10 of the Best Historic Sites in York
Discover some of York's best historic sites, from the breathtaking York Minster to the meandering medieval City Walls. As one of the oldest cities in the UK, York's history spans everything from the Romans to the Cold War, leaving history fans of any era spoilt for choice!
Located in North Yorkshire, York is one of the country’s most treasured historic cities. Walking its atmospheric streets, visitors are transported back through various eras of its history, past medieval churches, Victorian meeting houses and even a Roman ruin or two!
For this city brimming with history, we have compiled a list of the best sites to visit, featuring a range of York’s most famous attractions alongside its lesser-known hidden gems.
1. York Minster
York Minster – officially known as The Cathedral and Metropolitical Church of St Peter in York – is a vast gothic cathedral that has towered over the historic city for hundreds of years, inspiring awe in its onlookers. One of the largest of its kind in northern Europe, York Minster is a must-visit for anyone looking to explore York’s medieval past, or simply take in one of the most beautiful religious buildings in the country.
The first church built on the site of York Minster was a small wooden structure completed in the 7th century for the baptism of the Anglo-Saxon monarch, King Edwin of Northumbria. From this era came the name ‘Minster’, a word used for ecclesiastic schooling institutions in the Anglo-Saxon period.
2. Clifford's Tower
Clifford’s Tower is one of York’s most iconic landmarks, and is largely all that remains of the eminent York Castle. Over its thousand year history, Clifford’s Tower has operated in a number of different functions, housing everything from kings to criminals, cannons to cows.
Constructed by William the Conqueror in 1086, the first Clifford’s Tower was a wooden structure placed high on the motte that still stands today. It was destroyed early in its life by rebellion, and subsequently rebuilt..
3. The Shambles
The Shambles is one of York’s oldest streets, and is a must-visit for anyone looking to immerse themselves in history while visiting the city. Likely deriving its name from the Anglo-Saxon word ‘fleshammels’, meaning flesh-shelves, the Shambles was a key area for meat vendors and butchers to sell their wares for many years.
Today it hosts a number of other businesses, yet its medieval overhanging buildings and narrow passageways give the impression of being transported back in time.
4. Jorvik Viking Centre
The Jorvik Viking Centre is a historical visitor attraction in York displaying a reconstructed Viking city as it would have looked in approximately 975 AD. It features a selection of 40,000 well-preserved Viking items found by archaeologists between 1979 and 1981, and the remains of their city, once known as Jorvik.
Excavations were undertaken by the York Archaeological Trust across the area now occupied by the Viking centre, and uncovered a wealth of information about the settlement that used to be there. Timber buildings, wells, tools and pottery were unearthed, as well as less-durable materials such as wood, leather, human and animal remains and textiles.
5. York City Walls
The York City Walls are England’s most complete set of city walls and are an integral part of York’s history. With a wealth of interesting features, most notably the four main ornate stone gateways known as ‘bars’, these walls provide a scenic route around the city steeped in history.
The York City Walls were originally established in 71 AD during Roman times, built to protect the 9th Legion from locals. Very little of the Roman walls remain, except from the Multiangular Tower, an imposing 3rd-century ten-sided stone tower located in the York Museum Gardens.
6. King's Manor
King’s Manor is a stately house in York city centre that has played host to some of British history’s most important visitors. In the days before the Reformation, it was the home of the Abbot of St Mary’s, before becoming the headquarters of the Council of the North in Henry VIII’s time. The Tudor king himself stayed there, giving rise to its current name.
Built to house the abbots of the nearby St Mary’s Abbey, the site was likely occupied from the 11th century onwards, yet the current building dates to the 15th century.
7. York Castle Museum
Situated in the shadow of Clifford’s Tower, York Castle Museum is home to a wealth of exhibits surrounding the rich history of York and wider Great Britain, where historical sights from Georgian gowns to Dick Turpin’s prison cell may be found. Its standout exhibit however is a fully-recreated Victorian street, dubbed Kirkgate after the museum’s founder, complete with horse and cart, costumed guides and cobblestones.
Though opening as a museum in 1938, the site on which it stands holds an important place in York’s history. Originally part of the York Castle complex, the area was built upon by William the Conqueror in 1068 as a motte and bailey defence system, and sections of the medieval castle wall can still be seen today nestled amongst the newer buildings.
8. York Cold War Bunker
A mile outside of the city centre, York Cold War Bunker tells the story of a country on the brink of nuclear warfare. Designed to monitor nuclear fallout in the event of an attack in Yorkshire, the semi-submerged bunker affords visitors the chance to explore some of York’s more unusual history
Built in 1961, the bunker served as the regional headquarters for the Royal Observer Corps until 1991. During operation in the Cold War, it was home to 60 volunteer members of the ROC, including a 10-man scientific warning team.
9. St Mary's Abbey
St Mary’s Abbey is a picturesque ruined Benedictine abbey in York, located in York Museum Gardens. Once the richest abbey in the north of England, it now tells the story of York’s influential ecclesiastical past, and its degradation through Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries.
The first church on the site of St Mary’s was built in 1055 and dedicated to St Olaf of Norway, and following the Norman conquest was refounded by King William Rufus in 1088 during his visit to York. The following year it was rededicated to the Virgin Mary.
10. National Railway Museum
The National Railway Museum in York is home to some of the country’s greatest feats of engineering, and tells the story of Britain’s railway innovation.
The museum was founded in 1975 on the site of the former North York locomotive depot, where it still stands today. In the early days of locomotive transport, York was revered as the heart of the rail networks of the north. York’s own ‘Railway King’, George Hudson, had a huge role in achieving this.