If you're visiting York in the UK for the first time, get ready to be blown away by its rich history. The city is filled with old buildings and sites from Medieval and Roman times, all kept in great shape.
York has a history that goes back 2,000 years. It's been under Roman, Viking, and Anglo-Saxon rule. The city's past is fascinating, if a little spooky. Back in the days of the Romans and Vikings, York was a very popular place.
It's easy to see why York was visited by 8.9 million people in 2002.
Here is our list of 14 things to do in York that are free or only cost a few pounds.
1. Walk Along The Shambles
Whenever you see an image of York, you probably see The Shambles, a maze of tiny, narrow, medieval streets full of character.
This is one of the most visited old streets in Europe, and once you arrive, you will see why, as it's like stepping back in time. During the day, it can be jam-packed, as it is full of tourists. We recommend you pop back in the evening when the crowds have gone. It has almost a ghostly feeling to it and makes you wonder if the walls could tell what stories they would be able to tell.
The Shambles is full of small independent shops selling little knick-knacks and old pubs, which are the perfect place for a pint after walking all day. This is the best free thing to do in York.
2. Walk Along The City Walls
There is something charming about old cities with walls; the ones in York are about 700 years old and well-maintained. The good thing about the walls is that they are free to walk around, but you can book a paid guided tour if you want to learn more about them as you walk along.
The walk along the walls is just under 2 miles long and easy to navigate. Our tip would be to get up early, grab yourself a takeaway coffee, and walk along these before the rest of the city wakes up; it's a great way to start the day.
The council inspects the walls daily, and if the weather is icy or unpleasant, the entry to the walls is closed off.
Walk the walls if you can; it's one of the best free things to do in York.
3. York Art Gallery
Luckily, most art galleries and museums in the UK are free.
The York Art Gallery features a stunningly updated display area, presenting its renowned collection of Victorian, Modern, and Contemporary art. This includes masterpieces from artists such as Walter Sickert, Sir Stanley Spencer, David Bomberg, Paul Nash, David Hockney, Sarah Lucas, and Henri Fantin-Latour.
The gallery shows Italian Old Master paintings together with new findings. Borrowed items from extensive public collections add to this.
York Art Gallery also has the Centre of Ceramic Art (CoCA) on the old Victorian roof. Everyone can see the gallery's primary collection for free. On the first floor, different shows change often. You can get tickets for these shows online or when you visit, but this part is not free. It is still one of the best cheap things to do in York!
Compared to other art galleries in the UK, it's smaller and better, but it's an excellent way to spend an hour or two without spending a penny.
4. Rowntree Park
If you need to escape the city for peace and quiet, head to Rowntree Park. It is one of the best free things to do with kids in York.
It's about a 20-minute walk alongside the river from the city center and is time well spent.
The park is not quite as grand as it used to be, but it's still a great place to spend a few hours if the kids are driving you up the wall. There are tennis and basketball courts and a few playgrounds.
There are also many charming flower beds, statues, ponds, arboretums, and wildlife. Bring some bread to feed the ducks and geese. Be careful with York's birdlife, though – these cheeky web-footed blighters might come right up and nip the bread out of your hands!
5. Cliffords Tower
Clifford's Tower is the last remaining part of what was York Castle. It's a famous landmark shown in many pictures of York and is on the top of a grassy mound built by William the Conqueror.
You can walk around the tower from the outside for free, but we think it's worth paying £9 ($11), which is quite affordable to go inside. Inside, you will discover plenty of history and get 360-degree views from the top, giving you great views of the city of York.
Bus stops are right outside, and the Red City tour bus stops here. You may only need an hour or two as it's small, and most people just go for the views!
6. Yorkshire Museum
Yorkshire Museum is a great family day out in York as it only costs £8 ($10) for adults to enter (if booked online) or £9.50 ($12) if you turn up on the day.
Once inside, you can learn about York's history, prehistory, and medieval times.
Some of the main highlights are the Roman mosaic floor and St William's Shrine, and there's even a part about monsters of the deep that roamed Yorkshire when it was underwater thousands of years ago.
Older kids will love it as plenty of interactive displays keep them interested, but children under five might get bored.
Staff are always on hand to tell you more about the displays; they know their stuff and are very enthusiastic.
7. Yorkshire Museum Gardens
If you don't want to pay to enter the main museum, you could try the gardens as they are free. However, to help with the upkeep, visitors are asked to donate so that people can enjoy the gardens for years to come.
