York: time is alive and it’s awesome

I stopped in York for a few days on my way home from London and it is POPPIN’. Hands down my favorite city I’ve been to so far, totally different from anywhere I’ve ever been.

One of the really cool things about this little city is that you can walk around and see ancient history seamlessly integrated into modern life. I’ve always had a hard time at museums because they’re not very interactive or animated, often presenting you with little dried-up chips of history and expecting you to put together the bigger story. York is the complete opposite of that: you step out of the train station and you are in the story, and it’s up to you to decide whether – and how much – you want to learn about the details. Because York is like an Impressionist painting: there are little flecks of color and spark all over and it can be incredibly satisfying to notice them, to think about how they sharpen each other, to gain a real appreciation for them – but at the end of the day, even if you don’t, you still have a full and beautiful picture in front of you.

I liked the history, so here, in brief: York is around 2,000 years old, and was originally founded by Roman soldiers shortly after the Roman conquest of Britain. Originally known as Eboracum, it was at the time a fortress, its outer limits bounded by huge stone walls which are still around today (although almost none of the original stonework survives). The walls are visible from many parts of the city, for brief stretches integrated into the actual sidewalks, and you can walk their full 2.5 mile length for free, which makes for some very nice views and also gives you insight into several lovely-looking restaurants and tourist traps along the way.

If you want to get the best possible view of the city, you should head to Clifford’s Tower, the sometime keep of York Castle. Built on top of an artificial hill, the ruin is at the highest point in York, and you can walk a pathway along the top to get beautiful 360-degree views of the city. (Both my photos at the top of this post were taken from Clifford’s Tower.)

Cliffords Tower
Clifford’s Tower is also a great place to learn more of York’s history, as the keep is peppered with plaques and signs about York Castle and the culture of medieval York.

If you want to actually get down into the city instead of looking over it, great news: that part is also awesome. The tourist center of York is the Shambles, and for good reason.

Shambles Market

This is the Shambles Market, a huge open-air market at the very head of the Shambles, which is a single street. The whole neighborhood is cobblestone and pedestrian-only, making it a very chill walking experience even if you’re not a crowds person. That building in the center with the bigger-on-top architecture? Typical of the buildings all along the Shambles, because the street used to be full of butcher shops, which hung meat on hooks in the overhanging roofs. The butcher shops are gone, but the incredible buildings remain, and are now trendy stores, cafes, and bars, another element that shows our modern city nestling so happily into history.

So to sum up the Shambles, we’ve got good walking, good photography, good food, and good shopping, if that’s your thing – both in the market and in brick-and-mortar stores. The surrounding area is very much the same. Now, my favorite thing about this part of town was a bar, which leads me to two separate but related points:

  1. If you like a less touristy vibe and just want to hang out and take in whatever’s cool locally, there are tons of bars, cafes, live music venues, etc. around in which to do that. Since I visited mid-week, I didn’t explore any of the performances that might have been on at The Basement, but I did hang out at Evil Eye, an incredible cocktail bar I can’t recommend highly enough.
  2. If you like a more touristy vibe, York is home to all kinds of fun stops, including The Shop That Must Not Be Named (a Harry Potter store home to some beautiful specialty wands), York’s Chocolate Story (a guided tour through the history of York’s primary export, including several free samples, a custom-designed chocolate lollipop, and a fresh-from-the-artisan truffle), ghost walks (since York is alleged to be the most haunted city in Europe), and if you visit late in the year, York’s Christmas Market, an extension of the Shambles Market with all kinds of fun seasonal stalls and live musicians performing every evening.

Finally, if you’re the sort who likes to do more than just walk around and/or spend money, worry not. York is home to a plethora of museums, more than a city of its size would seem to permit. Many of the museums here offer an unexpected blend of local history and something else. I visited three, and can give a quick run-down of each:

  • The Yorkshire Museum was only a few quid to visit. It featured an exhibit on extinctions, a very cool exhibit on Roman York with a few examples of individuals from the time of the Roman occupation of Britain, and an exhibit on the prehistoric peoples of York. The basement was dedicated to the history of an old chapel whose ruins are on the grounds.
  • The National Railway Museum is free to enter and perfect for train buffs. Located in a defunct railyard, it’s home to dozens of historic trains and engines, including the only bullet train outside of Japan (they had to partially disassemble their tunnels to bring it in!). There are also scale models, advertisements  for various trains when they came out, and items of interest from or relating to trains over history. Speakers at the museum can provide background on the rail’s history in York specifically as well as on specific items of interest.
  • The York Castle Museum is 10 pounds to enter, but also huge. Contrary to my expectations, it is not a museum about York Castle. It’s inside York Castle and about…well…a lot of things. The first exhibit is about bodies and health, going over the diets of various time periods and eventually shifting into a room on fashion, the body, and identity (including a really cool and very sensitive display on trans identities). (If you want to know more about the history of chocolate in York, this exhibit is peppered with fun tidbits.) After that there’s a life-sized medieval York street, an exhibit on the 60s, one on WWII (and York’s experience of it), and finally one on the prison portion of the castle, and the prisoners held within over the years. It was an eclectic but very fun collection.

Long story short, York has something for everyone. Personally, I think the combination of a relatively quiet vibe, a nice long walk, and easy access to a fun but mellow nightlife is complete perfection. I’m sure it helped that my AirBnB was in walking distance (but not earshot!) of basically everything York had to offer, but honestly, I could see living in a place like this. I sincerely hope I get to visit again soon, and for more than just a few days.

Closing this one out with a few of my favorite York photos, since I took well more than I could reasonably fit into the post. If you want to hear (or tell me!) more about any of the topics I touched on, let me know! I’m happy to chat and may well be talked into writing in more detail as well.

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