The historic city of York is a fantastic destination for a family trip whatever the age of your children.
There are so many things to do in York with kids and adults will enjoy them just as much as the kids!
And better still, as York is a small, compact city, nearly all of the principal sights can be visited on foot!
York is a fascinating city with a diverse and rich cultural heritage. You can visit buildings and ruins from the Roman, Viking, Medieval, Georgian and Victorian eras all in one day!
So where should you start?
What To do In York With Kids
At the heart of the city and dominating the skyline of York is the stunning York Minster. Under city law, no building within the city walls can be taller than York Minster so you won’t have difficulty in finding it!
York Minster is a fantastic place to visit with young children and families are made to feel very welcome.
Children can borrow ‘Little Explorer’ backpacks which include age appropriate trails and treasure hunts plus thoughtful items such as a mirror for viewing the ceilings, binoculars, map and a compass.
Plus, on most Saturdays during the year there are free tours of the Minster specifically for children starting from the aptly named Childrens Chapel.
There is a toilet and cafe on site.
Built between the 12th and 15th Century, this Gothic cathedral is famous for its ornate, decorated nave and impressive stained glass windows. Don’t miss the enormous Great East Window which is the largest expanse of stained glass in the world.
Visit the beautifully decorated, multi sided Chapter House with its designated seats for the bishops of the region. During the school holidays, creative activities specifically for kids are held here. No advance booking is necessary. Check the York Minster website for details of upcoming events.
Go underground to the eerie, atmospheric Crypt and the Undercroft museum. See and touch archeological artefacts from the Roman and Viking eras.
If you have a head for heights (and the weather is good!) you can climb the 275 steps of the central tower for an incredible birds eye view of York. It is a challenging climb and only for children aged 8+.
Entry to the Minster is £11 for adults but up to four children under 16 enter free with each paying adult. It is not cheap but you could easily spend at least half a day on site and all the fees go to the expensive upkeep of this extraordinary building.
You are welcome to attend any service for free but the cathedral will not be accessible for sightseeing during services. It is worth attending a service to hear the incredible Minster organ and choir.
Don’t forget to walk around the whole exterior of the Minster for picture perfect views. Pretty Deans Park behind the Minster gives you great views of the cathedral and a chance for small legs to run off excess energy.
Walk Yorks City Walls
See York from a different perspective by walking the city’s historic, medieval walls. The two miles long walls are the longest city walls in England and provide fantastic views of the city.
The walls are free to walk and can be accessed from any of the four fortified mediaeval gateways called ‘bars’. Bootham Bar entrance is the closest to York Minster. Bootham Bar towers have an exhibition about King Richard the Third whilst Micklegate Bar tower has a museum about King Henry the Seventh.
A complete circuit of the walls takes around two hours but there are several places to exit en route if you wish to. Some sections of the wall are very quiet and peaceful. The walls are not fully enclosed with railings so keep young children close. The walls are buggy friendly though there are several steps en route.
However, access to the walls at all the Bars is by very steep, narrow stairs so buggies will need to be carried at these points. With so many wonderful views to look at, it is easy to forget to watch your feet and I have seen several people stumble up or down steps.
For the best views, walk in a clockwise direction and don’t miss the most scenic section between Bootham Bar and Monk Bar which winds behind the Minster. Don’t let the height and thought of the walls put you off walking them, they are unique.
The Shambles is a short, cobbled shopping street in the centre of York famous for its lopsided, cramped and overhanging buildings. It is regularly voted one of the best streets in Britain.
The dark, atmospheric Shambles would not look out of place in a theme park arcade and is said to be the inspiration for Diagon Alley in the Harry Potter series!
In medieval times, the Shambles was the location for the butchers shops of the city. Look carefully and you can still see the meat hooks hanging above the shop front ledges where the raw meat was once displayed.
Visit The Shambles early as it gets very busy with visitors. It is doable with a buggy though it will be bumpy!
