The former northern bastion of Roman Britain has a deep heritage combined with a sense of playfulness – and the early part of the year is an excellent time to visit before the crowds arrive. In a few days you can explore the narrow streets that have defied development, taste the flavours that York has made its own, and discover some singular cultural treats.
Take a view
York has more miles of intact wall than any other city in England and there are excellent views from several stretches. But to see the layers of history up close, start at the Multangular Tower – part of the Roman fortress that defended the empire's main military base in northern Britain, Eboracum. It dates from the third century.
Take a ride
The Vikings imprinted their heritage upon York – the map of the city is full of road names ending in "gate", the Norse word for street. But only in the 1970s did the big picture of the city of Jorvik, as it stood a millennium ago, start to emerge with a York Archaeological Trust excavation. Then the Jorvik Viking Centre was created on the site of the archaeological dig at Coppergate (jorvik- viking-centre.co.uk; 10am-5pm; entry £9.75). You discover that the Scandinavian settlers lived orderly lives – "Viking" was more a job description than an ethnic group.
After the regular deli, try a "liquid deli". That is how Demijohn at 11 Museum Street (demijohn.co.uk) styles itself. It sells mead, oils and vinegar straight from large glass vessels. York's inner core is made for window shopping, with a 19th-century feel and independent retailers offering, well, Victorian value. The most celebrated street is The Shambles, formerly a straggle of butchers' shops. For fresh produce, try Newgate Market, with Yorkshire cheeses and fish caught at Whitby.
Take a hike
Whether you are shopping for souvenirs or searching for spirits, York is constantly intriguing. The city claims to have created the first "ghost walk" more than 40 years ago – and there are still daily departures from the King's Arms pub by the river at Ousebridge run by the Original Ghost Walk of York (theoriginalghostwalk ofyork.co.uk). The main tour is at 8pm and costs £5, but it is better to make the most of the eerie twilight of January and February and book an earlier private tour, available for groups of two or more.
Dining with the locals
"Proper York beef sourced from just around the corner" is among the dishes on offer at Café Concerto at 21 High Petergate (cafeconcerto.biz) – as well as home-made hummus and other Mediterranean delights. This eclectic, rambling café, with old music scores on the walls, becomes a classy bistro by night.
Go to church
In the 14th century, York Minster was one of the most magnificent structures in Europe; in the 21st century, it still is (yorkminster. org; noon-5pm on Sundays, from 9am other days). Admission is £9 – or £5 more if you want to take a heavenly spiral staircase to the tower. The foundations of this masterpiece of English Gothic rest upon the remains of the Roman fortress. Explore the precincts, too, including the exquisite Treasurer's House in Minster Yard (nationaltrust.org.uk), which reopens for the year on February 16.
In the nation that brought railways to the world, York is the natural place to celebrate the tracks of our years. The National Railway Museum, in a former steam locomotive depot behind the station (nrm.org.uk; 10am-6pm daily; free), is the world's biggest railway museum. The star of the show is Mallard, once the fastest machine on Earth; in 1938 it set the steam train record of 126mph, even faster than the 21st-century electric trains on the East Coast mainline.
Icing on the cake
While other northern cities made their wealth from wool, coal, cotton and steel, York went its own sweet way and became Britain's capital of chocolate. York's Chocolate Story on King's Square (yorks chocolatestory.com; 10am-6pm daily; £9.50) explains the origins of chocolate and the manufacturing process, and includes live demonstrations of the chocolatier's art. It's a place to melt the heart of any chocolate lover.