Nestled in North Yorkshire, York is one of the prettiest cities in England – impressive medieval buildings, beautiful gardens and a lively atmosphere that will make you fall in love with this place.
The city is packed with sightseeing activities and attractions that you don’t want to miss. However, if you’re travelling to York on a budget, you’ll also be surprised that there are many free things to do in York.
In this guide, I am going to tell you all the incredible free places and activities you can do in York as well as travel tips that will make your experience better.
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Contemplate York Minster
This beautiful 7th-century cathedral is York’s main attraction. The cathedral referred to as Minster, it’s the second largest Gothic cathedral in Northern Europe, so there’s no surprise why it attracts many tourists from around the world.
To visit York Minster there is an entry fee (£12.00 per adult), if you happen to be a resident or a York student you get free entry by showing proof of address.
Although it’s worth going inside the Minster, it’s also amazing to contemplate it from outside, and of course, taking pictures from different angles.
Enjoy Fossgate Street atmosphere
Fossgate is an ancient York street located in the city centre. It used to be home to a fish market, then a cinema, and nowadays it’s the perfect place to buy from lovely independent shops or to eat in one of the great cafes, bars and restaurants.
During the summer months, Fossgate establishments turn the street into a party where you can expect alfresco dining and entertainment.
Explore SPARK:York CIC
SPARK is one of the coolest places I’ve visited in York. It’s an outdoor community space where you can grab some food, attend an event (open-air cinemas, art markets, etc.) or workshop.
Here you’ll find plenty of street food options from around the world such as Colombian, Japanese and Italian, and the best thing about SPARK is that you can gather with your friends and you don’t have to choose the same food, but you can all sit together. I especially love their rooftop, perfect on a sunny and weather permitted day.
It’s located close to the centre, on Piccadilly, open Tuesday to Sunday, and you can enter for free.
Get lost in the alleys
One of the best free things to do in York is exploring its winding streets, also called snickelways. These are incredible hidden gems in York that only locals and frequent travellers know well.
Here is a list of the best winding streets in York you can’t miss:
- The Shambles
- Lady Peckett’s Yard
- Horn Pot Lane
- Finkle Street
- Peter Lane
- Franklin’s Yard
Go on a free walking tour
Every history lover must go on a free walking tour in York. The city has an immerse medieval history that can be easily observed in the structure of buildings and streets.
The Association of Voluntary Guides (AVG) offer daily free walking tours that last two hours. The guides are local experts that know everything about this enchanting city, and they’ll show you all the hidden spots in York.
All these free tours start outside York City Art Gallery and end in the Shambles.
Go for a walk along the River Ouse
Another way to explore York is walking along the River Ouse. It’s a very relaxing walk where you can see tourists on the city cruises, couples and friends having fun in the self-drive red boats and lovely swans and ducks swimming in the river.
Although the city cruises aren’t free, they’re a great sightseeing activity. The cruises last between an hour and an hour and a half, and some of them include the traditional British afternoon tea – a selection of sandwiches, fruit scones, cream and other sweets.
Go to the Shambles Market
Are you a fan of markets? Then you must visit the Shambles Market, located in the city centre. The market has over 70 stalls that sell anything from beautiful fresh flowers and food to unique gifts including crafts and vintage clothing.
In the market, you’ll also find Shambles Food Court, great food stalls that sell delicious and affordable meals. You’ll be surprised by how many food options there are – Greek gyros, burgers, hotdogs, North African delights, pizzas, vegetarian curries and much more.
If you happen to visit the city during November or December time, you’ll also enjoy the York Christmas Market, one of the most lively Christmas markets in Yorkshire!
Have a picnic at Museum Gardens
York Museum Gardens are the perfect place to relax with friends and have a picnic. This botanical garden has plenty of green spaces and a variety of flowers that make it special.
You don’t want to miss the ruins – beautiful and detailed stoned walls, columns and arches that are the remains of what used to be St Mary’s Abbey, the wealthiest abbey in Northern England and one of the richest in the country.
The gardens are indeed a lively place where you’ll find friendly squirrels jumping around and looking for food, families enjoying the sunshine during the warmest months and bird shows.
Don’t be surprised if you see brides and grooms taking pictures for their wedding photography repertoire or other celebrations. It’s a unique place!
The best time to visit Museum Gardens is during spring, as you can see all the beautiful flowers blossom, the weather is warmer and there is more sunlight. On top of this, you get the chance to see the pretty cherry blossoms.
Relax at Dean’s Park
Dean’s park is situated on the north side of York Minster, and not only does it offer another magnificent view of the cathedral but tranquillity.
It’s the perfect place to relax, read a book or have a picnic. On top of this, next to the park you can also find The Old Palace, also known as the Minster Library.
The library has over 200,000 objects that tell you all about York Minster’s past and present.
Visiting York is a truly amazing experience, and it’s even better to know all the free things you can do in the city.
See a street performance
York is a small but lively city and as you walk through the city centre, you’ll realise how many things there are going on. It’s very common to find entertaining street performances that go from live singing to juggling.
One of the most common spots where you’ll be able to watch a live performance is King’s Square. However, you’ll find street performances in other locations across the city centre.
Take a picture with the Clifford Tower
The Clifford’s Tower is a must-see historical landmark in York. If you’re wondering what this tower is doing in the middle of the city, it’s actually the largest remaining part of what used to be York Castle.
You can go inside and to the top of the Clifford Tower for outstanding views of the city, but you must pay an entrance free. However, you can still take a picture in front of this important building and admire its architecture.
