Want to make the most of an affordable or free York day trip? Follow our one-day York itinerary to see the city’s historical and cultural highlights.
North Yorkshire’s county town of York is a paradise for history lovers, home to Roman ruins and Norman castles through to medieval streets and Victorian architecture. You can catch a glimpse of York’s famous landmarks – including the mighty York Minster – by simply strolling along the city’s medieval walls.
But to really make the most of a York day trip, you simply must visit a few museums, historic landmarks and cultural hotspots that tell the city’s story, from the Roman era to the present day.
Spend one day out in York, and you’ll understand why it’s been a hub for so many civilisations. So, without further ado, let’s dive in.
How to Have the Best York Day Trip
This York day trip itinerary starts at York Train Station and takes you from the north to the south of the city.
9am: Breakfast and the Museum Gardens
Start the day by digging into a full English breakfast at Partisan, a top-rated coffee shop along Micklegate just a stone’s throw away from the train station. If you’d prefer to charge up on coffee in a historic landmark, we recommend The Perky Peacock, which is situated inside a medieval tower by the River Ouse.
After breakfast, you’ll cross the river over Lendal Bridge to reach the heart of York’s historic centre. Once you’ve crossed the bridge, your first attraction visit– the Museum Gardens – will be on your left.
The Museum Gardens is a 19th-century park which is home to Roman ruins that include some of the oldest sections of the York City Walls. There’s also the 11th-century ruins of Saint Mary’s Abbey and a few fascinating museums set amid ten acres of botanic gardens.
The highlight of the Museum Gardens is arguably the Yorkshire Museum, where you can learn about the county’s archaeology, geology, biology, astronomy and numismatics through the ages. You should also check out the York Observatory, which is the oldest of its kind in Yorkshire.
There’s no admission charge to enter the Museum Gardens, making it one of the best free attractions to visit on a day out in York. If you enjoy your time here, you can choose to donate to the Trust that maintains the gardens.
Ticket prices for the Yorkshire Museum start at £8.75 per adult and £4.40 per child aged five to 16 years, and you can get discounts if you buy tickets online in advance.
Ideally, you’ll need around 45 minutes to an hour just to see the Museum Gardens. Add at least another hour onto that if you want to browse the interior of the Yorkshire Museum.
10:30am: York City Walls (Bootham Bar to Monk Bar)
A walk along the York City Walls is the best way to get a glimpse into the city’s Roman, Anglo-Saxon, Norman and medieval past without paying a penny.
The walls were originally built by the Romans during the 1st century CE, though most of the restored walls that you can see today were constructed during the 13th and 14th centuries.
On average, the York City Walls are four metres high and nearly two metres wide. At 2.6 miles long, the York City Walls are England’s longest and best-preserved medieval town walls.
Towers, fortified gateways (bars), musket loops, mason marks, sculptures and arrow slits are apparent just about wherever you look when strolling along the York City Walls.
You’d need two hours to cover the entire distance of the walls at a leisurely pace, even longer if you wanted to admire all its features.
For the purposes of this York one day itinerary, we suggest starting your wall walk at the Bootham Bar, which is located just outside of the Museum Gardens adjacent to the York Art Gallery. Then, walk just 0.4 miles to Monk Bar, taking in views of York’s historic city skyline along the way.
11.15am: York Minster
Next, it’s time to visit York’s most iconic landmark – York Minster.
Just a two-minute walk from Monk Bar, York Minster has dominated the city’s skyline for nearly 1,400 years.
York Minister has been renovated and extended many times over the centuries, but most of its existing architecture was built during the 13th century. It’s been one of Northern Europe’s largest medieval Gothic cathedrals ever since.
The minster is the seat of the Archbishop of York, who holds the third-highest office in the Church of England behind the Archbishop of Canterbury and the monarch.
While there’s no charge to admire this truly spectacular structure from outside, it’s worth paying £12.50 (free for accompanying children aged 16 or under) to see the medieval stained-glass windows and shrines inside.
You might want to throw in an extra £6 to climb the 275 steps to the top of the Tower, where you can take in sprawling views of York’s historic centre.
12:30pm: The Shambles and Lunch
The Shambles is one of Europe’s best-preserved medieval shopping streets and a must-visit destination on any York day trip.
This narrow, cobbled street is lined with 14th-century overhanging buildings that today host quirky and independent shops plus an array of cafés and restaurants.
Reportedly, the Shambles served as the inspiration for Diagon Alley in the Harry Potter series, which is reflected by the street’s numerous Potter-themed stores. It’s York’s top spot for those who enjoy Harry Potter-themed days out in England.
The street is narrow by design; it was originally purposed to keep meat out of direct sunlight. You can still see wooden shelves on the exterior of the half-timbered structures that once displayed the fresh cuts of medieval butchers.
Nowadays, you’re more likely to find chocolate, sweet and fudge shops than meat vendors. It’s also the best place to pick up a souvenir on your day trip to York.
While you’re window shopping along the Shambles, you might want to grab lunch at one of York’s best cafés.
