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The best things to do in York with kids

York is easily one of my favourite cities – so much history packed in, a beautiful place to walk around, and a whole string of things to do in York with kids.

Brightly coloured sign spelling out York with a view of York Minster behind

I remember my own childhood visits fondly, including the Jorvik Viking Centre and National Railway museum, and couldn’t wait to take my daughter back, for a chance to discover Vikings, chocolate and plenty of Harry Potter magic.

With independent cafes and restaurants, plus street food dotted everywhere, a welcoming vibe and unique feel (when a lot of city breaks start to blur into one), every time I visit, I vow to come back again and as often as I can.

For ideas of more things to do in Yorkshire with kids, check out my top picks

Jorvik Viking Centre

One of my most vivid memories from my own childhood trips to York is visiting the Jorvik Viking Centre – especially the smells!

It’s had an overhaul just a couple of years ago, so it’s even more convincing, while all the best bits are still there.

Check out my Jorvik Viking Centre review for more of our favourite parts of a visit

Viking with bow at the Jorvik Viking Centre - one of the unmissable things to do with kids in York

Hopping onto the little ride (currently social distancing means each group gets their own carriage), we were transported back to Viking Jorvik, cruising around through the settlement to see how life would have been lived.

It’s all very cleverly done, using information uncovered at the various digs around the city, right down to modelling some of the inhabitants on skeletons which have been unearthed.

After the ride itself, you can wander through the displays, with more artefacts found here, as well as chatting to staff – dressed in Viking-style clothing – who might be doing anything from needlework for making a coin.

It’s a great one to combine with a visit to Dig (read on!), to let kids try their hand at excavating York’s Viking history, once they’ve seen what was actually uncovered.

Jorvik Viking Centre is also included in the York City Pass

Jorvik Dig: An archaeological adventure

If you’ve ever fancied being an archaeologist, then Dig: An Archaeological Adventure, a sister attraction to Jorvik Viking Centre, is unmissable.

After a short introduction on what archaeologists actually do, looking at various finds from across the city (including the world’s largest fossilised poo…), you get to try your own hand at digging in replicas of some of the real dig sites around York, covering Roman and Viking, medieval and Victorian periods, all in synthetic ‘soil’.

Within minutes, my nine-year-old was hooked, squeaking ‘wow wow wow wow’ as she uncovered some of the different finds.

I can’t think of a better way to get kids engaged with York’s history. There’s a little museum to look around at Jorvik Dig too, with more of the actual artefacts – we spent around 90 minutes there.

Dig is also included in the York City Pass – check out my review of a visit to Jorvik Dig

My daughter digs in the synthetic soil of Jorvik Dig, perfect for kids to learn about archaeology - one of the most unusual things to do in York with kids

National Railway Museum

Home to Stephenson’s Rocket, the original locomotive which started the train age, as well as famous names like The Flying Scotsman and a Japanese bullet train, a visit to the National Railway Museum is is great for kids, especially younger children.

As well as being able to get close to these legendary locomotives in the huge museum shed, you can see inside royal carriages and try a simulator experience, putting you (virtually) on the footplate of The Mallard, the world’s fastest steam locomotive.

There are also play areas, and a miniature railway to enjoy – you can even hop onto a road train from York Minster to take you to the museum in true train style.

There’s no charge for tickets (though you do need to prebook), so it’s ideal if you’re looking for free days out in York with kids.

York Castle Museum

There’s a whole mix of everything from classic toys to a recreated Victorian street, period rooms and interactive fun at the York Castle Museum – ideal if you’d prefer some more modern history to Vikings and Romans, to help finish York’s story.

The fashion exhibition Shaping The Body was one stand-out favourite, tracing the development of clothing over the centuries, with some really quirky artefacts on display, as well as showing the ways society has changed (hurrah for no wigs, corsets and highly flammable dresses).

One of the most memorable parts is the Victorian street, peering into old shop windows, discovering more ‘authentic’ smells – and it’s all decorated with original items too.

The site was also once a prison, where Dick Turpin was held before his execution, with some videos bringing to life tales of people linked to the prison, from the last woman burned in Yorkshire through to those meting out ‘justice’.

