Although we’d always recommend staying longer if you can (or even moving to York permanently – the city was named the Best Place to Live by The Sunday Times, after all!) – you can do a lot of great things in York with kids in just a weekend or short trip. But where to start? What are York’s must-see family attractions and which can you save until next time? We’ve got all the answers for you, and have even put together a suggested itinerary! You don’t have long, so work out your plan of attack and don’t forget to have a good breakfast. You’re going to need it!
Breakfast and beyond
Not had your breakfast yet? What did we say?! Head to Brew & Brownie (5 Museum St, York YO1 7DT) early doors to enjoy their pancake stacks or delicious things on toast. Bit of a queue? Their sister cafe, the Brew & Brownie Bakeshop, is just along the road.
Other family-friendly eating options include York Theatre Royal (St Leonard’s Pl, York YO1 7HD), Bettys (6-8 St Helen’s Square, York YO1 8QP) and, just outside the city centre but worth the walk, The Pig & Pastry (35 Bishopthorpe Road, York YO23 1NA) and Robinsons Cafe (7 Bishopthorpe Rd, York YO23 1NA).
Trains and a cathedral
Suitably fed and caffeinated, head to the National Railway Museum (Leeman Road, York YO26 4XJ, free entry) to see world-class engines and enjoy hands-on activities (especially during the school holidays). There’s a mini-train ride, too (charge applies). Although you could spend most of the day there (and many families do when it’s raining, hence its unofficial status as ‘York’s umbrella’!), you’ve got places to go.
So hop on the Railway Museum’s land train that will take you directly to York Minster (Deangate, York YO17HH). The Minster is not only York’s most famous landmark, but one of the world’s most stunning cathedrals. The prospect of going to a church doesn’t always fill kids with joy, so be sure to borrow an explorer backpack (free); the objects and activities will encourage them to engage with their visit.
Explore the city on foot
You’ve ticked off two of York’s star attractions, so now it’s time to explore the city. One of the best things about York is that it’s the perfect size to explore on foot – travel to York by train, stay somewhere central and you can walk to all the main attractions very easily. Although there are car parks in York city centre, they are expensive and can be busy. York’s Park and Ride bus service is well worth a look for families too.
Take a walk around, making sure not to miss the little alleyways and cobbled streets: Petergate, Stonegate, Coffee Yard to name just a few. One great way to help you really explore is to do The Little Vikings I Spy Trail, our very own free walking trail of York, recommended by The Sunday Times and designed with children in mind. See how many of the things you can spot (just do the first 10 if you have really little ones or you’re pushed for time. Pick up a free I Spy Trail map from the Visit York Information Centre or download it from our website.
Cat fans in the family? Pick up a free copy of the York Cat Trail leaflet from The Cat Gallery or download it here (45 Low Petergate, York YO1 7HT) and see how many black cats you can spot on York’s buildings. One thing you really need to do is look up! Why not get a photo with the Whip-Ma-Whop-Ma-Gate street sign? It’s York’s shortest street with the longest (and BEST) name!
Hop on your broomstick to The Shambles
York’s full of quirky streets, but Shambles (YO1 7LX) is one that kids really love, not least because it has shades of Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley (find out more about the link between Harry Potter and York here). The Potions Cauldron (9 ¾ Shambles, York YO1 7LX) is a magical place to visit, and you can pick up a Potter-related souvenir or two at The Shop That Must Not be Named too. For a really unique gift and a wonderful shopping experience, drop into the marvellous York Ghost Merchants (6 Shambles, York YO1 7LZ) but expect to queue – it has cult status. If you’ve got time, why not squeeze in a fun wizard-themed walk with The Wizard Walk of York? It’s great fun for 5 to 10 year olds, with magic and silliness galore.
York means chocolate!
Sniff the air and you might just get a hint of chocolate. That’s because you’re in the UK’s home of chocolate and you’re just along the street from York’s Chocolate Story, York’s top chocolate attraction (3-4 King’s Square, York YO1 7LD). You’ll find out all about York’s fascinating chocolate history and even get hands-on and make something chocolatey to take away. You’ll need to join a guided tour so it’s wise to pre-book, but the tours run frequently so you shouldn’t have to wait too long if you just turn up (and it’s a good excuse for a hot chocolate in the cafe anyway).
Channel your inner Indiana Jones at DIG!
