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There’s a reason why York is constantly busy and it’s not just because of its romantic landscape. The ancient city has a history that dates back 2,000 years to the Romans, making it an ideal spot for a cultural family break, especially for kids (and grown ups) who love history. Its maze of pretty, winding cobbled streets, a lovely, lazy river, honey-coloured city walls and the majestic Minster could lure any traveller in, and that’s before covering the impressive sights beyond the city walls. York recently took the number one spot for “Best UK City” in The Sunday Times Best Places To Live list, and it’s clear to see why – it’s a fabulous place for families. It’s an easy city break that’s convenient, pretty and welcoming in all weathers, making it a popular year-round destination.
Though mature, this medieval city is far from stuck in the past: there’s a young and innovative feel now, especially with the recent opening of Spark: York CIC (a creative lifestyle destination), the strikingly modern Hiscox building, and Bishy Road, the village-like, independent high street. York’s plethora of green parks, cycle-friendly routes, fine museums and festivals, historical attractions and interesting food scene make it an appealing place to spend time. Its enviable location means that in an hour you can be at the coast or countryside, Leeds is thirty minutes’ away and in less than two hours by train you can be in London. With all of that in mind, here’s a guide to the best of York for families.
By Rachel Everett
Museum Gardens: Take the wee ones to the Museum Gardens for a picnic and play when the warmer weather hits. Kids of all ages seem to love running amok and clambering on rocks in these pretty gardens with their beautiful historic ruins. Spot squirrels or the resident peacock, and watch boats on the river while you tuck into lunch at The Star Inn The City. It’s a fun way to while away the afternoon during the warmer months and it’s free. Visit the Yorkshire Museum, with its brilliant Jurassic World exhibition or pop into the old York Explore library next door, it’s a treat for bookworms and has a small cafe and play area for younger kids. York Proms is a family-friendly classical music event and the open-air picnic concert in the gardens costs £13 to bring up to four children. Price: free.
York Minster: It’s one of the most ravishing cathedrals in Europe, loved by residents and tourists alike. For kids, it’s free entry or £11 (£10 in advance online) for adults. The kids get an adventure backpack of activities to get through once inside complete with binoculars and torches.
For older kids (age 8 up) a trip to the top is spectacular (though not for the claustrophobic as there are tiny winding staircases) and you can peer down onto medieval York with its terracotta rooftops and Minster spires and see as far as the chalk White Horse of Kilburn. Price: £10 for adults; kids free.
JORVIK Viking Centre: Children always relish the chance to go “Ewww!” and the JORVIK Viking Centre with its museum and other highlights offer that chance. Venture back in time to learn about the Vikings, at one of York’s most popular attractions – it’s also included as one of the free attractions for York Pass holders. Price: £32 (advance) for a family of four.
Solar System Cycle Ride: Go on a family cycle for the afternoon and stop for a break at an organic cafe on the way on the Solar System Cycle Ride. Starting at York Racecourse, cycle the 6.4 miles to Riccall or do partway to the little village of Naburn, kids will love spotting the planets along the way. Stop at Brunswick Nursery for coffee and cake and pick up some fruit while you are there. Price: free.
National Railway Museum: The NRM really is a life-saver school holiday outing for rainy days but really it’s a winner for adults too. With over 6,000 trains, check out the old steam trains such as the world famous Flying Scotsman and Mallard or Japanese Shinkansen ‘bullet trains’. The added bonus? An outdoor playground and mini train ride. There’s no entrance fee but donations are always welcome. Price: free or donation.
Walk the Bar Walls: Are we there yet? No fear of kids whinging on an elevated 2-hour stroll along York’s ancient walls that ring the city – go on a clear day and you can see the whole Vale of York and there’s plenty of stops along the way. Take a couple of ice-cream stops en-route: sorted. Price: free.
Other York Museums – Castle Museum, York Art Gallery: For those on a longer trip or returning to York, a YMT Card at £22 offers free entry into the York Castle Museum, the Yorkshire Museum & Gardens and York Art Gallery for the whole year. Perfect for a culture boost or just a rainy day outing, it’s brilliant value. Price: Each museum has a variety of free events for families with kids – especially in the school holidays – such as fabulous free art and craft workshops at York Art Gallery. Otherwise a York Pass offers the best value (1-3 days available) at £26 for a 1-day child pass or £42 for an adult.
