The splendid cathedral known as the York Minster is the symbolic heart of the English city of York and the largest Gothic cathedral in northern Europe.
The first thing to know about the York Minster is that it’s as massive as it is significant. More than 500 feet in length, 100 feet wide and with a central tower that’s 200 feet tall, it’s the largest cathedral in Britain. Visible from nearly everywhere in the city of York, the church was built over a span of 250 years and consecrated in 1472. Ever since, it’s been the heart of the city of York.
The first church on this site was built in 627 for the baptism of King Edwin of Northumbria. Later centuries saw the destruction and rebuilding of a succession of structures, each larger than the last.
The term “minster” derives from the Anglo-Saxon word for monastery and was originally used to describe churches that were served by monks. During the English Reformation, most monasteries in England closed, but the term minster continued to be used for a few churches, including the York Minster.
When my husband and I visited the minster, it was like getting re-acquainted with an old friend. That’s because our family had lived for a semester in nearby Ilkley, a small town in the Yorkshire Dales. On our frequent trips to York we fell in love with the city’s narrow streets, encircling medieval wall, and visitor attractions that reveal layers of history dating back to the Romans.
But of all the sites we loved in York, it was the York Minster we most wanted to see again. And when we stood before it again after a twenty year absence, the York Minster was even more beautiful than we remembered.
The minster preserves some of the finest examples of medieval stained glass in Britain. On your visit, be sure to admire the Great East Window, which was revealed to the public in 2018 after a decade-long restoration effort. The Rose Window, one of the largest in Europe, is also magnificent.
As the center for Christianity in the north of England, the York Minster is a living church as well as a major tourist attraction. If you can, attend a service. Evensong is particularly beautiful, a contemplative service that will give you the chance to sit quietly and savor the beauty that fills this soaring structure.
Then come back during the day to climb the tower’s 275 steps. At the top, you’ll have panoramic views of the city and the picturesque walls that encircle it.
Before leaving the minster, tour the museum located in its undercroft. Exhibits there give a sense for the immense age of the city and the historic roots of the church. Romans founded a settlement on this site in 71 CE, naming it Eboracum. The Saxons later called it Eoforwick, and after the Vikings invaded in 866, they dubbed it Jorvik (pronounced your-vik), which later became York.
After touring the minster, stroll through the surrounding streets. York is a walker’s paradise, with a largely car-free historic center and winding streets filled with vintage pubs, charming shops and architectural gems.
In the medieval street the Shambles, we were amused to see several stores dedicated to Harry Potter, from the World of Wizardry to the Shop That Shall Not Be Named. That’s because Diagon Alley is said to be based on the Shambles, a cobblestone street with buildings dating back to the fourteenth century.
Later in the day, we strolled the beautifully preserved medieval town walls that stretch for two miles around the city, and then took a sunset cruise on the River Ouse that winds through the center of York. From the river we had lovely views of the York Minster, keeping watch over the city just as it has for more than five centuries.
Lori Erickson is one of America’s top travel writers specializing in spiritual journeys. She’s the author of the Near the Exit: Travels With the Not-So-Grim Reaper and Holy Rover: Journeys in Search of Mystery, Miracles, and God. Her website Spiritual Travels features holy sites around the world.