Europe holidays are about castles, heritage building and giving kids a sense of time and history. Amongst the most impressive of the historical English cities is York. The entire township feels like a magical movie set of old buildings, historical ruins and cobbled streets all surrounded by the historical walls that encase the city. If your children love to play knights and princesses or want to really immerse themselves in living history, York with kids is a must.
While it may be small in size, York certainly punches above its weight when it comes to family-friendly attractions. Over the centuries, York has been the backdrop to conquests by the Vikings, Romans, Normans and Tudors. Kids will love the historical atmosphere: you can hardly walk down a cobblestone street without spotting an old Roman wall, castle or medieval building. Framed by the largest intact city wall in England, York is an approachable city for families as most attractions are within walking distance of the city centre. If you’re after another destination in the UK to visit after London, you can’t go past York with kids.
The Destination: York With Kids
Although the historical significance of York may only be appreciated by older children, littlies will feel like they’ve stepped into a storybook when they explore York. Think brave knights riding out on horses, soldiers shooting arrows from the city walls and kings visiting imposing castles – York has a charming atmosphere with attractions to spark the imagination of children. Sometimes overlooked by the larger British cities, York is a family-friendly destination worthy of a standalone holiday – you can easily spend up to a week in York with kids without running out of things to do.
The Attractions in York With Kids
Start a family visit with the hop-on, hop-off bus tour; these cover plenty of ground without wearing out little feet. Try to ride on buses with live commentary as the guides are more likely to share child-friendly facts about the local sights.
If you’re in the mood for a stroll, start at the impressive York Minster church before exploring the streets around Stonegate. These are filled with pubs, quaint shops and historic buildings.
Don’t miss the famous Shambles with its overhanging timber-framed buildings that are straight out of medieval times. Grab a photo of the kids pushing the buildings up again.
Don’t miss a walk on the city walls; there are entrance points at various gates throughout the city.
For a longer walk, children of all ages will enjoy following the York Cat Trail (pick up a map from the York Lucky Cats store in the Shambles). Basically just one big feline treasure hunt, the map provides clues as to the location of cat statues hidden away on buildings and rooftops all over central York.
Ready for some history? The Jorvik museum is situated on the site of an archaeological dig that uncovered well-preserved timber buildings of the Viking city of Jorvik, as York was known then. The museum recreates what life was like 1000 years ago, complete with figures, sounds and even smells.
[If your kids love Vikings, then don’t miss the Viking meal experience in Reykjavik, Iceland.]
The York Castle Museum is housed in a former prison on the site of the old York Castle, of which only remnants remain. Targeted more at older kids, the museum delves deep into the history of different periods. The most child-friendly exhibit is “Toy Stories” which showcases toys from the past 150 years alongside a play area and 100-year-old carousel.
Other exhibits include a tribute to iconic items from the 1960s, a recreated Victorian street of shops known as Kirkgate and unusual collections of objects such as patchwork quilts, ice-cream makers and wartime Christmas cards.
Given York’s long-held position as a rail hub, it’s no surprise that the National Railway Museum is one of the best in the country. Kids can clamber over trains from old-fashioned steam engines, to postal carriages, royal carriages and the most recent addition, a Japanese bullet train. With a café, outdoor playground and changing exhibits for younger visitors, this museum ticks all the boxes.
[For more travel tips on where you can ride the historical English railways, see the suitcases&strollers story on the historic town of Haworth.]
If your kids don’t mind getting a little spooked, the York Dungeons are a gory museum devoted to the underbelly of history. There are actor-led shows and exhibits about The Plague, witch trials, torture chambers and the Gunpowder Plot (Guy Fawkes himself was born in York). Given the subject matter and the fact that the museum only runs on a 1 to 1.5-hour tour basis, this is a museum for school-aged children and older.
If you’d like to venture further afield, hire a car and drive through the Yorkshire Dales to seaside Whitby (the setting of Dracula), visit the grand Castle Howard or explore the botanic gardens and picturesque scenery of nearby Harrowgate.
Food in York With Kids
Pubs are a fantastic option if you’re eating out in York with kids. English pubs usually have a warm, cosy atmosphere and quiet nooks that are ideal for families. If you’re lucky, you might even find some games, books or toys. Kids menus tend to feature favourites like bangers and mash, schnitzels and fish and chips and many offer a deal that includes a drink and dessert.
Yorkshire is famous for its signature baked goodies including fat rascals (a scone-like biscuit) and Yorkshire curd tarts. The best place to try them is the iconic Betty’s Tearooms which has numerous locations throughout York. Treat older children to a traditional afternoon tea at the St Helen’s Square outlet, complete with silver service. If the thought of kids near fine china gives you heart palpitations, grab a takeaway from the Betty’s shop and bakery.
[For more travel tips on doing fine dining restaurants with kids, see the suitcases&strollers story How To Eat In Expensive Restaurants With Kids.]
Self-catering? Stock up at one of the many mini supermarkets in the city centre or look out for the monthly farmers’ markets.
Family Friendly Accommodation in York With Kids
Located within view of the city walls, the Premier Inn Blossom Street offers good-value rooms for families of up to two children. Just up the street is the grand gate known as Mickelgate Bar; watch the kids scamper up the stairs to explore the city walls and peer through the battlements (leave the stroller behind).
Located on the banks of the river Foss is the Novotel where up to two children stay and eat free. Unusually for central York, this hotel has an outdoor playground and an indoor heated pool. Family packages also include welcome gifts and child-friendly guides to local attractions.
[For more travel tips on family friendly accommodation on Airbnb, see the suitcases&strollers story here.]
The Practicalities of York With Kids
Given its compact size, visiting York with kids is a breeze. Stay within the city walls and you can walk everywhere or there are buses if the kids go on strike. Footpaths can be narrow and many streets are made of cobblestones, so a compact stroller is recommended. Car hire is only necessary if you plan to take day trips beyond York.
If you’re planning to pack in lots of attractions, consider a York Pass. It provides cheaper entry than paying lots of separate entry fees.
Manchester Airport is the closest international airport and York is a railway hub that can be reached in just over two hours from London.
For more travel tips on day trips out of London, see the suitcases&strollers story here.
By Sally Wilson of Scribe & Spoon; Images: www.visityork.org