This is a plant lovers paradise, and inside, you will find loads of different plants, plenty of wildlife, and historical features.
Set up in the 1830s by the Yorkshire Philosophical Society, these gardens are known for their great variety of trees, bushes, and flowers. They are located near the old ruins of St. Mary's Abbey, which makes them even more beautiful.
The main gardens are open from 9 am to 6 pm.
The Gardens team will give you simple tips and help determine what plants suit your garden.
Put this on your list as things to do for free in York.
8. Holy Trinity Church
Holy Trinity Goodramgate is a hidden secret and is one of the best free things to do in york. You can even get a free guided tour if you want one, or walk around at your own pace.
It's in a quiet, small yard with many trees, and you can see the Minster behind it. You'll find it hidden behind Goodramgate, one of Europe's busiest streets.
To get there, you go through an old archway from the 1700s attached to buildings used for craftsmen's workshops back in the 1300s.
The church is unique. Its floors and arches are a little unaligned, which adds to its charm. It features a large stained glass window from the 1470s, given by John Walker, who used to lead the church.
Overall, you need less than an hour to walk around here.
9. National Railway Museum
This isn't just one of the best free things to do in York but also one of the best things to do with families in York. Best of all, it won't cost you a penny, and we think you will find it hard to find something as good as this for the family to do for free!
Despite being free, they do like it if you donate, and it costs £10 to park in the car park, which catches some people out, so get the bus in if you can.
Some special exhibits like the Flying Scotsman VR and the kids' play area cost extra, but this is a bit of a hit with visitors, so it's worth paying a few pounds to do this.
Most people like looking at the trains and learning their history, which is interesting.
The museum has a lovely, relaxed feel, with big cafes and trains in a wide-open space.
10. York Observatory
This can be found in the gardens of the Yorkshire Museum, which we mentioned earlier. It is one of the UK's oldest observatories and was built in 1832.
It's free to enter, but it has limited opening hours as it is run solely by volunteers and only opens from 11:30 am to 2 pm from Thursday to Saturday.
It was nearly demolished back in 1980, but £50,000 was raised to save it, so please donate if you visit to help keep it going.
11. Join a Free Walking Tour
We are big fans of free walking tours at The Frugal Expat, although we don't like to think of them as being completely free. These tours accept tips at the end, and we always believe you should give a few pounds for someone giving up their time; it will still be cheaper than joining a paid tour.
There are a few free tours, depending on your interests.
The museum gardens have a walking tour that runs every Sunday,
The Association of Voluntary Guides runs a free tour every day at 10:15 am and 1:15 pm from just outside the York Art Gallery in Exhibition Square.
Another company called White Rose York Tours starts outside York Minster at 11 am and 3 pm daily.
12. Walk Around the Markets
This is one of the free things to do in York, depending on if you purchase anything!
The most famous market is the Shambles Market, which is open every day. You can find stalls selling a selection of clothes, gifts, and food.
Another popular market is Parliament Square, which is open almost every weekend and has a fantastic market at Christmas time.
13. Walk Around Dean Park
Dean Park is a big, open park right next to York Minster. It's got great views of the Minster and the City Walls, and entry is free! The park looks nice in spring when many crocus flowers are around. It's usually open from early morning until it gets dark.
It's a perfect place to wander around and take in the stunning views of the Minster and the buildings close to it.
14. York Library
Visitors of York Library can drop by to pick up and read books, use the computers or printers, or enjoy the quiet study areas on the first floor.
The Archive is recognized internationally and offers a glimpse into York's history and heritage. The staff are always ready to assist with any questions.
A spacious and welcoming cafe for families also offers tasty coffee, hot drinks, locally-made cakes, snacks, and light meals.
It's also a place where visitors can discover new artists, with various exhibitions showcased throughout the year.
This list of mainly free attractions in York, England, makes planning your trip easier. You should plan to stay in York for at least one night and a full day, but two nights would be even better.
There are probably some free things that we missed off the list. If there's anything you think should be on here, please let us know in the comments below.
I’m Steve. I’m an English Teacher, traveler, and an avid outdoorsman. If you’d like to comment, ask a question, or simply say hi, leave me a message here, on Twitter (@thefrugalexpat1). Many of my posts have been written to help those in their journey to financial independence. I am on my journey, and as I learn more I hope to share more. And as always, thanks for reading The Frugal Expat.