Visiting York with teens – especially for a quick getaway break – is one of the best ideas we've had as a family.
I'd heard plenty of nice things about the walled city, mostly about how picturesque it is, but until I’d visited York I had no idea just how much there is to do there and how easy it was to walk to most attractions and experiences.
This is great news for families with teens of course (they do like to moan about walking don’t they?)
The other thing that surprised me is that York is just a couple of hours away from London by train. This was music to my ears; being stuck in a confined space with my kids brings me out in a cold sweat, but I could manage two hours on a train (and in reality it was much better than driving as I could keep an eye on them and monitor their screen usage).
We spent just two nights (two-and-a-half days) in York and, without running around like mad things, we managed to fit in all of this…
- Walked the Old City Wall (or at least a portion of it!)
- Visited The Chocolate Story.
- Enjoyed a wander along the Shambles (and visited the market in Little Shambles).
- Enjoyed a cruise down The Ouse.
- Visited Fossgate (for some quirky independent shops), as well as Spark to see the old shipping containers, which have been transformed into little shops that support the local community and enjoy some great food!
- Visited The York Castle Museum.
- Got spooked on a ghost tour
- Visited the Jorvik Viking Centre
- Was thrilled at the York Dungeon.
- Marvelled at the Minster.
Here's an overview of each of the attractions we visited – and why they're great for teens!
1. Walk the Old City Wall
Having first popped into the York Visitor Centre (located at 1 Museum Street – and do visit here… It's a MUST to pick up leaflets and chat with the people who know York like the back of their hand), we spoke to a lovely chap by the name of Russell, who was full of great suggestions and places to try.
These included a break at the Spring Espresso café; a visit to Spark where old shipping containers are home to independent shops, eateries and cafes; and a nice cuppa and cake from Betty’s Cafe (which, from 6pm every evening, has a pianist playing).
I don’t think there was anything that Russell didn’t know about York. One of his other suggestions was to walk one of the most scenic portions of the Old City Walls above the city, joining at Petergate and coming off at Monkgate.
As Petergate was about a minute’s walk from the Tourist Centre, this was the very first thing that we did, and doing so meant that we got our bearings of the city much quicker having seen it from up high.
And there were plenty of opportunities for taking beautiful photos. Our particular walk ended in visiting a tourist shop up on the wall at Micklegate Bar, where visitors can make the most of the opportunity by taking in the Henry VII Experience.
The full walk (around the whole of the city of 3.4km, making it England’s longest medieval town walls) takes about 1.5-2 hours, but as the teens started moaning about being hungry, we opted for the short walk as Russell suggested.
Why teens will love it: They loved racing each other along the wall, propping themselves up on the side to take in the scenery and take pictures (until Girlwrighter sat on an ant's nest!) and feeling like kings and queens as they looked down on the city around them.
2. Eat chocolate to your heart’s content: The Chocolate Story
Mention the word ‘chocolate' and you might as well be describing the Pavlov Response; the Wright family all start licking their chops in anticipation!
The thought of consuming copious amounts of chocolate and having a great excuse for doing so was hugely appealing to us all, but especially the teens. York's Chocolate Story is a place you MUST see – even if you don’t like chocolate!
On the chocolate tour (which takes about 1hr 15 mins), you get to see how it’s made, learn about its origin and where different chocolate came from. But best of all, you get to make your own chocolate lollies!
Our guide Lee was so knowledgeable – ask him any question relating to chocolate and he knew it, even the most random question! Lee started by asking each of us what our favourite chocolate bar was, and then proceeded to tell us the whole back story to that chocolate bar – including where (and when) it originated, by whom – and why etc.. he was like a walking chocolate encyclopedia.
The kids listened with fascination as he told them all about Lindor and Kinder Bueno. And while they got to sample chocolate while listening to the stories, you can imagine they were in their element.
York’s Chocolate Story is really interactive – from the touch screen displays and videos right down to getting hands on in choosing the toppings for your own chocolate lolly and chatting with the guys in the production kitchen while they make the chocolate (and yes, you do get to eat what they make!)
I learned so many facts that day I came out buzzing and loving chocolate even more (if that’s possible). One fact that sticks in my mind is that discoloration on chocolate doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s off: it could be that it has gone from a very hot temperature to very cold in a short amount of time.
Why teens will love it: If they like chocolate, then they’ll love this attraction, plus with three floors of interactive exploration they won’t want to leave. And you’ll love it because it’s educational for them – oh, and I did I mention you get to eats loads of chocolate?
