York is a historic city with so much to offer, making it the perfect UK city break. And a visit doesn’t have to break the bank! There’s a whole host of free things to do in York, ranging from beautiful parks to fascinating museums, wonderful walking trails and truly bizarre festivals.
I’ve visited York a number of times and I always end up going back for more! So, whether you’re looking for free family-friendly activities in York or just a budget city break, there’s something to love about this popular northern city. I’ve put together 23 of the very best free things to do when visiting York, so you can enjoy this beautiful spot to its fullest without spending a fortune!
At the end of this guide you’ll also find some of my top recommendations for where to stay in York, the easiest way to get around the city, and the best way to visit.
If you’re looking for more England travel guides, here are guides to 3 of my favourite destinations:
The Best Free Things to Do in York
Looking for some quick ideas for the best free things to do in York without having to read this whole post? I’ve got you covered – here are my top 6 favourite free things to do in York:
- Explore the Snickelways
- Walk the City Walls
- Visit the National Railway Museum
- Explore the sights of Museum Gardens
- Attend a service at York Minster
- Amble through the Shambles
1. Attend a Service at York Minster
York Minster is the crowning jewel of the city. The exterior architecture is beautiful but its interior design is truly breathtaking. Visiting York Minster isn’t free – you’ll have to pay £12.50 for an adult ticket (although it is free for children and York residents or York students). ‘But this is a list of free things to do in York!’, I hear you cry…
The secret to seeing York Minster for free is attending one of the services. Services are free to attend with multiple running throughout the day. This will allow you free entry and a peak inside the beautiful building, not to mention a terrific service in a very special atmosphere. If you’re desperate to see all of York Minster, however, including the tower, you’ll need to book a ticket!
2. Walk the Chocolate Trail
York was one of the early names in the sugar trade and was home to some of the biggest confectioners brands in the world. Both Terry’s and Rountree got their start in the city and the brand Nestle produces their famous Kit Kate, Aero and Milk Bar products at its York factory today.
Visit York have put together a wonderful chocolate trail – a self-guided walk that takes you around the confectionary history of the city. Visit what was once Terry’s Chocolate Shop (where you can still see the old name) and stroll through the beautiful park that was gifted by Rowntree’s as a memorial to the cocoa workers who died during WW1.
You can find the full trail and map here.
3. Explore the Snickelways (One of the Most Unique Free Things to Do in York!)
Unique to the city of York, Snickelways are alleys and lanes that run between York’s streets. These are often hidden in plain site and could be easily missed if you didn’t know what to look for! Many of these Snickelways are ancient and there’s a certain historic magic running through them. Here are some of the best and prettiest Snickelways to look out for when visiting York:
- Mad Alice Lane – named after a woman who was hanged in 1823 for poisoning her husband
- Coffee Yard – the longest Snickelway in York
- Hole in the Wall – where you’ll find stunning views of York Minster
- Lady Peckett’s Yard – one of the prettiest Snickelways in York
4. See the Sights of Museum Gardens
Museum Gardens is without a doubt one of the best free things to do in York. It’s exceptionally pretty and there’s so much to see, including the ruins of St. Mary’s Abbey, which date back to 1294. You can also see the Multanger Tower, a remaining piece of a Roman fort, and explore the ruins of St. Leonard’s Hospital, which dates back to the middle ages.
The gardens are also the perfect place to relax on a sunny day with a good book or a picnic with friends.
5. See Iconic Locomotives at the National Railway Museum
The National Railway Museum is completely free to visit and houses some of the most iconic trains in the world, including Mallard, the world’s fastest steam locomotive. There’s plenty to see here, including a signalling demonstration and the Mallard Experience. Even if trains aren’t really your bag, you’ll likely find it surprisingly enjoyable!
I was dragged here by my train enthusiast fiancé in our first year of dating and enjoyed it almost as much as he did!
Opening hours are Wednesday to Sunday, 10:00-17:00.
6. Take a Free Guided Walking Tour
The Association of Voluntary Guides to the City of York have offered complimentary guided tours of the city since 1951. This is a great free thing to do in York on your first day in the city, as it’ll give you a great lay of the land!
