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York: capital of England's north
A brief look at York's long history
Like many English cities, York's origins are lost in prehistory. It's first recorded in the late first century AD as the Roman city of Eboracum. It became an important trading center and it was here that the legions proclaimed Constantine emperor before he went on to convert the empire to Christianity. Some of the original city walls can still be seen.
After the Roman legions left around 410 AD, York remained a political and religious center under the Angles until the Vikings took it over in 866. Contrary to popular opinion, the Vikings weren't all seafaring raiders. In England they came to settle, once they got their fill of looting and burning that is. Known as Jórvik, it became one of the biggest cities in the Viking world. In the Middle Ages its economic and religious influence continued to grow and it remains one of the biggest cities in the north of England today. The Yorkshire Museum gives a good rundown of the city's history.
Five things to do in York
1. Visit the Minster. York's cathedral is a masterpiece of medieval architecture. The minster is one of the most grandiose cathedrals built in the Middle Ages. Much of it dates to the 13th century but there are some older and newer bits as well. Soaring Gothic architecture, weird gargoyles, and beautiful stained glass windows make this a place you can stare at for hours.
2. Wander the streets. York's medieval center still retains some of its historic charm. Many of the buildings are hundreds of years old, and the winding little streets give you a feel for past times, minus the Black Death and open sewers. Keep a sharp eye out for carved wooden figures that used to act as neighborhood signs in the days when most people were illiterate.
3. Vikings! The Jorvik Viking Centre is one of the most popular attractions in northern England. Set atop an archaeological excavation of the Viking city, you can see foundations of Viking buildings under a glass floor before hopping on a ride that takes you through a village of animatronic Vikings. No, I'm not kidding, and it's as silly as it sounds. Anyone over ten will probably feel a little embarrassed by the whole show and leave knowing only slightly more about the Vikings than when they arrived. Your kids will love it, though, especially when they spot the constipated Viking groaning in the outhouse.
5. Visit the Merchant Adventurers' Hall. Medieval churches and streets are a dime a dozen here in historic Europe, but how often do you get to see a medieval guildhall? As international commerce rose in the late Middle Ages, trade guilds became more important. Eventually their power displaced rivaled even the king's and led to the capitalist society we have today. Merchants have been meeting in this timber-framed mansion for 650 years to plan voyages and explore new trade routes. On display are some of the treasures they brought back, as well as a letter to Henry VIII complaining that one of their ships got attacked by pirates!
There's also a beautifully preserved Norman castle with a grim history. I'll be talking about that in my next post in the series--Castles of Yorkshire.
Shopping in York
York's labyrinthine streets are filled with shops selling everything from local produce (I highly recommend the cheese) to toys and fashion. It's hard to give a breakdown of all there is to buy, since pretty much everything is available. Visit York has a good online shopping guide where you can search by subject. One thing I noticed was that it has one of the biggest selections of used and antiquarian bookshops of any English town I've visited. There are plenty of antique shops too, but they're only for those with a healthy bank account.
Drinking and Dining in York
There's no shortage of good eats in Yorkshire. Once again Visit York has a good online guide. My favorite was Bettys Cafe Tea Rooms, which for almost a century has been serving up great tea, scones, and desserts in elegant Art Deco surroundings. It's usually packed, though, so be prepared to wait in line. They have a shop too. York has a large number of restaurants for all budgets and there's a good selection of pubs serving Yorkshire real ales. I recommend Mars Magic by Wold Top Brewery and Black Sheep Ale by Black Sheep Brewery. Both are dark, rich, full beers that make your average lager look and taste thinner than air.
Pluses and minuses
York is a great destination for shopping, dining, and sightseeing, but try to go off-season. The city center is incredibly crowded during the summer, and most weekends no matter what the time of year. This is one of the most touristy spots in England, and lacking the hugeness of London it can feel a bit cramped. It's still well worth a visit, though.
So if you're traveling through England's north, don't skip its greatest city!
Don't miss the rest of my series on Exploring Yorkshire: ghosts, castles, and literature in England's north.
Coming up next: The castles of Yorkshire!
This trip was sponsored by VisitEngland and Welcome to Yorkshire.