There are plenty of things for families to do in York for free (and even more if you’re local and have a YorkCard). Rain or shine, a limited budget is no barrier to enjoying the city. Here are our top picks.
Walk the Walls
Why not take a walk around the City Walls? There’s almost 3.5km of medieval wall to choose from, all with fantastic views, and it’s totally free. If little feet aren’t up to a big hike, just choose a small section. It’s easy to hop off once you’ve had enough.
We say – This is a brilliant way to get a different perspective on the city, but it’s better suited to older children and is a no-go for buggies. It can get crowded, so perhaps try an early morning stroll.
Good to know – There are some sections that don’t have railings, so it’s best for children who can be trusted to walk safely. The Walls are particularly beautiful in spring when the daffodils are in bloom.
Larks in the Parks
York is full of fantastic parks and open spaces, available to everyone at no cost. Take a picnic if you’re peckish. For squirrel-spotting and balancing along the ruins (where permitted!), try the Museum Gardens. There’s no play equipment as such, but plenty of history, nature and open space to appeal. For swings, slides, ducks and more, try Rowntree Park. It’s slightly out of town but you could combine it with a stroll along the river. For more on the parks that York has to offer, see here.
Climbing Under Canopy
If it’s raining and your children need to run off some steam, there’s a free, covered outdoor children’s play area at the Designer Outlet. It isn’t huge but it’s well thought-out and the combination of tunnels, slides and walkways can keep a smallish child occupied for some time. The equipment is divided into two sections: for under-sixes and over-sixes.
We say – this is only a free activity if you can resist the shops at the Outlet!
Good to know – Parking at the Designer Outlet is also free.
Designer Outlet, St Nicholas Avenue, York YO19 4TA
Boat-Spot by the River
Provided that it hasn’t burst its banks (York is of course famous for its floods), a stroll by the river is pleasant at any time of year. Try walking from the city centre, along the river Ouse, up to the Millenium Bridge (between Fulford and South Bank) and back. It’s no more than a couple of miles and there are plenty of interesting sights to keep children interested (pleasure boats, rowers, bridges and wildlife).
We say – This is a lovely way to spend a couple of hours. Combining it with a trip to Rowntree Park is a good option too.
Good to know – the paths along the river are buggy-friendly (just make sure you don’t stray into the cycle path!).
Take in the Trains at the National Railway Museum
It’s difficult to believe that a museum as good as the National Railway Museum is free, but it is. Not just for trainspotters, this museum has something to interest everyone of any age. As well as the permanent exhibitions (think Flying Scotsman, Mallard and more), there’s always something new going on and there’s a real focus on family-friendly activities.
We say – This is one of York’s star attractions for a reason. The family activities are excellent and will appeal to children of all ages.
Good to know – there are often train-related games and toys for the under sixes in the Great Hall at certain times of day. You’ll be given a ‘what’s on today’ information sheet as you arrive, which is worth checking. There’s a number of picnic benches, inside and out, so you could bring your own lunch.
National Railway Museum, Leeman Road, York YO26 4XJ
Stroll Through the Streets
Wandering around the city streets is one of the best things you can do in York and it costs nothing. There’s plenty to interest everyone, from fantastic street entertainers to genuinely talented buskers to tiny alleyways and secret passages, cobbled streets and grand squares. Marvel at the Minster, take a turn around the bottom of Clifford’s Tower, skip along Whipmawhopmagate and amble through The Shambles.
Good to know – Parliament Street plays hosts to regular markets, including a continental market and a local farmers’ market. Check the City of York website for the latest dates.
Look Out a Library
Most children love books, so what could be better than spending a while flicking through all that the library’s children’s section has to offer? If you’ve got a YorkCard, you could even take some home. There are weekly storytimes and, for older children, reading groups to join. See the City of York website for more details.
Good to know – As well as the Central Library – a handy stone’s throw from town and the Museum Gardens – there are smaller libraries in York’s outlying areas. See the City of York website for locations.
York Central Library, Museum Street, Library Square, York YO1 7DS. See the council website for addresses of other branches.
Use Your YorkCard
Visitors, look away now. If you’re a York resident, get yourself down to your local library and pick up a YorkCard for a small fee (free for under 18s) if you haven’t already. Each family member will need one. It’s well worth it because you’ll benefit from a variety of discounts on leisure activities like swimming. It will also allow you to pick up a YMT Card at a reduced rate, which will give you free entry to York Castle Museum, York Art Gallery and the Yorkshire Museum for a year. Find out more about the YMT Card here.