What an incredible city York is. A place rich in Roman, Medieval, Tudor, and Victorian history. A city for bookworms and art-lovers. A friendly, warm town of ancient cobbled streets and strange, enigmatic places. We have so much to say about historic, haunted York. So, let’s start with the most unique things to do in York.
A Brief History of York
Before we begin, it’s worth knowing (in case you don’t already) just how much history can be found in York. One of the UK’s oldest cities, York was built by the Romans.
York is the resting place of African-born Roman emperor Septimus Severus and the place of coronation for emperor Constantine the Great in 306 CE. During the Dark Ages and the time of the Vikings, York was known as Jorvik and ruled over by legendary Viking warrior Eric Bloodaxe for a period during the 10th century.
Fast-forward six hundred years and York became the birthplace of Guy Fawks, legendary Gunpowder Plotter. York was also the place of imprisonment and execution for Britain’s most legendary highwayman: Dick Turpin.
For the past 300 years, York has also been known as the UK’s chocolate hub. While the industrial north is synonymous with steel and coal, York’s industrial claim is chocolate, with such beloved names as Rowntrees and Terry’s (of Terry’s Chocolate Orange) hailing from York.
York is also an easy day trip from London and is one of the best trips that combines history, beautiful architecture, and unique things to do. With that quick historic overview out of the way, here are a few of the best and most unique things to do in York.
Walk The Shambles
York’s most iconic street is a place of timber-framed buildings that line a cobbled, uneven pathway. These Tudor and Medieval buildings — many of which date back seven hundred years — tilt and lean overhead, some almost touching.
This is easily one of the most historic locations in all of Britain, and many of the proprietors of these buildings have worked to hold up that historic atmosphere. The most well-known of these being The York Ghost Merchants (more on them below).
As you make your way up The Shambles, you’ll find a pub called Ye Old Shambles Tavern, as well as several shops which lean into the Diagon Alley Harry Potter parallels. The Shops That Must Not Be Named, The Boy Wizard, and World of Wizardry all sell magical nicknacks and Harry Potter-themed souvenirs.
One unique merchant on The Shambles is York Glass Ltd, a place where you can buy hand-made glass products like jewellery and ornaments. Another is The Potions Cauldron, a place where potion-makers have been working their alchemy since the 14th century.
The Shambles is also a great place to begin your hunt for the iconic York cats. More on that below as well.
Visit York Art Gallery
York Art Gallery is a jaw-dropping piece of architecture in the very heart of York. Built in front of St Mary’s Abbey (now a romantic ruin that’s free to access via the Museum Gardens), York Art Gallery is home to more than one thousand paintings, most of which hail from Western Europe between the 14th century and today.
York Art Gallery is also home to a five-thousand-piece collection of British pottery. This wide selection of paintings and pottery make York Art Gallery a traditional art-lover’s dream.
That said, the gallery also plays host to an impressive cycle of temporary modern exhibits. This is thanks to York Mediale, a charity set up back in 2014 which supports and promotes new and exciting artists from around the country, and the world.
York has been designated the world’s first (and only) UNESCO Creative City of Media Arts, and Mediale proudly pays homage to that name by installing unique media arts at York Art Gallery for you to visit and be captivated by. The grounds, including the gardens and the previously-mentioned St Mary’s Abbey, also make for a picturesque place to stroll around for an afternoon.
Go Book Shopping in York
A place of admiration for such beloved British authors as Charles Dickens and Virginia Wolff, York is a bookworm’s dream. As bookworms who have fallen deeply in love with York, we can certainly attest to this. One of the most delightfully surprising things about York is how almost every little independent business is housed in a rickety old Tudor house or, at the very list, has a gorgeous aesthetic inside and out.
York excels at providing visitors with as many second-hand booksellers as new bookshops. While the local Waterstones serves all your new book shopping needs (and even has an upstairs cafe), York is home to one of the sweetest independent bookshops in the UK: The Little Apple Bookshop.