Among more recent history, there’s a very moving section on the First World War and a distinctly colourful and upbeat room on the 60s. Great for a rainy day in York with kids, but whatever the weather, you could spend hours here.

Check out my review of a day out at York Castle Museum with kids

My daughter stands on the recreated Victorian Street in the York Castle Museum - one of my top things to do in York with kids

Clifford’s Tower

Very little remains of William the Conqueror’s original Norman castle in York, but you can still climb the mound to see Clifford’s Tower.

The English Heritage site, once a prison and a royal mint, also played an key part in one of the darker chapters of York’s history: in the 12 century, the city’s Jewish community barricaded themselves inside to escape from a mob, but all of them, around 150 people were killed.

The Tower reopened after a multimillion pound renovation project, which transformed the historic site with a new interior to let visitors see parts they haven’t been able to reach for centuries (including a medieval toilet!) and with new stories bringing its history to life.

Clifford’s Tower is also included in the York City Pass

The Yorkshire Museum

For kids who love history, there are some fascinating exhibits at the Yorkshire Museum – during our visit, there was a chance to see everything from a display on Richard III to Yorkshire’s Jurassic World, taking you back 150 million years, plus medieval and Roman York.

In fact, there’s a whole mix of fascinating finds: anything from a 15th century gold ring to an extinct Great Auk, the oldest Sauropodomorph fossil in the UK, a Roman hairpiece, a Viking sword and a meteorite that’s 4,500 billion years old.

Another great option for a rainy day with kids in York, it’s a treasure trove of a collection, with something to fascinate pretty much all ages and interests.

Historic buildings along the Shambles in York - finding the best places in York for Harry Potter fans

The Shambles

This picturesque narrow street was once lined with butchers, whose equipment gave the Shambles its name: a lot more pleasant to walk down these days, it’s one way to step into medieval York as you explore.

It’s also one of the busiest places in the city for tourists, many flocking here for its Harry Potter links – an inspiration for the design of Diagon Alley, you’ll now find magical shops galore.

The Shop Which Must Not be Named – where my daughter acquired a pygmy Puff (I said no to a Nimbus 2000 at £250…) – is one of the best, but you’ll also find the Potions Cauldron (below) along here too.

Get there early or visit out of season to skip the worst of the crowds – and keep your eyes open for other little alleys, snickets and ginnels, as they’re known, including Lady Peckett’s Yard, not far away on Fossgate, which is much quieter…

For ideas of more things to do in York for Harry Potter fans, check out this post

My daughter points to the road sign for Whip Ma Whop Ma Gate in York

Spot York’s most famous street sign

One of the shortest streets in York is also one of its most famous – but then when you have a name like Whip-ma-whop-ma-gate, you’re always going to stand out!

My daughter didn’t altogether believe that it existed until she saw it with her own eyes…

There are various explanations given for the name, although the plaque on the wall nearby insists it derives from the meaning ‘What a street!’.

As a bonus, it’s a good place to discover York’s unusual naming, a relic of its Viking past: a street is called a gate, while the old gates in the city walls are called a bar.

Potions Cauldron

If you want to offset the history, there’s plenty of magic to discover in the city as well.

At the Potions Cauldron, you can book in for a very fun potions experience, choosing from ingredients like unicorn essence and basilisk blood, or a lion-heart potion (fruity!) to inspire courage.

With a gently bubbling cauldron and mood lighting, plus a witch or wizard to help you whip up your own concoctions, it beats stopping at a cafe hands down (and at less than a fiver per head, not much more to pay).

The Potions Cauldron at 9 3/4 Shambles - finding the best places in York for Harry Potter fans

The Hole in Wand

The sister location to the Potions Cauldron, The Hole in Wand wizarding golf is another very fun option if your kids love magic (or just fancy some crazy golf!)

It’s all indoor, so makes another great option for York in the rain with kids, and you go away with a prize depending on your skill level – serpent, basilisk, unicorn or wizard.

We emerged with some Basilisk Blood after completing the seriously tricky course of nine holes. Along the way, there’s a riddle to solve, and a quest to track down the gargoyle Grobblenook.

