“More to do and see per square mile than any other UK city”: that’s the bold claim on the Visit York website. And there’s no denying that, despite its relatively small size, this historic destination certainly presents visitors with a heck of a to-do list.
“We have a superb mix of world-class visitor attractions,” says Kay Hyde, head of PR and corporate communications at Make It York, “from York Minster to the JORVIK Viking Centre and the National Railway Museum. There’s a thriving restaurant scene, plenty of green spaces and a growing programme of festivals.”
The packed events calendar includes Britain’s biggest food and drink festival in September, the York Races, which take place over the summer months, and the Christmas festival, which kicks off in mid-November. They were joined this year by a new Balloon Fiesta, held for the first time at the end of September. Autumn 2018 will bring another major new event: the inaugural York Mediale, intended to become a biennial celebration of innovative art and technology.
These events are the icing on the cake for a city steeped in history. Founded by the Romans in the first century, York’s Viking legacy shows in its street names, and the Middle Ages brought the creation of York Minster, the largest Gothic cathedral in northern Europe. Centuries later, the Georgians left their elegant townhouses, the famous racecourse and the Theatre Royal; and the Victorians bequeathed the handsome railway station.
Other northern cities built their wealth on textiles, steel and coal, but York founded its fortunes on trains and chocolate. It became a major rail hub and a famous centre of confectionery making, originally home to Terry’s and Rowntree, and the birthplace of Smarties, KitKats and Terry’s Chocolate Oranges.
Not that this is a city living in the past. These days York has a strong knowledge-driven economy, with a solid reputation for research, development and academic excellence. Innovation clusters include bioscience, healthcare and high-tech rail. The growth sectors include financial and professional services, creative, digital and IT, high-end retail, and food and drink.
Since the start of the millennium, York has become the UK’s first Science City and first Gigabit City (it has one of the UK’s largest fibre networks) and in 2014 it became part of UNESCO’s Creative Cities network, as a City of Media Arts.
Every year the city welcomes just under seven million visitors, who contribute £564m to the local economy. Many of them are visiting business travellers, combining work with pleasure. “One of our greatest advantages,” says Laura Freer, business tourism marketing manager at VisitYork4Meetings, “is that after a conference or event, delegates tend to stay an extra day or two to see the attractions, as well as bringing family.”
There’s no shortage of places for all those guests to stay. The city has 2,982 hotel rooms (more than 60% of them in hotels rated three star or higher), and an additional 213 serviced apartments. “We’ve definitely seen an increase in self-catering in recent years,” says Hyde, “as visitors enjoy the flexibility this offers. The luxury sector has also seen lots of new development.”
One of the most impressive recent high-end hotel arrivals is the Principal York (formerly Royal York Hotel), which relaunched last year as a four-star deluxe, following a multimillion-pound refurbishment (covered in more depth in Destination issue 12). Other stylish options include Hotel du Vin York, set in a Grade II listed mansion house on the main road running southwest out of town, and Hotel 53, a smart, modern property offering contemporary rooms, free WiFi and walk-in power showers.
On the self-catering side, Staycity Aparthotels York opened in 2016 and reported average occupancy rates well ahead of target. Prompted by high demand, there are plenty more projects in the pipeline, too.
On St Maurice’s Road, just east of the city walls, the Best Western Plus Monkbar Hotel is benefiting from a £6m investment, improving existing rooms and adding 15 new ones (bringing the total to 140). This is all part of its transformation into a DoubleTree by Hilton, which should be completed by late autumn.
Meanwhile, the Grade II listed Grand Hotel & Spa – York’s first five-star hotel – is in the throes of a £15m expansion that will increase the number of guestrooms to more than 200, and upgrade the conference and spa facilities.
In another exciting development, the Malmaison group is preparing to transform the Yorkshire House office building on Rougier Street into a new Mal, expected to offer 160-plus bedrooms and suites.
Pending permission, there are also plans to build a 120-bedroom Moxy Hotel in the Peasholme Green area, and a 146-bed hotel on Piccadilly. Clearly, things are looking rosy on the hospitality scene.
There’s welcome news on the transport front, too, with York’s already good connections set to get even better. Virgin Trains will launch 65 new Azuma trains on the East Coast line in 2018, bringing both increased capacity and reduced journey times.
Air passengers can reap the benefits of recent growth at Manchester Airport – the only non-London airport to offer direct flights to destinations such as Beijing, Muscat, Seattle and San Francisco – and Leeds Bradford Airport. The latter was voted one of the UK’s most punctual airports in 2017.
The diversity of York’s venues is a major bonus. As Freer points out: “Organisers now have a better choice than ever before, with more than 90 conference venues available. In 2016, over 14,000 meetings, conferences and events took place, attended by just under one million delegates. The city is also attracting an increased proportion of higher-value events and, in particular, a greater share of residential conferences.”
Historic charm in York
York’s impressive roster of historic and unusual venues ranges from the Merchant Adventurers’ Hall (one of Europe’s best-preserved medieval guildhalls) and Fairfax House (perhaps England’s finest Georgian townhouse) to the racecourse, a brewery and York’s Chocolate Story. Largest of the lot is the recently refurbished York Barbican, with seating for 1,500, which has hosted the Liberal Democrat spring conference for the past three years.
“York is an extremely special place and has always provided us with a fantastic welcome,” said former Lib Dem leader Tim Farron. He’s not the only fan: in the past decade, assorted surveys have hailed York as Britain’s favourite small city, most beautiful city, best gastro destination in the UK and best UK destination for groups.
It may be small, but it has a big reputation.
An insider’s guide to York
Donna Cartman, conference supervisor at Capita Travel and Events’ York-based sister company NYS Corporate, shares her top city tips:
• York Minster’s exterior has recently undergone an amazing reconstruction, while inside you can admire beautiful murals and stained-glass windows.
• Stonegate Yard, down a small alley in the shopping area, serves delicious food at reasonable prices and has a yard with outdoor seating in summer.
• Go on a ghost walk – York has plenty of stories of foul play, with the ghosts of the guilty said to roam the streets.
• The Shambles, a small street of timber-framed buildings, has been featured in some of the Harry Potter films and has a beautiful chocolate shop at the top end.
• The Botanist is the new place to be seen in York: food, cocktails and décor are all fantastic and unusual, and it has a great atmosphere.
• Next to the river, the 20-acre Rowntree Park has tennis courts, bowling greens, places to picnic and a lake with ducks, swans and geese.