Six things to do in York: The perfect staycation destination for a weekend away

18 October 2020, 20:11 | Updated: 18 October 2020, 20:15

York Minster is at the heart of the city, and is a fascinating place to visit
York Minster is at the heart of the city, and is a fascinating place to visit. Picture: Getty
Emma Gritt

By Emma Gritt

In dire need of a change of scenery but don't want to risk leaving the UK? Discover another world in York, the ancient city that is as delightful for foodies as it is for history fans.

There’s no need to travel out of the UK to find history, culture and fantastic food - York has it all.

Easily accessible by train, the station is right on the edge of the City Walls, meaning you are just steps away from starting a weekend away that you'll never forget.

Pubs and grub

There’s more to eat in York than just Yorkshire pudding (which is good or bad depending on how much you love them), with independent bakeries, restaurants and food markets all across the city. Of course there are the usual chains and coffee shops, but with coronavirus causing so much uncertainty for smaller businesses, there’s never been a better reason to try something new.

Betty’s Cafe Tea Rooms

For over 100 years Betty's has been a must-visit for tourists and locals alike, with people patiently waiting to sit in with a cup of tea and a cake, or just take in their incredible window displays.

With two branches in York (Stonegate and St. Helen's Square), you can also pop in to pick up a few treats to enjoy later.

Partisan

Located on Micklegate, regarded as one of York's most beautiful streets, the breakfasts here are legendary - for good reason.

Served in a cast iron skillet, they use all local produce, with delicious vegetarian and vegan options too.

If you've got a sweet tooth, there is also French toast and glorious, fruit and honey-topped pancakes on the menu.

Mannion & Co

Take a moment to discuss your sightseeing itinerary over one of the beautiful cakes or moreish savourites baked on site in this well regarded restaurant and coffee shop.

With a huge menu and daily specials, you'll leave vowing to return to try more of what their talented team are busy rustling up in the open kitchen.

Skosh

Small plates are the order of the day at Skosh, a critics' favourite that serves British staples with an international twist.

If you like trying a bit of everything tapas-style, this is the place for you.

Grön Kafe

MasterChef: The Professionals finalist Matt Healy took the healthy flavours and food trends of Scandinavia as the inspiration for his vegan and vegetarian-friendly cafe.

As well as breakfasts, brunches and burgers, they have a wonderful bakery on site, too. Try the espresso brownies - they are out of this world!

There are over 300 pubs in York - so you're really spoilt for choice about where to enjoy a pint or two!

The oldest in the city is Ye Olde Starre Inn on Stonegate, which is has been continuously licensed since at least 1644.

Shopping

As with any UK destination, shopping is dominated by big brands and chain stores, but there are a lot of quirky and individual boutiques and apothecaries waiting to be discovered.

If you love books, then make sure to visit Grimoire Bookshop, which is three rooms of antique books, strange out of print titles and second hand treasures that are definitely out of print.

It's easy to lose an hour in this charming bookshop
It's easy to lose an hour in this charming bookshop. Picture: Emma Gritt

Art

The York Art Gallery has been hit hard by coronavirus and the lack of footfall, but it is still very much open for business.

The upstairs galleries have a mixture of classic and contemporary paintings that span over 600 years, and is also home to the National Ceramics Museum.

Anthony Shaw's huge collection of ceramics is currently on loan to the museum - and a lot of it is delightfully quirky.

There's some weird artefacts on show at the York Art Gallery
There's some weird artefacts on show at the York Art Gallery. Picture: Emma Gritt
The old buildings will take your breath away
The old buildings will take your breath away. Picture: Getty

History

Whether you’re interested in Vikings, Romans or more recent events like where Ellie Goulding got married, York has it all. And if you have no interest in history whatsoever, perhaps some time in York will change your mind!

In 71 AD the Romans conquered York, or Eboracum as they called it.

Centuries later there was more bloodshed when Vikings invaded and captured York on November 1st 866 AD, led by Ivar The Boneless.

