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Here are 11 of the best free things to do in York, if you hope to visit York on a budget (I promise it’s doable).
What’s this? Two York blog posts in one hit? To coincide with my York week on social media, I thought I would publish both of these York blog posts. So whether you want to spend one day in York or are looking for the best free things to do in York, we cover all bases. But just, like, make sure you visit York when in the UK, okay? It’s worth the hype – it’s ridiculously historically beautiful. Like it should be illegal for a city to be this photogenic 😍.
General York travel tips
Before we dive in, I just wanted to point you towards my one day in York blog post. It has lots of general York travel information, like how to get there, where to stay (I personally stayed in Astor York, a great hostel) and if York is a good place to visit alone (spoiler alert: I visited York as a solo traveller and would do it again in a heartbeat).
Free things to do in York
1. Do a free walking tour
I did a Footprints Tour in Oxford and loved it, so when I saw the company operated in York too, I knew I had to do their free walking tour. As it turns out, while I was there on the weekend, I ended up having a private tour as no one else turned up. Now, I’ve done walking tours across the world but I’ve never been solo before. Anyway, we covered a lot of ground and it was great to be able to ask questions easily as we walked between sights. Some of the places you visit include Clifford’s Tower, St Mary’s Abbey, York Minster and York City Walls. I should also mention that while there is the word “free” in the name, tips are appreciated.
2. Wander through the York Museum Gardens
Open every day, a visit to the York Museum Gardens is one of the best things to do in York whether you’re alone or with kids. Located in the city centre, the 10 acres of botanic gardens include an array of flora and fauna. Established in the 19th century, the York Museum Gardens is as well-known for its beautiful plant collection as it is for its stunning historical backdrop – the medieval ruins of St Mary’s Abbey.
3. Visit The Shambles
Visiting The Shambles is another one of the best free things to do in York. Once home to a slew of medieval butchers, some of the leaning and historic timber-framed buildings date back to the 14th century. Today, it’s home to a variety of stores, including shops selling Harry Potter merchandise and Christmas accessories year-round. If you’re keen to take photos of The Shambles, get there early!
4. Have a picnic in Rowntree Park
The 30-acre Rowntree Park borders the River Ouse and sits just outside York city centre. Grab some supplies from The Shambles Market and head to the park for a peaceful waterfront picnic. Rowntree Park is also home to an ornamental lake, a tennis club, a skate park, a basketball court, a cafe and a children’s play area.
5. See the view from Clifford’s Tower
One of York’s most beloved landmarks, Clifford’s Tower is the largest remaining part of York Castle. Sitting atop a large earth mound, the present-day stone structure was built in the 13th century and is said to have been used as a treasury and a prison. While it costs to go inside Clifford’s Tower, there’s nothing to stop you from exploring and taking in the view from outside.
6. Visit the National Railway Museum
The National Railway Museum is not just any old railway museum. In fact, it’s been named one of the world’s best railway museums, which is why it’s on this list of the best free things to do in York. Focusing on Britain’s rail history and its societal impact, the National Railway Museum is home to several iconic locomotives. This includes Mallard, the world’s fastest steam locomotive.
7. Go window shopping
While shopping is fun, if you’re looking for only free things to do in York, window shopping will have to suffice. Don’t worry, York has so many cool stores, like candy and homemade fudge shops, multiple Christmas shops (open year-round) and a delicious store dedicated to cheese and cheese only. Have I convinced you yet?
8. Go for a walk along the York City Walls
Amazingly, the York City Walls that surround the city centre today were built about 700 years ago. However, some of the limestone walls were partially rebuilt about 150 years ago to allow public access. Often called The Walls or The Bar Walls, one of the top free things to do in York is to take in the amazing views from the York City Walls. As mentioned, we visited on the free walking tour.
9. See York Minster (from the outside, anyway)
Undoubtedly the city’s most iconic structure, York Minster has been the centre of Christianity in northern England since the 7th century. However, the current cathedral (a stunning masterpiece, no less) dates back to the 13th century. York Minster is primarily known for its unrivalled medieval stained glass collection. Now, it’s only free to enter York Minster if you’re attending a service. However, you can marvel at its exterior for free any time of day. I’ve also heard there’s a nice view of York Minster from Dean’s Park (to the Minster’s north side).
10. Visit Shambles Market
Another one of the best free things to do in York is to visit Shambles Market. I headed here for lunch as there are plenty of street food options. I ended up enjoying a pulled pork toastie from Dark Horse, but there are more than 70 stalls at Shambles Market. They sell everything from fresh produce to vintage clothing to baked goods. Speaking of, if you happen to walk past a cake stall selling Malteser tiffins and meringues as big as your head, may I suggest purchasing one of each? Seriously, you’ll thank me later.
11. Follow the River Ouse
My final suggestion for free things to do in York is to go for a wander along the River Ouse. There are lengthy paths running along each of the river banks. I happened to visit in autumn when the leaves were changing, which made the walk all the more picturesque.