5 places where you can see Roman remains in York (3 are free)

York is a city famous for its rich history. However, York’s Roman past can be hard to find on your first trip to the city, as most of the historic buildings are younger. Here is a list of five places where you can see some real Roman remains in York (three of them are free) and a little bit of York’s Roman history!

The Roman city of York was founded in 71AD as an outpost fort and later a city called Eboracum. The Roman Empire was quite late to Britain. Rome had colonised Spain in 206BC, the Greeks in 146BC and France in the 1st century BC, yet they didn’t manage to take Britain until 43AD. Only Germany was conquered later- a defeat that ultimately led to the downfall of the Roman Empire, but that’s a topic for another time.

The Romans extensively colonised the south of England, but their presence in the north was less established, because of the perpetual threat from the Picts in what is now Scotland. Additionally, the cost of over-extending the Roman Republic was starting to take its toll on Rome’s ability to defend itself in every direction, due both to money and manpower.

When the Roman Empire went into decline and withdrew between 405 and 420AD, York remained populated, and ultimately grew into the city you see today.

It is estimated that only two per-cent of ancient Eboracum has been excavated. This is because the city expanded enormously during the medieval period and a lot of this was built over the remains of the older, Roman city.

I love discovering aspects of a city’s past, especially somewhere like York where there’s so much of it. Here are five places with Roman remains that you can find yourself (three are free) on your York adventure, plus a sixth bonus statue that isn’t Roman, but it’s of a Roman Emperor.

Roman Baths

The Roman baths are, funnily enough, situated beneath the floor of the pub Roman Bath. What you will see here are the excavated remains (you can’t take a bath here). You will spot them immediately on entering the pub.

If you’re wondering, the type of bath here was most likely a balneae, a small public or private bath, not a grand Imperial thermae. This bath was used by the Roman army which occupied York, and was probably built by them. The remains of other Roman baths have been found around the city, but the ones at Roman Bath pub are the only ones that you can go and see. If you visit, remember this is a pub and a business. You don’t need to pay entry, but you can support the bath by buying a drink.

Roman Column

An 8m tall column sits outside the Minster. It was one of many which supported the Basilica–a huge Roman building. The Roman Column was discovered in 1969, during excavations around York Minster. It was raised and left on display near where it was found. It was donated to the city by the Dean and Chapter. Unfortunately, the builders made a terrible mistake and it is, in fact, upside-down.

To find it, head to the main entrance of York minster. From the entrance, locate the black metal gates that can be used to close the road. The column is on the right of the railings, near the school. Free access 24/7.

The Basilica

More of the Basilica can be seen in the Undercroft of York Minster, where the foundations have been excavated. The Basilica was built in 100AD, only 29 years after Eboracum was founded. It was a huge civic building intended for use as a courthouse and other public functions. Usually, basilicas were sited next to a forum, but none has been discovered in York, yet (also missing: York’s Colosseum).

You can visit the Undercroft by going inside the Minster and buying a ticket. There are three different areas of the Minster with separate tickets; be sure to get a ticket specifically for the Undercroft to see the Roman remains of York’s basilica.

The Roman wall

The Romans built walls around many of their settlements. Most archaeologists will tell you walls are there to keep invaders out, but Bar-Yosef put forward an alternative idea in 1986 which deserves more attention; walls can be used as a flood defence and to prevent mud flows damaging the city. Walls also keep people in. It is much easier to control a population when they can’t simply get up and leave, and it’s also easier to find criminals and to accurately collect taxes inside a walled city.

Most of the Roman wall actually lies beneath the Medieval wall you can walk on. The Roman remains are tucked within the embankment that holds up the Medieval walls. But in a little green area, beside a car park on Museum Street, there’s an exposed area of the original Roman walls. From the art gallery, walk to the gate of King’s Manor and don’t go inside. Instead, go left along the pavement toward the theatre (don’t cross the road).

The Roman wall is immediately on your right.

The Yorkshire Museum

Of course, you’re going to find a lot more of York’s Roman artefacts if you visit a museum. The Yorkshire Museum holds quite a collection of small finds, including the reconstructed Coppergate helmet (which the reconstructors got wrong, I believe the museum now goes into detail on this). There are also Roman sarcophagi and other large items like a mosaic floor and a wall fresco. I think a better way to present the past is to do what they do in Athens and leave it in-situ but put protective glass over it, so the past becomes part of today’s buildings, retaining the context of where they were found. However, this is why I don’t work in a museum.

So there you have it. Five places you can see York’s Roman past.

And the sixth (not quite Roman)…

As a bonus, check out the statue of Constantine outside the Minster. This isn’t a Roman find, but was created later to memorialise the Emperor due to his ties with the city. His father Emperor Constantius is one of two Roman emperors who died in the City of York (the other is the African-Roman who became Emperor of Rome, Septimus Severus). Constantine the Great (pictured below) was the first Christian Emperor of Rome, legitimising the religion in 312AD and paving the way for its widespread acceptance in Europe.

CC Zero

23 things to do in York

If you’re visiting York, you might wonder what there is to do in the city. It has quite a lot of museums, especially for such a small city, and you could easily spend a weekend in just one area, such as Coppergate or the area around the Minster, if you wanted to visit every museum available.

