The best free things to do in York, ranked!

It’s no secret that York is the UK’s favourite city, winning award after award in recent years. However, it does have a bit of a reputation as being off limits if you’re on a budget. We’re here to bust that myth once and for all. Scratch beneath the surface and venture beyond the guidebooks and you’ll find a wealth of free things to do.

So join us in top things to do in York on a shoestring, ranked!

1. Walk the walls

Stretching all of 3.5km, a walk along the longest town walls in England is an hour well spent. In that time you’ll take in some of the best evaluated views of York as well as countless cannon and arrow slits to give an indication of its former defensive duties.

The nearest entry point to The Fort is Bootham Bar by York Art Gallery. Don’t let the name confuse you – the word ‘bar’ has its origins in the bars of the gate that act as control points and toll booths. The four bars (the others being Walmgate Bar, Micklegate Bar and Monk Bar) even used to hold prisoners and display the severed heads of traitors. Thankfully the walls are far more inviting today and are open to walk on toll-free from 8am to dusk daily.

2. York’s many free festivals

The unofficial ‘City of Festivals’ has free events galore for all the family. There’s brain food and design inspiration for inquisitive minds; 2000 years of colourful past for the history buffs; the best tastes and tipples from Yorkshire and beyond; LOLs from the nation’s best up-and-coming comedians and a parade of hot air balloons and digital arts lighting up the skies. Check out our run down of York’s top festivals.

3. Window shopping on The Shambles

The best-preserved and arguably most-picturesque medieval street in the world gets its name as a former open-air slaughterhouse and the bloody shelves that would showcase their meat.

Since then it’s been home to an electric array of independent shops, including a recent obsession with all things Harry Potter after it was claimed to be inspiration for Diagon Alley. Fight your way through the hoards of Hogwart fans and you’ll find hidden gems such as The York Ghost Merchants, Hebden Tea Company, Zatchels, The Nutcracker Christmas Shop and Paperesque. A hop, skip and a jump away is the Shambles street food market and the irresistible smells of the famously good Shambles Kitchen.

4. A picnic in Museum gardens

If there’s one thing York does well its parks. Minster Gardens, The Homestead, Rowntrees Park, Museum Gardens are all within walking distance of the city centre and perfect for a picnic on a nice day. If we have to choose a favourite it’s Museum Gardens – enter via The Artists Garden, situated within the original abbey walls at the rear of York Art Gallery, before taking in the stunning surroundings of the Medieval ruins of St. Mary’s Abbey, The Hospitium, York Observatory, The Yorkshire Museum and a cheeky drink on The Star Inn the City’s sun trap of a terrace.

Top tip: Henshelwoods deli on the market will make you up a picnic to go if you ask nicely!

5. River walks

York is blessed with two rivers: the Ouse and Foss. The former offers a picturerequse route for runners and walkers in either direction of the city centre. Walking from Clifton Bridge to Millennium Bridge along the river bank will give you plenty of photo opportunities or you could take the helm on board a red boat, with one-hour hire for up to 8 people costing from £30.

6. National Railway Museum

Attracting over 800,000 visitors a year and a former European Museum of the Year, NRM’s display of 100 locomotives are flanked by digital installations, an open maintenance gallery, railway artefact displays and a busy learning programme. Immerse yourself in the past, present and future of railway innovation and marvel in the world’s largest railway collection under one roof. Open daily 10am to 6pm, with donations voluntary.

7. York’s snickelways

Known as alleyways to you and I, snickelways are unique to York. Offering all manner of shortcuts through the city’s busiest streets, these maze of medieval lanes and alleys enable you to travel back in time and beat the crowds. Take your own tour using this handy guide from Visit York or hook up with one of York’s many ghost walks to hear tales of their colourful history.

8. York Cat Trail

Another York curiosity, the Cat Trail is a fun twist on many of our historic sights and streets, including King’s Square, Clifford’s Tower, Shambles and York Minster.

Pick up a trail leaflet at The Cat Gallery shop on Low Petergate and take yourself on a self-guided tour of the city. But, “Why York?” you might ask. The history of the lucky cats on York’s building can be tracked back to the 1920s, when Sir Stephen Aitcheson placed two on a building that he owned in Low Ousegate. Other residents followed suit and eagle-eyed tourists would spot them on their travels.

9. Dick Turpin’s grave

The discrete little cemetery opposite St George’s Church off Walmgate is where the famous highwayman, Dick Turpin, lies after his execution at the York Tyburn on April 7th 1739.

Taking residence at Welton in the Wolds at the peak of his notoriety, Turpin posed as John Palmer before he was caught in the act and arrested. It was only then his true identity was discovered and he was sentenced to hanging at York racecourse. A huge crowd turned out to witness Turpin in the flesh and the scene of his burial is said to be haunted by a ghostly figure on horseback from time to time.

10. Listening to York’s buskers

York’s buskers and street performers are amongst the best the country. These unexpected joys pop up on every corner to surprise and delight tourists, be it with dulcet tones, magic balls and daredevil stunts, a cappella opera or one-of-a-kind pipe percussion sets. York has it all! Performances are free but all donations are gratefully received.

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