York is one of my favourite cities in the UK and is a wonderful place to spend a weekend or several days. The great news is that you can do all this without worrying about money as there are plenty of free things to do in York. Thanks to the free attractions and free museums in York, you can make the most of York on a budget!
Why Visit York?
Just to be perfectly clear, I’m talking about “old” York, not New York! York is a beautiful city in the heart of Yorkshire in the north of England. Its fascinating history, pretty streets and delicious food all help to make it an excellent destination for a weekend break.
If you have more time to spend exploring Yorkshire, you can get out into the countryside which is a stone’s throw from the city, and visit more of the towns and cities in Yorkshire such as Leeds, Whitby, Harrogate and Malton.
The Best Free Things to do in York
York Minster is one of my favourite places in York, it is stunning! The Minster is the largest Gothic cathedral in northern Europe and you can admire the beautiful stonework from the outside for free, and try to spot the Peregrine Falcons which nest in the towers.
To really appreciate this magnificent building, I highly recommend going inside, although there is an £11.50 entrance fee for adults which includes free entry for up to 4 children. Visits need to be booked online in advance to comply with social distancing regulations.
There is no entry charge to attend a service here, or if you want to pray or light a candle, although donations are gratefully received.
Usually, you can also get a ticket to go up to the tower for incredible views of York, but that is currently closed.
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This is the other York landmark which I love visiting every time I’m in York, as I have vivid memories of seeing it on my first visit to York on a school trip aged 11!!
Clifford’s Tower is almost all that remains of York Castle which was built by William the Conqueror. You can see it from the outside for free, or members of English Heritage get free entry to the tower.
From the top of the tower you can enjoy unrivalled views of York Minster and the city of York, and on a clear day you can see as far as the North York Moors. If you’re not a member of English Heritage, adult entry tickets cost £5.90 plus a voluntary donation. You’ll need to book a time slot in advance, even if you qualify for free entry.
Explore the City on Foot
York is a small city, and perfect for wandering around and getting lost. Make sure you explore some of the side streets off the main drag to uncover more of the city’s hidden gems. Here are some ideas to get you moving and discovering the beautiful spots in York:
The Shambles is a narrow street – apparently so narrow it is said you could shake hands with your neighbour in the house opposite! Once full of butcher’s shops it is now home to a wonderful selection of independent and boutique shops, restaurants and cafés.
It’s also said that York influenced JK Rowling’s Diagon Alley, so of course there are several Harry Potter shops here for fans to enjoy.
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Gillygate, just outside the city walls is a must for cheese-lovers as here you will find Love Cheese, a fabulous cheese shop and café where you enjoy a whole manner of cheese-related delights.
Fossgate is filled with cute shops and tasty independent restaurants, such as “give the dog a bone” selling quirky gifts and souvenirs, and the delicious if oddly named Hairy Fig delicatessen and café.
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Whip Ma Whop Ma Gate
Whip Ma Whop Ma Gate is the shortest street in York, with just three buildings 1, 1a and 1 ½! The street itself isn’t particularly fascinating but I love the name. It’s just across the road from Fossgate.
Stonegate has been a busy thoroughfare for centuries and was the main Roman road from the River Ouse to the centre of the city where the Minster now stands.
Here you will find plenty of boutique shops, including my favourite Stonegate Teddy Bears stocked full of furry friends, and historic pubs like the Punch Bowl and the oldest pub in York, Ye Olde Starre Inne.
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Micklegate is a quieter street filled with restaurants and pretty buildings. Walk to the end to find Micklegate Bar where gruesomely the heads of traitors were displayed to deter others from committing the same crime!
York Selfie Trail
For social media fans there is also the #Yorkselfie trail to follow, visiting key locations in the city and posting your adventures on Instagram; pick up a map at the Tourist Information Centre or check Visit York’s website.
Free Things to Do in York
For most museums in the city, there is a charge to enter, but if you are on a very tight budget, there are still some free activities you can do to explore the city and its history.
A Free Walking Tour of York
When they start up again, you can take a free guided walking tour led by the Association of Voluntary Guides.
The tours usually leave every day at 10.15am, 2.15pm and 6.45pm during the summer from outside the York Art Gallery on Exhibition Square. During the winter the tours are only run at 10.15am. Check their website for news on when the tours will restart.
