #citytripping

    • 27th February 2018 / 10:52 am

      I’d loved to have visited the castle museum. Unfortunately my kids were a bit museumed-out by that stage!

  14. 28th February 2018 / 5:01 am

    York is the best city in the UK full stop for me

    • 28th February 2018 / 11:38 am

      It’s pretty high up my list too!

  15. Phoebe
    28th February 2018 / 12:01 pm

    We had a very enjoyable day in York last summer but I feel we only just scratched the surface and I’d love to go back for more. #citytripping

    • 28th February 2018 / 12:16 pm

      I know what you mean. I feel like 3 days only scratched the surface!

  16. 28th February 2018 / 10:07 pm

    There are so many reason here why I need to properly explore York!! Thanks for the great guide. The city wall walk looks fun and the railway museum – wow! Thanks for linking #citytripping

    • 28th February 2018 / 10:36 pm

      We loved the city walls, such a great way to explore a city with kids!

  17. 1st March 2018 / 10:07 am

    I have a friend whose kid is obsessed with trains, York would be a great choice for a city break for her. It looks like a very lovely town, it’s on my list of British towns to visit 🙂

    • 1st March 2018 / 10:09 am

      The whole of Yorkshire is a really amazing place. There’s also a railways station in North Yorkshire concerted to holiday accommodation where you can sleep in a carriage. That’s next on our list!

  18. 1st March 2018 / 11:28 am

    York is such a pretty town, although I haven’t been since my university days. Sounds like you had a wonderful few days. My boys would absolutely love that railway museum! #WanderlustKids

    • 1st March 2018 / 11:43 am

      Great place for university I would imagine!

  19. 2nd March 2018 / 3:49 am

    I’ve always loved York since my first visit there many moons ago. We returned a few years ago and enjoyed the Jorvik centre (again!) and my hubby still talks about the railway museum. I agree it’s a fantastic city break for families. #farawayfiles

    • 2nd March 2018 / 6:55 am

      I was gutted we missed the Jorvik but it was great being outdoors on the walls and spending lots of time with the trains!

  20. Clare Thomson
    2nd March 2018 / 1:03 pm

    I love York. It’s such a beautiful city and so full of history. We went for a winter wedding there on our last visit but I’d love to return with the boys. They’d really enjoy the railway museum and the Vikings. #FarawayFiles

  21. 5th March 2018 / 8:00 am

    I simply love ‘lesser known’ English cities and I can never get enough of ‘pushing’ people to explore Liverpool, Bristol or Brighton. York has been on my list for quite a while, I would love to go there!
    #MondayEscapes

    • 5th March 2018 / 9:44 am

      You must! We are very lucky here in the UK to have so many great cities!

  22. travelingchristie
    5th March 2018 / 10:12 am

    We are not that far from York by train yet have never been, I think this is somewhere we need to make the effort to visit this year as there really is so much for the family thanks so much for linking up #MondayEscapes

    • 5th March 2018 / 10:40 am

      I can’t wait to return, and travelling by train is such a fun way to start the visit!

  23. 5th March 2018 / 11:05 am

    Reading this has brought back some fab memories. We spent a few weekends in York when my teen was young and the hub was on a course there. We did all the sights and loved them, we bought a ticket for the open topped tour bus and hopped on and off around the city. I would definitely recommend it for all ages. I think we need to go back now our boy is older.
    #mondayescapes

    • 5th March 2018 / 11:33 am

      Yes, I’d imagine it’s great for kids of all ages.

  24. 5th March 2018 / 11:43 am

    I love York! Such a gorgeous, compact city. We’ve taken the kids to the National Railway Museum quite a few times already. Good to see some of your other tips, especially re booking Jorvik Centre Tickets in advance. We’ll be in the area during the Easter hols and I’m hoping to visit that museum, for a change from trains!
    #MondayEscapes

    • 5th March 2018 / 1:16 pm

      So glad I’m helping other people avoid the mistake we made, I was so disappointed!

      • 5th March 2018 / 4:49 pm

        One of the best things about travel bloggers – real peoples experiences and top tips.

  25. 5th March 2018 / 8:37 pm

    The last time I was in York was for work more than 10 years ago. This really makes me want to return to see the city properly! #MondayEscapes

    • 5th March 2018 / 9:17 pm

      I’m really hoping to return in the next couple of years with my boys. They had so much fun and I was so cross with myself for not getting online tickets to Jorvik!

