At the confluence of the Rivers Ouse and Foss, York (pop. 182,000) is the traditional county town of Yorkshire, and the most historically important city of Northern England.
York has over 2000 listed buildings and its famous York Minster and well preserved historical centre have made it a prime destination for visitors to England.
The Romans founded Eboracum in 71 AD. One of the most important military base of North Britannia, Eboracum is where Emperor Septimius Severus died in 211 AD, and where Constantine I was crowned emperor by his troops in 306 (the only Roman Emperor to be proclaimed outside Rome, and also the first one to adopt Christianity).
After the Romans left in the early 5th century, the Angles settled the area, renamed the town Eoforwic and made it the capital of the Kingdom of Northumbria.
In 625, Saint Paulinus was sent from Rome to Kent, where he was consecrated bishop. He arranged the marriage of King Edwin of Northumbria with the sister of King Eadbald of Kent in 627, and convince Edwin to convert to Christianity. The first minster was constructed the same year, and Paulinus became its first bishop.
The town then became a centre of learning, attracting students from various European countries, its most famous scholar being Flaccus Albinus Alcuin (735-804), who later acted as Charlemagne's leading advisor on ecclesiastical and educational affairs.
The Danes started raiding the region in the late 9th century and captured the city in 866, which they renamed Jorvik. Jorvik remained the capital of the Viking kingdom until 954, when King Eadred of Wessex managed to evict and kill Eirik Bloodaxe, King of Jorvik and Norway.
The Anglo-Saxon victory was short-lived, as in 1066 King Harold II had to deal with another Viking invasion, before being defeated by William the Conqueror at Hastings. William led the punitive Harrying of the North in 1069 to crush local revolts, and built two wooden castles in York.
The city burnt to the ground in 1137, and 150 local Jews were massacred by the townsfolk in 1190. In spite of that, York prospered as the county town of Yorkshire, a textile centre, the seat of the archbishop of York (the second most important church in England at the time), and in the 13th and 14th century as an alternative seat of royal government.
York Minster was not completed until the 15th century. But Henry VIII nationalised all church properties between 1536 and 1540 (see History of England), which badly affected York preeminence. York became popular among the aristocracy in the 18th century, and the economy recovered with the introduction of the railway in 1839. As the industry faltered again after WWII, tourism became the main source of local income.
York is a delightful city to explore on foot. It has retained its medieval city walls. Most of the streets within the walls are called gates, while city gates are called bars (while bars to drink tend to have folkloric names). The main gates (in the common sense of the term) are Bootham Bar and Monk Bar at each extremity of the cathedral, and Walmgate Bar to the southeast.
York Minster is the seat of the Primate of England, second only in importance to Canterbury Cathedral, the Primate of All England. It is one of Europe's great gothic cathedrals and has influenced the fortune of the city since its foundation in the 7th century (it still brings money to the locals, through the hordes of tourists !).
Paulinus built a chapel on the highly symbolic remains of the Roman basilica. Little remains of pre-Norman structures, and the present edifice was errected between 1220 and 1480, encompassing all the evolutions of the Gothic style. The Early English-style transepts are the oldest parts, while the nave, raised between 1280 and 1360, is the widest in England. The West front and towers were built last, in the 15th-century Perpendicular style.
The highlights are the Great East Window, the south transept's Rose Window, the north transept's Five Sisters Window, the Decorated-style Chapter House, as well as the foundations and treasury.
On the north side of York Minster you will find the delightful Treasurer's House, famously "haunted" by the ghosts of a Roman legion.
Between the railway station and York Minster, this enclave of greenery claims several attractions, including the Yorkshire Museum, the York City Art Gallery, the Roman Multangular Tower, the 15th-century St Olave's Church and St Mary's Lodge, and the ruins of 13th-century St Mary's Abbey.
In the Center
One of York's major attractions is the National Railway Museum. Train buffs will be delighted by the wide-ranging collection featuring everyting from old locomotives (including one of the largest British steam engines) to the Japanese shinkansen (bullet train).
Located in Foosgate, right in the middle of town, the Merchant Adventurers' Hall (built in 1357) is said to be the best preserved timber-framed mid-14th century building in Europe.
Turn at the corner to Coopergate to reach the Jorvik Viking Centre, one of York's most popular attractions. This recreated Viking town was built in the light of the discoveries made between 1976 and 1981. The streets have sounds and smells to give it authenticity, and festivals are held at some times of the year (see official website) with people enacting beardy Vikings with swords and shields.
Continue down Castlegate, passing the handsome Georgian-era Fairfax House, and locked between the Rivers Ouse and Floss is Clifford's Tower, a reconstruction of the wooden castle where, in 1190, 150 Jews sought refuge and eventually committed suicide (some by setting themselves on fire) rather than face an angry mob outside. Beside it is the York Castle Museum, which has exhibits related to the city's history.
How to get there
York is located right in the centre of Yorkshire, about 30km north-east of Leeds. The A64 motorway connects it to Leeds, the A19 to Newcastle, and the nearby A1 runs all the way from Edinburgh to London.
Trains run from/to London Kings Cross (2h to 2h30min, super advance single £51), Leeds (30min, £8.50), Harrogate (30min, £5.20), Newcastle-upon-Tyne (50min to 1h20min, £18), Kingston-upon-Hull (1h to 1h30min, £14), Sheffield (45min to 1h10min, £12.70) and Manchester (1h30min, £16.10).
National Express has direct buses between York and London (5h15min, £22), Leeds (40min to 1h, £3.50) and Scarborough (1h40min, £5.50), among others.
Train timetables & reservations