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Free Things to do in York, England

written by Sam and Veren July 22, 2019
Free Things to do in York, England

As New Yorkers, it was great fun to visit our city’s namesake. And just like in NYC, there are also plenty of free things to do in York for those on a budget!

Originally founded by the Romans in 71 AD, York is full of layers of history. Chances are, you may know York as the home of the Vikings. Indeed, the city became an important trading port while under Viking rule. The Jorvik Viking Centre details this time period, though this is not one of the free museums in York (more on those to come).

Because York is such a beautiful, historic, and heavily touristed city, there aren’t a ton of free attractions in York. Many of the main attractions are paid, and if you’re on a budget, paying each time can quickly add up. Luckily, there are still some great things to do in York for free – read on for our recommendations!

York is small so you’ll get to see everything worth seeing within a few days. It’s a perfect weekend getaway or even a day trip.

York canals

1. Walking Tour of Free Things to Do in York

Walking tours are one of our favorite ways to get to know a city when we first arrive. It’s great to get an overview of all the attractions, so we can know what to prioritize during our stay. It’s also wonderful to have a local guide to whom you can ask questions.

These tours cover most of the free attractions in York, so it’s a great way to cover a lot of ground, especially if you have limited time. There’s no need to book in advance, just show up at the appointed time and place.

Because of the high demand, there are several free walking tour options in York:

Association of Voluntary Guides to the City of York runs the original and actually free walking tour of York! They’ve been offering free tours of York since 1951 and stress that there is no need to tip at the end. There are several tours daily – check their website for seasonal times.

White Rose York Tours run free walking tours daily (sometimes twice daily depending on the season). Just remember that although they are advertised as “free tours,” remember to tip your tour guide what you think is fair for the tour you received. The tour guides are self-employed and tips are their only form of payment!

If you prefer to visit free stuff in York on your own, read on for our guide of free activities in York.

2. Admire The Minster (Or Visit During a Service!)

The Minster is likely the reason most people come to York. It’s the largest Gothic cathedral in northern Europe and is just as impressive as that sounds. The epic building dominates the city skyline – you can see it from everywhere while you’re walking along the historic medieval walls. Parts of the building date to the 8th century!

York minister exterior

According to the Minster’s website, it costs £23,000 a day to run York Minster. As to be expected, entering the Minster is not one of the free things to do in York. However, you can still enjoy the beauty of the Minster from the outside! Take a picnic to one of the parks with fantastic views of the Minister and the square out front.

Or, if you want to be sneaky, you can experience the York Minister’s interior for free by going to a church service 😉

York Minster exterior

You can go inside and climb the tower for views of the city, but we opted for the free option: circumnavigating the city via the medieval walls.

3. Walk The York City Walls

Walking along the medieval city walls was one of our favorite free things to do in York. It’s a fantastic way to immerse yourself in the city, get some great views (weather permitting of course), and learn a bit about the city’s history in the process.

There is an official “wall trail” consisting of plaques at the ends of segments. These signs provide short but detailed explanations of the historical significance of each part. You can also read more in detail about the walls on the highly informative website for the Friends of the York Walls.

700 years ago, the walls used to entirely surround the city, but today there a few gaps. Most sections are still intact, with the tops restored so that visitors can walk the length of it. Get into the spirit and pretend to dodge enemy fire!

Walking along York's medieval walls, one of the free things to do in York
Medieval Walls and gate
The large gates are impressive and transporting. 

There’s even a cafe in the gatehouse (appropriately named Gatehouse Cafe). Just in case it’s chilly and you need to warm up with a cuppa!

Gatehouse Cafe

The York city walls open at 8 am and close at dusk, which of course varies throughout the year. The walls are closed on Christmas Day and during dangerous weather, such as icy or excessively stormy weather. Except service animals, dogs are not allowed along the walls.

4. Explore The Shambles

England’s most medieval street may well be The Shambles! Here you can still see buildings from the 14th century leaning tiredly on their original foundations.  

The Shambles is an old term for an open-air slaughterhouse and meat market. There used to be dozens of butcher stalls lining the street – thankfully none of that remains to this day. Head to the nearby Shambles Market for some old photos of what the area used to look like.

The Shambles, one of the free attractions in York

Today’s shoppes hardly have the original slingers, but some are older than others, so poke around.

The Shambles street
The Shambles

5. Discover York’s Markets

The Shambles also has a great outdoor market. You can find some decent deals on produce, which was quite a surprise. You can also of course just walk around for free, which is a great way to experience local life.

