Rick Steves' Europe

York, a time travel experience into old England

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York

York’s atmospheric old butchers’ quarter, The Shambles, hosts tipsy medieval buildings. Though the lane looks tidy today, the blood, guts and waste flushed into its center channel was once truly a shambles. (Cameron Hewitt/Rick Steves Europe)

We have New York, but England has old York, one of the country's top tourist destinations outside of London. The town offers a captivating tour of historic sites mixed with an easygoing pedestrian ambience — all lassoed within its formidable medieval wall.

The town has a rich, long history, serving as a Roman provincial capital in A.D. 71, capital of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria after the fall of Rome, and as a trading center called Jorvik in the 9th to 11th century. Henry VIII used the city's fine cathedral, or Minster, as the northern headquarters of his Anglican Church.

This magnificent cathedral — Britain's largest Gothic church — is York's best-known sight, and still in use today; attend the glorious evensong service to experience the church in musical and spiritual action. The York Minster is also famous for its 15th-century stained glass, though the Great East Window — the size of a tennis court — is behind scaffolding undergoing restoration. But just below the window, a futuristic dome called The Orb shows five of the exquisite panes that have already been restored. Until 2016, we have a rare opportunity to get a close-up look at the painted and stained glass. The fine details, far too tiny to see from the floor, were originally intended for God's eyes only.

The octagonal Chapter House to the left of the choir was the meeting place of the Minster's governing body. The fanciful carvings decorating the canopies above the stalls date from 1280 (80 percent are originals). The parade of stony faces — each with so much character and personality — provides a sense of what society was like 800 years ago.

The new Undercroft Museum, accessed through the Minster's south transept, takes visitors back even farther in time, focusing on the history of the site and its origins as a Roman fortress. Visitors can view actual remains of the Roman fort's basilica through a see-through floor, and glimpse patches of Roman frescoes from what was the basilica's anteroom.

The Minster's towers serve as a navigational landmark — or you can follow the strategically placed signposts, which point out all places of interest to tourists.

Just outside the city walls near the train station is the National Railway Museum, showing two centuries of British railroad history. In the Industrial Age, York was the railway hub of northern England. The museum hosts an array of beautifully preserved historic trains fanning out from a grand roundhouse. A steam engine is sliced open, showing cylinders, driving wheels, and a smoke box in action. Exhibits trace the evolution of steam-powered transportation from very early trains like an 1830 stagecoach on rails to the aerodynamic Mallard — famous as the first train to travel at two miles per minute, a marvel back in 1938.

Across the Ouse River is the Yorkshire Museum. Built into the ruins of what was once north England's wealthiest abbey, its exhibits tell the story of life here for the monks, how that all ended, and much more. The ancient Roman collection includes slice-of-life exhibits from cult figurines to the skull of a man killed by a sword blow to the head — making it graphically clear that the struggle between Romans and barbarians was a violent one. York soldiered on, amassing a large collection of weaponry throughout the ages. One of the museum's highlights is an eighth-century Anglo-Saxon brass helmet.

The Jorvik Viking Centre shows off the best-preserved Viking city ever excavated. You'll ride a "Pirates of the Caribbean"-type people-mover through a Viking street, complete with jabbering animatronic characters — where sights, sounds, and even smells from the year 975 have been re-created. The ride ends at a gallery filled with artifacts from every aspect of Viking life.

Nearby, the York Castle Museum is a more old-school, sedate Victorian home show. Its one-way plan assures that you'll see everything, including remakes of rooms from the 17th to 20th century, a Victorian street, military exhibits, and some eerie prison cells.

In the city core, the 100-yard-long cobbled lane known as The Shambles was once the "street of the butchers" (the name is derived from shammell — a butcher's cutting block). In the 16th century, it was busy with red meat, and all the blood, guts, and waste were flushed down the street to a mucky pond at the end. Now tourist shops fill the Tudor buildings.

To get away from the bustle, linger at one of York's fine upscale bistros or elegant teahouses. Or try the two-mile walk along the Ouse River, over the handsome Millennium Bridge, and back into town. The bridge is delightfully designed with an inviting, reclining-lounge-chair fence — just right for relaxing, people-watching, and contemplating the incredible history of this intriguing city.

IF YOU VISIT...

Two hours north of London by train, York could be a long day trip, but it's better to experience the town and stay overnight.

SLEEPING: Hedley House Hotel, well-run by a wonderful family, has 30 spacious rooms (splurge, http://www.hedleyhouse.com). Airden House rents 10 nice, mostly traditional rooms, though the two basement-level rooms are more modern (budget, http://www.airdenhouse.co.uk).

EATING: Cafe No. 8 is romantic, with jazz, modern art, candles and a shaded back garden (8 Gillygate, tel. 01904/653-074). The House of the Trembling Madness, considered by some to be the best pub in town, offers creative, locally sourced fare (48 Stonegate, tel. 01904/640-009).

GETTING AROUND: Despite the city's size, the sightseer's York is small. Nearly everything is within a few minutes' walk: sights, train station, B-and-Bs, and the tourist information office.

TOURIST INFORMATION: http://www.visityork.org.

(Rick Steves (http://www.ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at rick@ricksteves.com and follow his blog on Facebook.)
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