Explore the undulating Jurassic North York Moors in the north-east of the county on the North York Moors Steam Railway, which travels from Pickering (home to a Go Ape! treetop adventure course) to Whitby, a historic port and the epitome of the bucket-and-spade British seaside holiday town, with an award-winning sandy beach. Eating fish and chips on its seafront (Rick Stein claimed the Magpie Café is no less than Britain’s best ‘chippie’) and buying a stick of rock is a must, but there’s more – this is the place from which the explorer Captain Cook set forth, on locally built ships. The town also features prominently in Dracula, and there are many sites that its fans can seek out, including the Bram Stoker Memorial Seat, with the views that inspired the author, including the ruined Whitby Abbey, now housing an interactive visitor centre where you can ‘meet’ Stoker. Good souvenirs are ammonite fossils (you might be lucky and find one yourself on the shore); other fossils found locally include whole pterodactyl skeletons.
Other North Moors attractions include Flamingo Land Theme Park & Zoo, which, as well as rides and attractions and exotic animals, has a holiday village with log cabins, mobile homes, and a camping and caravan site. More educational is the Eden Camp Modern History Theme Museum in a former POW camp, which includes an Old Time Music Hall with sing-a-longs and puppetry. Also worth a visit is the glorious 18th-century state home of Castle Howard, where Brideshead Revisited was filmed. As well as its magnificent parkland complete with statues, fountains and temples, it has an adventure playground, guided adventure trails (daily in school holidays), boating on one of its lakes and a chocolate shop!
As well as Whitby, the Yorkshire Coast against the backdrop of the Moors is full of long sandy beaches, pretty bays and historic fishing villages. Near Whitby, Robin Hood’s Bay probably doesn’t have any links with the do-gooder – in fact, it’s an old smuggling town with tiny labyrinthine street full of small shops (including a sweet shop), tea-rooms and more. Its beaches are another good source of fossils, or you can take donkey rides and dabble in rock-pools. The traditional resort of Filey has an award-winning child-friendly beach with rock-pools too, and hosts a yearly summer festival including traditional Punch & Judy shows, barrel organs, processions and strawberry teas. Scarborough, Britain’s first seaside resort (it was a 17th-century spa town) and still one of its best, is now a favourite amongst those looking for some surfing action, and trendy shops and restaurants are popping up, as well as a marina. Sights range from the town’s ruined medieval castle perched on its headland to the Rotunda Museum, with an exhibition on the creatures who roamed this ‘Dinosaur Coast’ millions of years ago.
On the other (west) side of the Moors is the very rural Herriot Country, so-called because country vet James Herriot, hero of All Creatures Great and Small, lived here. The main attraction in the area is the World of James Herriot, with themed rooms, an interactive vets’ surgery and farm, special kids’ activities and a mock-up TV studio. Animal-mad kids will also be thrilled by the Big Sheep & Little Cow Farm Attraction, where they can feed calves and lambs, cuddle goats, give the pig a bath, ride ponies, take a farm quiz and buy home-made ice-cream to take home. There’s also the Falcons of Thorp Perrow, a birds-of-prey and mammals centre with flying displays, as well as an arboretum and woodland walks (including fungi hunts and Halloween trails). Look out too for the White Horse of Kilburn, a hill figure that was carved into the landscape in 1857.
Further west still lies the spectacular Yorkshire Dales, a great place for walking, cycling and riding, full of dramatic valleys, crags, peaks, caves and moors, plus inviting market towns selling fine local produce and crafts. Among the highlights here is the Embsay & Bolton Abbey Steam Railway, which has regular ‘Days out with Thomas’ and gift shops with Thomas the Tank Engine goodies. Meanwhile, there are more raptors at Settle Falconry, including Britain’s only free-flying condor (the world’s biggest bird of prey), and at Lightwater Valley, a combined shopping village, theme-park and bird-of-prey centre including a ‘Creepy Crawly Cave’ where you can get up close and personal with snakes, a tarantula, rats, Australian bearded dragons and more. There’s some real grotto action at White Scar Cave, Britain’s longest show cave, offering 1.5km (80min) guided tours of its stalactites, underground streams and waterfalls. Nearby is the Ingleton waterfalls walk.
If you choose to stay in the sedate town of Harrogate, south-east of the Dales, you’re not far from Ripley Castle, with a priest’s hiding place and armour in its Old Tower, Victorian walled gardens, hothouses with rare veg, pleasure grounds, a lake and a deer park, and special children’s tours of the castle and a play trail in the parkland.