There are lots of cafes to stop for a drink or pop behind The Shambles into Newgate Market for its varied shopping stalls and catering.
Jorvik Viking Centre
Jorvik is one of York’s most popular tourist attractions. It houses Viking era artefacts found during a four year dig on this site which were discovered during the construction of the adjacent shopping centre.
You can see the remains of Viking streets and homes beneath the glass floor of the museum and a range of remarkably well preserved artefacts explaining how the Vikings lived and died in York.
The highlight of the museum is a historical ‘cab’ ride through a life size Viking settlement which evokes the sights, sounds and smells of the Viking era. Children will love the descriptions of how the Vikings went to the toilet!
The museum is relatively small and will only take around one hour to tour. Visit early or late to avoid the long queues that form daily.
Entry is £12 for adults, £8 for children. Family tickets are available and can be booked in advance online.
DIG is a small, archeology themed museum aimed at younger children, located in the lovely St Saviours Church.
Children can have a go at sorting and examining artefacts with microscopes and magnifying glasses. They can also pretend to be archeologists and have a dig for themsleves in one of four specially constructed pits.
Advance tickets are £7 for adults and £6.50 for children.
If you are considering visiting both DIG and Jorvik, you could buy the Passport ticket. For £20 for adults and £13 for children, you get access to Jorvik, Dig, Barley Hall, and the two ‘Walls Attractions’ the Richard The Third and the Henry The Seventh Experiences.
National Railway Museum
The NRM is probably the favourite museum of most York families.
There are two huge halls crammed with gleaming train engines and carriages of every size and colour. There are daily, free science shows and year round activities for kids.
We love visiting as a family and despite going at least twice a year there is always something new to see!
Marvel at a section of the Channel Tunnel and the nosecone of a Eurostar, sit back and enjoy the comfort of an actual Shinkansen carriage and admire the luxury of the Royal train carriages. Stevensons iconic ‘The Rocket’ is here.
Go onto the balcony outside to wave at the trains entering and departing the York’s beautiful Victorian railway station. Watch the engineers and restorers at work in the workshop. Wander around the warehouse packed with chairs, lights, signals and all other things train!
There is a cafe and restaurant on site, a small playground and the chance to ride on a steam train (£4) or a miniature railway (£3).
It is an excellent, educational museum and you could easily spend one whole day here. And the best part? It is free to enter – though donations are appreciated!
The NRM is located behind York railway station and takes around 15 minutes to walk from York Minster.
Alternatively, you can catch the road train every 30 minutes from outside York Minster which brings you directly to the NRM (Adults £3 each way, children £2).
The Yorkshire Museum
Situated on the high ground of the lovely Museum Gardens, The Yorkshire Museum is a five minute walk from York Minster. Packed with hands on and interactive exhibits about Yorks Roman and Viking heritage, there is also an excellent section on Yorks Jurassic history.
There are regular events for children and families and you can download age appropriate trails from the website in advance of your visit.
Tickets are £7.50 for adults and up to four children under 16 go free with a paying adult.
York Castle Museum
York Castle Museum is my favourite museum in York.
Situated opposite Cliffords Tower, the imposing Castle Museum charts York through the ages.
It is famous for its full size replica of a Victorian Street. You can enter the shops in this street, the school, police station and the pharmacy where actors explain what life was like in Victorian York.
There is an excellent section on ‘living rooms’ through the ages plus a series of rooms about the history of toys which will have all adults reminiscing about their childhood days!
York Castle Museum was once the courthouse and prison for York and you can visit the cell where the infamous highwayman Dick Turpin was imprisoned.
The creative use of hologram actors tell you about the harsh lives of individual prisoners. Don’t miss the information board at the end of the cells which tells you what actually happened to the ‘people’ you met in the prison.
Plus, there is an informative and sobering section on World War One and Two.
The museum is brilliantly presented with a variety of hands on and interactive exhibits which will engage old and young alike.
Admission is £11 for adults and up to four children go free with each paying adult.