Located between York Minster and Bootham Bar, The Little Apple Bookshop is a quaint and cosy bookseller of the newest titles in hardcover and paperback.
A few doors down from this lovely York bookshop is The Grimoire Bookshop: a charming local bookseller themed around folklore, horror, and the supernatural.
Though they sell a great selection of used books from a variety of genres and styles. A visit to The Grimoire Bookshop is certainly one of the most unique things to do in York.
Another fantastic seller of secondhand books is The Minster Gate Bookshop, located on a short street that leads to the jaw-dropping York Minster. This cramped and delightful bookshop offers an enormous selection of secondhand and vintage books on local folklore.
Read More: 6 Bookish Things to Do in Yorkshire
Explore Fairfax House
York is a city of Architectural splendour, from Roman ruins to still-in-use Tudor houses. One of the most unique things to do in York, however, is to visit Fairfax House. This place is an astonishing, perfectly-preserved Georgian townhouse found just behind Clifford’s Tower.
Proudly calling itself England’s Finest Georgian Townhouse, it’s certainly difficult to argue against that statement. Designed by local York architect John Carr in the 18th century, the building remains in perfect condition: a museum dedicated to itself, filled with more than one thousand Georgian artefacts which once belonged to the local Fairfax family.
During our time in York, we were able to attend The Character of Home event at Fairfax House. This was an interactive performance (written by Paul Birch and directed by Thomas Frere) that brought the house, the objects, and even the Georgian residents of Fairfax House to life.
Two excellent performers embody father-and-daughter pair Viscount and Anne Fairfax as they guide visitors through the house, room by room, performing snippets of their lives, inspired by the museum’s objects. This experience is, without a doubt, one of the most unique things to do in York.
Visit The York Ghost Merchants
Found on The Shambles, The York Ghost Merchants is such a remarkable place that it is worthy of its own proper, dedicated mention. Easily one of the most unique things to do in York, a visit to The York Ghost Merchants is absolutely essential.
A gently swinging sign above the door; the sound of power tools through the open first floor window; a colourful display in the window; a room decorated with a miniature stage and a grandfather clock. The York Ghost Merchants is a strange and magical place.
There is one main goal when visiting this strange shop on The Shambles: so select and take home your own model ghost. Made by hand in the upstairs workshop, every single ghost is unique in its colour and pattern. When you enter, one ghost in particular is guaranteed to speak to you. Like them wands in that Harry Potter.
Once you have selected your ghost, it can be photographed on a model street and will then be packaged in an old map of York and a box decorated with fascinating facts and details.
The shop has its own Instagram page and it is remarkable just how well they market themselves and their ghosts. It’s an enchanting place, perfectly curated by clever marketing and wonderful aesthetics. For one of the most unique things to do in York, find your ghost, or let them find you.
Wander York Minster
Some of the UK’s most impressive architectural marvels are its cathedrals. And while it isn’t official, more than a few Brits would happily, confidently call York Minster the UK’s best cathedral. Having visited, and been impressed by, southern cathedrals from Ely to Hereford, none have taken our breath away like the northern York Minster.
Since as far back as the 7th century CE, York Minster has been a sacred place of worship in the north of England, and remains open today for visitors and worshipers alike.
The Rose Window in the Minster was believed to have been created during the early Sixteenth Century and is a celebration of the union of the White Rose of York and the Red Rose of Lancaster in the marriage of Elizabeth of York and Henry Tudor.
Outside the cathedral doors, you can find an impressive statue of Constantine the Great; the man after which the city of Constantinople (now Istanbul) was named. Constantine was emperor of the Holy Roman Empire and the first Christian Roman Emperor. And it was here, at York Minster, where he received his title of emperor.
More than one thousand years of history, paired with some of the most astonishing architectural achievements, make a visit to York Minster a must, and one of the most unique things to do in York. No city in the country has a cathedral on the scale of York Minster.