The Cat Trail
Cat lovers can take follow a self-guided Cat Tour, following a trail around York to spot the cat statues dotted around the city. The cats were originally made to frighten away cats and mice and are now there to be hunted by eagle-eyed visitors.
A handy trail map can be picked up for free outside York Glass Ltd in the Shambles, or just keep your eyes peeled as you wander the streets. You can also print a copy here.
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The National Railway Museum
As the only free museum in York that I could find, the National Railway Museum is free to enter, although a donation is suggested. The largest railway museum in the world isn’t just for trainspotters. It is a fascinating place, and home to the only Japanese bullet train outside Japan, the world’s fastest steam locomotive, the Mallard, and a replica of Stephenson’s Rocket.
You can climb aboard many of the trains in the Station Hall, full of historical carriages, including royal carriages like Queen Victoria’s lavish ‘palace on wheels’, and even have afternoon tea there. Some new measures will be in place when the museum reopens on 4th August 2020.
Walk the Walls
The city walls that surround the city were first built by the Romans in 71AD, and a perfect way to get a different perspective of the city, and some good views of the Minster too. It takes around 2 hours to complete the full circuit, or you can just pop up and down at the various gaps in the wall.
York Museum Gardens
York Museum Gardens offers a lovely green space to wander around, spot squirrels or have a picnic. There are early English & Romanesque ruins to admire, and free tours run at 1pm on Sundays so you can learn more about the history of the park.
Free Events in York
If you time your visit to coincide with one of the city’s many festivals, you will find lots of free events going on – although this year the events calendar may have seen some changes!
A couple of years ago I attended the amazing York Food and Drink Festival which had tons of free (and paid) foodie activities. That is still currently scheduled for September 2020, and you can learn more about York’s Food & Drink Festival here, and check out a calendar of events throughout the year here.
Where to Stay in York
Hostels in York
Hostels are opening up again now, and with the right safety protocols in place can be a great way to enjoy York on a budget, whether you are ready for a dorm room or prefer to book a private room. Check the details of what new procedures have been brought in and make sure you feel confident in the hostel before booking.
Astor York is a lovely hostel in a listed building about 10 minutes walk from the centre of York. It gets great reviews for the staff, amenities and social activities.
The Fort Boutique Hostel
The Fort is in a great location right in the centre of York. It gets great reviews for the location, comfy beds and cleanliness. It’s above a bar so could be noisy at the weekends, but a pair of earplugs should sort that out.
Hotels in York
There is no shortage of great hotels in York. I especially love the smaller independently run bed and breakfast style hotels in York, where the owners really go out of their way to take care of guests.
I stayed at the award-winning No.21 York Bed & Breakfast and loved it! Owners Simon and Andrea are so kind and welcoming it felt like home. The Bed and Breakfast is located close to the Museum Gardens, and the rooms are comfortable and spotlessly clean. Simon and Andrea use local ingredients for their delicious breakfast and homemade bread, and source as many of their produce & services as possible from within a 20-mile radius of York.
Tower Guesthouse is another popular choice when visiting York. It is slightly further out of the city than No. 21, about a mile away from York Minster, but the boutique style and luxurious decor makes up for the walk. Guests also loved the great breakfast and friendly staff.
If neither of those takes your fancy, you can browse all hotels in York here.
Airbnb in York
For a whole place to yourself, this riverside studio has onsite parking and gets great reviews for cleanliness and for its location 5 minutes from the Shambles. Of if you’re really looking to push the boat out, this stunning flat could be the one for you!
Alternatively, you can check out all the options for Airbnb in York.
If you have never used Airbnb before, use this link to sign up & get up to $52 credit to use on your first trip! Read more about the Airbnb first time discount code and my full Airbnb guide or click below for your Airbnb coupon.
If you’re looking for travel insurance for your trip to York, get a quote now from World Nomads.
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Just to let you know, this post may contain paid or affiliate links, which help to maintain Tales of a Backpacker and give me the chance to keep travelling, and to keep creating awesome content for you! I only recommend goods and services I believe are useful and reliable.Last updated: February 2, 2021