Hidden gems of York – by a local

York is one of England’s loveliest cities. Given I’m lucky enough to live here, friends and family often ask me to share my hidden gems of York. To save on typing endless WhatsApp and texts, here are my top tips and recommendations.

Things to do for free

Enjoy a mooch and wander around the streets. You’ve probably heard of the narrow Shambles, supposed inspiration for Harry Potter’s Diagonal Alley.

But don’t miss picturesque Stonegate running from St Helen’s Square where Betty’s is up to the Minster. Many of its shops still have original period features, especially Jigsaw and Oliver Bonas.

Find Whip-Ma-Whop-Ma-Gate – the shortest street with the longest name! It runs parallel to the Shambles around the back of St Crux church.

Explore the Snickleways – these tiny alleys in hidden entrances are really atmospheric. Why not take a turn and see where you end up? A good one is Mad Alice Lane opposite Poundland which runs down to Swinegate.

Head to Fossgate packed with quirky independent shops and cafes you won’t see anywhere else.

Don’t miss the daily Shambles market happening to the right of the street looking down. The food market section is particularly tasty.

Cross the river and walk up Micklegate with its many cafés and beautiful houses. It’s often used in TV and film, such as doubling up as London in the To Walk Invisible Bronte drama.

Fancy a walk?

Walk by the River Ouse – pop down the cobbled lane to the side of the The Star Inn The City and walk along to the Scarborough railway line bridge. The opposite bank has fantastic views of Museum Gardens, Lendal Bridge and the Minster, if the trees aren’t too high.

Walk around the city walls. It will take around two hours and clockwise gets the best views. The gap between Jewgate and the Red Tower is where the King’s Fishpool used to be. There are some steep drops though, so I’d avoid if you don’t like heights or have small children. Dogs aren’t allowed.

Chill out

Relax in Dean’s Park to the side of The Minster.

Watch the buskers and performers in King’s Square – at the top end of The Shambles. Known in my family as ‘Hot Chestnut Square’.

In Coppergate Square near the Jorvik centre there’s fake grass and sometimes a big screen and deck chairs to watch sporting events like Wimbledon.

Admire the timber-clad Hospitium building and the ruins of St Mary’s Abbey in the Museum Gardens.

Things to do – ticketed

The Minster, York’s cathedral – Ticket prices are pricey, but it is an astonishing piece of architecture.

The Jorvik Centre – bigger and better than when you went on your school trip! Pick the children’s audio tour for a cracking ride.

Ghost walk – Take your pick but I recommend the one led by Mad Alice. She had me crying with laughter during her Facebook Live sess with York Gin.

Van Gogh Experience in the old church next to the Jorvik Centre. Put your feet up and sit in a deckchair watching projections of his paintings.

Fairfax House is a must if you love Georgian architecture. Or just Bridgerton!

Give your feet a rest and hop on the CitySightSeeing bus tour. Main stop is outside the Art Gallery by Bootham Bar.

Things to do with kids

Free

The National Railway Museum near the railway station is vast with lots of trains to explore. Plus has a great inside café area. You do need to reserve your free ticket in advance though.

The beautiful Museum Gardens have tumble-friendly lawns for children to run around on. Plus it doesn’t have the mess of Roundtree Park’s geese to contend with.

Homestead Park is further out, with an excellent playground for little ones and limited parking.

Ticketed

Jorvik Viking Centre – make sure to check out the preserved Viking poo in the exhibits after the ride. It’s the best thing there according to a friend’s 4 year old!

The Jurassic World exhibit in the Yorkshire Museum has some rather brilliant virtual reality technology where you can feed a dinosaur.

The Wizard Walk of York – the magical child-friendly alternative to a ghost walk.

Hidden gems of York: Where to eat

The best places often get booked out weeks ahead, so please try to reserve in advance. And if you can’t make it, let them know so they can free up your table.

Coffee, tea and cake

My absolute go-to? The turreted Dyls Cafe Bar by the river, near Clifford’s Tower. Outdoor seating, gorgeous interiors and it also offers lunches and cocktails.

Plush on Stonegate may be small, but the quirky decor – including swings – is inspired.

Merchant Adventurers’ Hall café is a bit off the beaten track but offers delicious tea and cake.

The cafes of St William’s Square between the Minster and Goodramgate offer a quintessential view of the Minster. If you manage to nab an outside table…

It’s not open all the time, but Bedern Hall is truly a hidden gem of a cafe spot . There’s seating in the front courtyard and also on a back terrace overlooking a private garden.

Brunch, lunch and dinner

Want pizza with a topping of chandeliers and marble columns? ASK Italian occupies the stunning building of the old Georgian Assembly Rooms.

Cosy Club on Fossgate is a chain, but it’s in an old cinema with amazing architecture. Good food and it offers a vegan menu.

I usually describe Ambiente on Goodramgate as Gothic tapas, given its historic surroundings. Deliciosa!

The Judge’s Lodgings on Lendal – between St Helen’s Square with Bettys and the Museum Gardens is a firm favourite. It has cellar vaults downstairs and high-ceilinged Georgian rooms upstairs. Plus outdoor seating in the summer allocated first-come first served.

Partisan on Micklegate has the best brunches and lunches but the smallest kitchen. So be prepared to wait!

I enjoy the southern American states vibe of Fancy Hanks on Goodramgate. The service is also exceptional and is often the venue for my Copywriters Coffee networking meet-ups.

Trinacria on the Bishopthorpe Road is about a 15 minute walk away from the city centre but offers exceptional Sicilian food. Their arancini and gelato are simply bliss.

