Ah, York. A city that exists somewhere on the continuum between an Epcot Center version of itself (Jorvik Viking Centre, I’m looking at you) and the magical English village of your dreams (a stroll in The Shambles is a trip to “Ye Merrie Olde England” indeed.)
It begs the question as to what is REAL York? My 24 hours there didn’t give me an answer, but here’s what I found there and what I loved (and didn’t) in my brief window of time on a beautiful fall day.
First off, I had a York Pass, and it led me to discover that small is big in York. The tour tower of York Minster is just a pricey hike up to a view, and The Jorvik Viking Centre tries to turn people who actually lived and breathed into an “It’s a Small World” style ride.
Visit the small, but mighty excavated Roman Baths (now under a fully operational, lively pub,) and you’ll get a sense of real York. Plus, you might very well be the only there, and you’ll get to ask loads of questions from the amazingly welcoming single staff member on hand. And then you can climb one flight of stairs and have a pint.
The minster is, of course, splendid, but Georgian York is there for the exploring too. Fairfax House–restored to evoke its original Georgian design–feels like traipsing around your host’s house during a dinner party. You expect to be caught at any moment, but each room thankfully has an interpreter if you have questions and to reassure you that you’re in a kind of domestic museum. It’s a place to imagine (and to see a lot of clocks until the end of the year.)
Jorvik Viking Centre could learn a thing or two about inviting imagination and questions, rather than making animatronic Vikings who yell at you to go away because they’re trying to take a dump in an outdoor privy. (I could not make this up.)
And then, there was the food (and being England, drink. natch.)
London has spoiled me with great food and cursed me with exorbitant prices. York had only the former.
We lunched at Xing. I’m not going to do their week juice diet anytime soon, and the place only has about 1.5 tables, but the food was delicious and fresh, simple and cheap. It’s a welcome respite during a day of exploring when your only other options feel like waiting in line for two hours to eat at a place like Betty’s with hundreds of other tourists. (You’re better off just buying cookies from Betty’s bakery next door to take home as souvenirs.)
For full-on meals, I started with The Guardian’s best budget eats in York article from a few years ago, and I’m delighted to report that Cafe No. 8 is STILL lovely, affordable and delicious. I had a fine local chocolate-y stout and this: “Ginger beer battered, marinated halloumi, asian peas, shitake mushroom, peanut chilli sauce.”
Now pasta is to vegetarian menus in America as halloumi is to vegetarian menus in England, but this was the bomb–almost literally in some ways, because it was a HEAVY dish–but this was the closest to fish and chips that this vegetarian is going to get, and GINGER BEER batter? Seriously, ALL batter should have ginger beer in it from now on. I decree it.
I loved this restaurant–cozy, completely unpretentious, and just on the edge of town so it felt a tiny bit special, rather than overtrodden.
Before dinner, we hit two pubs: 1) The Lamb and Lion (where a very drunk, very posh, 20/30-something lady squeezed my arm and whispered, “It’s all very exciting, isn’t it?” into my ear AND we shared a table with folks who were eager to share Indian arranged marriage customs and caste system protocol) and 2) The Three Legged Mare (a magical, local place–toasty warm, with a blazing fire, a piano player and a mixed crowd of shockingly happy locals all with dogs and something to celebrate.)
Lastly, breakfast at Ambience Cafe, just down the street from Cafe No. 8 on Gillygate. Ambiance was engineered in a lab as a place to have a no-fuss breakfast and read the Sunday paper with your sweetheart.
So that’s it. Go small. Eat Well. Walk Everywhere. Buy me this print from Image for obvious reasons:
And don’t eat these: