York Maine isn’t just one of the oldest cities in the United States. It’s also one of the most quaint, noncommercial, and inviting cities in the state and country. And, with plenty of things to do in York Maine, it’s easy to see why the city is such a popular place to visit.
York is the place to slow down and enjoy the view, stroll the sandy beaches, and explore the many attractions in a coastal vacation town. So, grab your beach towel, pack your bags, and visit York & York Harbor.
About York Maine & Its History
Like most of Maine’s small towns, York features a small-town atmosphere with just the right balance of inns and great restaurants, allowing the coastal landscape along Route 1 to expose its scenic beauty.
The city is one of the earliest English settlements in the nation and became a government seat and thriving maritime commerce center. Many visitors today are captivated by its history and culture, while others simply seek refuge in its slow pace and natural beauty.
York Maine History
In 1624, what is now York was established as the plantation of Agamenticus, which is an Abenaki term for “on the other side of the river” — a reference to the York River.
European settlers changed the name to Bristol in 1638, naming it after the U.K. city from which they immigrated. Eventually, York was incorporated in 1652, making it the second-oldest Maine town after Kittery.
York Maine Economy
The city thrived as the capital of the region and the site of the Royal Goal (jail). And before the American Revolutionary War, many warehouses and wharves located in York would trade with the West Indies.
Lumber and agricultural products were traded in exchange for molasses, sugar, and other products. The famous merchant John Hancock partially owned a warehouse in York, and the building is now a museum.
After the war, though, trade in York was crippled by the Embargo Act of 1807, which was signed by President Thomas Jefferson. The city wasn’t prosperous again until after the Civil War when tourists were attracted to its Colonial charm and sea breezes.
Present Day York
Today, York Maine continues to be a summer vacation destination. You can still see the Gilded Age architecture and visit several historic buildings as museums. There’s tons of nature to explore as well.
Outdoor Things to Do in York Maine
If you enjoy outdoor activities, you won’t be disappointed with the options in York Maine. From parks and golf courses to the zoo and amusement park, there’s something here for all ages.
Once a seaside ski area, Mount Agamenticus reigns commanding views of the Atlantic Ocean, the White Mountains to the west, and even distant traces of Boston to the south.
Despite its small size at just 692 feet, the mountain offers an engaging trail system. There are easy pathways to the summit within a half-hour hike, as well as more difficult trails for avid hikers and mountain bikers. The Big A trail is a universal access nature path around the summit.
On top of that, select trails are open to ATV riders and horseback riding. You can even drive your vehicle to the summit for pure panoramic views and picnicking.
For a spectacular setting, take your book, walking shoes, or picnic basket to Sohier Park, home to Nubble Lighthouse in Cape Neddick (officially named Cape Neddick Light). This park and tower are among the most photographed landmarks in the United States.
Visitors to this famous lighthouse might enjoy seeing great black backed gulls, herring gulls, double crested cormorants, sun fish, and harbor seals. The park is a popular place for scuba diving.
Sohier Park is a favorite spot to visit at Christmastime and in July for the Lighting of the Nubble. You can’t actually enter the lighthouse — it’s on an island just a few yards from the shore, which makes it so stunning for Maine lighthouse photographs.
Nubble Light has a gift shop that is open from May through October.
Hartley Mason Reserve
Once a private seaside estate, this beautiful oceanfront park is open to the public. The beautiful grounds, located across the street from the York Harbor Inn, offer spectacular views of the Atlantic Ocean and the mouth of the York River.
From the park, you can follow the scenic Fishermen’s Walk to York Harbor Beach, and there are a few benches where you can sit and take in the peaceful view. It’s a popular wedding spot in York too — often part of wedding ceremonies at the inn.
Kids won’t be complaining of boredom at York’s Wild Animal Kingdom, which is the only zoo and amusement park in New England. Only a short walk from Short Sands Beach, beachside shops, and restaurants, it’s a fun stop on your family vacation itinerary.
There are more than 50 animal species to see, from African lions and ostriches to tarantulas and butterflies. Plus, you can hop on a few amusement park rides, or play a round of miniature golf on an 18-hole course. There’s even a Midway with arcade games.
While you’re here, don’t miss the chance to eat some of the best fried dough on the seacoast!
The York River is a lovely meandering 13-mile-long river making it a perfect spot for boating, especially kayaks and canoes. The York River was originally named by the Abenaki as Agamenticus River — which means “beyond-the-hill-little-cove.
Since it flows out to the Atlantic at York Harbor, more than half of the river is tidal. This means that the water level rises and falls with the ocean tide as far inland as York Pond in Eliot Maine.
Some neat spots to explore on the York River are York Harbor where boats dock and moor and Wiggly Bridge — perhaps the smallest suspension bridge in the world. The steel structure features an arced wooden deck that spans 75 feet between green towers. It bounces back and forth when you walk on it.
