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Digging into York’s Museums

York has an amazing story to tell: the death of a Roman emperor; Viking invaders; the Industrial Revolution... Its museums cope well with the task. It used to be that ‘museum’ meant relics in glass cases and “Silence please”, but most now have interactive stuff for the kids to touch and play with. History should be fun; our culture should be celebrated.
Nearly all of York’s museums are centrally situated, or at worst a brisk walk away from the heart of the city, making a trip by train an option. The fingerposts make it easy to navigate on foot, and this is a city full of pubs, coffee shops and tea shoppes (!) for R&R on the way. If you come by car, the 'park and rides' are well worth considering – the compactness that makes York great for the pedestrian can mean slow progress and problem parking for the motorist. The best way to review York’s museums is in rough chronological order. At St Saviour’s Church on St Saviourgate you’ll find a place kids will love: there’s probably no better way to start digging into York’s museums than at DIG . Costumed staff and the chance to take a trowel to excavation pits means it’s properly hands-on, taking you from Roman times through to the Victorians via the Viking and medieval eras.
For a more traditional approach leavened with creative touches the Yorkshire Museum (re-opening August 2010 after a refurb) between the station and Minster is a winner, with some fascinating artefacts – big on the Vikings too.
The NT Treasurer’s House in Minster Yard spooks it up in the cellars, something that always goes down well with my offspring, and has trails for children to follow – learning without realising it. There’s a walled garden as well to let you stretch your legs, and a tearoom to rest them.
For most kids though the big one is the Jorvik Viking Centre : more an experience than a museum, it fires the imagination telling the story of York’s Viking past – complete with smells, sounds and surprises, showing what everyday life was like for the Norse who held the city so long.
York Castle was built by the Normans , and the Castle Prison Museum records some of the grimmer aspects of life in the city. Kids like gore and other people’s misery, so a good bet for them especially as they currently get in free if accompanied by a paying adult.
The medieval era in York is depicted in three museums: Merchant Adventurers’ Hall , a preserved guildhall but still in use; Micklegate Bar , a fortified gate in the city walls with 800 years or so of story to tell; and Barley Hall , a medieval house off Stonegate, which gives a more intimate view of the period – you can even sit on chairs and handle objects to truly give a feel of the times!
Georgian York is represented by Mansion House , built in 1725 and home to York’s Mayors for centuries; and Fairfax House on Castlegate, a superb example of a Georgian townhouse.
Into the Industrial Age and York’s place in our railway heritage is demonstrated in the vast collection at the National Railway Museum : there’s stuff to see, stuff to ride on, buffet car tearoom, and symbols of our past engineering greatness like Mallard, a replica of the Rocket, and an ever changing display locos and rolling-stock – and it’s free!
If you are historied out, consider finally two quirkier places: the Quilt Museum and Gallery in St Anthony’s Hall, another medieval guildhall; and York St Mary’s , a deconsecrated church now a contemporary arts venue.
Information Britain has more than 150 places to stay in York, but if you’re doing history you may want to consider hotels with a touch of the historical about them. Railway enthusiasts in York could be attracted by the Sidings Hotel and Restaurant , which makes creative use of Pullman-style carriages. The Victorian architecture of the Royal York Hotel will recommend it to lovers of that epoch. Taking you further back architecturally is the fascinating Lady Anne Middleton’s Hotel on Skeldergate, with accommodation in five buildings there and an elegant courtyard. Or how about some country house luxury, still a stroll from the centre? Try Mount Royale Hotel on The Mount.
One of the grandest hotels in the area – as you’d expect of a place once owned by the Rowntree family – is the Knavesmire Manor Hotel , a little out of the city. If you’d prefer to combine city visit with country stay, Monk Fryston Hall Hotel between Pontefract and York might suit you; or 12 miles to the north of the city The Worsley Arms in Hovingham.
For those preferring self-catering Welcome Cottages have a selection of places in the area, and Information Britain lists various self-catering options.
York is not just museums: it’s a vibrant place with great shopping , theatres , fine restaurants and world famous racing , so if you can only face one or two museums you have plenty of options to fill a fun break.

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