City Delights: 10 Free Things to do in York on Your Weekend Visit

Posted on 8th Mar 2022. In , , ,


York is one of the UK most beautiful cities to steal away to for a weekend visit. Thanks to 2000 years of history, first as a Roman and then a Viking settlement, it’s a city with layer upon layer of pre-industrial sights, sounds, and structures to marvel at.

These idiosyncratic charms make it a mecca for history buffs, ghost hunters and students. Of course, there’s a healthy helping of modern titbits, too (including elegant tearooms, posh restaurants, top-notch bars and cultural must-visits); so, if you’re on a girls’ weekend, a solo trip or you fancy York for a hen weekend, it won’t disappoint.

The city has so much going on, in fact, that it’s picked up a huge swag of tourism gongs over the years: best destination, best small city, most beautiful, most friendly, safest place to visit – in the world – for a short break; you name, York has silverware for it.

Getting to York is easy: it’s only 2 hours from London by train and once you’re in the city, you can ditch the car because it’s small enough to explore on foot. From the quirky to the curious, the modern to the historic these are the best free things to do in York on a weekend break.



1. Visit The Edible Wood at York Museum Gardens

With small, light-filled glades and serpentine paths for meandering on, The Edible Wood at York Museum Gardens is a must-visit when looking for free things to do in the city. Planted in July 2015, it features a wonderful array of trees, shrubs, herbaceous plants and bulbs

that have an edible component. There are unexpected and curious flavours, such as pineapple guave and medlar fruit (popular in Elizabethan times), alongside better-known tastes like redcurrants, rhubarb, sea kale, and jerusalem artichokes). Explore to your heart’s content but please don’t eat the produce – some plants need to be cooked before they can be eaten, others have poisonous parts.

Address: Museum St, York YO1 7FR

Phone number: 01904 687687

Website: Edible Wood



2. Cycle York’s Scale Model of the Solar System 

This scale model of the Solar System was devised by the clever folk at Astrocampus at the University of York. It spreads out along 6.4 miles of the old York East Coast main-line railway and, along it, you will find scale models of all the planets in our solar system, plus models of the Cassini and Voyager spacecraft. The track is a wonderful nature reserve with many different species of trees along the way, and an abundance of wildlife to see and hear.

There are several good pubs not far from the track, too, most of which serve good food – an extra bonus. Start the route from the Sun (500 meters from Askham Bar Park and Ride) and finish it at Pluto (not far from two pubs worth a pit stop, The Greyhound and the Hare & Hounds). You can download a free map here.

Address: Askham Bar Park and Ride, York YO24 1LWR

Phone number: 01904 322 249

Website: Astrocampus York



3. Soak up the vibrant, bohemian spirit of SPARK:York

SPARK:York is a vibrant outdoor community space, home to some of York’s most exciting food, retail, arts and social enterprise start-ups. Made up of 23 shipping containers over two floors, it opened in 2018 on a site that had been unused and derelict for 20 years.

Head along from 12pm, six days a week from Tuesday to Sunday, just to mooch about soaking up the bohemian vibe. You’ll be in good company amongst some of the freshest independent traders in York, innovative entrepreneurs and you may even stumble across an event or two. From open air cinema to art markets it’s a lively place with a lot happening throughout the year.

Address: 7-21 Piccadilly, York YO1 9PB

Phone number: 01904 217555

Website: SPARK:York



4. Visit York Minster – the largest gothic cathedral in Northern Europe

With three muscular towers almost touching heaven itself, York Minster is an eye-watering sight to behold. It took around 250 years to finish, and is considered today to be one of the greatest cathedrals in the world. Climbing up the Central Tower’s 257 steps takes you to the highest point in the city and brings blissful panoramic views.

While entrance to the cathedral is free to York residents and York students, weekenders from outside York do have to pay for admission. Our advice? To keep it free attend one of the Minster services or admire this beautiful gothic structure from outside.

Address: Deangate, York YO1 7HH

Phone number: 01904 557200

Website: York Minster



5. Strike it lucky following the famous York Cat Trail

Scattered on eaves, rooftops, and chimneys, there are at least 23 cat status all around the old city of York. The original pair dates roughly to c.1900 and it is said that that they were put there by Sir Stephen Aitcheson to scare away rats and mice (although he may just have thought they would simply be eye-catching and attractive).

Other building owners followed suit and soon York’s ‘lucky cats’ became quite the tourist activity.  Pick up a trail map from the York Lucky Cat shop on the Shambles and head out around the city to see them. It’s bit of light entertainment and a novel new way to discover the city.

Address: 34 Shambles, City Centre, York, YO1 7LX

Website: York Luck Cat Shop



6. Amble the Shambles – one of the best medieval streets in Britain

The Shambles won Google Street View’s award for the Most Picturesque Street, and it’s no surprise why: thick timber-fronted buildings over-hanging as they’ve done for over 500 years and a narrow, cobbled road runs through its heart. It is one of Europe’s best-preserved medieval streets, the supposed inspiration for Diagon Alley in Harry Potter and in some places, it’s possible to touch both sides of the street at the same time.

