Last Updated on September 26, 2020 by Anisa
There are plenty of lovely coastal towns in England, but there is something special about Whitby in North Yorkshire. Visit and you will understand why it inspired Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
It’s charming, a bit mysterious, and full of history. Given its small size, you will be surprised about how much there is to do! Let me tell you more about the fascinating history and some of the top things to do in Whitby, England.
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Whitby is a traditional English seaside resort town located at the mouth of the River Esk in North Yorkshire. The first settlement was in the 7th century on the site of the current Whitby Abbey Ruins. Now, Whitby has about 13,000 people that live there.
Tourism and fishing are the biggest money-makers in Whitby. It may be best known for its connection to Dracula, but it has much more to offer visitors. Twice a year, it hosts a popular alternative music festival called Whitby Goth Weekend.
Whitby and Bram Stoker’s Dracula
Bram Stoker was not from Whitby, he is actually Irish, but a short holiday visit to Whitby in 1890 moved him so much that it became a significant part of the Dracula story. The innocent tourists, the picturesque harbor, the majestic abbey ruins, the eerie churchyard, and the stories he heard from Whitby seafarers all helped shape the popular gothic horror novel. As I tell you about the places to visit in Whitby, I will explain more about the connection to Bram Stoker and Dracula.
Whitby and Captain Cook
Bram Stoker is not the only famous person with ties to Whitby. Captain James Cook, the famous explorer did his apprenticeship in Whitby. He created detailed maps of Newfoundland, achieved the first recorded European contact with the eastern coastline of Australia and the Hawaiian Islands, and the first recorded circumnavigation of New Zealand.
The ships used in his famous voyages were made in Whitby too. Whitby plays tribute to Captain Cook as part of a few attractions – Captain Cook Memorial, Captain Cook Memorial Museum, and the Captain Cook Experience. More details on those places below.
Things to Do in Whitby
I was surprised by how much Whitby had to offer. You can learn more about history, follow in the footsteps of Bram Stoker or Captain Cook, get out on the water, explore the area and practice photography, and of course, eat the local specialties.
#1 Explore Whitby Abbey
If you only visit one attraction in Whitby, it has to be the Abbey! The ruins of this 11th-century Benedectine Monastery overlook the town. In addition to the ruins, there is a coffee shop and a small museum (opened in April 2019) where you can learn more about the history of the site.
Take time to walk through the ruins. The size of the columns impressed me the most. I was imagining what the Abbey would have looked like in its prime. The views over the town are breathtaking too. I kept an eye out for the white lady mentioned in Dracula but didn’t have any luck finding her. Note: If you are interested in Abbeys, also consider visiting Fountains Abbey, which is also located in Yorkshire.
If you want to get a dramatic photo of the Abbey, I suggest taking it from the east side. There is a small pond which provides for a pretty reflection (see photo at the top of this page).
Whitby Abbey is an English Heritage Site, so if you are a member (like us) or have an overseas visitor pass it’s free. Click here to learn more about the benefits of English Heritage Membership or if you are visiting England, click here to learn more about the Overseas Visitor Pass. Otherwise, the admission charge is £8.90 for adults or £5.30 for children. Note: You can access the Abbey through St. Mary’s Churchyard (after walking up the 199 steps), by taking a bus, or driving to the pay-and-display parking lot behind the Abbey.
#2 Climb the 199 Steps
There are 199 steps leading from the east side of Whitby to the top of the cliff where St. Mary’s Church and the Whitby Abbey are located. Dracula jumped up the 199 steps to the abbey disguised as a black dog. Don’t worry, the steps are not very steep, so it’s not as bad as it sounds. You will want to take a few breaks to enjoy the view too.
The first record of these steps was in 1340! They were originally made of wood and replaced with stone from Sneaton in 1774. This used to be the route that pall-bearers would take carrying coffins up to the graveyard. The churchyard was closed to burials sometime in the 19th century.
I heard that the steps were designed to test your faith and that you are supposed to count each one on the way up. Then when I was climbing and counting the stairs I learned there are markers every 10 steps in case you lose count.
Note: If you are not physically able (or don’t want) to climb the steps, you can take a bus or drive to the Abbey. There is a pay and display parking lot there.
#3 Visit St. Mary’s Church
At the top of 199 steps, you will find St. Mary’s Church and its large graveyard. This is the graveyard where Bram Stoker found names for some of the characters in Dracula, including ‘Swales’, the name of Dracula’s first victim in Whitby. I could imagine how spooky it could be at night, especially if it was foggy.
St. Mary’s Church has limited hours, but if it happens to be open when you visit allow a few minutes to go inside. It’s not like the typical English church. Instead of rows of pews, the pews are arranged like box seats at a stadium. This was the first time I had seen what are called box pews.