Bishopthorpe Road & Rowntree Park: Visit Bishopthorpe Road or “Bishy Road” a famous York neighbourhood that won high street of the year in 2015 for its community spirit and independent shops and businesses. Just a ten-minute walk from the city centre, there’s a close community and lots of local events such as the Bishy Road Street Party, where residents close the road and have a massive party. There is a quality butchery (M and K Quality Butchers), a favourite York cafe (The Pig and Pastry), bike shop (Cycle Heaven) and a hardware store (Pextons), alongside the popular cafes including Beppe Lombardo’s Sicilian food outlet, Trinacria, with its incredible homemade ice-cream and the Angel on the Green – a local pub that spills out onto the street and also hosts live music and comedy.
It’s a mere five-minute walk to town and Bishy Road has its own website. Rowntree Park is one of the perks of this neighbourhood: in this 20-acre park, playground and cycle routes are key attractions. There are two playgrounds and plans for more improvements, a bouncy castle and slide, an ice-cream van, tennis courts and plenty of cycle routes by the river, not to mention plenty of wildlife spotting. Then, there’s the library cafe overlooking the park and the excellent Friends of Rowntree Park that run events for children of all ages such as den making, forest school and treasure or egg hunts. This wonderful community organisation charges just £1 for most of the events. Price: free, or small event fee.
York Maze: It’s the largest maze in the UK – created from over one million maize plants. York Maze is only open for a window of time during summer, but it’s an incredible sight alone and you can spend the whole day there if you pack a picnic. The maze is only a short drive from the city centre in Dunnington and there are over 20 different rides, shows and attractions to take in. Price: advance family ticket £54.
Castle Howard: Castle Howard is well-known for its appearance in Brideshead Revisited but the breathtaking grounds are much-loved by residents and inspiring to all. The mass of things for kids (and adults) to enjoy has to be where its appeal lies – it literally caters to all – parents and older relatives are just as content wandering Howard and browsing the farm shop as the kids are jumping on the land train down to the sprawling playground. Price: advance family ticket for the gardens £31.85; those with HHA membership get one free visit (membership is £126 annually).
The Deer Shed Festival: A music festival with kids? The Deer Shed Festival has shown us how to do it in style with its two-day family summer festival in Topcliffe, which is just over 30 minutes from York. There’s an exciting live music schedule and child-friendly events, and camping or glamping for the weekend. Price: ticket prices rise nearer to the event. Starts at £115 for adults, kids 0-2 free.
The Pig & Pastry: Start the day with breakfast at the Pig and Pastry, a hearty cafe that dishes up delicious breakfast and lunch fare with a cheeky twist (the Benedict Cumberbatch – a breakfast dish with sausage). Try the poached eggs and avocado on sourdough, but make sure you pick up a slice of quiche or freshly-baked cinnamon swirls at the weekend. Filter coffee refills are free in this amiable local spot and there’s always good conversation with locals which gives The Pig a great community feel. Price: breakfast from £4.
Bluebird Bakery: Based in the gorgeous Little Shambles, you’d be wise to pop into Bluebird, a local bakery that has a vast selection of handmade bread, dough or pastry-based treats stacked up in its petite windows. The smell is enough to draw anyone in, but we recommend grabbing a loaf of their signature white sourdough – the best foundations for any sarnie. Price: various.
Rattle Owl: Rattle Owl dishes up high-quality fare in a beautiful setting on Micklegate – it’s housed in a restored listed building with creaky wooden floors and design-led interiors. They do incredible “kids eat free” deals during the holidays which are offered in hearty portions and friendly staff make it especially memorable. They sell Haxby Bakehouse bread on a Saturday – go grab a loaf for your picnic. Price: Mains from £15, two courses and a glass of wine for £22.
Spark: York CIC: For something different or an alfresco lunch, take the kids to Spark, a new lifestyle destination (made out of colourful shipping containers) that is home to independent boutiques, classes, live music and a range of eateries. Sitting atop this funky, industrial-looking place and marveling at the old city perfectly illustrates how York is evolving. Price: from £5 up for eats.