Throw in quirky decorations, including dusty skulls, cauldrons, books and a ‘secret’ tunnel at the end (plus an alternative for anyone who doesn’t fancy crawling through) – and even a chance to have a photo taken on your broomstick against a green screen, resulting in a shot of you flying over York.

A Very Magical Adventure

Set off on a quest to track down stolen dragon eggs with a knight of Camelot – Sir Brightheart – and his squire Godric, on A Very Magical Adventure (one of several quests taking place throughout the year)

We turned quite a few heads as we strolled through the streets behind Sir Brightheart, in full knightly garb, carrying his flag to the Museum Gardens where we tracked down our eggs on this unforgettable mini adventure.

Along the way, the smaller questers were in fits of giggles as the hapless Godric found himself doing a rain dance as well as getting repeatedly squirted with water.

To finish our own knightly training, we ended by meeting Merlin for some potion making and discovering how to blow up a balloon using magic (and possibly a bit of science) – plus snacks and a drink.

York Minster

No trip to York is complete without visiting the beautiful York Minster – while it’s one I’d probably skip with toddlers, there is plenty for kids to discover inside as well.

So much in fact, that we didn’t leave enough time to see it all!

Along with the spectacular architecture and the minster’s glorious stained glass windows, there are statues of the early Kings of England (with very memorable carved hair!)

Plus you can venture down into the Crypt to see some of the remains of Roman Eboracum, as well as the tomb of the city’s saint (and some eye-catchingly gruesome carvings).

And, as well as some temporary exhibitions – there was one on St Cuthbert when we visited, handily before our trip to Lindisfarne – there’s a bigger display on the city’s history, with more on York’s Roman past, as well as information on the work needed to prevent the Minster’s collapse.

York Minster is also included in the York City Pass

Van Gogh experience

The immersive Van Gogh experience is an amazing way to bring art to life for kids, as you get to step inside the paintings using the latest technology.

Set inside St Mary’s Church, the event uses sound and light to create virtual projections to bring Van Gogh’s life back to life, discovering more about the man behind the Sunflowers and Starry Night, as well as a VR experience to help you travel through eight famous works.

Tickets can currently be booked to December 2022 – under threes visit free, and you’re advised to allow around an hour to explore.

The Van Gogh Experience is also included in the York City Pass

Barley Hall

It’s incredibly to think that only about 40 years ago, this medieval townhouse was hidden by a derelict office block – discovered in the 1980s, you can now step back in time to explore inside.

Decorated to look at it would have done in around 1483, Barley Hall – once home to the Priors of Nostell and a Lord Mayor of York – has had its high ceilings and timber frames restored, as well as possibly the only horn window in England.

As well as this taste of 15th century life, there are regular exhibitions – during our visit, a Magic & Mystery exhibition, looking at science, religion and magic in medieval society, and how these overlapped, but you can also expect displays themed around Shakespeare and Christmas in York.

Barley Hall is also included in the York City Pass

Exterior of Barley Hall in York - one of the many historic attractions to visit with kids in York

York Dungeon

Like the other Dungeon experiences around the UK, the York Dungeon is one for teens (and older tweens) than more easily scared younger kids, as you travel through nine live shows with actors telling the story of York’s darkest history.

Think plague, ghosts, bloodthirsty Vikings and Guy Fawkes, not to mention the torturer of York Castle.

Expect gruesome tales, sudden frights and spine-tingling stories as you tiptoe through 2,000 years of terrifying tales.

The York Dungeon is also included in the York City Pass

York Cocoa Works

York was once known as the chocolate city – and while many of the big names whose factories once scented the air have left, there’s still plenty of chance to discover the sweeter side to York.

Our favourite was a visit to York Cocoa House, home to York Cocoa Works. As well as perhaps the best hot chocolate I’ve ever tasted, you can take tours which include a tasting and plenty of chocolate trivia.

With hugely knowledgeable and enthusiastic guides, you can find out everything about how the squares of chocolate in front of you were created, via rocks in sacks of cacao beans to how geography influences the taste.

Even better there are chocolate lollipop making experiences so you can concoct your own treat, as well as the chance to make a whole bar or even chocolate masterclasses for older children who love getting in the kitchen.

