The Romans and Vikings left their mark on a city that claims to be Britain's most haunted, writes David Whitley.
York is B&B central and the best value options depend on which have rooms going spare. First stop for finding sub-£50 a night options should be a site such as booking.com, where a large list of discounted B&Bs can be found in price order. Blossoms (28 Clifton, 652 391, blossomsyork.co.uk) and the Park View Guesthouse (22 Haxby Road, 611 396, parkviewguest
house.co.uk) are two decent bets at the lower end of the scale. Otherwise, try the cheaper chain hotels — book in advance and there's a reasonable chance of finding a double in the solid but unremarkable Ibis (77 The Mount, 658 301, ibishotel.com) from £40.
The B&B rooms at Hedley House (pictured, 3 Bootham Terrace, 637 404, hedleyhouse.com) are OK but nothing to get excited about and the attached self-catering apartments are the real bargain. There's a minimum three-night stay but with a full kitchen and recent makeover, prices from £75 a night are a steal. The refurbished large doubles at Elliotts B&B (2 Sycamore Place, 623 333, elliottshotel.co.uk) are fab — they're super spacious, have leather sofas and oak furniture with a contemporary look. Hotel 53 (53 Picadilly, 559 000, hotel53.com, from £75) isn't nearly as designer and quirky as it thinks it is but it's a bright, modern alternative to the usual chain hotels.
The Royal York Hotel (Station Parade, 653 681, royalhotelyork.co.uk) next to the train station is geared towards conference guests but not lazily so; the decor is pleasantly fresh and bright. Ask for a garden rather than railway view room; prices start at £125. The rooms at the wine-themed Hotel du Vin (88 The Mount, 557 350, hotelduvin.com, from £125) are a little small but touches such as heated bathroom floor tiles and ultra-comfy beds make up for it. For Regency-style grandeur, The Grange (1 Clifton, 644 744, grangehotel.co.uk) offers drawing rooms, libraries, an arched lobby and big four-poster beds for from £130.
York has two top-end options — Middlethorpe Hall & Spa (pictured, Bishopthorpe Road, 641 241, www.middlethorpe
.com) and the Cedar Court Grand (Station Rise, 380 038, cedarcourtgrand
.co.uk). The former is a grand, National Trust-owned pile with its own spa, lavishly traditional rooms and top-notch service from £199 a night. The £215-plus deluxe rooms at the Cedar Court Grand would be regarded as suites anywhere else. They're seriously spacious and have all the requisite five-star elements — Egyptian cotton, bathrobes, underfloor heating, spa and pool. Alternatively, try Cafe Concerto's Music House Apartment (see Eat + Drink) with two bedrooms, full kitchen, York Minster views and a raft of high-tech amenities from £245 a night.
York's strength is its sheer number of attractions — it's difficult to be bored for long. But costs can mount up and thus the Yorkshire Pass (550 099, yorkshirepass.com) is worth the investment. Offering entry into more than 70 attractions in the city and surrounding region — plus discounts on tours, theatre tickets and restaurant meals — the pass costs between £34 and £72 for a duration of one to six days.
Singapore Airlines (singaporeair.com), Emirates (emirates.com) and Etihad (etihadairways.com) all fly Sydney to Manchester with only one brief layover. Direct trains run from Manchester to York and take about two hours.
Visas and currency
Australian passport holders don't need a visa to enter the UK unless they're planning to work while there. The currency is pounds sterling and £1 equals about $1.60.
The UK dialling code is +44, and the York code is 01904. To call from abroad add +44 1904 to the six-digit numbers here. Other numbers are listed in full.
visityork.org, 550 099.
David Whitley was a guest of Visit York.
SHOP + PLAY
The Newgate Market (pictured, www.york.gov.uk) is the big one in York. Held in a square between The Shambles and Parliament Street every day, there are 110 stalls — most of which are of interest to locals rather than visitors. That said, among the chaps selling mobile-phone cases you will find artists flogging caricatures of rock legends, plenty of fresh food and the occasional crafty gem. There is also a host of themed markets running on various dates throughout the year, such as a craft market over the Easter holidays and a number of Christmas markets in November and December.
York's pedestrianised streets and "snickelways" are full of quirky, independent shops — a refreshing change from many British high streets. The Shambles, a cobbled affair prettified by overhanging Tudor buildings, is the most famous and is lined with booksellers, fudge makers, vintage fashion outlets and woodcarvers, among others. Low Petergate also has some niche stores alongside more mainstream names; cat enthusiasts, Christmas lovers and lace obsessives are catered for with dedicated shops. Meanwhile, you can pick up local specialities such as parkin, Henderson's Relish and sloe gin truffles at foodie treasure trove, The Yorkshire Pantry (18 High Petergate, 675 100, theyorkshirepantry.com).
Based in the mediaeval St Margaret's Church on Walmgate, the National Centre for Early Music (658 338, ncem.co.uk) hosts a series of jazz, folk and pre-Renaissance concerts. For up-and-coming bands, Fibbers (pictured, 8-10 Stonebow House, 651 250, fibbers.co.uk) is the place to head to. It's a dark, tatty joint where the air reeks of sweat but that's part of its non-corporate charm. The musical line-up at the Grand Opera House (4 Cumberland Street, 678 700, grandoperahouseyork.org.uk) can be something of a has-beens parade — the act bookers veer towards "hits from your youth" but the odd classic artist shows up now and again.