#4 Relax at Whitby Beach
Whitby Beach is located west of the town. It is lined with colorful beach huts along a boardwalk making it ideal for photos or a stroll. We visited at high tide when the seas were rough, so not much sand was visible, but I don’t think this is always the case. If you plan on spending a lot of time on the beach, be sure to check out my complete beach packing list.
#5 Take a Photo Under Whalebone Arch
On one of the cliffs at the east end of Whitby Beach, you will find the famous Whalebone Arch. From seeing the pictures online, I thought it was a sculpture of whale bones, but it is actually real bones from a whale! The current whale bones (put in place in 2003) came from a Bowhead whale that was killed legally by native Alsakan Inuits and donated by Whitby’s sister town of Anchorage, Alaska.
It’s not surprising that Whitby used to be a whaling town. At its peak in the early 19th century, there were 55 whaling ships operating out of the harbor and the oil was used for street lighting in the town. Whitby’s whaling industry ended in 1837.
Whitby’s whaling industry may be long since gone, but you can still go whale watching during late summer and early autumn. Whitby Whale Watching offers four or eight-hour trips. Keep in mind these trips go out on the North Sea which can sometimes be rough and cold. Also, while they work hard to find the whales, sightings are not guaranteed. You can find more information here.
It was an interesting feeling standing under the Whalebone Arch. You get a good sense of the size of whales and the view of the town and abbey are framed perfectly. It’s a popular photo spot, so if you don’t want to wait your turn, go early.
#6 See Where Bram Stoker Stayed While in Whitby
When Bram Stoker visited Whitby, he stayed at Mrs. Veazey’s guesthouse at 6 Royal Crescent, which is just a walk from the bench. It is marked by a historic blue plaque. While it is no longer a guesthouse, you can snap a quick photo outside.
#7 Daydream on Bram Stoker’s Bench
Just a bit south from the Captain Cook Memorial and the Whalebone Arch, you will find the bench that Bram Stoker sat on when he visited Whitby. The views from the bench inspired him to use the area as a setting in his novel, Dracula.
#8 Eat Fish and Chips at Quayside
Whitby is a British seaside town so of course, we had to have some fish & chips. We went to Quayside which is in the building that used to be the Whitby Library. Inside this library, Bram Stoker decided on the name Dracula after coming across it in a book.
The fish & chips were delicious, maybe even as good as Aldeburgh Fish & Chips, but it was expensive! We paid £26 for our lunch. If you are on a tight budget, there are probably more affordable options. Also, keep in mind that Quayside is popular. We had to wait about 15 minutes for our table.
#9 Take the Captain Cook Experience
There are several boat tours that you can take from Whitby that are surprisingly affordable. Unfortunately, most tours were canceled the day we were there because of the weather, but I had planned on taking the Captain Cook Experience. The Captain Cook Experience is a 25-minute boat ride on the Bark Endeavour Whitby around Whitby Harbor and along the coast to Sandsend.
The Bark Endeavour Whitby is a replica of the HMS Endeavour – the ship used for Captain Cook’s scientific expedition in 1768. During the cruise, you will hear about the life of Captain Cook, the history of Whitby, and might even see some wildlife.
You don’t need to book in advance. Just head down to the Whitby Harbor, just south of the Bandstand. They sail about every 30 – 40 minutes beginning at 10:00 am as long as the weather and tide cooperate.
#10 Pay Tribute at the Captain Cook Memorial
Next to the Whalebone Arch is the memorial to Captain Cook. It’s a statue of Captain Cook standing on a pedestal looking out to sea. Fittingly, for one of the greatest maritime explorers, there is a compass on the ground under the memorial.
#11 Learn more at the Captain Cook Memorial Museum
The Captain Cook Memorial Museum is inside a beautiful 17th-century house on Grape Lane, where the young James Cook stayed when he was not at sea. The Museum showcases Captain Cook’s work and the sailors, scientists, and artists that sailed with him. You can see Captain Cook’s handwritten letters, ship models, maps, and artifacts from the newly discovered lands.
The Museum is open daily February 9th to March 29th from 11:00 am – 3:00 pm and March 30th to November 3rd from 09:45 am to 5:00 pm. You can get a small discount by booking your tickets online in advance here.
#12 Shop for Jet
Whitby Jet is a natural gemstone formed from the compressed wood of the prehistoric Monkey Puzzle or Araucaria tree, found along a two-mile stretch of coastline between Robin Hood’s Bay and Boulbya. Traditionally, it has been used in mourning jewelry and some consider it to have magical properties and provide protection against evil. There are plenty of different boutique shops selling jet around Whitby. I had fun admiring some of the creative designs through the windows.