York has several great Maine golf courses. The Ledges Golf Club has championship greens that are surrounded by ledge outcroppings. When you stay at one of the club’s lodging partners, you can enjoy special stay and play options.
The York Golf and Tennis Club features an early 1900s course designed by Donald Ross and designated the William Wilson Course in honor of the longtime pro golfer. The club has six Har-Tru tennis courts and two hard tennis courts, as well as a historic clubhouse and new clubhouse.
If you follow the coast north to Cape Neddick, you could play at Cape Neddick Country Club. The 18-hole course here was also designed by Donald Ross in the early 1900s and had one of the top layouts in Maine at the time.
York Maine Beaches
York Harbor Beach
York Harbor Beach is very special. Although it’s not very big, it’s incredibly scenic. This crescent-shaped cove is mostly sand with some tide pools but has a few rocky spots.
Located at the mouth of the York River near the York Harbor Inn, Stage Neck Inn, and the Hartley Mason Reserve, this sandy beach is off the beaten path and pleasant for families because of its gentle surf. Locals call it Mothers’ Beach because it’s gentle enough for toddlers to enjoy the water.
Parking is limited at York Harbor Beach, but you can get to the sand via trolley if you wish. And, you can use the benches and shade trees in the bordering Hartley Mason Park when you need a break from the sun. From the last week in June through Labor Day, lifeguards are on duty.
Long Sands Beach
Like it sounds, Long Sands Beach is a 1.5-mile stretch of white sand along Route 1A with some tide pools and rocky spots. It’s handicap accessible with access ramps near the bathhouse.
This beach is a great place for sunbathing and swimming in the surf during the summer, taking a stroll all year, playing beach volleyball, and flying kites when the weather permits. There’s also a designated area for surfing and launching kayaks, and you can rent umbrellas and rafts.
From the last week of June through Labor Day, Long Sands Beach has lifeguards on duty. This period is the busiest of the year with up to 5,000 thousand visitors every day.
Short Sands Beach
Another sandy beach with tide pools and rocky spots, Short Sands Beach is only about 0.25 miles long. This pocket beach rests between rocky cliffs in Ellis Park and has a range of amenities — a large playground, grassy park area, gazebo, and promenade walkway with benches.
Additionally, Short Sands Beach has basketball courts. Throughout the summer, you can enjoy free concerts and other entertainment in the covered bandstand area. Other attractions, restaurants, and shops are within walking distance too.
Indoor Things to Do in York Maine
If it’s a rainy day, or you’re looking for unique things to do in York Maine, you’re in luck. The city offers several indoor activities for all ages.
The Museums of Old York offer real-life insight into York Maine’s rich and storied past as one of the oldest Colonial communities in the country. The Old York Historical Society manages a complex of several historic buildings.
You can start your museum adventure at the Old York Museum Center, which hosts educational programs all year. This complex features the York Corner Schoolhouse (built in 1745), Jefferds Tavern (built in 1750), and Remick Gallery, which contains historical and artistic objects.
Other buildings among the Museums of Old York include:
- The Old Gaol was constructed in 1656 as the first prison in Maine.
- The Emerson-Wilcox House Museum was built in 1735 and served as a home, general store, post office, stage tavern, and tailor shop.
- The Perkins House Museum and Administration was the summer home of Mary and Elizabeth Perkins starting in 1898. The historic part of the house is open to guided tours between June and October.
- The Donnell-Hancock Warehouse was built in the 1740s and is the last remaining Colonial commercial building on the York River.
- The George Marshall Store was built next to the warehouse after 1867 and used for selling coal, building materials, wood, and general merchandise.
In addition, you can visit the Steedman Woods at Point Bolleyne, a nature preserve managed by the Old York Historical Society. The 17-acre woodland was first settled in the early 1630s and has been kept wild for people to enjoy.
Do you know how saltwater taffy is made? As you walk through York Beach village, stop at The Goldenrod candy shop to watch it being made. Having been in business since 1896, the shop has crafted its sweet taffy to perfection.
The Goldenrod is home to the century-old Goldenrod Kiss, and it uses an antique marble soda fountain to make delicious creamy ice cream sodas and hot fudge sundaes. There are more than 135 flavors of ice cream to choose from! The candy shop has fudge, chocolate bark, brittle, caramel corn, and other confections too.
Also at The Goldenrod is a classic New England dining room where you can enjoy breakfast, lunch, and dinner dishes — waffles and griddle cakes, sandwiches, burgers, soups, and more.
Just steps from Short Sands Beach is Fun-O-Rama. Like the name implies, this beachside amusement arcade is fun for the whole family.
The 10,000-square-foot seaside pavilion has more than 200 video and arcade games that hearken back to the old days of seaside arcades with a honky-tonk circus atmosphere, much like Old Orchard Beach amusements.
