Today – Things to do in York with kids and saving money with York Pass
Family travel is all about trying to find places that can hold the interest of both adults and kids. That is often a lot harder than it sounds! I’d always quite fancied visiting York. Admiring the historic buildings, wandering around the Shambles and enjoying a bit of shopping seemed a super way to pass the time. I’d heard of the Jorvic Viking Centre of course, but would there be enough to entertain the kids for the whole weekend?
A quick google of things to do in York with kids soon put my mind at ease as I found dozens of family friendly York attractions, several that I hadn’t heard of before. York’s Tourist Information website (Visit York) is packed with suggestions. Actually, I ended up a bit worried about how we’d fit it all into three days!
In the end, we went from Saturday to Monday and really made the most of our time there. Here’s what we got up to.
I found out about York Pass while looking into the costs of the various York attractions. Essentially, you buy a one, two, three or six day pass for one upfront cost and can then use it to access dozens of places both in York and the surrounding area. It includes all the ‘big names’ like Jorvik, Dig, York Minster etc. Along with not having to queue for tickets everywhere, this can save quite a bit on entrance fees over a weekend, especially if you’re planning on being quite busy and fitting in a lot.
An added benefit of the York Pass is that you can also use it to get a discount on a number of activities and tours as well as lots of restaurants and cafes, normally 10%-20%. If you’re eating out a lot then that really adds up too.
[A three-day adult York Pass costs £70, (child pass £35) and comes with a guidebook. You can find a full list of all the places covered and discounts offered here. You can also find offers on passes here.]
Things to do in York with kids
York City Sightseeing Bus Tour
After dropping the car and our bags at our hotel we headed straight into the Visit York office to pick up our York Passes. They are full of useful info and really nice so do pop in if you need any advice during your stay. I thought we’d start with a section of the bus tour to get orientated and take us down to the bottom of town to Cliffords Tower. These ‘hop-on, hop-off’ bus tours are a common sight in tourist towns so you know what to expect. A great overview and the chance to save yourself a little bit of walking. A safe bet. If you want to do the whole route in one go it will take about an hour.
Cliffords Tower is one of the main surviving features of York Castle. It stands on a conical mound and is now only the outer shell of the original two storey structure but you can still get a good idea of how it would have looked. The staircases remain and you can use them to access the roof walk from where you get a great view of the city.
Like a lot of things we saw in York, Cliffords Tower is a small attraction but really well done. The now open internal courtyard holds various displays and information boards and a model of how the tower would have fitted with the original castle buildings as well as a little shop. The original spiral stairs made me a bit nervous, be careful if you have little ones, but the climb was really worth it for the view and the sense of ‘walking in their footsteps’.
York Castle Museum
Our next stop, conveniently right at the foot of Cliffords Tower, was the York Castle Museum. This was the unexpected highlight of the weekend. I suppose you’d probably describe its focus as mainly ‘social history’. It’s not a huge museum, a comfortable half day I’d say. Their approach has been to select some specific topics and then cover them really well. It strikes a good balance between being informative and engaging with the kids.
You start off with the ‘Period Rooms’, scenes set up to replicate the living conditions of people at different times. The boys were genuinely intrigued by these and we had a lot of discussion about how and why they differed from each other and from our house.
The next section, called ‘Toy Stories’. It compared toys from different eras, mixing them together in bedroom scenes and asking viewers to spot different iconic toys. Everything from Georgian tin soldiers to a 1980s Spirograph. There’s also a little play area here with some dressing up clothes, books, giant noughts and crosses etc.
We then moved on to ‘Shaping the Body’ which looked at the different ways women have tried (or been forced to) achieve the fashionable look of the day, corsets, bustles and platform shoes to name but a few. At the end, there’s an interactive quiz about your views on body image before moving on to how work, food and health all contribute to the shape of a body.
Kirkgate comes next, a wonderfully detailed and atmospheric Victorian street scene that you can walk through. As you go you enter the different shops and homes along the street. This was so well done I actually found it slightly uncomfortable to walk round.