Take a picture at Sir Thomas Herbert’s House and Lady Pecketts Yard
This is a Grade I listed building located at 14 Pavement St next to York Gin shop. The building is also known as Herbert House and dates back to the 16th and 17th centuries.
The name of this house has a history behind it. Christopher Herbert was a merchant who became Lord Mayor of York. He passed this house to his son, Thomas who also bought properties including the neighbourhood behind the house facing Lady Pecketts Yard.
Thomas’ grandson was born in the house and therefore the house was named after him.
It’s lovely to contemplate its half-timbered design that is a pattern used in Medieval times. At the same time, you can’t miss going inside the small alley next to it. It’s a very unique street!
Visit the National Railway Museum
An interesting museum is the National Railway Museum which is part of the Science Museum Group. The museum is all about the story of rail transport in the United Kingdom and its impact on society.
The admission is free, but you need to book a slot in advance. Before you visit the museum, it’s also worth looking at their website to check if there are any exhibitions or activities going on.
Visit the Rowntree Park
Rowntree Park is just a short 14 minutes walk from Clifford’s Tower. The park is full of amazing facilities that include an ornamental lake with ducks and geese swimming around, six tennis courts, a skate park, a basketball court and much more.
One of the most interesting parts of the park is the War memorial which is dedicated to those who fell in the Korean War. The garden has been opened since 1925 and it’s open all day every day.
Visit York Observatory
Located inside the Museum Gardens, the museum has an outstanding astronomy collection – from telescopes to other scientific instruments.
The museum also has an important clock that dates back to 1811. This clock used to be the one that set all the other clocks in York as it was always 4 minutes, 20 seconds, behind Greenwich Mean Time. Nowadays, the clock tells you the time based on observations of the positions of the stars.
It’s a great museum to visit for any astronomy lover or anyone who wants to explore a less common museum.
Walk the City Walls
York is an immersion of Roman history and this is appreciated the first minute you walk into the city.
Like many Medieval cities, the city of York was protected by the walls. Nowadays, you’ll be surprised to know that York has more miles of intact wall than other cities, like Chester, in the United Kingdom.
Doubtless, the best way to experience the city is by going on a walk through the walls. If you walk all the walls, you’ll spend about two hours. However, if you don’t want to spend two hours walking around the walls, there are different exits.
I’ve never done the full walls trail, but if you do have the time, it’s completely worth it! Along the walk, you’ll contemplate outstanding buildings such as the Minster or Clifford tower as well as discover beautiful streets and residential areas.
Currently, there’s a one-way system, but you can find different locations to start your walk.
Walkthrough the Shambles
The Shambles is the most photographed street in the city. Its timber-framed buildings dating back to the 14th century and cobblestone path make you feel like you’re in a different era, and this is why attract many tourists.
The street is also known for its connection to Harry Potter. Although the author, J.K. Rowling, has never confirmed that the inspiration for Diagon Alley came from The Shambles, the similarities between the two streets are uncanny.
Due to the similarities, you can find many shops that are all about Harry Potter – The Shop That Must Not Be Named, World of Wizardry and The Boy Wizard.
Something that you must add to your list is trying some fudge – I can’t describe how amazing is the smell you get as you walk into the Shambles. You won’t be able to resist stopping in one of the fudge shops. Even if you don’t buy any, It’s just amazing to watch through the big windows how they make it.
Another peculiar shop is The York Ghost Merchant. I had no idea about this shop until I went to the Shambles on an early Sunday morning with the aim of taking photos without crowds, and I saw a big queue waiting outside a shop. I googled the shop and they sell miniatures of ghosts which are very popular among collectors.
Walk the York Cat Trail
A different way to explore York and its attractions is by doing the York Cat Trail. This free walk trail takes you to sightseeing places such as York Minster and Clifford’s Tower while you see many cat statues.
The main trail starts at The Cat Gallery shop and it’ll take you about an hour to complete, although you can always extend your trail by adding cats if you want to add more sights (such as Museum Gardens and York City Walls) to your list.
If you’re wondering what’s the connection between York and cats, there are many stories behind.
Many believe that the original cat statues were put on buildings to scare rats and mice which were a big source of illnesses, and they were bringing good luck and health on locals who needed cats to ensure a good night sleep in houses with poor conditions.
Window shop at Stonegate
Stonegate is home to buildings that are listed due to their historical and architectural importance. In addition to this, the street has many independent shops.
Even if you aren’t planning to buy souvenirs or any gifts, it’s lovely to wander around the street and window shop.
Visiting York is a truly amazing experience, and it’s even better to know all the free things you can do in the city.
Whenever you’re visiting the city, take an umbrella or raincoat with you. The British weather is very unpredictable, especially during spring and summer as you can experience all seasons in one day.
If you’re staying in York longer than a weekend, I highly recommend checking other nearby cities like Leeds and Manchester or exploring many of Yorkshire’s pretty villages and small towns. They won’t disappoint you either!
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Frequently asked questions about visiting York
Are museums free in York?
You can enter for free at The National Railway Museum and Yorkshire Museum located in Museum Gardens.
Also, if you’re travelling with kids, they visit most museums in York for free.
What can you do in York for a day?
There are so many things to do in York in a day, which makes it a fantastic day trip in Yorkshire and even London.
From visiting the beautiful York Minster and exploring The Shambles to learning about York history in one of its great museums and relaxing in its green spaces.
What can you do for free in York?
These are incredible free activities you must do in York:
- Contemplate York Minster
- Go on a free walking tour
- Go to the Shambles Market
- Have a picnic at Museum Gardens
- Relax at Dean’s Park
- Take a picture with the Clifford Tower
- Visit the National Railway Museum
- Walk the City Walls
- Walkthrough the Shambles