Vikings, dungeons, chocolate & more: 13 fun family activities in York
York always amazes me. How this relatively small city can pack in so much character, history and beauty is beyond me. We visit several times every year and I’m always blown away by the amount of things to do. There’s always something new to discover.
You can travel 1,000 years back in time at the Jorvik Viking Centre, with no need for a Tardis. This incredible place is among the country’s top visitor attractions, and a must-do while in York. Children can explore a genuine archaeological dig that has uncovered the remains of Viking homes, workshops and streets, while interacting with actors who bring the era back to life in vivid ways. See what life was like for the Vikings, how they hunted, cooked and fought. Bear in mind that to keep the experience as authentic as possible, it does smell a bit ripe - I think they spray in the aroma of dung!
If the kids were inspired by Jorvik then remember that just a 10-minute walk away you’ll find 4 realistic but artificial indoor digs, focusing on the Medieval, Viking, Roman and Victorian periods. Kids learn about the basics of archaeology, before being issued with trowels to discover artefacts, accompanied by an actual archaeologist to explain their finds. It’s the pits, but in a good way!
One of my all-time favourite activities in York is a ramble along England's longest city walls. The 3.5 km wall around York offers stupendous views over the city, especially on the stretch around the Cathedral. There are also several places to get off for a drink or to rest tired little legs. Remember to keep the kids close, especially when it's busy, as some parts are steep.
4. York Dungeon
If you're visiting York with older kids then I recommend you head directly for York Dungeon. Discover the history of York in its most gruesome and macabre form. This is another must-visit, featuring plague doctors, Viking torture chambers, Guy Fawkes, Dick Turpin and witches. In-character actors will put the frighteners up even the coolest kid around.
Arrrr! Travel the seven seas, or at least the River Ouse, in style with one of York’s fab themed cruises. The fancy-dress cruise only runs once a year unfortunately - usually at the end of July - but why not get your little ones dressed up anyway for a fun way to discover the city? Alternatively, you could also hire your own mini motorboat seating up to 8 people, pack a picnic and pilot yourselves along the river for an hour or two. It’s near-impossible to get lost - I should know, I tried.
You've found the golden ticket! Take a chocolate factory tour to find out how some of your favourite brands are made, from bean to bar, and of course, enjoy a few tempting tastings. Several world-famous chocolate brands including Rowntrees and Terry used to have their factories in York, and you can still catch the aroma of cocoa in the air when the wind blows a certain way. In the summer months, there’s a short city walking tour around key chocolatey sites
Mere steps from the train station is the National Rail Museum. Bound to make any train-mad kid jump with excitement, the museum contains over a million exhibits covering 300 years of railway history, including The Mallard, which in the 1930s broke the world speed record for steam locomotives (a record that still stands); a replica of Stephenson’s Rocket, and even a Japanese bullet train. Fascinating for children of all ages, this highly interactive museum allows them to pretend to be train drivers, learn how railways were built and operated, and of course, there are lots of fun and educational gifts in the shop.
Disneyland has hidden Mickeys throughout its park, but York has lots of little cat sculptures dotting the city's rooftops, eaves, and chimneys. It’s a wonderful way to keep children entertained while you’re exploring. Download the trail map here and keep your eyes peeled for feline friends.
A perfect tie-in with the National Railway Museum is a scenic ride on the Blackberry Line, running between Layerthorpe and Selby through beautiful Yorkshire countryside. The railway usually operates on Sundays several times a day, up until September. If you happen to be visiting over Christmas, a Santa Special departs in December, with a special present for every child aboard.
An hour from York, near Ripon, you'll find Lightwater Valley Theme Park. Jam-packed with rides and other entertainments for all ages, there’s an Angry Birds Activity Centre, tractor tours of the farmyard, a treetop net course, a falconry centre and as if that wasn’t enough, mini golf. Phew! A reliable day out to treat the kids.
11. Castle Howard
A 15-mile drive from York will bring you to Castle Howard. Here, kids can explore woodland paths and wild gardens, or ride on the land train, using up what’s left of their energy at the adventure playground. Parents, meanwhile, may enjoy visiting the beautiful 18th-century home.
Looking for an unusual visit in the centre of York? Try the chilling York Cold War Bunker. This fascinating tour will show you around a real-life emergency bunker, which was active until the 1990s, in case of a nuclear explosion. Probably one best saved for tweens asm though the guides are outstanding, the visit isn't very interactive and the subject matter may bore or unnerve younger kids
13. Museum Gardens
A nice, quiet place to unwind after a busy day of exploring York, the pretty Museum Gardens is a 10-acre botanical garden filled with a wonderful collection of trees, flowers, and shrubs. There’s also a special treat for all the geocachers out there, as the museum recently introduced its first geocache garden!