York has an abundance of museums, representing both local and national history. If your time in York is limited, this guide to the four biggest museums will help you make a choice. Here are some of the best York museums for kids.
Housed on the site of York Castle, this is the biggest of York’s museums. The museum is famous for Kirkgate, its wonderful recreated Victorian street of over thirty establishments where everything from the shop fronts to the sweet jars on the shelves is genuinely Victorian.
Recently, the addition of special lighting and sounds has made it feel even more real, with night and day effects, and voices around the street.
There are also recreated period rooms, where you can see how the interiors of local houses would have looked across eras. As a child I fell in love with the Victorian era, looking into the Victorian Parlour c 1870.
Galleries are very varied and include weapons and armour, costumes, the 1960s, and toys from the past. There’s plenty to interest both adults and children and a good mix of history and nostalgia.
The building’s past as a prison is explored in the York Castle Prison section, a recent improvement. With lighting, sound and projected images, the actual cells of the former York Castle are really brought to life and are superbly eerie. Two visitors on my recent visit screamed when a projected image of Dick Turpin appeared, which made me feel better as I’d nearly done the same.
An outdoor section includes a historic mill and a place to sit and relax by the river, but this is not open in or after bad weather. Allow at least an hour and a half to get round. Admission charges for adults. Children and residents with York Card visit free.
The Yorkshire Museum is the best place to find out about York’s early past, and opens with a Roman gallery stretching across four rooms, full of thoughtfully interpreted artefacts, video commentaries and in the entrance area a film of costumed interpreters which brings Eboracum to life. There’s plenty for children including dressing up clothes and mosaic puzzles.
Downstairs is an atmospheric medieval gallery, housed among the actual ruins of St Mary’s Abbey. Star exhibits are the Middleham Jewel, a gold and sapphire pendant dating from 1460, and the beautifully preserved 8th century York Helmet.
There is a natural history gallery dedicated to extinctions, from dinosaurs to dodos. The museum also has an astronomy collection, a major part of which is the working York Observatory, 1832, open Saturdays, 11.30am–2.30pm.
The Museum Gardens are a great place for children to play and explore, and its trees are stunning in autumn. Just as popular with locals as with visitors, the gardens are an oasis in the centre of York and an ideal spot to eat a picnic lunch. Museum admission charges apply. Residents with York Card visit free.
National Railway Museum
If you think you aren’t a “train person,” stepping inside the National Railway Museum could change your mind. The huge, colourful steam engines arranged around the turntable in the Great Hall is a visually dramatic display which impresses just about everyone.
The museum houses steam engines from the Flying Scotsman to the Hogwarts Express, as well as other more modern locomotives such as a Japanese bullet train.
In the Station Hall there is an interesting collection of royal trains including one for Queen Adelaide which looks like a stagecoach (1842) and Queen Victoria’s favourite saloon (1869). Various galleries interpret 300 years of railway history.
Children love to look at the miniature railway and explore inside the trains you’re allowed to enter. There’s a cafe, restaurant, an outdoor family picnic area and a play area. There is also a mini steam engine giving visitors rides up and down the track. 10 min walk from town, entry free. N.B. Car parking expensive, currently £9.
Jorvik Viking Centre
The Jorvik Viking Centre stands on the spot where a well preserved street from Viking York was excavated in the 1970s. Smaller in terms of size than the other museums, this one is just as big in popularity. The highlight is a ride through a Viking street, Coppergate, in an automated carriage where you can select your commentary – there’s even a special one for children.
The Coppergate area of Jorvik is recreated down to the very smallest details, even with authentic smells and sounds including the “inhabitants” speaking in Old Norse, as the carriage passes through workshops, houses and street scenes.
You can even find out what some of the inhabitants of Jorvik looked like. There are artefact galleries to peruse after the tour, with costumed interpreters demonstrating certain exhibits, some of which you can handle.