The kids will love it, and the beach is nearby when you’ve had your fill (or if you run out of quarters).
With hand-built copper pot stills, Wiggly Bridge Distillery is a labor of love between a father and son. The distillery produces small batches of spirits with unique flavor in an 1880s barn.
You can visit this location for tastings and tours. Just have a seat at the bar to test out the various spirits. If you book a tour, you’ll learn about the distillery and its operation while sipping a handcrafted cocktail.
Open all year, The Shops at Cape Neddick is a 5,000-square-foot barn that has been renovated into a Main Street-style shopping area. It’s full of specially curated boutiques with unique home decor, clothes, jewelry, gifts, and more.
York Maine Festivals & Events
If you’re visiting York Maine at certain times of the year, you have the chance to witness some of the most unique events. Let’s take a look at some of the most notable.
Holiday Lighting of the Nubble
One of the most photographic and fun events in York Maine has to be the Lighting of the Nubble. When it gets dark during December, brilliant white Christmas lights shine from the lighthouse and keeper’s house, flowing from the contours of the tower, buildings, and fencing.
The lighting repeats every night from the weekend after Thanksgiving until New Year’s. This 30-year tradition has become such a celebration that millions of people arrive at Sohier Park to enjoy the spectacle, as well as cookies, live reindeer, and Santa.
The Lighting of the Nubble is among Maine’s holiday events not to be missed, so make sure that your camera is handy!
Held from the end of July through early August, you can enjoy York Days on Short Sands Beach. This free, family-oriented event features a craft fair, fireworks, a 5K Road Race, and a family film night. Every night during the event, you can see the Summer Lighting of the Nubble.
One of Maine’s best fall festivals is York Harvestfest in mid-October on Short Sands Beach. Farmer’s markets, live entertainment, local Maine food, craft vendors, carriage rides, and games are a few of the fun activities that celebrate the arrival of fall foliage and harvest time in Maine.
York Harvestfest is a free event to attend and is always held the weekend after Columbus Day.
Where to Eat in York Maine
No matter when you decide to visit, you’ll need to keep your energy up to enjoy all of the fantastic things to do in York Maine. Below are a few of our favorite restaurants.
If you’re in the mood for pizza, you have to try a pie at the YORK54 restaurant and pizza parlor. You can order the pizza of the day, a classic or specialty pizza, or build your own pizza. Gluten-free and vegetarian pizza options are available as well.
However, that’s not all you’ll find on the menu. It also includes beer specials, salads, chicken wings, and big quesadillas. Don’t forget to order gelato for dessert!
Making “Real Burgers for Real Burger Lovers,” Wild Willy’s Burgers is the best place to go for a juicy beef sandwich. The restaurant focuses on using quality ingredients and preparing each dish with care. You’ll find other sandwiches (including chicken), chili, and various French fry sides on the menu too.
For drinks, Wild Willy’s has fresh-squeezed fruit drinks, draft root beer, and frappes. Plus, there’s ice cream for dessert.
At the Union Bluff Hotel & Meetinghouse, you can enjoy a variety of food at these two restaurants. The Bluff Pub serves burgers, tasty sandwiches, salads, and other entrees. Everything is made with locally grown produce and fresh Maine seafood.
The Union Grill offers a fine dining experience with a menu designed by Chef James Ott to satisfy every appetite. You can pair your meal with a local craft or imported beer or wine. If you’re visiting during the winter, you’ll love sitting by the fireplace while eating.
Where to Stay in York Maine
Since York Maine is such a popular vacation destination, there’s a variety of lodging options within and around the city. From major hotel brands and boutique inns to campgrounds and RV parks, York has a home away from home just for you.
Located on York Harbor next to the mouth of the York River, Stage Neck Inn offers intimate rooms and breathtaking views of the water. The oceanfront resort features sophisticated amenities and a casual dining room where you can enjoy craft beer, cocktails, and a curated list of wine.
On the opposite side of the York River from Stage Neck, Dockside Guest Quarters is a waterfront Maine bed and breakfast.
Alongside comfortable rooms and suites with modern amenities across multiple buildings, the property has fine dining in the Dockside Restaurant, casual dining on The Deck, and a hearty breakfast every morning.
Across from Long Sands Beach, Camp Eaton is an oceanside community where you can bring your RV at any time of year. The 35 acres has more than 250 sites, some of which can fit 37-foot RVs. All of the sites have 30-amp hookups, but 50-amp hookups are available at many of them too.
Discover All the Wonderful Things to Do in York Maine
York Maine is a longtime vacation spot for a reason. It’s a charming, picturesque city on the Southern Maine coast with plenty to do for couples, families, and groups of friends. You’ll find things to do in York Maine during every season!