York Art Gallery
With a priceless art and ceramics collection spanning over 500 years, York Art Gallery may not immediately strike you as a child friendly attraction. But the York Museums Trust has worked hard to make this beautiful, recently rennovated building accessible to families.
There are family friendly activities, events and workshops throughout the year and some exhibits are helpfully labeled ‘just look’ or ‘hands on’ so little ones know what they can touch and what they cannot.
There are thoughtful touches such as sketchbooks and drawing materials dotted throughout the museum for children to use.
Plus, during the school holidays, the fantastic studio is open for painting, collage and clay activities (pre book in advance).
Entry is £7.50 for adults with up to four paying children free with each paying adult.
If you are planning to visit the Yorkshire and Castle Museums as well as York Art Gallery, consider purchasing the Yorkshire Museum Trust Card or the YMT. It will be cheaper than paying three separate entrance fees. Adults cost £22 for the three attractions, children under 17 are free.
Clifford’s Tower is the remnants of a Norman castle or ‘keep’ on a small mound opposite York Castle Museum.
Steep steps lead up to the English Heritage owned open keep where exhibits explain how the tower was constructed and how it was used. A further set of very narrow, winding steps lead up to the parapet for a fantastic – if windy! – 360 degree view of York.
Children will enjoy the medieval games available to play on the floor of the keep. You do not need long to visit this York attraction and it is not buggy friendly due to the very steep steps to the entrance and the steps to get to the parapet.
Admission cost £5 for adults, £3.20 for children.
York Chocolate Story
York has a long history of chocolate making and was once home to three different chocolate factories. There is still one chocolate factory operating in York and on a ‘good’ day you can smell the melting chocolate!
York’s long association with chocolate making is brilliantly explained and presented in the York Chocolate Story, just around the corner from The Shambles.
An interesting tour (with occasional chocolate freebies!) about the history of chocolate and chocolate making in York culminates in the chance to make your own delicious chocolate lollipop.
Entry costs £12.95 for adults and £10.50 for children. Family tickets are available.
The York Dungeons
The York Dungeons is not recommended for children under 8 or the faint hearted! A 75 minute tour consists of ten live shows. Real actors humorously describe and enact Yorks terrifying and gruesome history. With sudden loud noises in the dark interior and lots of suprises, you need to get your screams ready.
Advance tickets are the cheapest option at £13 per adult.
Historic Houses in York
Historic houses may not be on many family ‘must do’ list of York attractions but the varied houses provide a fascinating and educational insight into life in the past.
The beautiful timber framed medieval Barley Hall has a banqueting room complete with replica food and crockery.
The gorgeous Georgian Fairfax House has resplendent bedrooms and living rooms showing affluent life in the Georgian era.
The medieval Treasurer’s House tucked behind York Minster is a complete contrast to the opulence of Fairfax House. Watch out for the ghosts in the cellars…
The residence of the Lord Mayor Of York for over 800 years, The Mansion House, looms over St Helens Square in the centre of York. Admire the collections of silverware, ceramics and ceremonial items as well as fully furnished rooms. Don’t miss the excellent kitchen downstairs.
The historic houses have varied day and seasonal opening times so check their websites before visiting.
Parks and Playgrounds in York
Museum Gardens is a must for families.
The large, city centre park is ideal for a picnic and a runaround and it is very popular with locals.
In addition to The Yorkshire Museum, there is a small observatory, the photogenic ruins of St Mary’s Abbey, and the black and white 15th Century Tudor building, the Hospitium.
Enjoy the wide open spaces, pretty flower beds and the fully enclosed storytelling circle. The squirrels here are not shy in their search for food!
Rowntrees Park is a 15 minute walk from the city centre alongside the River Ouse.
It is ideal for ball games, picnics, bike riding and joggers and is always busy! There are two playgrounds, a lake, flower beds, bandstand, tennis courts and a skateboard track. There is also a welcoming ‘reading’ cafe and public toilets. There are free events here throughout the year.
