York, England: Explore Roman, Viking and medieval legacies

York Minster front entrance.

Planning a trip to England? Do visit the fascinating city of York. This small city has Roman roots and a Viking past, medieval walls enclosing its highly walkable center, and the magnificent York Minster. More than a stunning cathedral, the Minster encompasses nearly 2,000 years of history.

York is just over a two-hour train ride north from London. You can easily walk 10 minutes from York’s train station across the River Ouse to the walled, medieval city center. Many small hotels and B&Bs are conveniently located just outside these city walls.

Initially, take a walk atop the walls, starting at the Bootham Bar (gate) to Monk Bar. This is a great way to orient yourself while enjoying views of the medieval city center and the Minster.

Walking York’s old city walls, with the Minster in background.

Take a free walking tour offered by the Association of Voluntary Guides to the City of York. They depart at 10:15 a.m. and 1:15 p.m. daily from Exhibition Square near Bootham Bar and end in York’s oldest street, the Shambles.

Then visit the York Minster, one of the finest medieval buildings and largest Gothic cathedrals in Northern Europe. Romans, Vikings and Normans all used this site. The first Christian church here has been dated to 627 AD, and the first Archbishop of York was recognized by the Pope in 732.

Construction of the current Minster began in 1220 and was completed in 1472. Despite Reformation-era looting raids and a 1984 fire in the south transept, the Minster was always been restored. Today it is a treasure of soaring Gothic architecture and medieval stained glass windows.

Here you’ll see one of the world’s most impressive collections of such stained glass, including original panels dating to 1270. The Great East Window is a 15th-century masterpiece, the largest medieval stained glass in England at 75.5 feet tall. It depicts the beginning and end scenes from the biblical books of Genesis and Revelations. The dramatic Rose Window commemorates the end of the War of the Roses in 1487 between the House of Lancaster (represented by a red rose) and York (white rose).

A real treat is attending evensong at the Minster: enjoy its splendor while listening to the York Minster Choir (or a visiting choir). Evensong is usually featured Tuesday – Saturday.

Another discovery is the Undercroft Museum and Crypt, which lie beneath the Minster’s floor. Take an interactive journey through the Minster’s foundations, going back in time to the Basilica of a Roman fortress. You’ll also see Viking heritage and rare artifacts never displayed elsewhere.

The Horn of Ulf oliphant in the Undercroft Museum.

Most striking is the Horn of Ulf, an 11th-century oliphant (ceremonial drinking horn carved from an elephant’s tusk). The 28-inch-long horn was crafted in Salerno, Italy, likely by Islamic carvers – evidence of the Vikings’ extensive trade routes. Tradition holds it was presented by a Viking nobleman named Ulf around 1030, acting as a land deed to what is now York Minster.

Continue to step back in history at the Jorvik Viking Centre. This is the site of the United Kingdom’s largest archeological find of Viking-era artifacts, the 1976-81 Coppergate Dig. It uncovered astounding evidence of the Viking settlement of Jorvik. Around 960 AD, Vikings had a thriving center here with craft workshops, bustling markets and trading links to Europe.

You can see some of the 40,000 artifacts discovered and take a 16-minute “time capsule” ride through 10th-century York to experience those Viking sights, sounds and even smells. While a bit Disney-esque, the ride shows you how these Viking settlers lived, worked and traded. Take the ride twice to absorb everything presented.

If you’re really into Viking history, visit York in mid-February for the annual Jorvik Viking Festival. The largest event of its kind in Europe, the city-wide event celebrates old Norse heritage with guided walks, lectures and battle re-enactments. More than 60,000 visitors attend from across the globe.

Then explore old York inside its medieval walls. Prowl the Shambles, if you didn’t do so on the walking tour. This narrow, cobbled street is lined with beautifully preserved Elizabethan buildings – each overhanging more the higher they rise above the street. The Shambles was a street of butchers for centuries. It leads to the Shambles open air market and many “snickleways” (narrow medieval alleys with names such as “Mad Alice Lane” for a woman who was hanged after poisoning her husband).

York has a surprising number of other attractions within its medieval core. The Yorkshire Museum documents Anglican, Viking, Norman, Medieval and Tudor history. The York Castle Museum features everyday life in Victorian York, plus the prison cell of infamous highwayman Dick Turpin and World War I exhibits.

You may also want to visit the Merchant Adventurers Hall, one of the finest medieval guild halls. Or the Fairfax House – the first Georgian townhouse in England – and the York Mansion House, boasting even more elegant Georgian grandeur.

Betty’s Cafe

When you’re ready to take a break, visit Betty’s Cafe Tea Rooms “since 1919.” This local tea-and-cake institution has two locations – seek out the smaller one (at 46 Stonegate) in a historic building with wooden beams and cozy fireplace. Then order tea and Betty’s signature Fat Rascal scone for a true York experience.


City of York

Association of Voluntary Guides’ free walking tours

York Minster

Jorvik Viking Centre

The Shambles

— By Julie Gangler

Julie Gangler is a freelance writer who has worked as a media relations consultant for the Snohomish County Tourism Bureau. She began her career as a staff writer at Sunset Magazine and later was the Alaska/Northwest correspondent for Travel Agent Magazine.


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