York will dazzle you at any time of year, but at Christmas its blend of history, culture and food make it a stunning place to spend a few days. We climbed up to the top of Clifford’s Tower to take a good look around and see what was going on in the old walled city over the festive season.
If you don’t mind squeezing into the side aisles, there’s still time to take in a carol concert in the inspiring setting of York Minster. Alternatively, you might be able to catch the Sankta Lucia festival of light, a candlelit procession based on Swedish tradition, which takes place on 11 December and is free to attend. If you can’t find the space or time for the organised events, a visit to the Minster is a must for any York first-timers. The space itself is rightly one of York’s biggest attractions and well worth the neck ache that comes from a good solid bit of ceiling staring.
For a slight change of pace, why not try a gourmet Christmas food hunt? It’s a game/puzzle/food tour that you can play in teams or as a single group, with a series of clues that lead you to some of the city’s most secret places. A less official treasure hunt could see you tracking down the Black Cats of York, a sculptural tradition sometimes said to have been introduced to ward off plague rats, but more likely a decorative affection of the 20s. Incorporated into building design all around the city ever since, you can now wander the cobbles with one eye out for the many that sit on walls, balconies and railings.
Delis and markets
Like many cities, York hosts a fine Christmas market every year, but this is only a more concentrated version of the wealth of produce you’ll find when you visit. The official market takes over Parliament Street and St Sampson’s Square, playing host to everyone from print makers and jewellers to confectioners, knitters and a Viking horn whittler. Away from the main festivities though, you can still find the legendary Shambles, a narrow, cobbled street home to artisans and makers. Its photogenic quality means it’s often crowded with tourists, so those in the know tend to wander over to Fossgate Street where things are a little quieter, but no less amply supplied with independent places that can set you up with superb coffee and a slice of something exquisite to keep you going.
Course and classes
If you’d rather come away with skills and knowledge than gift-wrapped presents, try spending a few hours in the company of experts as you learn anything from wreath making to bushcraft. One particular workshop that the team have had their eye on is the York Cocoa House truffle making masterclass. Admittedly, you do get to go home with the delicacies you create, as well as tasting a fair bit of chocolate along the way, but we’re still happy to claim that it’s an experience not a gift, even while licking our fingers on the way out.
York’s claim to be the most haunted city in Europe is hotly debated in many scientific journals, but there’s no denying that it can feel like you’re surrounded by living history at times. There are many ghost walks and tours to choose from all year, but the dark, frosty air of winter adds a certain something to the experience. If you fancy a souvenir of your ethereal experience, then you can easily find one, but the discerning and patient ghost hunter should keep an eye on The York Ghost Merchants for the chance to possess one of their rare figurines, which appear, in fittingly ghostly fashion, rarely and at unspecified times.
Whether you’ve spent the day scaring yourself silly, marvelling at the Minster or out stamping through the Dales, you’ll have earnt the right to indulge in one of the greatest Yorkshire traditions – a pint of proper beer. While York’s food scene has exploded in the last few years and scattered the town with places to get a fabulous lunch or dine like a king, we’ve always had a soft spot for simplicity. Any one of The Swan, The Slip, The Golden Ball or The Phoenix will serve you a great local beer in a setting of the type you might have forgotten ever existed.
Chris is our in-house copywriter, with a flair for turning rough notes and travel tales into enticing articles. Raised in a tiny Wiltshire village, he was desperate to travel and has backpacked all over the world. Closer to home, he finds himself happiest in the most remote and rural places he can find, preferably with a host of animals to speak to, some waves to be smashed about in and the promise of a good pint somewhere in his future.