The windswept town of Whitby is the North Yorkshire Coast’s crown jewel. It’s become a firm Yorkshire favourite of mine over the last two years I’ve lived in Yorkshire and I’ve been drawn back again and again across almost all seasons.
Whitby is a great place to base yourself and explore the rest of the Yorkshire Coast but there is also plenty in Whitby itself to keep you occupied for an action packed weekend. From the magnificent Abbey overlooking the town to the stretch of sandy beach, you’re bound to be won over by Whitby’s charm. Read on for 15 ways to spend a weekend in this wonderful seaside town.
1. Whitby Abbey
Whitby Abbey is the most famous location in Whitby and stands strong and formidable on the headland overlooking the toybox seaside town below. You may well know that the impressive Gothic ruins were the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Historic England sometimes holds live theatre performances amongst the ruins. With that legend in mind, twice a year the town fills up with goths as part of the Whitby Goth Weekends.
Take time to meander through the ruins and imagine what this magnificent building might have looked like when it was first built. From inside and out the Abbey makes a striking shot. At sunrise the morning light casts a soft golden glow onto the ruins whilst at sunset the Abbey remains a solid silhouette against a sky full of colour.
2. Explore the cobbled streets of the East Bank
Whitby straddles the River Esk and on the East Bank, beneath the famous ruins, lies its historic heart. Cobble stoned streets are lined by cottages, cafes and quirky shops to browse. The main street is Church Street but Sandgate is equally as lovely. Look out for the Old Town Hall which is situated in between these streets. Today you can enjoy coffee beneath its columns.
3. Snoop around the yards
Whilst exploring the main streets you’ll notice small passageways leading off them. Whilst York has snickelways and Edinburgh has closes, Whitby has yards. Have fun spotting them and make note of their names as you have a snoop!
Some to look out for are:
Arguments Yard – which certainly makes you wonder how it got its name!
Sanders Yard – with a beautiful painted sign
Blackburn’s Yard – home to picturesque The Washouse Pottery
4. 199 Steps
The 199 Steps are another of Whitby’s most famous attractions and lead from the East Bank at the Abbey Steps Tea Room all the way up to St Mary’s Church at the top. The steps may feel steep but you will be rewarded by beautiful views across Whitby. Due to their popularity, the steps can be very busy so for some gorgeous lighting and a clear shot with no people, set the alarm early and come at sunrise!
Although there have been steps in this location for many years, the current stone steps were only erected in 1774. If you look to your right (going up) you will notice a very steep cobbled track running parallel to the steps; this is called the Donkey Track. It was historically used to bring donkeys down to the beach for donkey rides. Quite an impressive feat when you realise how many cars seem to get stuck on it (despite the warning signs…).
Top Tip: Take a moment to reflect in St Mary’s Church at the top of the steps and be surprised by the boxes that fill the church rather than pews. There’s also a stellar view over to West Cliff and the piers from the edge of the graveyard.
5. Henrietta Street
Take a right at the bottom of the 199 Steps and you’ll walk along Henrietta Street. The fisherman’s cottages along here are now mostly holiday cottages and a number of them have quirky pottery plaques hanging beside their doors. At the end of the street, the left hand side opens out to a view back over Whitby and you can take a steep path down to walk along the East Bank pier. Look out for the amusingly named Tipsy Cottage and for historic Fortune’s Kippers.
6. Ice Cream
You can’t visit the seaside without a generous scoop of ice cream and in Whitby you’ll certainly need one with all of the exploring to be done. There are lots of ice cream stands and shops to choose from and plenty of enticing flavours to pick between. My dad chose an unusual combination of liquorice and blackberry whilst you could also opt for a Whitby Jet cone!
7. Whitby Piers
One way to stretch your legs is to walk out along the Whitby piers. They sit at the mouth of the River Esk and almost look to be guarding the town from the North Sea and whatever it may bring. Personally I prefer the west pier as you can look across the beach up to the outline of the cliffs North of Whitby and it’s easier to reach than the east pier.
Get a bird’s eye view of the piers from the top of either of the cliffs.
8. Find your sea legs
With sailing and boats a rich thread of Whitby’s historical and present tapestry it is no wonder there are plenty of boats in Whitby harbour offering short rides out to sea. I took one with some friends in March and it was admittedly a bit of a rough ride so I do mean it when you may find your sea legs. Or, as I discovered, lack of! Although we took a different boat, you can board the Bark Endeavour (a replica of HMS Endeavour which Captain Cook sailed) for the Captain Cook Experience.
A boat ride is a great way to see Whitby and the Abbey headland from an entirely different perspective.
9. Try your luck at the arcades
The rush of clinking coins and squeal of excitement from a win on the penny falls. The jolly tunes of the fruit machine’s barrels spinning round. As you stroll along the promenade towards the pier the sound of the arcades that run along the front will undoubtedly reach your ears. So why not convert a pound into 2p pieces and wile away half an hour in one of the arcades with some good old retro fun.
10. Whitby Beach
A big draw of Whitby is its long sandy bay which stretches North under the base of West Cliff. Enjoy a windswept stroll, a dip (of the toes) in the chilly North Sea or a well earned rest people watching from the comfort of a picnic rug.
Further along the beach from the piers is a long line of brightly coloured beach huts. They’re not well occupied in colder weather but as soon as it’s sunny they act as a beach community of themselves! I’m not quite sure how you can hire one for a day but I would love to do that. What a perfect spot to soak up the sun in a deckchair. It’s also the perfect spot for a cheerful photograph!
11. Shop for Whitby Jet
Have you ever wondered where the phrase jet black comes from? Along the streets of the Eest Bank you’ll find a number of fascinating shops selling the mysterious Whitby Jet. This deep black stone is the reason for the phrase jet black and it is made from fossilised wood.
Browsing the shops selling Whitby Jet, you will see it’s a gemstone that creates exquisite jewellery. In fact, after Prince Albert passed away in 1861, this is the only gemstone that Queen Victoria would wear.
12. Follow in Captain Cook’s footsteps
Whitby is not only home to tales of vampires but also of world explorers. Specifically a certain Captain Cook, one of the most famous explorers in the world. James Cook was born in Marton but came to Whitby in 1746 as an apprentice for a local shipping company.
You can learn more about Captain Cook’s life at the Captain Cook Memorial Museum which is set in the house he lived in during his time in Whitby. You can find it on the beautiful Grape Lane, my favourite street in Whitby!
13. Fish & Chips
You can’t visit Whitby without one of your meals being the seaside favourite of fish and chips. You might decide to eat in or take them home but there’s no denying the best way (if the weather allows) is huddled on a picnic blanket looking out to sea. Your newspaper wrapped meal a source of warmth on your thighs. Chips covered in so much salt and vinegar you can feel it sting your eyes (although maybe that’s the wind). The best place in town is the Magpie Cafe. The queues can be long but its worth the wait.
14. Whitby Whale Bones
On the East Cliff of Whitby you find the formidable Abbey whilst on the West Cliff you’ll find the Whiby Whale Bones. A rather unusual feature, the whalebone arch has been in place since 1853 and is a monument to Whitby’s past. It harks back to a time when whaling was an important part of Whitby’s story and crews would set sail from the town in hunt of these giants. Now it acts to perfectly frame a photo of the Abbey and St Mary’s Church.
Top Tip: This is a stunning spot to watch the sun as it rises over the North Sea and transforms the sky into a myriad of rich colours.
Although there is plenty to keep you busy for a weekend in Whitby itself, the charming village of Sandsend is a short drive away. It has another beach to explore and a row of cottages in The Valley that look like they belong in the middle of the Yorkshire Dales rather than metres away from the sea.
Have you visited Whitby?