York’s Chocolate Story

If you can’t have too much chocolate, and chocolate history, York’s Chocolate Story tells you more about the history of the city’s most famous chocolate-making families.

And as well as the big names who came up with the Chocolate Orange and Kit Kats, you can watch a demonstration from chocolatiers, as well as learning how experts taste it, and about the origins of chocolate.

There are also chocolate making experiences to be tried here if you want to hone your chocolate lolly-making skills.

You can also buy tickets with free cancellation on tiqets.

Have a sweet treat

You don’t have to go far to find a sweet treat in York – quite apart from chocolate galore, it’s one city where you’ll find a tempting cafe around practically every corner.

Betty’s is one of the most famous, although you can pick up a Fat Rascal scone from one of the city’s two shops, as well as booking in for afternoon tea.

If you don’t fancy braving the queues, we also loved Brew and Brownie near Museum Gardens, with flavours like Oreo, Crunchie and Kinder Bueno.

Or head to Roberto Authentic Italian Gelato near Monk Bar, for seriously good ice cream (and big scoops!), as well as the fun The Full Moo ice cream boat on the riverside, not far from Lendal Bridge over the river Ouse.

View to Lendal Bridge and The Full Moo ice cream boat during a family holidayh in York

Museum Gardens

There are few lovelier places on a sunny day than York’s Museum Gardens – home to the ruins of St Mary’s Abbey, with its soaring arches, it’s also a registered botanical garden.

As you wander, you can see signs pointing out bee-friendly plants, as well as finding the little York Observatory in the grounds, a Roman column and the 14th century Hospitium.

A perfect place for a picnic, or just a chance to chill out with an ice cream.

View of part of the ruins of St Mary's Abbey in York in the Museum Gardens - a great place for a picnic in York with kids

Follow the Little Vikings trail

The Little Vikings ‘I Spy’ walking trail is a perfect way to get your bearings and discover some of York’s quirky details along the way.

With 22 unexpectedly weird and wonderful things to spot as you walk, you discover everything from Guy Fawkes’ birthplace to a little devil, along the way.

Scattered along a dozen streets, there’s a free map to pick up from the Tourist Information Centre or you can download it in advance.

But you still need to keep your eyes peeled – it’s a handy guide to start you off, but it won’t give away the exact location.

Ideal to keep younger kids engaged as you explore as well as a great way to discover corners of the city you might not otherwise visit, and a great option if you’re looking for free things to do in York.

Walk the walls

The longest surviving town walls in England, York’s medieval city walls stretch for around two miles, although you can also choose to walk a small section.

As well as imagining what life might have been like for those guarding the walls, you get some fabulous views including back to York Minster, as well as over the daffodils on the wall’s ramparts in Spring.

For an easy stroll with kids, head to Bootham Bar and walk to Monk Bar, for the experience of heading up through one of the old gates – they’re open from around 8am to dusk, weather permitting, and it’s free.

The new City Walls experience in Micklegate Bar replaces the Henry VII experience. The Richard III experience in Monk Bar is closed but has been running virtual events, with plans to open to occasional tours during the summer months.

City Cruises York cruise

Follow in the footsteps of the Vikings by heading out onto the River Ouse and seeing York from the water on a York boat tour from City Cruises.

There are two different starting points – Lendal Bridge or King’s Staith – but the tour itself follows the same route, cruising past the city centre to the north, then venturing down to the Millennium Bridge in the south, passing under bridges and spotting landmarks along the way.

The boat tour has live commentary and you can sit out on the top deck in good weather, or shelter indoors to watch through the windows if it’s bad – plus there’s a small bar on board for drinks.

A relaxed way to sightsee, we discovered some quirky facts, and despite timing our own cruise for a distinctly rainy summer’s day, it was still a lovely experience.

The York City Cruises trip is also included in the York City Pass

People stroll along the River Ouse on a sunny day with one of the City Cruises boats on the river - one of my top things to do in York with kids

Self-drive cruise

If you prefer to be the captain of your own boat, you can hire one of the little self-Drive Red Boats and head out onto the Ouse for an hour in your own private craft.

With life vests for kids, and instructions on safety and river rules before you set off, the hour-long hire session is designed to let you venture along the whole city – you can’t go beyond Clifton Bridge or the Millennium Bridge, or moor up to disembark.

