Travel: A grand old time in York

After a lavish makeover, the Principal York is a haven in the city, writes Stephen Halliday
The exterior of Principal York HotelThe exterior of Principal York Hotel
The exterior of Principal York Hotel

Queen Victoria would most certainly be amused. A favourite stopping-off point for the monarch whenever she was en route from London to Balmoral, what was once known as the Royal York Hotel has undergone a multi-million pound facelift.

In its new guise as the Principal York, it provides the same exceptionally convenient location in the city. Stepping off the train at York Station, we accessed the hotel directly from the platform and had to waste little time before enjoying the fruit of the new owner’s labours.

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The refurbishment is hugely impressive, managing as it does to retain a sense of history and grandeur in the 155-room hotel while also delivering all the modernity you could wish for. Whether you choose to kick off your stay with afternoon tea in the stunning Garden Room or by sampling a craft beer or local gin in the engaging Chapter House bar, this is an ideal base from which to get the best out of one of the most enduringly popular and visitor-friendly cities in the UK.

It’s only a short walk from the hotel’s front entrance and through its impeccably kept lawns to the city walls and town centre. It is difficult not to be drawn immediately to the imposing presence of York Minster itself, not least because our front-facing room offered a dramatic view of the great Gothic centrepiece.

We reckoned it had been almost 20 years since our previous trip to York, when we had two lively young children in tow. We were soon asking ourselves why we had left it so long to return and just as quickly learning to savour the more relaxing perspective we now had on the place without constantly worrying about how close our boys were getting to the edge of the city walls.

Now able to laugh at that memory (well, I was – my wife was still wincing at the thought), we strolled around the remarkably well preserved walls at our own pace this time and soon got our bearings before stepping down into the heart of the city to make our way randomly through the narrow streets. As we came upon The Shambles, the most famous of York’s quirky and entrancing thoroughfares, we felt as if we were stepping back in time in more ways than one.

To match that mood, the York Castle Museum proved to be a perfect choice among the myriad attractions on offer. Housed in a former debtors’ prison, this innovatively designed museum takes you on a trip through the ages, including an outstandingly poignant First World War section and a hugely entertaining Sixties exhibition. Highly recommended.

There is certainly no difficulty in working up an appetite as you tour the city and ours was more than satisfied by dinner at the hotel’s Refectory Kitchen & Terrace restaurant. So much so, I had to reluctantly give up on finishing the hearty Yorkshire ale cottage pie to ensure I had enough room for the delicious lemon posset with blackberries.

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My better half had no need of any such half measures as she gave a thumbs-up to the rump of Nidderdale lamb, before declaring the Bramley apple crumble – of which she is an aficionado – as to die for.

With the Refectory also delivering an exceptional full English breakfast, the hotel’s gym – with indoor pool, sauna, steam room and Jacuzzi – provides an antidote to over-indulgence should you feel the need.

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Walking down the sweeping grand staircase with our bags on departure, we promised ourselves it wouldn’t be another 20 years before we were back in York. Thanks to Virgin Trains’ East Coast line refurbishment programme, which recently reached its halfway point with their 23rd new-look fleet member rolled out of Craigentinny, the journey has never been more comfortable.

The two and a half hour trip from Edinburgh passes by pleasantly with the help of a food and drink menu devised by celebrity chef James Martin which can be enjoyed in conjunction with Virgin’s new BEAM entertainment system with movies and TV shows streamed from an app which needs to be downloaded before boarding.

Goodness only knows what Queen Victoria would have made of that.


Virgin Trains East Coast ( operate a regular service from Edinburgh to York. The BEAM entertainment system requires downloading before boarding.

Rooms at the Principal York Hotel ( start at £139 per night. Breakfast is not included and costs £15.95 per person.