It was made the capital of the Viking’s territory in Northern England, and renamed from its Saxon title of Eoforwic to a more Danish “Jorvik”.

Ellie Goulding invited scores of celebs to her wedding at York Minster
Ellie Goulding invited scores of celebs to her wedding at York Minster. Picture: Getty
Ellie Goulding and Caspar Jopling got married at York Minster last August
Ellie Goulding and Caspar Jopling got married at York Minster last August. Picture: Getty

This period of the city’s history is recreated at the Jorvik Viking Centre, and is the closest you’ll get to Valhalla, bringing the culture (and smells) of the Scandinavian conquerors to life. It's especially great for kids, whose imaginations can run wild with the stories, weapons and atmosphere in the world famous tourist attraction.

More recent history is still visible through buildings dating back hundreds of years, the Victorian train station, and the famous ancient wall that doubles up as a fantastic walk with unique views.

The Shambles is a world famous street
The Shambles is a world famous street. Picture: Getty

Making the most of York’s compact layout, take a stroll down the Shambles, which is widely regarded as the best-preserved medieval street in Europe and a welcome tonic to the rest of the UK’s bland and over developed city centres.

Looking down the winding streets you’ll be faced with the imposing sight of York Minster, a prime example of gothic architecture (and where Ellie Goulding got hitched).

Ghosts

With so many ancient cultures calling York home (under one name or another), it’s no surprise it’s got its fair share of ghosts, myths and legends.

There are ghost tours taking place every evening, if you’re feeling brave...

Relax

Checking in at Middlethorpe Hall Hotel, 3 miles south of York city centre, I was amazed by the antique furniture, paintings and objects d’art dwarfed by the huge staircases, fittings and windows of the historical house.

Built in 1699, I wished that walls could talk. “I’d definitely ask them how people got through the Spanish flu of 1919,” I thought. Well, until Mike, a veteran of the hotel told me that during the 1960s the remote country house was a renowned nightclub, favoured by the Rolling Stones.

Middlethorpe Hall is a traditional English country house converted to a charming hotel
Middlethorpe Hall is a traditional English country house converted to a charming hotel. Picture: Emma Gritt
It's tranquil now, but this used to be the location for some swinging 60s action
It's tranquil now, but this used to be the location for some swinging 60s action. Picture: Emma Gritt

The giant 18th century drawing room, now dotted with well-heeled ladies gossiping over an afternoon tea and an elderly couple sharing a bottle of champagne and a tray of dainty cakes, was once a nightclub.

“That,” Mike said, pointing up at a huge crystal chandelier, “was a disco ball.”

Fast forward to 2020 and there is no raving or louche behaviour at Middlethorpe.

As with any big old house, it has its rumoured resident ghosts, but you’d never guess there was anything other worldly going on. Its calm atmosphere harks back to a gentler time, which Historic House Hotels describe as “traditional excellence”.

The gardens at Middlethorpe Hall are amazing
The gardens at Middlethorpe Hall are amazing. Picture: Emma Gritt
Produce from the gardens is used in the hotel's fine dining restaurant
Produce from the gardens is used in the hotel's fine dining restaurant. Picture: Emma Gritt

Keeping guests and staff safe during these strange pandemic times was paramount, with temperature checks, social distancing and mask-rules strictly enforced.

Dinner was superb, but vegetarians and vegans would struggle to be as impressed with what was on offer at breakfast.

Away from the hotel’s lavish furnishings and the comfort of the bedrooms, also decked out in old furniture and pieces of porcelain, there was much to do and discover in the grounds.

Middlethorpe Hall’s beautiful gardens were a perfect dose of full sensory relaxation; terraced walks lead to walled gardens, orchards, huge planters full of fresh herbs and seasonal blooms, their flowers even more vibrant against the cold autumn sky.

Memories of the Hall’s beautiful rose garden returned during a trip to the spa, breathing in the scent of the Aromatherapy Associates’ products that have extracted the heady perfume of Yorkshire’s county symbol for use in facials, massages and more.