Why not channel the kids’ sugar-high into digging in the mock archaeological pits at DIG – An Archaeological Adventure (St Saviour’s Church, St Saviourgate, York YO1 8NN)? Part of the JORVIK Group, you’ll discover artefacts and find out more about Viking, Roman, medieval and Victorian York. Especially good for younger children, it’s worth knowing that it’s included in the JORVIK Pastport if you think you’ll visit a few of the JORVIK attractions (Barley Hall is another one we like for families).
Older kids might prefer to visit the JORVIK Viking Centre itself, where the ride through a Viking village is an unforgettable (smelly) experience.
Dinner and bed!
After all that activity, it’s time to eat and get to bed. There are plenty of family-friendly restaurants in York to choose from, from fantastic independents to reliable chain options. Take a look at our Food & Drink suggestions for some family-friendly places to eat in York. We love Spark:York for a relaxed, independent vibe and Ambiente Tapas for, well, tapas! Los Moros (North African cuisine) is lovely, as is French restaurant Rustique and The Blue Barbakan (hearty Polish cuisine). Source York is a brilliant vegan option that caters well for children, and Cresci is one of the best places for pizza.
Visit the Victorians
Sleep well? Hope so – you’ve got a fun-filled day in store! Kick-off the day by heading back in time at York Castle Museum (Tower St, York YO1 9RY) one of York’s best museums for families. The Toy Stories gallery, showcasing toys from the past, is always a big hit with kids, but it’s the recreated Victorian street, Kirkgate, that’s the star of the show. Meet the inhabitants, pop into the shops and even buy yourselves a sugar mouse from the Victorian sweet shop! Don’t miss the second half of the museum, past the gift shop, as there’s lots to see there too.
Climb the tower, walk the walls or hire a boat
If you can tear yourselves away – maybe after a quick cake in the Castle Museum cafe – why not head up Clifford’s Tower? It has a fascinating history, and the views are some of the best in the city.
Another brilliant way to see the city from above – and one of our top things to do in York that also happens to be free – is walking the medieval York city walls. With 3km to choose from, you can hop on and off when little legs get tired (buggies are best left behind for this). It’s particularly pretty when the daffodils are in bloom, and you’re never far from a good cup of coffee or something to eat.
Fancy seeing York from the water instead? York City Cruises run river cruises along the Ouse, but it’s even more exciting to skipper your own self-drive boat. Raining and pouring? Here are our best things to do in York on rainy days.
Meet the dinosaurs
Not flagging yet? End the weekend on a high by meeting prehistoric creatures at the Jurassic Yorkshire exhibition at the Yorkshire Museum (Museum Gardens, Museum Street, York, YO1 7FR) where you’ll also be able to feed a dinosaur, thanks to the wonders of virtual reality.
You’re right in the heart of the Museum Gardens, York’s botanical gardens, so let the kids run around and spot the squirrels until it’s time to go home.
Next time, stay a little longer! There’s so much more to do, and the Yorkshire Moors, Coast and Dales to explore too: take a look at the Little Vikings Family Guide to York (& Beyond) for inspiration. And if you’re watching the pennies, don’t worry – here are the best things to do in York for free (or very little).
FAMILY-FRIENDLY PLACES TO STAY IN YORK
Make sure your stay in York is as good as it can be by staying somewhere that’s genuinely family-friendly. A couple of self-catering/AirBnB houses that are very welcoming to families and cater brilliantly for children are 107 and 109 Nunnery Lane. In terms of family-friendly hotels in York, Middletons Hotel has excellent family room options (included self-contained cottages with a hidden Chocolate Orange!) and is very well located for York city centre. Read our review of a family stay at Middletons here. For a hotel with a swimming pool and large garden, Marriott York on Tadcaster Road welcomes children and has interconnecting rooms.
The Grand, York is a five-star option where you’ll get what you pay for, plus a warm Yorkshire welcome. It’s worth checking out The Cookery School at The Grand, York; their parent and child classes are fab. Out in the Yorkshire countryside, but an easy drive into York, Woodlands Farm Thimbleby is a gorgeous place to stay where families are made to feel at home.
For glamping, check out Jollydays Glamping – a place where you can escape from reality and get back to nature, just a short distance from the city.
We hope you can see why we think York is the best city in the country for children! To keep up to date with the latest events and activities in and around York for families, follow Little Vikings on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and sign up to our weekly eNews. You’ll never miss a thing!