PRICE: £12.50 for adults, £11.50 for students and seniors, £10 for kids (aged 5-15) and under 4s go free.
3. Stroll down the Shambles
For those who've previously visited York, they'll no doubt urge first-time visitors to take in The Shambles, sometimes described as Europe’s oldest shopping street. And you can tell – the postcard- worthy quaint independent shops, the architecture and the atmosphere all deserve a mention.
The word ‘shambles’ comes from the Anglo-Saxon for shelves as this was the street where butcher’s and slaughterhouses would display their wares. And I discovered that as recently as 1872, the Shambles was home to over 20 butchers’ shops.
None are there now, but interestingly, as a nod towards the street’s past, you might see the odd meat hook hanging from the walls.
If you veer off into the snicket (small street) that is Little Shambles, it leads you to daily market, which is open until about 4pm but is definitely worth a visit. As well the usual fruit n’ veg and clothes etc, it’s a great place to pick up a bite to eat or a tipple of something stronger.A word of warning though: for fashionistas who favour the heel, you’ll probably need to opt for flats in the Shambles as the cobbled, uneven streets and paving, might force you into impersonating a newborn deer.
Why teens will love it: There are so many different kinds of independent shops in the Shambles, ranging from gift shops and stationery outlets to bakeries and toy shops. The kids gravitated towards the fudge and sweet shops as well as the Viking shop, complete with real swords and drinking horns.
PRICE: Free! (unless you buy something of course!)
4. A cruise down the Ouse
On the day we decided on a cruise down the river, we saw the mercury sink into single figures, so if you’re going in the cooler months it’s worth wrapping up warm – especially if you plan to sit upstairs on the deck outside.
We boarded our City Cruises’ vessel from King’s Staith, just the other side of the Ouse from our centrally-located hotel. The braver souls remained on deck as the medieval sights of the city were described by our guide, while we enjoyed the warmth downstairs, where the kids were treated to snacks and a hot drink as we moseyed down the Ouse for 45 minutes.
And as the facts about the city came in thick and fast, I couldn’t write them down quick enough, so here’s the ones I remembered or managed to scribble down:
- The River Ouse is a Saxon word meaning clear and flowing water. There are many fish in the Ouse including salmon and trout in the upper reaches.
- Guy Fawkes was a pupil at one of the schools in York (founded in 627!), but in York they don't burn an effigy of Guy Fawkes as (naturally) they believe it bad taste to do so.
- The Guild Hall was damaged in the Second World War and lots of bombs also hit the train station.
- The Ouse Bridge is the oldest bridge to cross the River Ouse.
- Cocoa, sugar & dried fruit for Terrys & Rowntree chocolate manufacturers was imported in via the Ouse river. As chocolate is still made in York, Cocoa is now brought in by lorry, but was still being brought in by boat as late as the 1990s!
- In its heyday, chocolate manufacturer Nestle used to employ 7,000 people – a sixth of York’s working population!
Why teens will love it: Going on a river cruise will be a novelty in itself for the teens, plus with the running commentary from the captain, they’ll get to learn more about the history of the city, its fascinating buildings and bridges etc as they take in their surroundings. There are also themed cruises such as lunch and afternoon tea cruises as well as evening options.
PRICE: Adults from £9.50, children (aged 5-15) £5.50, under 5s go free and concessions are £8.50.
5. Fossgate and then food at Spark
Following Russell’s recommendation to visit Spark, a recently introduced community development project, we went in search of it, taking in Fossgate on the way.
Fossgate is certainly worth a visit too as it’s home to loads of independent shops and some quirky places like ‘The (N)ice Cream Factory’ where you can see ice-cream being made using liquid nitrogen.
My favourite shop in Fossgate had to be the Cake Shop, which looked divine – and I spotted it from a mile away!
The teens enjoyed browsing in the gift shops in Fossgate as they had some really unusual items that you don’t tend to find on the High Street.
Once we arrived at Spark York, we’d built up an appetite, so we decided to split up and eat to sample the different eateries. My 11-year old and I fancied a Thai (Tikk's Thai Kitchen on the upper level), while the 13-year old and VIP opted for a gourmet chicken burger unit on the ground level.
After speaking with Tikk’s wife from the restaurant, I discovered that all the units in Spark opened in early May, and that the concept was formed as a social enterprise to help start-up businesses who couldn’t afford the usual ‘on the High Street’ rates.