For delicious spicy North African food, Los Moros on Swinegate is great.

Sora rooftop bar at Malmaison serves wonderful Korean food and cocktails as well as 270 degree views. But you will need to book in advance.

The Ivy on St Helen’s Square has first-class service and a beautiful gilt interior.

Cafe Number 8 Bistro on Gillygate is a lovely bistro.

Want to push the boat out? Then head to Meltons on Bishopthorpe Road which prides itself on using only the very best local produce.

Vegan

The best vegan places are often cafes which may not open in the evening:

Some restaurants do offer vegan options so check their menus online or ask when you book.

Bars

The House of Trembling Madness on Lendal is a Georgian gem of a bar with light bites. Plus a craft beer menu that impressed my expert friend so much he posted it on Insta! Tip: There’s another Trembling Madness on Stonegate. Still lovely, but far smaller, with more taxidermy, which gives it a Hobbity vibe.

Alongside Dyls, my other favourite cocktail spot is The Botanist on Stonegate. Given I’m the Ink Gardener, I can’t resist a botanical theme!

Pub-wise, my favourite is the Grade II listed Eagle and Child on High Petergate. With beams everywhere, it’s everything an English pub should be. Plus has a covered beer garden at the back.

A seasonal treat is the Thors Tipi. Past venues have been Dean’s Park next to the Minster and The Principal gardens next to the railway station. Usually open in the summer and before Christmas.

Best for presents

I highly recommend the York Gin shop for tastings and pressies. Also they have a shop in York railway station if you don’t want to lug your presents to your train.

As the home to both Rowntrees and Terry’s, York is renowned for its chocolate. There are still many artisan chocolatiers in the city.

Oh and the Little Yorkshire Candle Company is just charming:

Best time to visit the hidden gems of York

Other people

Want to come when it’s quiet? Then mid-January is your best bet. York is an all-year city which is really popular with families. And international tourists. And British visitors.

However it’s definitely busier during the school holidays. These happen in Easter, summer – from late July to early September, and the Christmas holidays. Plus a half term week in February, June and October. Check out this link to the Yorkshire school holiday dates.

Weather

York is inland and is often drier and warmer than much of the rest of Yorkshire. I was warned about the Vale of York fogs in autumn and winter, but these are rare. If anything, they make the streets look more atmospheric.

The city’s narrow streets mean that you can always find shade during a sweltering summer. Or get out of the wind during a stormy autumn. The council are also really good about gritting the city centre pavements when it’s icy.

Hidden gems of York: events

 These events mean accommodation and restaurants can be limited.

  • January: York Ice Trail weekend
  • February: Jorvik Viking Festival – Yorkshire half term week  – although it’s in May in 2022
  • Summer: York Races at the racecourse south of the city centre on specific weekends. When I first moved here, I just thought there were a lot of tipsy wedding guests about!
  • September: Yorkshire Balloon Fiesta held at York Racecourse
  • Christmas Market – from late November to 23 December

Tip: the Jorvik festival usually has a Viking procession on the Saturday morning you can watch for free. The usual route starts at the Minster, goes down Stonegate, along Davygate and Parliament, then passes the Jorvik Centre in Coppergate to end up at the foot of Clifford’s Tower.

Parking in York

Thanks to our one-way streets and narrow turns, York is tricky to drive around. Coming in from the west or south? Two rivers and railway lines mean that unless you can fly or float, you’ll have to join the queues for the bridges. Also much of the city centre is closed to traffic after 10am.

Being a medieval city designed for carts not cars, parking is scarce. When you do find any, it’s also really expensive – upwards of £15 a day in some car parks! And you’ll still have a 10 or 15 minute walk before you reach the centre. Here’s a list of the York City Council Car parks.

If there’s only two of you, I’d suggest parking in one of the many Park and Ride sites dotted around the ring road. You park your car for free then pay for each individual return bus ticket. Drop off points and pick up points are usually the same. For families, under 16s travel for free. For larger adult groups, it may be cheaper to bite the bullet and park nearer the centre.

And no family and friends, there is no secret parking spot I can share. I just walk in instead. Sorry!

Flooding in York – can you still come?

York exists because of the trade brought in on its two rivers. It’s where the ‘big’ river – the River Ouse, and the ‘little’ river – the River Foss meet up. So yes, it floods. But those Romans and Vikings weren’t stupid. They built the city centre on banks sloping UP from the River Ouse.

News crews love to head to the St George’s Field car park bang next to the river for shoots of the flooding. But 50 metres uphill – well upslope – it’s fine. Unless you own a riverside property, want to walk by or cruise on the River Ouse, you’re unlikely to be affected. Still not convinced? The Minster has NEVER flooded.

Just ask a local

York is a bit of a maze. We even have two high streets Parliament with the M&S main entrance and Coney Street with Boots, Zara and Paperchase. Google Maps can be disorientating, so if you’re lost or need to find somewhere, please just ask!

Want more hidden gems of York?

This is a list of my personal favourites which I’ve either experienced or heard great things about. I’m in no way affiliated with any company listed. For a more comprehensive list, the Visit York website is packed with information. Including where to stay.

Have a fabulous time. Let me know on @inkgardener on Twitter if you enjoy the hidden gems of York I’ve recommended!

About the author

Helen Reynolds is a freelance digital content writer of Google and customer-friendly websites, posts and blogs. Her clients include Yorkshire Dales National Park, Durham Cathedral and Hadrian’s Wall Country.

Brought up near Scarborough, Helen has always dreamt of living in York. She now gets a daily dose of history as a York resident and business owner.