The walking tours take about 2 hours in total and begin at 10:30am and 13:15pm every day except Christmas Day!
Unlike many ‘free’ walking tours, which expect a tip, The AVG explicitly states that there’s no need to offer a tip. The volunteer guides are local experts who love to share the city they call home. You can find out more about the free guided walking tours here.
7. Attend the Viking Festival
York is host to Europe’s largest Viking Festival, which takes place early summer each year (28th May – 1st June in 2022). You’ll find tents in the city centre offering a whole host of different free Viking-themed activities that anyone can attend.
There’s the annual Strongest Viking Competition, including hammer-holding, leg-wrestling, and hand-to-hand combat. As well as storytelling sessions and sword-fighting workshops.
If you’re lucky enough to be visiting York during the festival, make sure to check it out! You can see the full programme of events here.
8. Watch the March to Coppergate
Watch as hundreds of Vikings march through the city to Coppergate. This strange tradition happens once a year during the Viking Festival, where men and women take to the streets dressed as Vikings and parade through the city shouting war cries. It’s certainly a unique experience to York and completely free to watch!
9. Visit York Art Gallery
Looking for some cultural free things to do in York? Why not visit York Art Gallery?
It’s home to the largest ceramic collection in the UK, as well as a number of other beautiful paintings and decorative pieces. General admission is completely free, although you will need to purchase tickets if you’d like entrance to any special exhibits.
10. Visit York Observatory
You can find York Observatory nestled in the York Museum Gardens. It was built in 1832 and 1833 and is the oldest working observatory in Yorkshire. This fascinating building is home to an 1811 clock which is able to tell the time based on the position of the stars. Once upon a time, all other York clocks were set by it and in the 19th century it would have cost sixpence to check a timepiece against the Observatory Clock!
The Observatory is free to visit but is open at odd times, so make sure to check online before visiting!
More Free Things to Do in York
11. Take a Stroll Along the River Ouse
Enjoy the city from a different perspective with a walk along the River Ouse (pronounced ‘ooze’). This is the main river running through York. There’s a lovely circular walk that takes you past a number of the various bridges and is fairly short but sweet! You can find directions for the circular River Ouse York walk here.
12. Walk the City Walls
An absolute must when visiting York is the city walls. This is one of York’s most unique attractions with some parts dating back to 71 AD! As they’re elevated, they offer fantastic views of the city, making them the perfect activity for a sunny day.
It’s a circular walk, so you can start wherever is most convenient for you. The walls open at 8am each day (unless the weather conditions are particularly bad or it’s Christmas Day!) and close at dusk. You can find out exactly when this is at different points in the year on the York Council website.
Along the way you’ll pass the 4 ‘bars’. These are the main gates to the city – Bootham Bar, Monk Bar, Walmgate Bar and Micklegate Bar. Look out for spectacular views of York Minister on your way around.
This is definitely one of the best free things to do in York!
13. See a Street Performance
Like any city that’s popular with tourists, York has plenty of street performers to keep the crowds entertained. You’ll find them in the city centre, often around York Minster or in King’s Square. They’re often excellent at commanding a crowd and are great fun to watch in the sunshine. It’s completely free to watch, although they do, of course, accept tips if you enjoyed their performance.
14. Get Festive at the Christmas Market
If you’re lucky enough to be visiting this history city during the festive period, you have to check out the beautiful Christmas Market. The St. Nicholas Fair celebrates their 30th Anniversary in 2022 with alpine chalets that line Parliament Street and St. Sampson’s Square. Here you can find artisan gifts or warm up with a glass of mulled wine.
York is a beautiful city any time of year but there’s something particularly magical about seeing it festooned in lights for Christmas.
15. Wander Around York’s Edible Wood
You’ll find the Edible Wood located in the York Museum Gardens. It’s full of edible plants (no surprises there!) – from unusual and exotic species to more familiar herbs and fruits.
The wood contains winding paths that are perfect for enjoying the fragrant aromas during the summer months. It’s completely free to visit and is definitely worth a wander when you visit Museum Gardens.