Pizza Express: Pizza Express is perfectly designed for families – news flash – coloring sheets and hats keep little ones occupied while parents peruse the menu. But, sign up for a Taste Card and you won’t regret it. This handy card gets you 50% off Pizza Express (and many other restaurants) so this becomes a viable cheap dinner out. The historic Riverside House branch has stunning river views and is just opposite the Museum Gardens perfect for a run around afterward. Price: from £10 for two pizzas.
The Ivy: Head to The Ivy for a family brunch or lunch treat, it’s a swish addition to the York food scene. While adults can plump for pan-seared scallops with pea puree, prime fillet steak or blackened cod, kids can choose kid-friendly dishes such as sausages and mash (with a gravy boat) or fish and chips. The highlight is dessert where little ones will delight in the “chocolate bombe” – a rich melting chocolate bombe with a vanilla ice-cream and honeycomb centre. The server dramatically pours hot salted caramel over it for the final explosion, to a captive audience. Price: mains from £14; kids dishes £7.50.
Ambiente Tapas Bar Fossgate: This buzzing tapas joint is suitably boisterous for groups and families with little people. Not only is the tapas menu mouth-watering, it’s very casual and the banter is fun. Bag a table before 5pm to get the set lunch deal which offers 3 plates for £10. Try the tasty chorizo y patatas or calamares fritos, and treat yourself to a glass of Cava. Price: 3 plates for £10.
For a child-friendly treat – The Grand Hotel & Spa: York’s only five-star hotel is just a two-minute walk from the train station and couldn’t be more central. Pick your dates well and The Grand offers bang for your buck given the extensive facilities such as a sassy health suite with a swimming pool, steam room, sauna and Jacuzzi and a comprehensive breakfast buffet. Based at the heart of York, the walls are just over the road if you fancy a wander. It’s ideal for all the family: kids can hit the pool and parents can relax in the spa.
The Rise, their casual modern British restaurant dishes up lingering breakfast buffets, lunch or dinner with minimal fuss in a sleek and roomy setting – perfect for those with little ones. The junior menu covers all the classics such as yummy mini cheese burgers and grilled chicken skewers. Price: rooms start from £135.
A country cottage 30 minutes out of York – Durham Ox: Crayke is only a 30-minute drive to York, yet worlds away. The Durham Ox is set in a little English village cusping the wild countryside. Price: £395 for two nights weekend or £395 for a 4-night mid-week break and £795 for a 7-night break
It’s a great base for families that want to see York’s sights but retreat somewhere quieter with country-focused pursuits. Rooms aside, try The Ivy Cottage, it’s the perfect stay for four with a double and a twin and all the luxury touches.
If you stay at the weekend make sure to try the generous Sunday roast at this cosy pub: the roast beef and Yorkshire puddings is the way to go or choose from one of the appetizing seafood or vegetarian plates. Price: from £120 a night.
How to get there
York is only 20 minutes’ drive from the M1/M62 or just over an hour and a half by train from London Kings Cross. The nearest airport is Leeds/Bradford which is 40 minutes’ by car; though Manchester offers more flights and is just over an hour.
Driving from London to York can take about 4 hours but the train is under 2 hours. The fastest trains are only 1 hour and 40 minutes.
There’s something for kids of all ages in York, there’s plenty of museums for older kids, playgrounds aplenty for younger ones and the beach plus other attractions within easy reach (around an hour max). Being small – but perfectly formed – its very walkable and transport links are good. It’s also a cycling city being so flat and there are some incredible routes to the countryside from the city. After York, it’s easy to extend a stay to take in the multitude of other nearby destinations such as Robin Hoods Bay for rock pooling, Sandsend for beachcombing, Dalby Forest for biking or trails or the Salt Mills or Yorkshire Sculpture Park for everyone.
Best time to go
Though York is especially gorgeous bathed in autumnal light, summer sees a lighter side to this medieval city and there’s also an array of summer festivals. Avoid race weekends when accommodation prices soar and the city is under true siege by race-going revellers.
Buy a YorkPass which offers free entrance into numerous attractions in and around York for 1, 2 or 3 days – for a reduced price. It’s worthwhile if you plan on visiting top family sights in York such as the JORVIK Viking Centre and York Minster and other sights beyond like Castle Howard and The Deep. For those on a longer stay, bring your National Trust Card for adventures outside the city – Beningbrough Hall, Nunnington Hall, Brimham Rocks and Fountains Abbey are all within striking distance for day trips.