10 free things to do in York

Best known for its gothic Minster, York is a treasure chest of historical heritage and culture, and you don’t necessarily have to splash the cash to experience the city’s hidden gems. See what you could pack into a Travelodgical break in York.

1. National Railway Museum

Much more than just a Mecca for dedicated trainspotters, the National Railway Museum on the edge of the city centre has hands-on exhibits to excite all ages. Its halls are filled with trains from the last 300 years, including the majestic Duchess of Hamilton, the futuristic Japanese Bullet Train and the opulent Royal trains. Kids will love the outdoor play area, where they can tootle round on the miniature railway ride. During weekend and school holidays there’s a lively programme of events for little ones, including science shows, storytelling, steam rides, craft activities and special events.

Leeman Road, York YO26 4XJ, England. Open daily 10am – 6pm.

2. York City Walls

York’s incredibly well-preserved Roman walls have been guarding the historic city centre for around 700 years. You can walk along large portions of them for fantastic views over the city and the Minster. A walk along the walls gives you a bird’s eye perspective and an introduction to the ancient city, with informative plaques dotted along the route that explain the historical background. You can complete a full circuit in around 2 hours, but if you’d prefer to have a stop off along the way, you can enter and exit via the five main bars – or gateways – onto the walls.

3. Rowntree Park

Stretch your legs and spend a peaceful sunny day at the lovely Rowntree Park by the river Ouse, a scenic 10-15 minute walk south of the city centre. Wander around the well-kept gardens and feed the resident ducks and geese at the lake, or let the kids tires themselves out in the excellent play area, complete with climbing frames and a mini zip wire. If you’re feeling active there are also tennis and basketball courts, places to play boules, mini-golf and a skate park.

Terry Ave., York YO23 1JQ, England. Open from 9am – 9.30pm on weekdays and 9am – 9pm on weekends (closes at 4pm in winter).

4. Yorkshire Museum Gardens and Observatory

The Yorkshire Museum Gardens are a splash of green in the heart of the city, set around the ruins of St Mary’s Abbey. Over 40 types of birds visit the informal garden, which is also home to lots of squirrels and a vast botanical collection. It’s a lovely spot for a stroll and a relaxed riverside picnic on a sunny summer’s day. You can also visit Yorkshire’s oldest working observatory within the grounds.

Museum St., York YO1 7FR, England. Open daily 10am – 5pm.

5. The Shambles

Don’t be put off by the name – The Shambles is a narrow cobbled street in the heart of the city, and a highlight for many visitors to York as Europe’s best preserved medieval street. Its leaning ‘wattle and daub’ buildings were once home to the city’s butcher shops, but these days they’re filled with charming, quirky boutiques, cafes, restaurants and tourist attractions. The Shambles is one of the most visited streets in the UK and it’s a great place for a stroll. Soak up the historic atmosphere, listen to the street musicians and do some window shopping.

Shambles, City Centre, York YO1 7LZ, England.

© Craig Jamieson

6. Free guided walking tours

The Association of Voluntary Guides to the City of York give free walking tours on the city walls and around the historic centre – just for the pleasure of showing you around their beloved city. Tours leave daily from Exhibition Square and wind through the city to end at the Shambles. The route varies but normally passes by the ruins of St Mary’s Abbey, the King’s Manor, York Minster, the haunted Treasurer’s house and St. William’s College. It’s worth going along even if you’ve already visited York’s top tourist spots – the guides have an incredible knowledge of the city’s historical background and lots of fascinating local gossip and jokes.

1 Museum Street, AVG Information Desk, York YO1 7DT, England. Check website for tour times.

7. The Homestead

The Homestead is a great park to take the kids to on a sunny day. It’s a short pleasant walk from the city centre along the River Ouse towpath. For younger children, there is a large play area with a monkey gym and helter-skelter slides, as well as a paddling pool, table tennis and lots of grassy spaces for football and other games. The arboretum and the formal gardens are quirky and well thought-out, with a medieval garden full of butterfly and bee friendly plants, a wildflower garden, and even a Lord of the Rings-inspired garden with a little hobbit home. There are free tree trail and wildlife spotting guides available at the entrance.

40 Water End, York YO30 6WP, England. In the summer, its open 9am – 7pm Monday – Saturday and 10am – 7pm Sundays. In the Winter 9am – dusk and Sunday 10am – dusk.

8. Yorkshire Lavender

Take a trip out of the city to this award-winning lavender farm and gardens, set on a hillside with panoramic views over the Vale of York. It’s near Terrington, in the Howardian Hills AONB around 15 miles north of York. There’s plenty to entertain all ages: explore the sculpture park, find your way through the lavender maze, see, smell and listen at the sensory garden, spot the resident white deer, and pet the Highland cattle and lambs. There’s also a tea shop with lavender-themed treats in case you get peckish.

Terrington, York YO60 6PB, England. Open daily 10am – 5pm.

© Bernard Bradley

9. York Market

Soak up the bustling atmosphere and perhaps pick up a treat for yourself or someone special at this daily market behind the Shambles. There are usually over 85 stalls set up amongst the cobbles, selling an incredible range of goods from local produce, fruit and veg, delicious cakes and freshly baked breads to flowers, cosmetics, clothing, gifts, books and unique crafts. There’s also a street food area where you can pick up all kinds of tasty international snacks, with a seating area and free WiFi.

Newgate Market & Parliament Street, York, England. Open daily 7am – 5pm.

10. Howardian Hills AONB

York is well-placed for trips to the Yorkshire Dales, the North York Moors and the Yorkshire Coast, but to enjoy a jaunt in the countryside a bit closer to base camp head to the Howardian Hills AONB. This beautiful protected area of wooded rolling countryside, scenic villages and historic country houses is only around a 45 minute drive from York City Centre, and it’s one of the British countryside’s best hidden gems. It’s a fantastic place for a walk, with some excellent hiking trails including the Centenary Way and the Ebor Way.

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