From the moment you leave York’s historic Railway Station, you’re likely to be captivated by the striking look of the city, says David Craig – from the heights of Clifford’s Tower to the depths of the Dungeon

York has so distinct an identity that it’s almost hard to believe it sits a mere 45 minutes away by train. The central high street is blessed with stunning architecture that has been adapted to fit modern needs, without losing a shred of its authenticity.

My colleagues and I had taken the trip to attend a conference being held on the York University campus, a site worth seeing in and of itself with the largest manmade plastic-bottomed lake in Europe at its heart. For precisely this reason, the university has become home to a variety of wildlife, most notably ducks, geese and swans. Their presence made traversing the confusingly laid out grounds a delight, although you may want to watch out for droppings.

We were on a (very) modest budget and so opted to share a three-person room at an Airbnb close to the university. It was hardly an ideal arrangement but served its purpose adequately as a place to conk out after a day spent wandering around the city. It isn’t the cheapest place to spend leisure time, so saving money on accommodation could be the right move depending on your price range. Even two months later, I’m still having nightmarish flashbacks to paying £6.50 for a double vodka coke.

Things were a little more reasonable at the riverside café bar, Dyls. Located in a stunning 19th century motor house, the establishment boasts picturesque views and dishes supplied almost entirely by businesses local to the area. Food is served from 10am meaning it’s an ideal place to kick start your day with a hearty breakfast or to unwind with a nice evening meal and a cheeky beverage. Best of all, it’s an independent family-run bar and I always get a kick out of supporting a small business.

Sadly, we couldn’t squeeze in a visit to Scotts Fish and Chips. The humble chippy once catered to Chinese President Xi Jinping when he met with then-Prime Minister David Cameron in 2015. Since then, the restaurant has become so popular with Chinese tourists that an exact replica branch is planned to open in Chengdu, South China sometime in the near future. Seriously.

York’s beautiful aesthetic and relatively small size makes it one of the Northern cities best suited to a weekend break. It’s a nice place for a brief battery charge but much longer than that and you might run out of things to do. That said, here’s a few to keep you going for a while:

 

  1. Shambles
    The word used to describe my state at the conference party is also the name of a humble street that has become a formidable tourist attraction. Primarily, visitors go to immerse themselves in the world of Harry Potter, as iconic film location Diagon Alley was at least partly inspired by this row of quaint traditional shops. While some have taken advantage of the association by stocking merchandise, there is more than enough charm here to keep even non-fans feeling enchanted.

 

  1. York Cold War Bunker
    And now for something completely different. The York Cold War Bunker may trade whimsy for woe, but it is nonetheless a fascinating insight into the horror of nuclear war. The semi-subterranean shelter was built in 1961 and operated in a defensive capacity for thirty years. It has remained in the same state since its closure in 1991, preserving its value as a historical artefact. Hourly guided tours give you the inside story of bunker life, included with the £45 York Pass (along with access to a number of other attractions).

 

  1. York Minster Tower Climb
    Feel like building up your calf muscles? Look no further than York Minster’s challenging tower climb. Consisting of 275 steps that are both narrow and steep, this is not the most relaxing way to spend a Saturday afternoon, but the view at the top is truly something to behold, particularly if you’re lucky enough to be there on a bright day. Plus, you earn some serious bragging rights for when you come back down.

 

  1. Clifford’s Tower
    Even from the outside, Clifford’s Tower makes a big impression. Now surrounded by tarmacked roads and a car park, the castle’s proud position atop a large green hill gives it the look of a fiercely defiant stronghold fighting against the advances of modernization. That’s no small feat either, considering the tower has seen its fair share of historical demolition attempts and violent confrontations. Climbing to the top grants a uniquely panoramic view of the city, that stretches all the way to the North York Moors.

 

  1. York Dungeon
    While not quite as well known as their London counterparts, the York Dungeons are another visceral journey through some of the grizzliest parts of British history. Embracing both the city’s Viking heritage and the more familiar gruesome roleplay of Middle Ages medicine, it’s a smashing and educational day out. If you’re particularly faint hearted, you might want to treat yourself to a pint when you reach the dungeon tavern at the end of the tour.