Jorvik Viking Centre
As mentioned above, the Viking name for the city of York was Jorvik. And at Jorvik Viking Centre (located very close to Fairfax House), you can trace the Viking history of York/Jorvik.
Interactive galleries that house dressed-up mannequins and detailed dioramas of Jorvik, as well as ride experience that’s like Pirates of the Caribbean but with Vikings, make Jorvik Viking Centre one of the coolest, and most unique things to do in York.
Take a Ghost Walk Around York
Considered to be the most haunted city in the entire world, and occasionally referred to as The City of One Thousand Ghosts, York is a ghost-lover’s paradise. A place of the supernatural, the gothic, and the terrifying. The multi-award-winning Ghost Trail is a guided walk which takes place every single night, beginning at 7:30pm outside York Minster.
Costing £5 for adults and just £2 for children, and lasting for a little over an hour, The Ghost Trail of York takes you back in time to teach you the history of the ghosts who supposedly haunt the streets and homes of York.
On The Ghost Trail, you’ll hear whispers of modern hauntings, tragic tales of people who became the ghosts of York, and traditional folktales of the city of York. There aren’t many more unique things to do in York than taking a walk along the Ghost Trail.
If you’d rather chart your own path and explore York at your own speed, you can follow this free map which guides visitors around the most haunted places in York.
Indulge in York’s Chocolate Story
The city of York is built from Roman stone and Tudor timber. And chocolate. Lots of chocolate. The biggest modern industry of York is a sweet one, indeed. All of this history, and the modern chocolate world of York, is epitomised by York’s Chocolate Story.
York’s Chocolate Story is a place of history that offers chocolate workshops and chocolate-making classes, as well as chocolate tours. But it’s also a shop and cafe that sells locally-made chocolate from York chocolatiers. Whether you’re here to shop or to learn, York’s Chocolate Story is a must-visit place in York.
Hunt for the York Cats
Known as the York Lucky Cat Trail, this is an awesome and inventive way to explore the city of York, right down to its most hidden spaces. One of the most unique things to do in York is to follow the York Lucky Cat Trail and hunt down every single hidden cat statue in the city.
Found on window ledges, clambering up walls, teetering on balconies, and sitting proud on the rooftops, the obscure cat statues of York offer some real colour and charm to the city, as well as a unique treasure hunt for those excited for the challenge.
Take an Invisible Cities Tour
If you’ve never heard of Invisible Cities, here’s your chance. The tour guides of Invisible Cities are all people who have experienced homelessness or some kind of social disadvantage. As such, they have seen their home like nobody else, and can show you things you’d never otherwise see.
The guides at Invisible Cities York offer tours of York’s railway heritage, the personal history of York-born Guy Fawkes, and even a guide to the economic history of York. These tours are truly unique, and really get to the heart of York.
Where to Stay in York
There are an impressive number of hotels, hostels, and inns in York, and the city is also perfectly sized for getting around on foot. But in terms of comfort, location, and ties to the city’s history, Hotel Indigo York is your best option for where to stay in York.
Hotel Indigo York is a chocolate-themed boutique hotel in York, located on Walmgate — a street tied to the chocolatier industry of the city.
The hotel has all the modern amenities you come to expect, including a large Smart TV in each room, a rainforest shower, a friendly restaurant-bar, and a breakfast buffet. The hotel also has that proud aesthetic link to the chocolate history of York, embodied by the interior’s colour palette and the photos that line the walls, telling bits of the city’s history.
As for location, Hotel Indigo York is a two-minute walk from Fossgate, the street which marks the entrance to central York. Fossgate crosses over the River Foss, is lined with independent cafes, butchers, and bakers, and leads you straight to the historic Shambles.
There is not a better-located hotel in York. Quiet and peaceful at night but minutes away from all the best parts of the city. Even York Art Gallery, on the other side of the city centre, is only a fifteen-minute walk away.