Another powerful exhibit covered the first world war. It is set up as if you are in the trenches complete with a tunnel for the kids to climb through and a periscope to look into no man’s land. The boys got to fill in their enlistment papers at the beginning. They also picked one of six people from different backgrounds and follow their individual stories as we went to each section. We found out what happened to them during the course of the war, a really effective way to bring things to life for the kids.
We then had a whistle stop tour through the 60s, all psychedelic clothes and the Beatles before heading in to York Castle Prison, the buildings original purpose. Projections in each of the cells told the story of people imprisoned here and you can even see examples of graffiti scratched into the stone by them. Quite eerie!
[Entry to York Castle Museum is £10 for an adult ticket with kids going free with a paying adult (or free with a York Pass or for YMT members). Open 9:30am-5pm. Website is here.]
Bright and early the next morning we headed down for our pre-booked session at York Dungeons. This is really popular so it is well worth booking your time in advance or turning up for opening time at 10am to avoid queuing for too long.
You move through about a dozen rooms with a group. Each one tells a grizzly tale from marauding Vikings to the plague to Guy Fawkes. The scenes are detailed and the live actors in each section were brilliant. Funny and scary, interacting with the group but carefully picking on those who were keen to join in and avoiding anyone who looked like they were getting uncomfortable. It’s really well done.
A word of warning though, it is genuinely scary in some parts, with bits that make you jump, loud noises, darkness and the odd bit of pretend blood spraying at you (not to mention a thing with some leaches that I won’t spoil for you). They recommend it for 8 years and up but obviously, kids’ tolerance for that sort of thing varies. T (who is nearly 8) did find it a bit much but still made it all the way round holding my hand.
[Entry to York Dungeons is from £12 per person booked in advance or £16.95 on the door (or free with a York Pass or for Merlin Pass holders). Open 10am-5pm. Website is here. You can also find offers on tickets here.]
The York City Cruise leaves from King’s Staith Landing, just round the corner from the dungeons. After a quick pitstop for a drink and delicious blondie we boarded and headed up to the top deck to look around.
York is a pretty compact city to walk around. You don’t need a cruise to see it. However, this hour long meander up and down the river is a lovely break in a busy weekend. They do have a bar on board and sell snacks. I’d suggest bringing some sandwiches and enjoying your lunch with a view and a little commentary as you go.
[Cruise Tickets from £22.50 for a daytime family ticket booked in advance or £25 on the quay (or free with a York Pass). Open 10:30am-10:30pm. Website is here.]
City Centre & The Shambles
Our energy restored, we headed up towards our next museum stop. We wandered through the pretty city centre and the famous Shambles.
Even if York weren’t so packed full of tourist attractions I think you’d still be happy enough just wandering around here. Enjoying the buildings, the street performers, the ice creams and all the great restaurants and cafes. The kids rode on a carousel and had a go on a bouncy castle. All fab unscheduled stops that made the fact that we got ever so slightly lost into a good thing.
Yorkshire Museum & Gardens
The Yorkshire Museum is a more ‘traditional’ kind of museum than the Castle Museum. Covering natural history and ancient and medieval history, you’ll see things like fossils and Roman mosaics. Spread over three small floors, you’ll probably only need about 90 minutes to 2 hours for a visit.
It’s free to visit the gardens which contain the medieval ruins of St. Mary’s Abbey so do leave some extra time to look around. This is another great option to sit and eat a picnic lunch.
[Entry to the gardens is free and museum entry costs £6.81 for an adult (or free with a York Pass) Children go free with a paying adult. Open 10am-5pm. Website is here.]
Jorvik Viking Centre
The Jorvik Viking Centre is one of York’s best known and most popular attractions. You can expect long queues at peak times. Luckily, once again we’d booked into the first session of the day at 10am and got straight in. With some directions from a Viking maiden, we boarded what looked like a section of a roller coaster. We then travelled around a Viking village with commentary in our headrests. The village is full of moving figures going about daily life. They’re cooking, fishing, making clothes and trading, bringing it all to life. The ‘ride’ section takes about 20 minutes.
Then you disembark and move into a museum section where you’ll also find several costumed guides explaining the exhibits. Lastly, there’s the obligatory gift shop. Here you’ll probably have to forcibly remove Viking helmets and swords from your children while they attempt to demonstrate some marauding. Again, 90 minutes or so will be enough here for all but the most Viking obsessed.