  26. 5th March 2018 / 10:34 pm

    Wow! There’s so much to do! It’s years since I last visited York…maybe time to book my next trip? #MondayEscapes

  27. 6th March 2018 / 4:14 am

    Wow looks like there is a ton to do. Glad you got over initial adversities and had a great break! #farawayfiles

    • 6th March 2018 / 9:34 am

      It’s an amazing city, you must visit some time!

  28. 8th March 2018 / 9:50 am

    I’m ashamed to admit that I have never been to York! I would love to as I think it certainly looks like an amazing city plus I am really into Vikings so would love to see the Jorvik Centre. Sarah #ExplorerKids

  29. 8th March 2018 / 5:04 pm

    My kids would love the railway museum! #ExplorerKids

  30. 9th March 2018 / 12:00 pm

    We’ve never been to York with the boys and i haven’t been for years and years! Looks like a great city to explore with children with so much to see and do. My boys would love the Jorvik Centre as fascinated by Vikings and the like #ExplorerKids

    • 9th March 2018 / 2:55 pm

      I’m looking forward to a return visit so we can go to the Jorvik Centre.

  31. Go Live Young
    9th March 2018 / 12:03 pm

    Haven’t been to York for many many years! Looks like a great city to explore with children #ExplorerKids

  32. 11th March 2018 / 11:04 am

    York certainly does look like a great city break, I would love to go there. #ExplorerKids

    • 11th March 2018 / 2:45 pm

      It’s great fun, we can’t wait to go back.

  33. 11th March 2018 / 10:06 pm

    I have never thought about York as a holiday destination, but you helped me change my mind. Great pics and very useful tips. Laura #explorerkids

    • 11th March 2018 / 10:08 pm

      It’s definitely one of our most enjoyable cities, I hope you visit one day.

  34. 13th March 2018 / 1:01 am

    I haven’t visited York yet, but it’s definitely one of those places I’d love to go to sometime – even more so after reading this! A very thourough guide, and so nicely written, thank you 😊x
    #ExplorerKids

    • 13th March 2018 / 7:10 am

      Thanks, hope you get the chance to visit.

  35. pigeonpairandme
    13th March 2018 / 2:49 pm

    The in-laws live in Harrogate, and I keep meaning to head across to York while we’re there. It would be fun to compare the two Betty’s!

  36. 14th March 2018 / 10:30 pm

    It is such a fun city! We visit fairly frequently, last time was this December for the Christmas markets. We had a lovely time but oh my goodness it was busy (and very cold!)

    • smudgedpostcard
      15th March 2018 / 9:28 am

      I think we’ll need to make a return visit before too long. It was pretty packed at October half term so I expect Christmas must be pretty manic, but lovely as you say!

  37. Chloë @ Indigo Wilderness
    24th March 2018 / 12:31 pm

    I’m so glad you enjoyed it in York. I lived here and around here for most of my life and it is my favourite city! Popping by after zig zagging through from your #totstravel post!

    • smudgedpostcard
      24th March 2018 / 2:39 pm

      I’d imagine it’s a fantastic place to live, and you’ve got amazing scenery on your doorstep too, am very envious!

      • Chloë @ Indigo Wilderness
        24th March 2018 / 2:46 pm

        I live in Wales now but I miss it very much. Wales is equally as amazing for scenery though! Visit the Brecon Beacons next if you haven’t all ready 😉

  38. 8th April 2018 / 8:19 pm

    I visited York once but never got a chance to explore this city. Your post is a wonderful guide to people considering a visit to the city, including me. #wanderlustkids

    • smudgedpostcard
      9th April 2018 / 3:30 pm

      You must try and visit one day. Although no doubt there are plenty of Portuguese equivalents on your doorstep!

  39. 12th September 2018 / 3:04 pm

    Ooh my favourite thing about York has to be the shopping! I’ve hardly visited with my son, we’ve been to the railway museum a couple of times and I remember spending some time with him in the museum gardens that you mentioned (lovely spot to visit in the Summer). I’d really love to take him on a walk around the castle walls, or to York Chocolate story (actually that’s where I want to go). I think my son would love to do the Jorvik centre too but I’ll learn from your experience and book in advance.

    • smudgedpostcard
      12th September 2018 / 8:53 pm

      The shops are great aren’t they? There were rather a lot of places I wanted to go into without my children… I definitely want to go to the Jorvik, I vaguely remember it from when I was a child and loved it then.

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