The last vestige of York Castle, Clifford's Tower is now one of the city’s most iconic landmarks, perched on a grassy mound overlooking the River Ouse. Although the castle was originally built by William the Conqueror in 1069, the present-day tower was erected between 1245 and 1265 by Henry III when the fortress was rebuilt in stone and has served numerous purposes throughout its long history. Used over the years as a royal mint, a prison and an execution ground, the tower takes its name from Roger de Clifford, who was executed for treason by Edward II and hanged in chains from the tower walls.
Today, climbing the 55 steps to the top of the mound is a popular pastime among visitors to the city and walking along the tower ramparts affords expansive panoramic views over York.
With over 1,000 acres of landscaped flower gardens, boating lakes and scenic woodlands, and a grand baroque façade that appears more like a royal palace than a country home, Castle Howard is one of England’s most undeniably beautiful estates. Built in the 17th-century for Charles Howard, the 3rd Earl of Carlisle, much of the castle’s striking design was the work of architect John Vanbrugh and the stately home, with its central domed cupola, sculpted pilasters and elaborate frescos, took over 100 years to complete.
Today the palatial building is open to the public by guided tour and exploring the interiors unveils a trove of period décor, antique furnishings and fine china. A notable highlight is the castle’s vast art collection, including paintings by Van Dyke, Rubens, Tintoretto, Canaletto and Reynolds; a portrait of Henry VIII; and an array of personal works by the 9th Earl of Carlisle.
Founded in 1938 to display the personal collections of Dr John L. Kirk, the York Castle Museum is situated close to Clifford’s Tower on the grounds of the former York Castle. Celebrated as one of the UK’s most unique museums of everyday life, the vast exhibitions center around a series of period reconstructions, designed to evoke the feeling of stepping back in time.
There’s an 1850s-style cottage and a 1940s kitchen; Jacobean and Georgian dining rooms laid out with china tea sets; and a Sixties gallery crammed with music, fashion and design from the era. There’s even a prison cell, fashioned like the one where notorious highwayman Dick Turpin was kept prisoner; an early 19th century flourmill; a military exhibition; and a collection of Jane Austen costumes.
Most renowned is the reconstructed Victorian street of Kirkgate, which was renovated in 2012 and is now kitted out with sound and light effects to offer an interactive experience of Victorian Britain.
Regarded as one of England’s most impressive Georgian town houses, Fairfax House dates back to 1762 and takes its name from Charles Gregory, the 9th Viscount Fairfax of Emley, who acquired the property in 1759. After a short-lived incarnation as a gentlemen’s club and cinema, Fairfax House was bought and renovated by the York Civic Trust, reopening in 1984 as a house museum, showcasing a fine collection of period furnishings and antiques.
Today, the museum displays the Noel Terry Collection of Georgian furniture, but it’s the painstakingly restored interiors that earn the most acclaim. Designed by Yorkshire architect John Carr, the house is a masterpiece of Georgian style, adorned with elaborate wrought ironwork, intricate woodcarvings and striking stucco ceilings. Highlights include the exquisite Great Staircase, the grand Venetian Window, furnishings including one of the houses’ original four-poster beds and a selection of 18th Century paintings.
Whisking visitors on a hair-raising journey through York’s grim and gruesome past, the York Dungeon is one of the city’s most entertaining attractions, located close to the landmark Clifford’s Tower. Spanning over 2,000 years of York’s history, the city’s most notorious ghosts and villains are brought to life in the dungeons, with 11 shows employing a wacky cast of actors, authentic sets and costumes, and special effects to shock and scare even the bravest of participants.
Get lost in the murky world of 18th century York, as you watch the infamous outlaw Dick Turpin meet his fated end in the gallows; follow notorious traitor Guy Fawkes as his plot to blow up Parliament is foiled; see how the Great Plague raged through the city in 1349; or test your nerves as you hunt down the eerie Ghosts of York. That’s not all – there’s also a terrifying invasion by bloodthirsty Vikings, medieval torture chambers and the treacherous Labyrinth of the Last Roman Legion.
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