York can seem like an expensive city to visit as the accommodation options are pricey, taxis are astronomically costly and the food isn’t cheap, either. But it’s possible to visit York on backpacker money if you plan carefully and don’t splash out on everything you see.
If you’re looking for some free things to mix into your itinerary, or you want to visit York on a budget, look no further than these 10 free things to do in York. I’ve suggested an order to do them in, based on what each thing is near.
Walk the walls:
This is the number one free thing to do in York. The walls are open most of the year (except if the city is very flooded or if it’s too icy then the walls are closed for safety) and you can do one section or all of them.
York is a walled city but some parts of the walls have been lost to time and are not walkable. The current walls made out of the characteristic yellow bricks were built in medieval times, but they were mostly built on top of existing walls from the Roman period. The Roman walls were shorter and narrower.
Note: In many areas, the back of the wall has no safety guard to stop you or your child falling, so hold your little ones tight if you choose to take them on the walls.
The section with the most to see is the one that starts on the corner of Gillygate/Exhibition Square and goes around the back of the Minster, depositing you at the end of Goodramgate where you could visit the Richard III museum (museum is not free).
Visit the Minster Gardens and Minster Library:
The Minster is not free to visit but the Minster Gardens are! Find them on the left hand side of the Minster. With plenty of benches, you can settle down with a cosy takeaway coffee (coffee is not free) and drink it in the peaceful tranquillity, overlooked by the side of the Minster where few tourists venture.
Visit the Museum Gardens and St. Mary’s Abbey:
The remains of St. Mary’s Abbey, a ruined Benedictine abbey, are seamlessly integrated amongst the gardens of the Yorkshire Museum. You can also find squirrels, an observatory and plenty of benches and green space. This gets quite busy on hot days as it’s one of the few family-friendly places to hang out in the city.
Pop into the library:
Next to the Museum Gardens, the City of York Public Library is a jarringly-modern building with low wooden bookcases from the seventies. It’s a municipal library, but they do have some books on local history if you want to learn more about the city without paying for an audio guide.
York War Memorial:
Continue up the road from the library toward the train station. At the top of this road, just before you pass through the bar (way out of the walled city), is York’s War Memorial. This is where the names of local men who died in the two World Wars are recorded. On November 11th every year (Remembrance Day), poppies, wreaths, and sometimes cards from local schools are left here, and there’s usually a somber ceremony for it along with the silence at 11am.
York Cholera Graves:
Keep going toward the railway station and, just the other side of the bar and walls, you will find a grassy area of open space on your left. This is the York Cholera Graves. In 1832, an epidemic of cholera hit York (it was all over the UK in the 19th century), and 185 people died in the city. The fear of infection meant the city’s Privy Council (as it was at the time) changed the rules for funerals so people had to be buried six feet below the ground (a practice that remains to this day), they could only have funeral services out of doors, and they also stopped funeral processions taking place in the narrower streets of the city. These days, you are unlikely to see funeral processions anywhere inside York’s city walls (you may see hearses coming and going from the Minster occasionally). You can take a moment to meditate on this chapter from York’s more recent history on your way to…
York Railway Museum:
From the Cholera graves on Station Road, cross the street and dodge down Leeman Road. Keep walking until you see the sign for the Railway Museum, which is near the railway bridge. The Railway Museum is free to visit and has a magnificent collection of old steam trains, including Stephenson’s Rocket, and some modern trains, such as the only bullet train outside of Japan (an old one from the seventies). They also have trains from collieries (where coal mines were) and some of the traditional trains that look like Thomas the Tank Engine (without the face). Even if you’re not a trainspotter, you could spend an hour or two here and learn something. It’s also the only museum in York that’s 100% free entry.
Hear the bellringers:
Heading back toward the Minster, if you are in the area between 7 and 8 in the evening, you will hear the York Minster bellringers practising their carillons and peels. The tourists on day trips have mostly left, by now, and the streets are empty, in that witching hour, the in-between time, when the students haven’t come out to party yet, and most local families are at home eating their dinner. The bells sing out, with too few people around to dampen the sound, and you can hear them from many of the local streets. If you listen for long enough, you’ll start to hear the patterns in the bells. They might even tell you a story.
See the York Morris Dancers:
Head back down Petergate until you come to Caffe Nero and Barnitt’s. In this square (King’s Square), the Ebor Morris perform in the evenings. They truly are a phenomenal sight to see and Morris dancing is one of England’s dying folk ways. The Morris is an English folk dance which has been a tradition for centuries. Morris teams are usually men, and the dancers wear bells on their legs and some dances involve sticks or white handkerchiefs.
If you are a fan of Jethro Tull, Steeleye Span or Kate Rusby then (aside from the fact you probably know all about Morris dancing already) this is an unmissable event. They perform here every Monday night at 7:30pm and they really are a top-notch Morris team. Find out more here. Seeing this event is free, but a tip would probably go down well.
Visit the Shambles:
It’s the end of a busy day, the streets are mercifully clear of the crowds, now is the perfect time to take a walk down The Shambles, one of York’s most touristy streets that is so busy during the day, it’s almost impossible to take in the sense of place. This was a street of butchers back in medieval times, and the two channels of stone either side of the pavements are where the blood used to run in rivers from the carcasses after they were discarded. Now, it’s regarded as York’s finest street, barely-touched by time.