If you want to go clubbing, then you're in the wrong city. York's clubs are generally described in shades of awful by even the most rose-tinted resident. The locals head to Leeds if they want a credible night out. But if you absolutely insist on hitting the dance floor, the Stone Roses Bar (4 King Street, 670 696, stonerosesbaryork.com) pumps out a predictable indie mix for those who want to pretend it's the early '90s in Manchester. Post-live band, Fibbers morphs into a rockier club at the weekends and a drum'n'bass/dubstep zone on Wednesday nights.
SEE + DO
York Minster (+44 844 939 0015, www.yorkminster.org) is the largest Gothic cathedral in Northern Europe and, while the stained glass windows and chapter house are spectacular, the archaeological treasures and Roman-era foundations in the undercroft are truly extraordinary. York was a Viking capital as well as a major Roman outpost and the Jorvik Viking Centre (pictured, 15 Coppergate Walk, 543 400, jorvik-viking-centre.co.uk) takes you back to the time of horned helmets in a blur of archaeology, rides and interactive screens. Train geeks will love the National Railway Museum (Leeman Road, +44 844 815 3139,nrm.org.uk), which has a superb collection — including the only bullet train outside Japan.
To start getting to grips with York's action-packed history, the Yorkshire Museum (Museum Gardens, 687 687, yorkshiremuseum.org.uk) is the best bet. Displays cover everything from extinct wildlife to York's time as a Roman garrison town. The York Art Gallery (Exhibition Square, 687 687, yorkartgallery.org.uk) is hardly the Louvre or the Uffizi but it hosts a decent collection of largely British art and the frequently changing special exhibitions are worth a look on a rainy day. For stage junkies, the Theatre Royal (St Leonard's Place, 623 568, yorktheatreroyal.co.uk) hosts a number of local and touring productions.
The 3.4-kilometre circuit around York's well-preserved city walls, pictured, offers imperious views over the city's five mediaeval gateways and the attractions contained within. It's possible to cover the main Viking hot spots in around an hour — and on the York Viking Walk local historian S.P. Grey (+44 750 801 5610, yorkvikingwalk.com) will guide you to them for £5. For strolling of a more confusing nature, try the York Maze (Elvington Lane, 607 341, yorkmaze.com). Constructed from maize (it's all about the pun) every year, this huge labyrinth in a field is a sure-fire winner with the kids.
Follow the leader
York Walk (622 303, yorkwalk.co.uk, £5.50) runs a great range of guided walking tours throughout the city, with themes including historic pubs, hidden York and former British kings. If you'd prefer to put your feet up, then a 45-minute cruise around York's rivers with York Boat (628 324, yorkboat.co.uk) may be just the ticket for £7.50. But the one type of tour you'll be hard-pushed to avoid is a ghost tour. York bills itself as Britain's most haunted city and there are numerous companies to take you around creepy buildings, telling bone-chilling tales on the way. Ghost Hunt (608 700, www.ghosthunt.co.uk, £5) is one of the best.
EAT + DRINK
Opposite York Minster, the relaxing Cafe Concerto (pictured, 21 High Petergate, 610 478, cafeconcerto.biz) is covered in sheet music and has instruments hanging from the wall. It dishes up everything from Cajun-spiced salmon to gourmet sandwiches and cakes. Melton's Too (25 Walmgate, 629 222, meltonstoo.co.uk) concentrates on regional produce and you can choose between cafe-style tapas downstairs or the swisher bistro upstairs. For afternoon tea, Betty's (6 St Helen's Square, 659 142, bettys.co.uk) is the tourist-magnet stalwart that has been serving up traditional Yorkshire cream teas for years. And to cap it all off, it's in a prime people-watching spot, too.
El Piano (15 Grape Lane, 610 676, el-piano.com) is a cafe-restaurant specialising in vegan and gluten-free products but also dishes out soups, salads and tapas-style dishes to take away through a window hatch. Henshelwood's Deli (10 Newgate, 673 877, deliyork.co.uk) offers salad boxes and lip-smacking gourmet sandwiches with fillings such as wild boar paté and Whitby crab. They will even pack you up a full picnic for a day out. The cunning genius award goes to York Hog Roast (4 Stonegate), however. It serves up cracking hot roast pork sandwiches all day but stays open until 1am for the post-pub munchies crowd at the weekend.
Top of the town
Dessert lovers should hotfoot it to the wood-panelled dining room at Middlethorpe Hall — the apple crumble souffle is staggeringly good, although the pricey mains are beautifully cooked, too. In the city itself, J Baker's (7 Fossgate, 622 688, jbakers.co.uk) is regarded as top dog. There's a sleek, modern-but-informal look that's unusual in a city that likes to play the heritage card but the little twists on British classics are what bring in the plaudits. The eight-course tasting menu at Nineteen (19 Grape Lane, 636 366, nineteenyork.com) for £40 a head is also a treat.
By the glass
What York does best is historic old pubs serving a great range of real ales. The city is brimming with them but The Maltings (Tanner's Moat, 655 387) and The King's Arms (3 Kings Staith, 659 435) are arguably the best. The most interesting deviations from the norm are both entered through bottle shops. The House of the Trembling Madness (pictured, 48 Stonegate, 640 001) is in a rooftop mediaeval drinking hall and has the beams to prove it. There's an excellent selection of Belgian beers, single-malt whiskies and tempting food platters available. The Evil Eye Lounge (42 Stonegate, 640 002) is a slightly ramshackle student back bar that specialises in killer cocktails and Thai food.