If you want ruins, great coffee and a wealth of artisan style, you really don’t need to go all the way to the Eternal City. Say ciao to York, says Mark Jones.
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In the space of a month I visited Rome and York. I couldn’t help noticing some differences – for example, Rome is a city of 2.7 million people in Italy, York a city of 197,000 in England. But they do have a lot in common.

  1. York is more of a Roman city than Rome. There’s plenty of archaeological evidence that Neolithic tribes had already settled the area before Rome was founded in the 8th century BC. But there was no human settlement at all on the confluence of the Ouse and the Foss Rivers before the Ninth Legion marched up from Lincoln in AD71 to set up a camp that would eventually become Eboracum – or York.
  2. York was accorded the highest status of a Roman city – Colonia. The structure remains Roman – a big straight road leads to it (A64), the Via Praetoria (Stonegate) and Via Principalis (Petergate) are still the main thoroughfares.
  3. Two Roman Emperors ruled from York for a time – and each died there. Septimius Severus reigned here between 208 and 211. He was known as “The African Emperor” because he was born in Libya. In 305 Constantius died on a visit to York. His son was proclaimed emperor – probably where the Minster is today. As Constantine the Great, he established Christianity as the religion of the empire.

But let’s look beyond the ruins. Although we think of ancient Rome as a place of wide thoroughfares, in reality it was more a warren of narrow streets and high buildings. It was said that an ancient Roman (or a young one) could reach out of his upstairs window and shake hands with his neighbour opposite. You rarely see such alleys and lanes in modern Rome. But you do in York, most notably in its most famous street, The Shambles, where the upper storeys all but kiss in mid-air. For Anita Ekberg’s Trevi Fountain in La Dolce Vita you have Sebastian Flyte’s Atlas Fountain at Castle Howard. For Hadrian’s circular Mausoleum in Rome, you have William the Conqueror’s circular Clifford’s Tower in York.

How would little York compare? Amazingly well, it turns out, as I discover on my adventure around this beautiful city.

And while visitors to Rome are attracted by the monuments and the cultural artefacts, they also go to shop and eat – to buy cashmere, handmade leather goods and hang out in stylish cafes and trattorias. How would little York compare? Amazingly well, it turns out, as I discover on my adventure around this beautiful city.

But first, food. Modern Romans don’t eat breakfast. They pop into a cafe for an espresso and pastry. So I head down Fossgate in search of Spring Espresso, the home of ‘artisan roasted coffee’. Inside, two students are reading poetry to each other and a local media guru is networking at her usual window seat.

I ask the co-owner, Tracy Dyson, for an Italian espresso. This is a mistake. She gives me a double-strength lecture about why the robusta bean and the machines used to make most Italian coffee in our high streets makes for crude, mass-produced kind of brew. Then I try her alternative: a flat white made from single-origin Arabica beans. It’s the best coffee I’ve had anywhere: York 1 – Rome 0.

Next we go and check out my shoes. The family firm of Cox has been here since 1921. They repair shoes and sell leather. They are not just any repairs or any old leather. Philippa Johnson, who married into the family firm, runs an expert eye over my Roman shoes to be sure the stitching is real and the soles properly made. Luckily for Rome they pass.

This sort of service becomes a theme among the independent shops of York’s historic centre. You can find the usual high street brands, but the real story is the tucked away independents. They care about the craft that goes into their goods; and so, if you can manage it, you can buy some unique things here. Just as you can in Rome – only you don’t have to walk as far.

Did you know....

  • York has more miles of intact city walls than anywhere else in England.
  • The Shambles is believed to be the oldest shopping street in Europe.
  • York is home to the largest Railway Museum in the world.

Enough of shopping, let’s eat. And drink. Let’s say you are in Rome. You happen across a tiny restaurant in a not very fashionable quarter. There are Italian flags in the window. Inside, there’s a crowded jumble of tables, chairs and kitsch memorabilia. The TV is turned to Italian football. The owner wears a tracksuit. It’s not glamorous.

Then they start bringing the food. Crab linguine with rocket. Fat spicy prawns. Pizzas fresh from the wood-fired oven. You’d pick up the bill, shake your head in disbelief, go home and ask why you can’t get places like that in the UK. You can: Il Paradiso del Cibo, Walmgate, York.

So I wandered hotel-wards, the last sunlight warming the Minster. People from all corners of the world are hurrying to dinner, drinking and laughing outside the cafes, taking one last look at the incredible frontage of our own St Peter’s. Ancient York says my notes from the York Archaeological Trust was ‘a thriving, cosmopolitan place which enjoyed a Mediterranean-style lifestyle’. Has so much changed? 

More Things To Do In York

If you're looking for more inspiration for a short city break, take a look at our guide of what to do in York where you'll find details of more things to do, great shopping, eating and drinking, culture and nightlife, plus details of all Best Western York hotels.

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