Bettys Café Tea Rooms – which has been an icon of York’s Afternoon Tea scene since the 30s – is less than a five-minute walk away, though expect to queue out of the door over the weekend. If you want to visit the original Bettys, you’ll need to embark on a day out in Harrogate.
If you can’t wait for delectable British and Swiss-inspired delights at Bettys, grab a tasty butty from the Shambles Kitchen, which is sandwiched between York’s Chocolate Story and the Jorvik Viking Centre. There are so many cool cafes in York, it’s one of the best cities for digital nomads in England.
Free things to do on a day out in York don’t get much better than a stroll along the Shambles – especially after a free walk along the York City Walls and a stop by York Minster.
1:30pm: JORVIK Viking Centre
The JORVIK Viking Centre is just 0.2 miles away from the Shambles, and it’s one of the best places to visit on a York day trip with kids.
If you want to learn about the history of Danelaw, life in Viking England and York’s status as a Viking capital, you simply need to explore this incredible interactive exhibition.
Inside the JORVIK Viking Centre, you’ll be taken through life-size dioramas that depict York during the Viking era on a small carriage that’s fitted with speakers.
You’ll see the well-preserved remains of Viking timber buildings as well as artefacts ranging from pottery to animal pens.
You’ll also see lifelike mannequins speaking Old Norse. Some of the mannequins have been modelled on real Viking skulls (eerie, but pretty cool)!
Special effects including sounds and smells make for an immersive experience, especially when such smells recreate the aromas of fish markets, latrines and pigsties.
The carriage ride through the dioramas takes around 25 minutes. After the journey, you can spend time browsing the range of archaeological objects on display and attending workshops. If you’re only visiting York for the day, we suggest spending a maximum of 90 minutes at the JORVIK Viking Centre, though you could easily spend the entire morning or afternoon at this interactive history museum.
Ticket prices for 2023 start at £15 per adult, £10.50 per child and £43 per family. You might want to pre-book tickets to the JORVIK Viking Centre to avoid queueing on your York day trip.
Free Alternatives to the JORVIK Viking Centre
There are plenty of architectural gems and museums to see if you want to enjoy a free day out in York. Instead of visiting the JORVIK Viking centre on your day trip, take a stroll to historic structures and landmarks in the city.
Free things to see in York within walking distance of the Shambles include the outdoor Shambles Market, the 14th-century timber-framed Merchant Adventurers’ Hall, the medieval Barley Hall and the Roman Column.
One of the best free museums in York is the National Railway Museum, which is a 20-minute walk from the Shambles. Here, you can learn about Britain’s history of rail transport and its impact on the nation. It’s one of the most interesting places to visit in York with kids.
3pm: Clifford’s Tower
Clifford’s Tower of York Castle is the logical place to visit after the JORVIK Viking Centre on your day out in York – and not just because it’s only a two-minute walk away.
York Castle was originally built by William the Conqueror following the Norman conquest to dominate the former Viking city and subdue the rebellious north. Clifford’s Tower refers to the Norman castle ruins that you can still see and visit today, constructed under the orders of Henry III during the 13th century.
It doesn’t cost a dime to take in the view of Clifford’s Tower atop its artificial mound from the ground, but we highly recommend paying £9 (£5.70 for children aged 17 and under) to explore the castle’s interior.
New for 2022 at Clifford’s Tower is a dramatic roof deck that provides panoramic views of York’s historic centre. Internal walkways now provide access to areas that have been off limits for centuries. There’s also a soundscape interpretation that brings Clifford’s Tower’s history to life.
If you want to squeeze as much as possible into your York one day itinerary, you might want to limit your time at Clifford’s Tower to one hour. You should also book your tickets in advance.
Have a soft spot for Britain’s historic monuments? Check out more of the best castles in England.
4pm (latest): York Castle Museum
Now that you’ve gained insights into York’s Roman, Viking, Norman and medieval heritage, it’s time to delve into the city’s history over the past four centuries at the York Castle Museum – located right across from Clifford’s Tower.
The museum occupies the buildings of a former Georgian prison. Inside, you’ll hear stories of infamous residents, harsh punishments and crooked justice. You’ll also learn about the life of the notorious highwayman Dick Turpin.
Other highlights of the York Castle Museum include the recreated Victorian street of Kirkgate plus exhibitions on The Sixties, Toy Stories, the First World War and Shaping the Body.
The museum’s historical displays will bring you up to speed with York’s history from the 17th century to the modern day – a must-visit attraction to visit on a day out in York, especially if you’re only here for the day.
Ticket prices at the York Castle Museum start at £14 per adult and £6.50 per child (free for under 5s), and you can get a small discount if you purchase your museum ticket online.
Free Alternative to the York Castle Museum – Baile Hill
If you’re set on enjoying a day out in York for free, you might want to visit Baile Hill instead of the York Castle Museum.
Not many people know that York once had two major castles. Clifford’s Tower is the only remaining ruined section of York Castle, but there’s another site just across the river to the city’s west.