Hidden behind York Minster is small but pretty Deans Park, very popular with city centre workers.
The River Ouse
The River Ouse which flows through York is lined with a paved riverbank popular with joggers, cyclists and walkers.
Stroll along the Ouse, watch the rowers and enjoy a delicious ice cream from the floating Two Hoots ice cream boat. The river bank is not fenced and is very steep so keep small children close.
Take a short, one hour day or evening cruise along the river on an open decked sightseeing boat with City Cruises. Check their website for seasonal timings.
You can also hire and self drive your own Red Boat for up to 8 people. Prices start at £30 for one hour.
York is a very compact, walkable city but should you wish to, you can opt for an open top bus tour or a hop on/hop off bus tour around the city. These buses do not go inside the city walls however.
There are guided free walking tours daily starting from outside York Art Gallery.
You could also join an after dark ghost tour around York. These entertaining two hour walking tours bring the history of York to life with engaging (and often gruesome stories) of how people lived and died.
If you have had enough walking for the day, you could opt for a ghost bus tour on a black traditional routemaster bus (not suitable for children under 5).
York Family Friendly Festivals and Events
Wrap up warm for the ice sculpture trail in February and watch talented sculptors create on the spot carvings.
Enjoy the week long Viking Festival in February which attracts ‘tribes’ from all over Europe. Have a go at sword fighting or watch the ‘best beard’ competition. Don’t miss the noisy parade of tribes through the city centre.
Learn about York’s Roman era by visiting the living history camp at the Eboracum Roman Festival in June.
There is also the excellent Festival of Ideas in June or the family friendly shows of The Great Yorkshire Fringe in July. Pre book tickets for both festivals well in advance.
Tips For Visiting York With Kids
- Leave your car behind and walk around the city. It is small and compact. Free city centre parking is non existent and car parks are expensive.
- Access the city centre by bus or by train. York is just two hours from London or Edinburgh by train. York railway station is a short ten minute walk from the city centre. Or use a Park and Ride bus service. There are four at each compass point in York and up to three children travel for free with each paying adult
- Take advantage of the numerous bakery shops in York and make yourself a picnic to enjoy on the street or in Museum Gardens or Deans Park. Try a Fat Rascal (a cherry and currant bun) or Yorkshire Parkin (a spicy ginger cake). Or for something hot and filling, indulge in a take away ‘Yorkshire Pudding Roast Dinner Wrap’ from the York Roast Company. It is what it says it is – a full roast dinner wrapped like a fajita in a giant yorkshire pudding.
- York is packed with places to eat. From small independent cafes to high end restaurants such as The Ivy and the iconic Bettys Tea Rooms. Restaurants and pubs are family friendly with child menus and highchairs. There are 365 pubs in York so you will be spolit for choice! Older buildings will have steps and stairs so may not be buggy friendly. For eating out check discount sites such as Groupon which often have meal deals for York city centre locations.
- Check the weather before heading out. Rainy days will be museum days! There are also two city centre cinemas (Picturehouse and Reel) which offer significantly discounted children’s movies on Saturday mornings).
- There are very few public toilets in York. Head to department stores such as Marks and Spencer or Fenwicks for clean, free toilets.
- York city centre is pedestrianised and very buggy friendly – though the historic Shambles will be a bumpy ride.
- Don’t forget to look up when walking around York. There is so much to see on the ground (and watch out for the uneven cobbles) but York is full of wonderful, varied architecture. Download a Cat Trail and see if you can spot the sculptures of cats around the city.
- Extend your stay! There are so many great things to do near York. From iconic historic houses such as Castle Howard, to the valleys and waterfalls of the Yorkshire Dales, to the barren landscapes of the wild Yorkshire Moors, to the jurassic Yorkshire coast with famous seaside towns such as Scarborough and Whitby.
Have you visited York? If you have any other tips for what to do in York with kids I would love to hear from you!