When my husband and I returned to the English city of York recently, it felt like meeting an old friend again after a long absence — which in a way it was.

Nineteen years ago, our family lived for a semester in nearby Ilkley, a small town in the Yorkshire Dales. On our frequent trips to York we fell in love with the city’s narrow streets, encircling medieval wall and visitor attractions that reveal layers of history dating back to the Romans.

York street scene
York’s Shambles
Credit: visityork.org

On our return visit, York didn’t disappoint. In fact, this city in the north of England has blossomed into an even better tourist destination. That’s due in part to its association with the Harry Potter books: Diagon Alley is said to be based on York’s Shambles, a cobblestone street with buildings dating back to the 14th century. York has found a way to be both hip and historic, with a lively dining scene and a quirky vibe.

Historic highlights

We began our visit with an evensong service at the York Minster, the glorious cathedral that’s visible from nearly everywhere in the city. The choir’s ethereal music soared inside the massive structure, which was built over a span of 250 years and consecrated in 1472. The minster is the symbolic heart of the city and the largest Gothic cathedral in Europe, with splendid medieval stained glass and a museum in its undercroft that covers two millennia of York history.

The next day, we explored one of the city’s most fascinating eras at the Jorvik Viking Centre. Scandinavian warriors conquered northern England in 866 and made Jorvik their capital (Jorvik, pronounced “your-vik,” later became York). In the 1970s, archaeologists discovered the remains of a Viking settlement underneath the streets of the city. A multi-year dig revealed the best-preserved Viking Age settlement ever found, a warren of tightly packed houses, workshops and streets.

York Jorvik Viking Centre
Jorvik Viking Centre
Credit: Bob Sessions

Staffed by friendly guides dressed as Vikings, the center tells the story of the Norse who lived here in the 10th century. First, we rode in a gondola-like car through a re-creation of a Viking neighborhood, complete with animatronic residents speaking Old Norse and the piped-in smells of manure. Later, we saw some of the artifacts found here, which ranged from tools and pieces of jewelry to a piece of fossilized Viking poop displayed like it was a precious jewel (proving that historians get excited about the darndest things).

Another highlight was a decorated comb made from antler bone. “It took one of our staff members a hundred hours to create a similar comb,” said a guide. “It’s no wonder combs were considered luxury items to the Vikings.”

The Richard III Experience, an attraction tucked into one of the guard towers in the city’s medieval wall, provided us with insights into another chapter of York history. Richard III, who has a villainous reputation thanks to Shakespeare, emerges as a more complex character in the museum’s displays.

“You Americans will never be able to keep all the names straight,” said a guide with a smile as he handed us a cheat sheet detailing the royal dynasties.

From chocolate to ghosts

shop in York, England
A shop in York’s Shambles
Credit: Bob Sessions

Wanting a break from the blood and gore of English history, we next took a chocolate tour, another signature York attraction. During the 18th and 19th centuries the city gave birth to several of the biggest companies in the British candy industry, and it continues to be the main production center for KitKats, one of the world’s most popular chocolate bars. Our tour concluded with the chance to make chocolate treats of our own, including some delicious passion-fruit truffles.

We savored our homemade treats as we strolled the city later that afternoon. York is a walker’s paradise, with a largely car-free historic center and winding streets filled with vintage pubs, charming shops and architectural gems. In the medieval street the Shambles, we were amused to see several stores dedicated to Harry Potter, from the World of Wizardry to the Shop That Shall Not Be Named. Later in the day, we strolled the beautifully preserved medieval town walls that stretch for 2 miles around the city, and then took a sunset cruise on the River Ouse that winds through the center of York.

River Ouse Yorkshire
River Ouse
Credit: Bob Sessions

Finally, we ended our stay with another York tradition: a ghost tour. The city is said to be among the most haunted in Europe and is full of pubs, hotels and shops that claim resident spirits. While we didn’t see any ghosts, we did hear some intriguing tales. We concluded that York is so attractive that even its dead want to remain in residence — and as visitors drawn back after nearly 20 years, we could understand their reluctance to leave.

Yorkshire tour

Fans of the classic TV series All Creatures Great and Small will find that much of Yorkshire looks familiar. This county that surrounds the city of York has emerald hills, windswept moors, paddocks enclosed by stone walls and countless sheep. Two national parks — the North York Moors and Yorkshire Dales — offer exceptional hiking ranging from easy strolls to multiday treks.

Rievaulx in Yorkshire
Credit: Bob Sessions

Castle Howard, one of the grandest estates in England, offers glimpses into the lifestyles of the landed gentry. The 18th-century home’s formal gardens, expansive parklands, and an interior are certain to fascinate any Downton Abbey fan.

The ruined abbey of Rievaulx is among the most picturesque of the numerous abandoned medieval churches that dot the Yorkshire countryside (other scenic spots include Fountains Abbey and Bolton Abbey). Deserted after King Henry VIII severed ties with the Roman Catholic Church in 1534, these melancholy abbeys have long provided inspiration to poets, artists and romantics.

Bird lovers (or twitchers, as they’re called in England) will love the National Centre for Birds of Prey, which has dozens of species living in 50 aviaries on the grounds of Duncombe Park. Flying demonstrations allow you to see the birds at their acrobatic best.

Bird of Prey Centre Yorkshire
National Centre for Birds of Prey
Credit: Bob Sessions

And finally, one of the delights of touring Yorkshire are its many delightful small towns. Among the most scenic are the coastal gem of Whitby, famous for its association with Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and Thirsk, which celebrates its ties to James Herriot of All Creatures Great and Small fame. Stroll their streets, then indulge in a cream tea — scones with clotted cream and jam accompanied by a steaming pot of tea. The classic English treat is worth every calorie.

If you go

York is a two-hour train ride or four-hour car trip from London. For more information on York, see visityork.org, and for information on Yorkshire, see yorkshire.com.

Article by Lori Erickson