Baile Hill was once a motte and bailey castle, built by William the Conqueror a year after the construction of York Castle.
Today, only the castle’s motte remains, but a crenellated tower was added to the site in the 19th century and now marks one of the starting points for a walk along the York City Walls.
You can explore the tower and walk along the walls for free to soak up the sights on your York day trip.
To reach Baile Hill from Clifford’s Tower and the York Castle Museum, simply cross the Skeldergate Bridge over the River Ouse, and you’ll see the crenellated tower on your right.
5pm: Drinks by the Riverside
So far, your day out in York has taken you on a trip back in time to the days of the Romans all the way through to the modern age. Now, it’s time to relax for an hour at a riverside restaurant, café or pub by the Ouse Bridge.
It takes about five minutes to walk from the York Castle Museum to Ouse Bridge, where you’ll see popular local hangouts in York such as the Slug & Lettace, Yates, O’Neill’s and the Kings Arms.
If you’d prefer a hot beverage to a cask ale, grab a drink at Drift-In York, Bruks or the York Tea Rooms.
We recommend staying close to the Ouse Bridge for the time being. That way, you’ll only be a few footsteps away from your next activity.
6pm: Early Evening River Ouse Cruise (Optional)
You’ve already done plenty of walking today, so treat yourself to views of York from the water by taking a cruise along the River Ouse.
Between the 12th of February and 20th of November, there’s a one-hour early evening cruise in York that departs at 6pm from Kings Staith Landing. It’s an amazing way to soak up the sunset on your day out in York.
While taking in York’s skyline from the cruise’s upper deck, you can order local beers, wines, soft drinks, hot drinks and snacks from the onboard bar.
Ticket prices start at £14 per adult and £8.50 per child aged five to 15 years (free for children aged four and under). Booking tickets in advance comes highly recommended, but tickets are reserved for walk-ups.
Want to explore more scenic waterways? Read our guide to the most interesting rivers in England.
Evening: Dinner and Drinks along Walmgate and Fossgate
Walmgate and Fossgate are historic streets in York that make up the city’s former Merchant’s Quarter and unofficial restaurant district. The area is just a ten-minute walk from Kings Staith Landing and the Ouse Bridge, making it the perfect place to conclude your York one day itinerary.
An abundance of both local and international restaurants line Walmgate, which becomes Fossgate once you cross the River Foss.
Established in 1798, The Blue Bell is famous for being the smallest pub in York. It may be small, but its bright red façade makes it easy to spot.
For a bit of live music, head over to The Hop, which boasts a grand interior with a stage and a pizzeria. If you want to mingle with the locals, we recommend the Brew York brewery or the Fossgate Social.
Top-rated restaurants along York’s Walmgate include Khaosan Road Thai Tapas, the Spanish-style Tabanco By Ambiente, Little Asian Korean and the Japanese Shiitakeya.
No matter what type of cuisine you’re hankering for, you’ll find it along Walmgate and Fossgate on your day out in York.
Things to Do on a York 2 Day Itinerary
We’ve tried to squeeze as much as possible into our one-day itinerary in York, but as you can probably tell, this city has so many sights and attractions that it warrants a longer stay if you have the time to spare.
Some of the best things to do in York that didn’t quite make it into our itinerary include the terrifying York Dungeons, the York Roman Bath Museum, the Treasurer’s House, the York Art Gallery, the Barley Hall, and the Memorial Gardens.
If you want to find out about York’s spooky side, embark on a Ghost Bus Tour through the city in the evening.
Top attractions near York just beyond the city’s borders include Castle Howard (an amazing stately home in England) and the North York Moors National Park. In fact, there are lots of brilliant things to see and do on a day out in North Yorkshire. Read about the best walks across the Yorkshire Dales to make the most of the outdoors.
York day trip
So, there you have it! We’ve created our York day trip itinerary to include as many highlights as possible, such as York Minster, the Shambles, the York City Walls and the JORVIK Viking Centre.
Thanks to its compact size, it’s possible to see the most famous attractions of York without paying for inner-city transportation or accommodation. Plus, as the city centre is just ten minutes away from the train station on foot, York is an easy destination to explore on a day trip from Leeds, Sheffield, Manchester and even London.
Have we missed any must-see highlights or attractions that only the locals know about? Let us know in the comments below.
And if you want to extend your trip, check out these super cool and quirky places to stay in Yorkshire for the night, or longer.
Quick itinerary for a York day trip
- 9am: Breakfast and the Museum Gardens
- 10:30am: York City Walls (Bootham Bar to Monk Bar)
- 11.15am: York Minster
- 12:30pm: The Shambles and Lunch
- 1:30pm: JORVIK Viking Centre
- Free Alternatives to the JORVIK Viking Centre
- 3pm: Clifford’s Tower
- 4pm (latest): York Castle Museum
- Free Alternative to the York Castle Museum – Baile Hill
- 5pm: Drinks by the Riverside
- 6pm: Early Evening River Ouse Cruise (Optional)
- Evening: Dinner and Drinks along Walmgate and Fossgate