London may justifiably be the main drawcard in England, but if you have to pick just one city to make a side trip to, York deserves to be top of the list. It's partly a looks thing – the city's Roman, Viking and medieval heritage has given it a higgledy-piggledy splendour. But York has also got a superb concentration of attractions – even the smaller museums end up being rather fascinating – and more than its fair share of atmospheric old-school pubs.
Even people who are phenomenally bored of traipsing around Europe's churches and cathedrals should get a genuine thrill out of York Minster. One of the most glorious pieces of Gothic architecture on earth, there's a sense of spectacle that's complemented by the history-packed displays in the undercroft and the majestic views out over the city from the tower.
In a city absolutely chock-a-block with quaint tea rooms, the York Cocoa House (yorkcocoahouse.co.uk) deserves credit for breaking the mould somewhat. It offers chocolate-making lessons, serves hot chocolate from a recipe going back centuries and the "afternoon chocolate" menu has – well, you guessed it – in everything. That includes the savoury wraps and rarebit slices.
York's independent shopping scene is tremendous, with lots of oddities clustered around Petergate, Stonegate, Fossgate and the Shambles. The latter is a perma-packed but undeniably photogenic cobbled lane, practically designed for mooching. W. Hamond's jewellery store (whitbyjetstore.com) there specialises in jet, Yorkshire's signature black semi-precious stone.
York's most enjoyable historical attraction is the Jorvik Viking Centre (jorvik-viking-centre.co.uk). There's some serious archaeology in there, going into the era when the Vikings ruled the city. But there's also a lot of fun too – especially the theme park-esque ride which pretends to go back in time, then stops off in the reconstructed city streets from hundreds of years ago.
It's a city crammed with B&Bs, but if you want to splash out, The Grand (thegrandyork.co.uk) is the best option. It's the city's only five star, and the pool and spa help boost the pamper factor. The specialist whisky lounge is a good last port of call for the evening before heading to bed, too. A junior suite costs from $576 including breakfast.
The city centre is pretty much closed off to cars, and all the key attractions are within walking distance of each other. Given the good train links to Manchester and London, hiring a car to get there will likely prove far more of a hindrance than a help.
David Whitley was a guest of Visit York (visityork.org).