Here is a list of 23 things you can do in York. It includes all the main tourist attractions and then some:

  1. National Railway Museum; a museum all about trains and British railway history. There are lots of steam trains, as well as some more modern trains, and a now-obsolete early Japanese bullet train from the 1980s.
  2. Walk the walls (free): The current walls around the city are incomplete, but they date from the medieval period. They’re actually built on top of the city’s original Roman walls. Some sections are more interesting than others. Be careful taking young children on the walls as they don’t have safety barriers and have some open sides.
  3. York Minster: This beautiful medieval cathedral is the seat of the Archbishop of York. It has been undergoing extensive restoration work pretty much non-stop since the 1980s. There are three main areas to the Minster: The main (ground) floor, the undercroft and the roof. You pay separate entry to each. The roof is excellent (but a huge climb, not suitable for anyone with mobility issues) because there’s an edict which says no building within the walls can be taller than the Minster, so you get a phenomenal, unrestricted view of York from the top. The undercroft is also fascinating and has some intriguing archaeological finds from some of the excavations of the minster.
  4. Yorkshire Museum: A fairly bog-standard museum with an emphasis on Roman and Viking displays.
  5. Museum Gardens and St. Mary’s Abbey: Far more interesting than the museum itself, the museum gardens is home to the picturesque remains of St. Mary’s Abbey. This is the perfect place to have a picnic.
  6. Cholera Graves: Between the Railway Museum and Yorkshire Museum, you can find the Cholera Graves across the road from York Railway Station. They are easy to overlook as they look like a grass verge beside the pavement but there is a small plaque marking it out.
  7. DIG: A fun place to take the kids, this hands-on ‘museum’ lets children be archaeologists for an hour or so, complete with plastic trowels and safety rubber ‘soil’ to dig so they can discover resin ‘artefacts’.
  8. Jorvik Viking Museum: An interactive Viking museum that takes you on a journey back in time to the age of the Vikings. Includes re-enactors and a ‘ride’ (don’t worry, it’s not a rollercoaster).
  9. Richard III Experience: Ever wanted to know everything about Richard III? This is the place to do it. Don’t know who King Richard III was? This Horrible Histories video will explain it for you: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XL2se6BzIHk
  10. Barley Hall: Once a 14th century priory, this is an authentic medieval building you can take a look around.
  11. Merchant Adventurers Building: Built in 1350, this stunning medieval building still has its original timber frame as well as a chapel and alms house.
  12. York’s Chocolate Story: A museum dedicated to the history of chocolate making in York, which was the home of Rowntree’s, Terry’s and Nestle (but not Cadbury’s, that’s in Birmingham).
  13. The Wiggly Trail: I totally made this one up, but it’s a short trail you can follow with preschoolers. Details here.
  14. Fairfax House: There are actually TWO buildings called Fairfax House in York (yeah… imaginative). One is a Victorian building which used to house student nurses and now houses all sorts of students. You can’t go in that one. The other is around the corner from Jorkvik Viking centre, and it’s an 18th century townhouse that’s been turned into a museum. If you want to see how rich people lived in the age of Jane Austen, this is the place to go. To avoid confusion, the address for the correct Fairfax House is Castlegate, York, YO1 9RN.
  15. York Army Museum: Near Fairfax House and Jorvik, you can find York Army Museum tucked away next to the York Hilton. It has exhibitions on York’s military past.
  16. Clifford’s Tower: You cannot miss this. It’s on top of a big hill in the middle of an open space that includes York Army Museum and York Castle Museum. You have to climb the hill to gain entry to the tower (so it’s not disabled-friendly) . At one point it was even a royal mint, which is difficult to believe when you see how small it is inside!
  17. York Dungeon: One of the “[Town Name] Dungeon” tourist attractions that plague many touristy cities across the UK. If you’ve never been to one before and it’s raining it might be worth a look, but otherwise it’s a bit of a tourist trap.
  18. Ghost Walk: A few people around the city offer ghost walks, where they take you on a tour of various parts of the city centre and tell you grisly, ghostly tales about what happened in particular buildings. Obviously, take it as fun entertainment and don’t expect any real ghosts. There was a time when one of the ghost walk people resorted to trashy gimmicks like having an accomplice to make noises in certain areas, but all the shenanigans seem to have stopped since Most Haunted fell by the wayside, and now all the ghost walks I know of tend to consist of good storytelling.
  19. Morris Dancers: The Ebor Morris dances publicly in King’s Square, near The Shambles, at 7pm every Monday.
  20. Red boats: Go down to the river on the Kings Staith side and, by Tower Gardens, you will find York Red Boats. They let you hire self-drive small motorboats to drive up and down the river.
  21. York Castle Museum: This museum is more focused on the 19th century, which in York’s timeline makes it relatively modern, but if you ever wanted to imagine yourself on one of the streets of Sherlock Holmes, it’s well worth a look. The Victorian period of York’s history is mostly overlooked around the rest of the city so this museum makes a great addition to any itinerary.
  22. York Art Gallery: Around the corner from the Yorkshire Museum, you’ll find the York Art Gallery. It has a nice fountain in front of it that children might enjoy sticking their hands in.
  23. Henry VII Experience: Like the Richard III experience but on the other side of town, the Henry VII experience tells you all about the life and times of Henry VII. If that makes you say, “Once more unto the breech dear friends”, this is the place for you!

So there you have it, 23 things to do in York. I haven’t included temporary exhibitions such as the beer festival or the many crafts fairs that go on around the year because I wanted to cover things you could do no matter when you visit. I decided to leave out cafes, restaurants, shops and pubs as these aren’t really tourist attractions (but I have written articles about these, see below). Have you done them all? Let me know in the comments!


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10 free things to do in York

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.