York's produce market

6. Get Lost in The Snickelways

The Shambles are part of the network of Snickelways – the medieval alleys of the center of York. No visit to York is complete without wandering down them in search of a hidden alleyway or unique shop!

There are too many snickelways to get into them all here. This blog post is a great guide to the best snickelways in York. For now, here are a glimpse of a few:

The Snickleways - alleys in York
The Snickleways
The Snickelways in York

7. Stroll Along the River Ouse

The river Ouse (pronounced like ‘Ooze’) cuts right through the town. During different times of the year, the river swells and floods the city. There have been many instances of flooding damaging the city over the years. It’s such an issue that there’s even a Twitter account that tweets the latest river level!

River Ouse in York
River Ouse

If you feel like a long walk, head to Rowantree Park just outside of the city center.

And while you can stroll along the riverbanks for free, a paid yet budget-friendly option is taking a river cruise. There are cruises for every time of day, including evening:

8. Museum Gardens, The Ruins of St. Mary’s Abbey + More

The Museum Gardens are a treasure trove of things to do in York for free. We spent a lovely afternoon here and we still didn’t see everything!

St. Mary’s Abbey originated in the 1000s and used to be the richest abbey in northern England. Walking the quiet grounds, you can almost imagine the monks walking what would have been the halls and corridors.

Ruins of St. Mary's Abbey

Yet even though the church of England was incredibly powerful, the large ruins are a testament to the fact that nothing lasts forever.

The abbey was dissolved in the 1500s during the mass dissolution of the monasteries during Henry the 8th’s reign.

Ruins of St. Mary's Abbey

The Museum Gardens are also home to Yorkshire’s oldest working observatory, which you can visit daily between 11.30am to 2.30pm. The observatory contains 19th century refractor telescope and a clock from 1811, which people could check their timepieces against for a sixpence.

9. Gardens of Historic Homes

There are so many historic homes in York that it’d be impossible to see them all. Besides, none of these make the list of free things to do in York – all of them are paid entry. However, the good news is that you can meander the gardens for free at some of these homes.

Treasurer’s House: Located right behind the York Minster, this home was the residence of the treasurer of the York Minster. While the first treasurer took up his post in 1091, the structure of the current house was built in the 16th century and restored in the 19th century. The house is built over an old Roman road, and Roman soldiers are said to haunt the building.

You can stroll the award-winning gardens of Treasurer’s House whenever the museum is open. Read more about the gardens here.

Merchant Adventurer’s Hall: A medieval guildhall turned museum and event space. Originally built in 1357, merchant adventurers were those who “adventured” aka invested their money in overseas trade. Visit the gardens and cafe for free.

exterior of merchant adventurer's hall
Merchant Adventurer’s Hall

10. Free Museums in York: National Railway Museum

In truth, there was only one free museum in York that I was able to uncover. Even some of the free attractions in York that I visited on my first time visiting the city are now paid attractions. If you know of any other free museums in York, please let us know in the comments!

The National Railway Museum is the only always free museum in York. Explore their permanent and temporary collections, including historic carriages (including royal ones), photography exhibitions, and more.

Bonus!: Unusual Things to Do in York for Free

At this point, you may be chock full of history and just want a break. While a lot of free stuff in York is focused on history, even if you’re not a history buff you can enjoy some of these unusual things to do in York for free! Just be aware that most shops do close at 5 pm. This was quite the shock for us, being used to Spanish hours!

The Cat Gallery AKA Crazy Cat Lady Store

If you’re a cat fan, The Cat Gallery cannot be missed. With some of the silliest cat memorabilia around, you may even consider buying some.

Cat art

Fire Juggling Street Performer

I swear he was here last time I was in York, and I wouldn’t be surprised – he’s earning his keep. Quite the dashing daredevil, juggling fire on top of an 8-foot unicycle blindfolded – he certainly captured our attention.

We were so enraptured we completely forgot to take photos, so you’ll just have to find him (or another street performer) yourself!

Here’s another lovely photo of York instead:

Historic building in York

If you find yourself exploring the North of England, don’t miss York! If you were coming from Glasgow as we did, we’d recommend taking the train to Edinburgh, then stopping here on your way down to London.

Do you know any other free things to do in York? Share in the comments below! 

This post was originally written in 2017 and has since been updated. Last update: July 2019.

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