What a fantastic idea – and from what I could see trade was booming! Interestingly enough, the hip venue also attracted a younger crowd – and the very same day we were there, DJ Jazzy Jeffwas making a guest appearance.
Why teens will love it: The variety of eateries is amazing, so there’s something to suit all taste palates and, as everything is all under one roof so to speak, you don’t have to opt to eat at the same place. It also has a fresh, young vibe, which teens will appreciate.
PRICE: Free to enter and browse around and eateries are individually priced. As an example, my Crispy Friend Chicken Thai Style With Fried Rice cost £8.50.
6. York Castle Museum
This former prison is a real teen-pleaser and you can easily spend two hours and more in there and not realise where the time has gone – there’s so much to see and do.
After seeing a picture of a recreated indoor Victorian Street (with real shops!) in the museum, forget about the kids’ excitement – I was raring to get in there! And it didn’t disappoint, especially when I had the opportunity to buy myself some real old-fashioned liquorice!
The streets were great as they'd change the lighting to reflect day and night – and they even had all the authentic smells of Victorian Britain – stable smells of horses and hay, pharmacist medicinal smells – and then they had Poverty Street which smelt of urine – very authentic, but I couldn’t hang around for long!
York Castle Museum showcased room setups starting from the 17th century right through to the late 20thcentury and were a real eye-opener for the kids in terms of the sort of décor we were used to as kids – they thought it was really old-fashioned!
They had a fantastic toy display with toys throughout the years, some of which I recognised myself. It was great to show my teens the toys that I used to play with and my 13-teen year old especially appreciated The Chopper (bike).
Another section of the museum, Shaping The Body, showcased fashion, food & life which was great to see, but the highlight for the kids was possibly the prison section. As a former Georgian prison, we all learned of the criminals that were housed there and the crimes that they committed.
Why teens will love it: York Castle Museum will appeal to teens as they marvel at what life was once like (while you get to reminisce a little!) Dotted throughout the museum are play/drawing areas, dressing up sections and interactive boards, and the teens will enjoy experiencing York Castle Prison, seeing the rough conditions and learning about the harsh punishments that awaited inmates. It’s worth noting that York Castle Museum has all sorts of different exhibitions on throughout the year too.
PRICE: Adults from £10, children (aged up to 16) go free with each paying adult.
7. A Ghost Walk
Visiting York and not doing a ghost tour is like going to Paris and not seeing the Eiffel Tower – it’s an absolute must!
Believed to be the oldest ghost walk of York, Britain – and maybe even the world, the Original Ghost Walk of York (established in 1973) departs nightly from the King’s Arms Pub, located next to the Ouse Bridge.
There’s no need to book – you can just turn up – and the tour walks in the footsteps of those who have passed to the other side – or rather, perhaps haven’t quite reached the other side and continue to haunt until this day.
Mark Graham was our guide and he was absolutely brilliant – the whole crowd loved him – his stories, puns and best of all, his humour!
After the tour, we had the opportunity to continue the experience in a pub, where local man, Steve, told the tale of James Read, who was executed for high treason (playing the bag pipes) and recounted his eerie experience of James Read making contact with him to educate others of the huge injustice he faced in his execution.
I have to say, I got goosebumps listening to the story – and the teens were relieved that we were all staying in the same room when we got back to the hotel. I couldn’t help but make a few spooky ghost murmurs when the lights were turned off, much to the kids’ annoyance!
Why teens will love it: It’s a fun night out where they get to stay up late and get spooked (plus enjoy plenty of laughs).
PRICE: £5 for adults and £4 for kids.
8. Jorvik Viking Centre
The Jorvik Viking Centre takes you back in time to explore the history of the Vikings with an interactive ride and exhibition.
Famed for winning numerous awards as an educational tourist attraction, the centre opened in 1984 and has seen a few multi-million pound investments over the years – the last of which was in 2010.
This included an improvement in the technology and animation of the ride, which takes a full 12 minutes and includes sensory stimuli such as smells, sounds, heat, cold and damp.
The Jorvik Viking Centre also hosts special events throughout the year, so it’s worth keeping an eye on these if there’s something that interests your teen.
Why teens will love it: All teens will have learned about the Vikings at school – and continue to learn about their influence on Britain throughout their education, so to bring this to life for them through storytelling, real artefacts and displays is a win-win.
PRICE: Adults from £11, children (aged 5-16) £8 and concessions £8.