#13 Cross the Swing Bridge
Whitby Swing Bridge is a pedestrian and car bridge over the River Esk that connects the east and west sides of the town. It gets its name because it swings open to allow large ships to go by. The current bridge was built in 1908 and spans 75 feet. Each section can be operated independently. Note: During busy periods, the Swing Bridge is often closed to vehicles.
#14 Ride the North Yorkshire Moors Railway
The North Yorkshire Moors Railway is a popular heritage (mostly steam) train that runs from Whitby to Pickering daily from the beginning of April to the end of October and on weekends and selected holidays during the winter (with no service from 24–27 December).
If you purchase a day return ticket, you can hop-off and hop-on at the different stops and make a whole day out of it. The 18-mile ride features diverse scenery including beautiful lakes, forest covered valleys, moorland, and numerous little villages. Harry Potter fans should be sure to get a photo at Goathland as it was Hogsmeade Station in the first Harry Potter film. The North Yorkshire Moors Railway also offers luxury dining experiences on the Pullman Dining Train.
English Heritage Members, Castle Howard Members, and local residents get discounted tickets when showing membership ID at the stations. If you are not a member you may still be able to get a discount by booking online here in advance and choosing specific trains. Also, for an additional £4, you can purchase an upgrade to first class on the day of travel.
Getting Around Whitby
Whitby is small enough that it’s possible to just walk everywhere – that’s what we did. If you want to reduce the amount of walking there is an open top bus tour available. Find more information about it here.
Things to do Near Whitby
Once you’ve had a chance to explore Whitby, there a couple of spots nearby worth checking out. This part of the Yorkshire coast is scenic, so take advantage of the time you have in the area.
Robin Hood’s Bay
This small fishing village in the North York Moors National Park is only five miles south of Whitby. It’s doubtful that Robin Hood ever visited the area, so where the name comes from is a bit of a mystery. There is an English legend that says Robin Hood encountered French pirates who surrendered and Robin Hood returned the loot to the poor people in the village that is now called Robin Hood’s Bay.
It would be easy to spend a whole day just in this area. The beach is gorgeous and during low tide, it’s easy to reach the cove known as Boggle Hole. (Check the tide times here so you don’t get stuck.) Be sure to keep an eye out for fossils. You can learn more about the area’s history at the Robin Hood’s Bay Museum, which is free to visit. Peek inside Old St Stephen’s Church which hasn’t changed since it was built in 1822.
Note: You cannot drive into the old village. Instead, park in the lot at the top of the bank, and walk from there. Be warned the path is steep!
Sandsend is a tiny village just up the coast from Whitby. The beach there has small rivers running into the sea on either side and a large expanse of sand during low tide. On a clear day, there is a view of the romantic ruins of Whitby Abbey. During the summer, an area of the beach is zoned off for swimming. It’s also supposed to be a good area for fossil hunting and fishing.
It’s a pleasant two-mile walk to or from Whitby to Sandsend. Unfortunately, we didn’t attempt the journey since the weather was miserable during our visit, but I read that you should allow about an hour and a half to do the walk. There are many spots to stop for photographs.
How to Get to Whitby
If possible, drive to Whitby. That way you can easily explore the beautiful Yorkshire coastline. If you haven’t driven in the UK before, please read my post about how driving in the UK is different to know what to expect. Keep in mind it’s about a five-hour drive from London or an hour and a half from York. (Note: York is one of my favorite places to visit in the UK, so if you haven’t been, consider spending some time there on the way.)
For those that prefer to take public transportation, there are options available but it will involve changes. Take the East Coast Mainline from London’s King Cross to York. Then, in York, change to the Transpennine Express towards Scarborough. At Scarborough, catch the X93 MAX towards Middlesbrough from the Railway Station Stop S. Get off at Whitby. To save money on train tickets, choose specific times and book in advance. Click here to check the schedule and prices on Trainline.
Tours That Visit Whitby
If you think it is too much of a hassle to travel to Whitby by public transportation, then you could do a day tour to Whitby from York. There are are few options depending on your preferences and budget.
How Long to Spend in Whitby
While you can see a lot of Whitby in a day, it’s best to spend at least a weekend in the area. That way, you can also see some of the other quaint towns nearby. If your time is limited, then you will have to prioritize. We only had a day, so hopefully, I will make it back to see more.
Where to Stay in Whitby
If you decide to spend a weekend in Whitby, there are a wide range of accommodations available. At the top end of the scale, there is the Raithwaite Estate, which is located just outside the town. Click here to get more details and check availability. If you would like a more central location, consider the Angel Hotel. Click here to get more details and check availability.
As you can see, Whitby is perfect for a seaside holiday. It’s picturesque, the history is fascinating, and no one is going to be bored!
Have you been to Whitby?
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