Once a spot housing the butchers of York, today The Shambles is home to a large variety of quirky independent shops and cafés (and Potter-themed shops). As long as you resist the temptation to buy anything, it’s one of the best free things to do in York.

Address: Shambles, York YO1 7LX



7. Marvel at the masterpieces in York Art Gallery


York Art Gallery’s collection of paintings spans more than 600 years – works range from 14th century Italian panels and 17th century Dutch masterpieces to Victorian narrative paintings and 20th century works by LS Lowry and David Hockney. The building which houses the gallery is as impressive as the works themselves: it opened its doors to the public in 1879, inspired by the Great Exhibition in London of 1851, and in 1892 it became the City Art Gallery.

Open Weds – Sundays, 11am – 4pm, the York Art Gallery is free to visit, although charges do apply for any special exhibitions or if you can’t resist the coffee and cake in the gallery’s café, Sketch. Find the York Art Gallery opposite Bootham Bar and the entrance to the City Walls.

Address: Exhibition Square, York YO1 7EW

Phone number: 01904 687687

Website: York Art Gallery



8. Walk York City Walls

It is a wonder that York’s ancient city walls have survived considering their age and the bloody history that this city has endured. But survived they have thanks generations of safeguarding – so a walk around them is a must-visit free thing to do whilst weekending in York.

The medieval City Walls (also known as the Bar Walls) run 3.4km (2 miles) around the historic city. They are the longest town walls in England and were built mainly in the 13th century using magnesian limestone and set on earthen ramparts – a unique feature for English construction at the time.

Take a stroll around the walls for a glorious elevated walk around the city using this free City Walls Trail ( The accompanying moats have largely disappeared but the slopes of the ramparts are well known for a bloomin’ gorgeous display of daffodils in March and April.

Along the way, there are four gatehouses, also known as ‘bars’, that act as checkpoints for you to stop off at should your dogs start barking: Walmgate, Bootham, Micklegate and Monkgate. Also worth a visit if you stop off at Monkgate is the Richard III Experience.

It’s not free unless you’ve bought a York Pass before you visit the city – which we recommend if you’re staying for a long weekend or midweeker. The York Pass is a sightseeing pass that gets you exclusive discounts, money-off and free entry into many York attractions.

Should you want to stretch your legs further, there are several different organizations that run free walking tours in York. The Association of Voluntary Guides run tours that start outside York Art Gallery in Exhibition Square (daily at 10:15am and 1:15pm).

Address: York YO1 7LJ

Website: York Walls



9. Spot peregrines falcons in the Treasure’s House Gardens


Next door to York Minster, you’ll find the Treasurer’s House, which up until 1547 was home of the Treasurer’s of York Minster. In 1897, Frank Green (the grandson of a wealthy industrialist) bought the buildings and created his version of a historic house, including landscaping the gardens to be fit for a gentleman.

Although it’s not free to enter the Treasurer’s House you can take a look around the stunning gardens which have won the gold award for Yorkshire in Bloom for six consecutive years. Tarry a while among the bees and butterflies in the garden and you might also see the Peregrine falcons who use York Minster as their nesting spot.

If you’d like to add a ghostly twist to your visit (York is, after all, one of the UK’s most haunted cities), Join the free cellar tour in Treasurer’s House. It was here in 1953 that plumber, Harry Martindale, had one of the most famous ghost encounters of all time: an army of Roman soldiers marching through the cellar he was working in. Once again, your York Pass gets you free entry in The Treasurer’s House.

Address: Minster Yard, York YO1 7JL



10. Cruise the Ouse on a river walk


York’s River Ouse (pronounced “ooze” as in “booze”) has been used for commercial navigation since the time of the Romans. Walking alongside it gives you a chance to see the many splendid bridges that cross the river from a whole new perspective – so it’s definitely one of the best free things to do in York.

There are a number of circular walks you can do, but we like the circular walk that starts and finishes on the river next to All Saints Church and the bus station. Along this route, you’ll see the splendid Rowntree Park, York Millennium Bridge, Tower Gardens and York Castle. If you fancy hopping aboard a River Ouse cruise, City River Cruises York offer a number of trips including an afternoon tea cruise.

Address: All Saints Church, North St, York YO1 6JD

Website: York River Walk


Where to stay in York:

TOFY Luxury Cottages, Sand Hutton

Artfully created by former mental health specialist, Karen, TOFY luxury cottages are two escapes just outside of York that come with incredible bolt-on experiences and concierge service.

Discover more 

luxury stays in york

Where to stay near York:

Acorn Glade Glamping, Melbourne

Acorn Glade glamping near York is a storybook site with free-roaming alpacas and wallabies! Ideal for group get-togethers. Sleeps 2. Eco-friendly.

Discover more 


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Claire Robinson Founder of Weekend Candy
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