9. York Dungeon
If you’ve ever been to one of the well-known Dungeons, then you’ll appreciate what a fantastic (and thrilling) experience you’ll have.
As a family, we’ve been to a few locations in the past including Blackpool, London and Hamburg (you can tell we’re huge fans!), so to be able to tick off The York Dungeon was the icing on the cake.
Again, it’s an amazing experience to learn about York’s history, but it’s not all doom and gloom – there are also funny bits too – especially if you get chosen to play one of the ‘victims’.
Highlights include surviving the threat of the Vikings, meeting Guy Fawkes and learning about his gunpowder plot, experiencing the castle prison and coming across Dick Turpin, the Highwayman.
Why teens will love it: There are thrills galore and terrifying tales, so letting their imagination run wild for a short period is great for teens. The kids will love watching if you get picked on as part of the acts – and you’ll also have a giggle if they are nominated!
PRICE: From £11 when you book online (it’s more expensive on the door)
10. The York Minster
As one of the world’s greatest cathedrals, the iconic York Minster is a sight to behold. It’s incredibly impressive, whether you’re admiring it from afar or, like us, up close and personal.
You have the option to explore the Minster on entry (which includes entry to the cathedral, Undercroft Museum and a free guided tour), or choose to take in the Minster and Tower, which I’d wholeheartedly recommend.
Inside the Minster, kids will be impressed with the interactive, digital displays to explore 2,000 years of history and, if they feel like it, can even act out role plays by dressing as characters from the past and present.
There are special family events run throughout the year and teens will enjoy the opportunity to go behind the scenes with the staff, volunteers and craftspeople who look after the 800-year-old cathedral.
Why teens will love it: If they appreciate design or medieval architecture (or both), then to witness the York Minster in all its glory is sure to impress.
PRICE: Free to admire from outside or prices are from £10 for adults (when booked online) and kids under 16 go free with a paying adult.
As is the nature of Home and Horizon, I try to offer readers affordable means of enjoying their holidays or mini escapes.
We booked our getaway via Superbreak – it was a special offer that included train travel for a family of four from London and two nights' accommodation in a centrally located York hotel – including daily breakfast – for just £423 all in.
But to really make your pounds stretch further, I’d advise you to buy a York Pass for each family member, which offers a choice of free entry into more than 30 York attractions and tours, as well as restaurant and shopping offers.
You can buy a 1, 2, 3 or 6 day pass – and it covers you for all the attractions that we experienced above.
There are of course plenty of other places to visit and attractions to experience in York and we’re already planning a return visit (it’s now my new favourite city in England!).
We’ve got a great excuse that we’ve still got a whole range of attractions to discover. Here are just a few – with their respective links so you can check them out yourself.
- The National Railway Museum
- York Designer Outlet (for shopping – ten minutes by bus from the city)
- City Sightseeing York (Hop On, Hop Off)
- Festivals galore throughout the year
On the train on the way home after our mini family adventure, VIP and I were talking about how much we loved York and how it would be nice to return.
The man in the adjacent seat must have overheard our conversation and leaned over to tell us how lovely it was to hear that we had enjoyed his home town. And then he very kindly gave us some insider tips for the next time we visited.
One of them which sounded really great was to follow ‘The Lucky Cats' trail around the city. Apparently, there are 13 copper cats to be found dotted around the city on rooftops and the whole concept of following the trail was to get people looking up in York as there's plenty to see up high.
He wasn't wrong of course. For example, there are cafes and restaurants galore located on many first or second floors – something that you wouldn't notice if you didn't make the effort to take in your surroundings from time to time.
And how nice of the York man to pipe in to give us some tips, but his friendly demeanor wasn't unusual in York. Unlike most Londoners, everyone seemed friendly, unhurried and genuinely keen to strike up conversations. It was like a breath of fresh air – and I felt really welcome.
In fact, I mentioned to VIP that if it wasn't for the amount of tourists in York, I'd give some serious consideration to moving there myself.
Turns out I’m not alone; the city was voted the best place to live in the UK 2018 by The Sunday Times for offering the “perfect mix of heritage and hi-tech”.
And if tech has got anything to do with a holiday (York apparently has the fastest internet in Britain), then you can bet your bottom dollar, your teen will be thrilled with it too.
Have you been to York or are you planning on going? I'd love to know your thoughts on the city!
* Visit York kindly provided us with VIP York Passes to allow us to choose the attractions that we thought our teens would enjoy. All views are entirely my own.
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