Antique Chic: York’s best historic cafes
Often the arrival of January brings with it an inevitable lull – a sad comedown after the festivities, the surplus of food and wine, the time spent with loved ones. In years gone by, January has always felt pretty bleak; but not this year.
Let’s be honest – York in December is a thing of madness. The sheer volume of human bodies packed into its medieval streets gives Oxford Street a run for its money. Since the arrival of the New Year though, the streets have been uncannily calm, and I’ve found myself enjoying the quiet in a way I never have before. In a city like London, the crowds and noise and bustle is part of the deal, but York was never built to withstand the flocks of people which pour in during the lead-up to Christmas, and the crowds often feel more overwhelming than jolly. After the mad rush of Christmas, it seems York is down to its actual resident population for the first time since I moved here, and I am loving it.
Filled with a newfound appreciation for these quiet winter vibes, I have been soaking up the cosy atmosphere in York’s plethora of cafes. Like most people from my native New Zealand, café culture is not so much an indulgence as a way of life, and I confess I was happily surprised to discover the wealth of quality coffee options in my new hometown. Even better, great coffee can be found here in a way only York could offer; with a serious dose of history. It’s not every day I get to enjoy a brew in a building older than my country itself, and there are plenty of spots in York where I can do just that/ Here are my three favourite historical buildings-turned-cafés.
This quirky little coffee shop is home not only to one of the best brews in town, but is located in one of York’s most unique and charming buildings. The tower at the edge of Lendal Bridge dates from the early 1300s and has a colourful past. It was once connected to Lendal Tower on the opposite banks by a heavy metal chain, and collected tolls from river traffic coming into the city. The building has had many other uses over the centuries, even serving as a mortuary for a brief time in the 1800s! Don’t let that put you off though, the interior of the building is even more adorable than its exterior, and the impressive web of ancient timber framing holding up the old conical roof is worth a visit alone.
The space has been perfectly kitted out to house a small café as only York can do – all leather-bound furniture and creaky wooden tables. There are books to browse at your leisure, a superb array of sweet treats, exceptionally kind staff and a river view few cafes in York provide.
The most complete of the historic gateways along York’s city walls is found at Walmgate, and houses one of my very favourite cafes in the city. The oldest parts of this three-storey building date back to the 1100s, the newer timber parts of the structure are Tudor-era, having been built in the 1600s after the Siege of York (positively modern!). Gatehouse Coffee charms visitors from the get-go, as they push open the old metal-studded wooden door welcoming them in.
Walmgate Bar uniquely still contains its original barbican and portcullis, and both are perfectly put to use in their new role as coffee house. Outdoor seating stretches out form the first floor along the barbican walls, and the deep wooden structure of the permanently-raised portcullis serves as stylish and extremely efficient shelfing for coffee bags, pot plants, and re-usable cups for sale… this is antique-chic at its finest. Snuggle down in the cold months in the second-floor coffee room, a popular spot for studying students from the nearby University, or check out the glorious rooftop terrace to soak up a few rays in the warmer months. The coffee is delicious and the baby cinnamon bites are like little slices of heaven!
Dyl's Cafe Bar
The former toll-house alongside Skeldergate Bridge isn’t nearly as old as its architecture would suggest, having been built in the late 1900s. What it lacks in years though it more than makes up for in – well, in every other way, really. Dyl’s is one of those fantastic spots that swings between summer and winter, and day to night seamlessly. The charming cafe sits nestled between York’s most picturesque bridge at Skeldergate, and the tranquil Tower Gardens. It provides views both down to the river and up towards one of York’s oldest buildings, Clifford’s Tower.
In summer, cafe-goers enjoy excellent coffee and indisputably the best brunch you will find in York out on the paved patio, soaking up sun and watching boats go by. As day turns into evening, the space transforms seamlessly into the perfect spot for outdoor cocktails in the glow of surrounding fairy lights. Inside, the tall and narrow building is a delight to dine in in the colder months, all skinny spiral staircases, pot plants, interior tiling and small-paned windows. The octagonal tower is a particular treat, but not more so than the garlicky button mushrooms for – my favourite brunch dish to date!