Opening Times: 7.00am – 6.30pm
16. Walk Down the Famous Shambles
Perhaps what York is most famous for is The Shambles – one of the best-preserved medieval shopping streets in Europe. The street is still in use today and is completely free to visit. Walking down it feels as though you’ve stepped back in time, with its cobbled streets and overhanding shop fronts.
The street was once a meat market. As a result, it’s very narrow to keep the meat out of direct sunlight as much as possible. Nowadays you’ll find local boutiques and cafes (not a butcher’s in sight!).
The Shambles is often referred to as J. K. Rowling’s inspiration for Diagon Alley. The author has confirmed that this isn’t strictly true but it’s easy to see how the rumour began. The higgledy piggledy nature of the street certainly has a magical feel!
17. Relax at Dean’s Park
York is blessed with a number of beautiful outdoor spaces to explore and Dean’s Park is one of the best. This lovely park has fantastic views of the City Walls, as well as York Minster. It’s the perfect place to relax with a picnic or just take in the views.
Look out for the 12th century stone archways, which are believed to be part of a cloister from the Old Palace!
More Free Things to Do in York
18. Window Shop at Shambles Market
This outdoor market is a local favourite and won ‘Best Outdoor Market’ in 2022. With more than 70 stalls, it’s a fun place to peruse. Here you’ll find flowers, crafts, vintage clothing, gifts, and crafts. Of course, it’s free to enter the market and look around. I can’t promise that something delicious won’t entice you into spending a few pounds though!
19. Walk the York Cat Trail
This trail around the city is one of the most unique ways to see York!
In 1920, Sir Stephen Aitcheson placed two cat sculptures on a building he owned (possibly to scare away mice!). Others copied him and more cat sculptures started appearing in the city. In 1979 a local architect begun to place them on buildings he designed.
There’s now a trail around York, where you can spot these cats. You’ll also see many of the city’s main tourist attractions, including Clifford’s Tower, The Shambles, and York Minster. This weird and whacky activity is a surprisingly fun free thing to do in York!
20. Enjoy Rowntree Park
There’s plenty to do in this pretty park. And it’s completely free to visit. Here you’ll find an ornamental lake with ducks and geese, a skate park, a children’s play area, and table tennis tables. It’s a great option for families or anyone traveling with kids!
The park was gifted to the city by Rowntree & Co in 1921 as a memorial to all the Cocoa Works staff who died during World War One.
21. See Where Harry Potter Was Filmed
Did you know that York holds one of the Harry Potter filming locations?
In fact, you might have already seen it when you arrived in the city! York Train Station was filmed as King’s Cross in the first movie. You might recognise the bridge as the one that Hagrid and Harry walk over together!
22. Do the York Selfie Trail
If you’d prefer a self-guided tour of the city, make sure to check out the York Selfie Trail. Visit York have put together a trail of all the most iconic spots in the city. You can find a map, as well as information about each spot, here.
Stops on the trail include:
- Clifford’s Tower
- Jorvik Centre
- York Minster
- St. Mary’s Abbey
- City Walls
- And more!
Planning Your Trip to York
If you’re planning on visiting York from London, you’re in luck! It’s only 2 hours away by train, making it an easy weekend break. The train station also has links to a number of other cities across the UK. Make sure to check Trainline for more information.
York is relatively small city, so if you’re accommodation is central, you should be able to walk for the most part. Otherwise there’s a great matrix of bus routes. You can find timetables here.
Accommodation in York
Luxury: The Grand
The Grand is the only 5 star hotel in York. Housed in the former headquarters of the North Eastern Railway, it’s the perfect spot for a luxury experience. I’ve personally stayed at The Grand and couldn’t recommend it more!
Mid: Hotel Indigo
Hotel Indigo is the perfect stay for those who want a boutique hotel experience without the hefty price tag. The rooms are lovely and it’s just a short walk from the city centre.
Each of these hostels are cheap and cheerful with an excellent central spot in the city. They’re perfect for exploring the city on a budget.