There are shorter half-hour hire sessions if you just want a quick taste of York from the water too. Boats are hired from King’s Staith.

City Sightseeing bus tour

Always a great way to get your bearings – or to see the city without tiring out smaller legs – York’s City Sightseeing hop-on hop-off tour takes you down to Clifford’s Tower, past some of the old walls, and out to the station (handy if you’re arriving by train).

York is a very walkable city, so it’s one you could easily explore on foot, but there’s a recorded commentary and if you’ve bought the York City Pass, it’s included.

Things to do near York with kids

While there are plenty of family-friendly York attractions to keep you in the city itself, there are plenty of easy ideas for a day trip as well.

Castle Howard

This spectacular historic house has been named England’s best stately home by Lonely Planet, and has cropped up in so many TV shows and films, you’ll probably feel you know it before you arrive – around half an hour north of York, it’s easy to combine with a city break too.

If you’re visiting with younger children who aren’t going to appreciate the historic interiors of Castle Howard, you could still spend all day exploring the grounds – there’s a landtrain to take you to a play area by the lakeside, and an adventure playground to discover, as well as wandering through the woods and walled garden.

For more adventure, the new treetop adventure includes rope bridges, nests, slides, nets and climbing equipment galore over the Great Lake, as well as taking boats out on the water.

The 18th century house, home to the Earls of Carlisle, is well worth exploring as well, with its spectacular decoration and opulent furnishings, not to mention the art collection and grandiose chapel too.

Beningbrough Hall

Around 20 minutes from York itself, Beningbrough Hall makes a great day out with kids, with all the usual family friendly attractions of a National Trust property.

The Georgian mansion is temporarily closed as part of a multi-million pound project (expected to reopen in summer 2023) – previously, it was decorated as it would have been when the Hall’s first inhabitants lived there, with dressing up and games for kids to play while exploring, including some art-themed interactive fun.

But the grounds and gardens are still open, including the adventure playground in the wilderness, walled gardens and formal gardens plus family trails to follow.

Two baby piglets with black spots asleep in the straw - a day out at Piglet's Adventure Farm is a great option if you're visiting York with kids

Piglets Adventure Farm

Perfect if you’re visiting York with kids who love animals, Piglets Adventure Farm is only around a 20-minute drive from the city centre. And there’s far more than just piglets.

Follow the farmyard trail to meet animals galore (and watch some pig racing), plus everything from tractor rides to mini golf to bouncy pillows, along with a great indoor play barn and even a mini beach at this fun adventure farm park.

Or you can follow the Fairy Tale Trail through the woodland, get behind the controls of a wooden digger, stroke bunnies and brush Kune Kune pigs – plus there’s even ice cream to try.

Watch out for all the extra activities taking place year round at Piglets Adventure Farm too, especially during school holidays. You could go pumpkin picking in autumn, and enjoy some festive fun around Christmas, including sleigh rides, as well as lambing in spring and the maize maze in summer.

Northwood Trail & Fairy Sanctuary

Add some magic to your day out, as you let kids reconnect with nature at the Northwood Trail and Fairy Sanctuary, tucked away within hundred acres of woodland around 20 minutes from York.

The enchanting woodland trail is filled with fairy treasures found over the years. You’ll pass by fairy doors on trees, mushroom fairy rings, and even a fairy hamlet with tree houses connected by bridges and walkways. 

At the end of the walk, children can enjoy the natural playground, with sandpits, a mud kitchen, tire swings, and den building supplies.

Don’t miss the fairy museum too, where you can learn about fairy folklore and see artefacts including fairy furniture and tiny dresses made from foliage and feathers.

For another great family-friendly city break in Yorkshire, check out my top things to do in Leeds with kids as well as more ideas for things to do in Yorkshire with kids


The best things to do in York with kids - from Vikings and chocolate to Harry Potter, the best museums and historic attractions, walking tours, boat tour, beautiful York Minster and more. Perfect for a family holiday in York.

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links – any purchases you make are unaffected but I may receive a small commission. Some activities were free for review but all opinions are my own.

Images copyright MummyTravels


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