Known for its exciting and distinctive combination of historical, cultural and scenic tourist attractions, York has much to offer visitors with kids hoping to discover a bit of variety.
A city with two millennia of history to unpack, York has stupendous historical wonders in a quaint Medieval cityscape.
The Romans founded York as a fortress in AD 71, and the emperors Hadrian, Septimus and Constantius I all had their British seat in York while on campaigns. Constantine the Great was declared Roman Emperor at this very place in 306 when his father died.
The sight that wins all hearts is York Minster, an English Gothic masterpiece built over the Roman fortress and graced by brilliant Medieval stained glass windows.
It’s a delight to simply walk around, and is also packed with things to do, making it an ideal place for a city break in the UK. Nearly all the main York attractions are within walking distance of one another. And with over 365 pubs, you’ll never be short of a pitstop.
Below is a list of the ten best things to do in York with kids.
For more in Christmas time, check our York Christmas market suggestions!
Cat Statues of York
Who doesn’t love cats? Well kids definately do! The firts attraction in our list of best things to do in York with kids are the lovely cat statues. With a strong concentration in the city center, the cat statues of York are scattered on eaves, rooftops, and chimneys all around the town. The original pair of metal felines date roughly to beginning of the 20th century. It is believed that they were designed to scare the rats from the nearby river.
Again, in the 1980’s, architect Tom Adams commissioned sculptor Johnathan Newdick to create several new cat sculptures, and use the historic originals as inspiration for a new town tradition. Adams placed a cat sculpture somewhere on each of the buildings he designed in the area and soon other business and building owners started following suit, creating a new identity for the town and a small cottage industry of cat-related tourist shops.
There are now 22 cat sculptures throughout the city. Many businesses offer maps of the “York Cat Walk.”. However due to constant theft and new additions to the public collection, many of the mousers listed on the maps are gone.
National Railway Museum
Even if you don’t geek out over trains, York’s National Railway Museum, which houses more than 100 locomotives, is so well presented that most will find it interesting. Definitely one of the best things to do in York with kids, famous trains you can see include the record-breaking fastest steam locomotive in the world, Mallard and the only Shinkansen bullet train you’ll find outside of Japan. There’s also an impressive collection of royal trains, including those used by Queen Victoria and King Edward VII.
The Station Hall recalls a century of life at a working station. Kids can watch engineers in action at The Workshop, explore the inner-workings of engines at interactive displays and take a ride on a miniature train.
Biggest medieval cathedral in Northern Europe, York Minster is considered to be one of the world’s most beautiful Gothic buildings. It took over 250 years to build and the craftsmanship is breathtaking; you can’t help but stare and wonder about how they managed its construction nearly 900 years ago.
Maybe the loveliest is the Decorated Gothic Great West Window from the 13th century. The tracery forms a heart shape known as the “Heart of Yorkshire”. 600 years after it was built, the Perpendicular Gothic Central Tower remains the highest structure in York at 72 metres.
If you have the energy and ability, do climb up the central tower. It will reward you with the highest view in all of York. But do be warned that there are 275 steps, up a narrow and fairly steep spiral staircase.
Snaking north to south through York’s historic centre, Shambles is a picture perfect Medieval shopping street.
The oldest of the corbelled and half-timbered buildings on Shambles date back to the 1300s.
Pedestrians meandering through the Shambles of York often look up to admire the old houses and crooked, leaning buildings. But the true treasure lies below their feet. Whereas most streets in York, and much of England, have been widened and modernized. The streets of the Shambles have remained true to the original medieval form.
This section of York dates back to the 14th century and was the place butchers set up shop. It was once called the “Great Flesh Shambles” because of the shelves of meat the butchers would display.
A few of shelves from the past are still in place along the street today.
Meanwhile the old butcher’s shops have all disappeared. They are now taken over by tea shops, cafes, restaurants and quirky boutiques purveying leather, fudge, Yorkshire wool and jewellery.
York has been ringed by walls since Roman times. These defences were altered by successive Medieval occupants before gaining their current course and design between the 12th and 14th centuries.
The one fragment of the Roman wall still standing is the Multangular Tower in Museum Gardens. The tower was raised in the 310s during the rule of Constantine the Great.
The centre of York is surrounded by a magnificent 3.4km circuit of medieval stone walls. They are alos the best preserved city walls in England. Walking along the walls is a great way to orientate yourself and get a sense of the city. It takes around two hours to cover the whole circuit, or you can just walk a section at a time. There’s a great view of the Minster from the section between the River Ouse and Mickelgate.
The last remaining piece of York Castle is the ruined keep, which stands on a grassy Norman motte (earthwork mound). The previous wooden tower that was built here in the 11th century came to a grim end in 1190, when York’s 150-strong Jewish population was besieged by a mob and opted to commit suicide as the tower burnt down.
The stone keep dates to the 13th century and is a part of York’s identity despite being gutted by an explosion in 1684. The tower was used as a treasury and prison, and has information panels explaining what came before.
Clifford’s Tower is comprised of a range of castles, prisons, law courts, and a selection of other fine buildings. Offering wonderful views of the city from the top of the tower, the historical building was built in the reign of Henry II. A magnificent building, Clifford’s Tower is an essential place to visit for visitors hoping to brush up on their history.
Jorvik Viking Centre
In the 9th and 10th centuries York was controlled by Norse warrior kings known as the Kings of Jórvík (the Viking name for York). And that heritage is celebrated at this edutainment-style attraction.
The world-famous Jorvik Viking Centre has been commonly described as a must-see destination and is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the UK.
The Museum, which has some of the finest archaeological and geological collections in Europe is another popular tourist destination in York. From the underwater creatures that swam when Yorkshire was beneath the sea to a genuine Roman mosaic floor, the museum covers centuries of history.
Offering a variety of both local and historical artefacts originating from the Roman and Viking period, Yorkshire Museum is comprised of four insightful collections. The collentions include biology, geology, archaeology and astronomy.
Bonus – York Maze
Famous for being the largest maze in Europe, York Maze is open for just a small window every year. It’s open during the school summer holidays between mid-July and the start of September. So when your kids are on holiday, you can definitely enjoy an afternoon together. What else can be the best thing to do in York with kids?
The “Giant Maize Maze” is planted with a million individual maize plants. Of course it is the biggest draw, but there are all kinds of side attractions to keep youngsters active.
Kids can try and solve the Maze of Illusions, the Mineshaft Maze and the Finger Fortune Maze.