Historic York is one of England's must-visit places, with a magnificent Minster, narrow streets flanked by independent shops and cafes, and museums that tell the city's fascinating story of battles lost and won. What's more, there's a key attraction connecting it all that's completely free to visit - the medieval walls. Spend a day exploring the gateways, towers and gardens - with a stop for lunch along the way - using our guide to York City Walls.

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Photo by Andy Falconer on Unsplash

Walk the Walls: Getting Started

The 13th-century York City Walls surround the historic city centre, with two miles (3.4km) of elevated stone pathway. Walking around them is one of the best ways to enjoy the city, with views that take in the museum gardens, York Minster and the River Ouse. It's also a great way to get your bearings if it's your first time in York.

To do the full circuit takes about two hours, but you can easily make a day of it by taking a few detours into the city centre. There are five main access points and two smaller gateways, which have steps connecting to the streets below. The paths are high up, so young children need supervising for safety in the sections without railings. While the wall walk isn't wheelchair-friendly, this ground level walk by Friends of York Walls has an alternative route.

A Note on Local Lingo

When you spot the word 'bar' on a map of York City Walls, don't expect a local drinking spot. Bar in this context means 'gate', and the word 'gate' means 'street'. The four bars around the wall are the grand stone archways that are entry points to the city and the walls themselves. Each of them is decorated with statues, painted shields, and cross-shaped arrow slits, which are worth seeing from street level.

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Photo by Luke Porter on Unsplash

What to Look out for on the York City Walls

York is packed with things to see and do, and many highlights are visible from the city walls. The west and north sides are arguably the most picturesque, taking in the Yorkshire Museum, St Mary's Abbey, York Art Gallery and The Minster. At Bootham Bar, stop for coffee at Croque-Monsieur cafe and peer through its glass floor to see part of an original Roman fortress wall.

The Red Tower, the only brick section of the walls, marks the start of a stretch of path along the east and south side where you'll see a more modern side of the city. There's still plenty of history here too though - try spotting the signs of ancient military attacks at Walmgate Bar, which is the only gateway with an authentic medieval barbican. As you continue to wander, look out also for the Castle Museum and Clifford's Tower.

Book it: A York Pass will help save you money on attraction tickets

Good to Know

As you follow the path, there are a few gaps in the wall where you'll walk at street level. Keep an eye out for the brass pavement studs on the ground that guide the way and have an extra route through the museum gardens. Also, handily, the QR cards at each of the access points provide you with information about the section of the wall you're on when you scan them with a smartphone.

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Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

Where to Refuel

There are several toilet stops, benches and cafes along the wall walk. A convenient place to sit and have a light snack is the Perky Peacock Coffee Shop, which is in a medieval tower overlooking the river. Or for a heartier meal close to the museum gardens, Cafe No.8 Bistro serves food made with fresh local produce for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

On sunny days, the museum gardens are a peaceful picnic spot. If you're in the mood for hot food and a welcome drink, head to one of York's many excellent pubs. The Lamb and Lion Inn, near Bootham Bar, has views of York Minster from the beer garden, while the Chopping Block at Walmgate Ale House - a short way from Walmgate Bar - has an appetising menu that includes a traditional Sunday roast.

When to Visit

Summer is a lovely time to visit York City Walls, with blue skies enhancing the views as you go. August sees the York Walls Festival, where live music and activities are held in the towers and throughout the wall walk. While this makes for a good atmosphere, it's also the busiest time of year for tourists in the city - pathways can get crowded.

York is also popular in winter, as the medieval charm shines through for the Christmas festival. Twinkling fairy lights decorate the streets below and scents of mulled wine drift up from the market, tempting you down from your wall walk into the city centre.

Do not that the walls will close if the weather turns, as snow and ice make the pathways too slippery (in other words dangerous). For a more peaceful experience overall, try visiting in spring or autumn when the parks are at their most colourful.

Stay close to York City Walls at one of these hotels in the city.