Things to do in York for free

Must-see free York sights

York is a pretty city in the north which attracts endless visitors. And there’s no wonder why! With its brilliant galleries, impressive architecture and fantastic museums, along with many free attractions, York doesn’t disappoint.

  1. Wander around the pretty Roman walls of York
  2. Enter the fantastic York Art Gallery
  3. Find Tudor buildings in York
  4. Visit York’s most famous street
  5. Discover the National Railway Museum in York
  6. Admire the fantastic views of Clifford Tower

You’ll never be stuck for what to do in York for free. From exploring the picturesque streets of the town to finding Tudor buildings, there’s plenty to keep you going. If you’re looking to head up north to see the town for yourself, take a look at our fantastic selection of York holidays.

In collaboration with
Rough Guides

1. Wander around the pretty Roman walls of York

A wander around the centre of York is a rewarding experience due its magnificent surrounding walls. The city’s superb walls date mainly from the fourteenth century, though fragments of Norman work survive, particularly in the gates (known as “bars”), and the northern sections still follow the line of the Roman ramparts. Monk Bar is as good a point of access as any, tallest of the city’s four main gates and host to the small Richard III Experience (priced ticket). For just a taste of the walls’ best section - with great views of the minster and acres of idyllic looking gardens - take the ten-minute stroll west from Monk Bar to Exhibition Square and Bootham Bar, the only gate on the site of a Roman gateway and marking the traditional northern entrance to the city. A stroll round the walls’ entire two-and-a-half-mile length will also take you past the southwestern Micklegate Bar, long considered the most important of the gates since it marked the start of the road to London; it’s now home to the Henry VII Experience, (priced ticket).

Best for: Going back in time in York

While you’re there: For more outdoor activities head to River Ouse and watch the boats trickle down the river.

2. Enter the fantastic York Art Gallery

York Art Gallery houses an impressive collection of early Italian, British and northern European paintings, some of which are on display in the Burton Gallery. The gallery’s extensive renovations made space for its notable British studio ceramics collection, which now has a permanent home in two of the first-floor state-of-the-art exhibition spaces. The ground floor hosts a year-round series of special exhibitions and events and a café. A second entrance leads directly from the Museum Gardens. You have to pay to enter the York Art Gallery but the gardens are completely free. The Museum Gardens are a botanical garden with a grand selection of trees and plants on display. It’s a wonderful way to spend an afternoon, and one of the best free things to do in York to enjoy the outdoors.

Best for: Enjoying the outdoors

While you’re there: For more outdoor fun, pack a picnic and head to the award-winning Rowntree Park.

3. Find Tudor buildings in York

One of the best things to do in York is to simply wander its impressive centre. One of York’s most picturesque streets, Stonegate is as ancient as the city itself. Originally the Via Praetoria of Roman York, it’s now paved with thick flags of York stone, which were once carried along here to build the minster (hence the name). The Tudor buildings that line it retain their considerable charm - Ye Olde Starre Inne at no. 40, one of York’s original inns, is on every tourist itinerary (you can’t miss the sign straddling the street.

Best for: The prettiest street in York

While you’re there: For an alternative activity, why not attend York’s Food & Drink Festival? It's a free entry!

4. Visit York’s most famous street

York’s most famous street, and one which appears regularly on its promotional brochures, The Shambles could be taken as the epitome of the medieval city. Almost impossibly narrow and lined with perilously leaning timber-framed houses, it was the home of York’s butchers (the word “shambles” derives from the Old English for slaughterhouse) - old meat hooks still adorn the odd house. Three narrow alleyways lead to Shambles Market, revamped from the former Newgate Market and is open daily from 7am with stalls selling everything from organic foods to books, from fish to fashion. It’s a great place to wander around.

Best for: The most well-known street in York

While you’re there: Don’t forget to have a look at York Minster - it’s the biggest medieval church in England.

5. Discover the National Railway Museum in York

The National Railway Museum is one of the best railway museums in the world. It’s open every day and exhibits includes a replica of Stephenson’s Rocket, which has been described as Queen Victoria’s favourite travelling “home”, the famous Eurostar and the only “bullet train” outside Japan. Visitors can also marvel at Mallard - the fastest steam train on the planet. Exploring this museum is definitely one of the best free things to do in York.

Best for: Museum

While you’re there: Kids will love exploring Jorvik Centre to learn more about this Viking city.

6. Admire the fantastic views of Clifford Tower

There’s precious little left of York Castle, one of two established by William the Conqueror. Only the perilously leaning Clifford’s Tower remains, a stark stone keep built between 1245 and 1262 to replace the original wooden keep burned down in 1190 AD when it was being used as a refuge by hundreds of Jews trying to escape anti-Semitic riots in the city. You have to pay to go up the tower itself, but you can of course admire the outdoors for free!

Best for: Views

While you’re there: When you get to the top of the hill to reach the tower, enjoy sprawling views of York below.

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