[Family tickets start at £32 (or free with a York Pass) and there are also combined tickets available with Dig or Barley Hall. Open 10am-5pm. Website is here. You can also find offers on tickets here.]
Dig is a hands-on archaeological adventure giving kids the chance to become trainee ‘diggers’. Honestly, I enjoyed it as much as the kids! In small groups, you start with a briefing about what archaeology is and what we can learn from the things we find. Next kids can dig down deep (in synthetic, no mess soil) to discover artefacts from the four major periods of York’s fascinating history.
You then get hands on with history. Actually touching finds from previous YAT digs, including pottery, bone and even antlers! You discover what these artefacts tell us about the lives of people who used them. The whole session is led by a really knowledgeable and friendly guide. They ask lots of leading questions to get the kids thinking about what they’re doing. Toby found out that his Viking would have been making important things from antler. Elliot’s Viking fished for and sold oysters.
I can’t recommend Dig highly enough. It was both educational and genuinely fun. Our guide did a brilliant job of including all the kids. She really helped them feel confident about asking and answering questions. Definitely don’t miss Dig next time you’re in York.
[Family tickets start at £20 (or free with a York Pass) and there are also combined tickets available with Jorvik or Barley Hall. Open 10am-5pm. Website is here.]
Probably the most iconic of York’s sights, it’s hard to describe quite how impressive York Minster is in real life. Even my boys, who aren’t normally too bothered about these sorts of things, were struck by its size and beautiful detail. It somehow seems even bigger once you step inside. Imagining what it must have taken to design and build something of this scale with the tools available so many years ago is quite staggering.
Since work was carried out to strengthen the foundations a new museum type exhibit is now open under the minster. You can also pay extra to climb up to the top of the tower. I’m told the views are amazing but I chickened out when I heard how many stairs were involved.
[Entry costs £11 for an adult (or free with a York Pass) Children go free with a paying adult. Opening times vary so do check before you visit. Website is here.]
Our Top York Attractions
We really enjoyed our stay in York and will definitely be going back. There’s so much to do and all the attractions we visited lived up to expectations. A rare thing nowadays! If we had to pick our favourite things to do in York with kids. Then top of the list would be Dig and the York Castle Museum. They really stood out (in a strong field!) for offering such an engaging experience for the whole family. Both are perfect examples of how history doesn’t have to be a ‘dry’ subject. They got the kids enthusiastically asking questions and imagining themselves in so many different situations.
What we missed
With so many things to do in York with kids, we had no chance of seeing everything in one weekend. Next time we will definitely check out the National Railway Museum (website), York Art Gallery (website), the Cold War Bunker (website) and walk the Castle walls. If we’d had more time I’d also love to explore outside of the city. Nearby attractions like Castle Howard, Helmsley Castle, Scarborough Sealife Centre or the National Centre for Birds of Prey are all great family days out. York Pass can be used to access all of those too.
Eating out in York
York has a great mix of restaurants and cafes to suit all tastes and budgets. You’ll find all the usual family friendly chains plus lots of independent offerings. Our favourite find of the weekend was the Double Dutch Pancake House (website) which along with places like Bill’s and Hotel Du Vin offer a discount to York Pass Holders. There are also a great array of street vendors for snacks on the go.
Our verdict on York Pass
The downside of having so much to do in York is that the costs of tickets for a family can add up quickly. The three day York Pass for 1 adult and 2 children costs £140. While it’s worth doing some sums to take into account the various offers available. For combined tickets or places where children go free I think in most cases you’ll find this will work out as a significant saving. If you add in the discounts on eating out we would have saved over £100 over the weekend. York Pass also gives you the advantage of paying once and then not having to worry about getting tickets for each place you want to visit. There’s also the flexibility to change your plans as you go. It seems like a no brainer to me. You can find all you need to know about York Pass here.
For York on a budget do check out my top 10 free things to do in York
If you liked Things to do in York with Kids then don’t forget to check out some of our other trips.
If castles are your bag have a look at The best castles in Hampshire.
[Note: We funded our trip to York but were provided with a York Pass for the weekend by Visit York. All opinions are, as ever, my own.]