With its pedestrianised cobbled streets, lashings of history and modern shops and restaurants, York, the county capital, is a no-brainer for those with kids. There’s enough here to keep you going for a week, including the free-to-enter National Railway Museum with a giant observation wheel in addition to three massive halls full of trains (among them a Japanese bullet train) and interactive exhibits. If it’s planes they like, head for the Yorkshire Air Museum. Kids also love Jorvik, where state-of-the-art technology brings the Viking era to life, and its sister attraction DIG, where you can experience the techniques used by the archaeologists who discovered the city of Jórvîk by taking part in a dig of your own with trowels. More traditional but still good fun is the York Castle Museum, best known for its mock-up Victorian street, including a school room and a sweet shop, with sound and light effects. For a schlockier take on the past, there’s the York Dungeon. Or take an evening Ghost Hunt of York, led by a top-hatted Victorian guide – children are encouraged to come to the front.
To the south, Leeds is a thoroughly modern city that has been redeveloped without losing sight of its Victorian heritage, which is obvious in its architecture. Depending on your kids’ ages and interests, you might like to visit the Royal Armouries, which is home to the national collection of arms and armour and hosts live demonstrations, reenactments, jousting tournaments and the like; Harewood House, with woodland walks, a bird garden where you can feed penguins and ostriches, and an adventure playground, and the Thackray Museum, with displays and interactive exhibits relating to the history of medicine, including a Victorian operating theatre, a ‘having a baby’ experience with an ‘empathy belly’ to try on, and a Life Zone where you can find out about the workings of the human body.
West of Leeds, Bradford has the wonderful (and free to boot) National Media Museum, which deals with film, TV, radio, photography and the Internet, and has a giant IMAX cinema. Among its attractions are the Magic Factory, where you can play with light, lenses and colour, and the Animation Gallery, where you can watch a real-life animator at work. Workshops, activity bags and sheets, museum trails and object-handling sessions bring it all alive for younger visitors. Bradford is also the gateway, for older kids with a literary interest, to ‘Brontë Country’: in quaint Howarth you can visit the Brontë Parsonage Museum, the preserved home of the literary family, which those with younger kids can appreciate the stunning countryside from the Keighley & Worth Valley Steam Railway.
Pennine Yorkshire to the south is an area rich in farm shops, farm-churned ice cream, gourmet restaurants and home cooking, micro-breweries and food festivals. But you’re most likely to be headed for Halifax and Eureka! The Museum for Children.
Then comes the Yorkshire section of the Peak District National Park (see Take the Family's guide to The Peak District and Derbyshire), with awesome scenery that varies widely, from caves to wildflower-strewn meadows and heather moorland. This is another spot for walking, riding, caving and climbing.
The gateway to the Peak District is South Yorkshire, also good for outdoor activities – including at the award-winning Rother Valley Country Park, with a water-sports centre and mountain-bike hire (including child trailers and baby seats), and along the coast-to-coast Trans-Pennine Trail for walkers, cyclists and horse-riders (and wheelchair- and buggy-users in certain places). Made up of canal towpaths, disused railway paths, cross-country tracks, bridleways, cycle lanes and minor roads, much of the latter is traffic free and hence perfect for those with young kids. It’s also in South Yorkshire, in Rotherham, that you’ll find Britain’s first ‘science adventure centre’, the award-winning Magna, with four pavilions in a former steelworks where you can explore the elements by firing a giant water cannon, spinning in a gyroscopic chair and other larks.
The Wakefield area north of here is home to the National Coal Mining Museum, the highpoint of which is a trip 140m underground down one of the country’s oldest working mines (warm clothes and flat shoes are advised). Under-5s, who can’t experience the trip, get their own ‘Mini Miners’ indoor play area. This area is also home to one of the slightly bonkers Diggerland theme-parks, where kids can ride in and/or drive various kinds of construction machinery, including giant diggers and dumper trucks, to the Hepworth Wakefield contemporary art gallery with its family events, and to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, where compelling alfresco art stands in acres of lovely grounds to run wild in.
Way over to the east on the banks of the River Humber, waterfront Hull has a lively Museum Quarter containing four of a total of eight free museums in the city. They include the Hull & East Riding Museum, which has interesting displays on natural history and archaeology, including dinosaur bones and Bronze Age warriors, and the Streetlife Museum of Transport, with everything from tricycles to trams and plenty of interactive features. Then there’s the Ferens Art Gallery, which, in addition to pieces ranging from European Old Masters to contemporary video portraits, has a children’s gallery including tours, talks and workshops. Most popular of all is The Deep, an aquarium with seven shark species, plus a discovery corner with rock-pools, a Humber Estuary themed play area and a special exhibition on the theme of slime.
As well as the city of Hull, East Yorkshire and the Yorkshire Wolds offers a great combination of scenic countryside and coastline. The family favourite here is the clifftop Sewerby Hall & Gardens overlooking Bridlington Bay, with pleasure gardens and walled gardens, a children’s zoo, a land-train, an adventure playground and a pitch and putt golf course.