Whitby: A Place To Sink Your Teeth Into

Looking for somewhere to spend a long weekend?? Then look no further than Whitby! It’s a beautiful seaside town on the Yorkshire coast and the inspiration behind the famous Bram Stoker novel – Dracula!

We recently decided we needed a 3 day weekend and we love Yorkshire so Whitby was an easy choice for us. It did not disappoint – I would move there in an instant if I could!

Brief History of Whitby

Whitby is one of the few towns in the UK that has been continuously inhabited for over 1,000 years. The River Esk runs through the middle of the town, splitting it into two sides – the East Side (where the abbey ruins stand) and the West Side. The East Side is the oldest part of the town.

The first recorded permanent settlement dates back to 656AD when the first abbey was founded by the Christian King of Northumbria. However, there is evidence of earlier Celtic and Roman settlements in the area, such as the remains of a Roman lighthouse on the headland.

In 876AD, Viking raiders destroyed the abbey and renamed the town from Streonshalh to Whitby – meaning “White Settlement” in Old Norse. The abbey was rebuilt in 1078 by Regenfrith (Reinferd) a soldier monk, under the orders of his protector, the Norman, William de Percy.

Many of the small buildings and alleys on the East Side were built in the 15th century and provided escape routes for smugglers, pirates and those looking to hide from the press gangs (men who forced others into military service).

In the 16th century the abbey was destroyed for a final time during the Dissolution of the Monasteries by King Henry VIII. It was at this time that the Cholmley family acquired the abbey and the surrounding land. They lived in the abbey buildings while building their own stately home using the stones and roofing material from the abbey.

The 17th century saw the beginning of the whaling trade which was a prosperous time for the region (unfortunately). In 1728 the famous Captain James Cook was born in Marton-in-Cleveland, Yorkshire and moved to Whitby at the age of 17 to become a merchant navy apprentice. It was during this period that Whitby became known for it’s shipbuilding – including the Endeavour, the ship Captain Cook mapped Australia and New Zealand in.

In 1897, Bram Stoker wrote Dracula, using landmarks and folklore from Whitby after spending several weeks in the area. If you’ve read the book, you’ll definitely spot these when you explore the town!

1914 proved to be a dark year for Whitby – a hospital ship sank within sight of the shore killing 85 of the 229 passengers and many of them are buried in the churchyard on the headland. Only a few weeks later, the town was under fire from German battle-cruisers who mounted a 10 minute attack on the signal house on the headland, causing severe damage to the abbey at the same time.

Best time to go

We went late September so it was the tail end of summer but getting dark earlier and there was a definite chill in the air, but still a good time to be there.

If you’re looking for warmth and sun then I would recommend heading there in July and August, but if you’re not too fussy then I think any time of year would be fine.

I honestly don’t think the weather will ruin your visit to Whitby – it’s such a picturesque town that any type of weather will just enhance your experience! Personally I would love to visit while it’s snowing

Where to stay

You’ll find most of the accommodation sits up on the West Side of town and a quick look at booking.com will give you some good options.

We stayed at Joben Guest House which is a bed & breakfast approx 5-10 minute walk from the waterfront. I can definitely recommend Joben – the hosts are lovely, the room was really nice and comfortable (we had one with an ensuite) and the breakfast was very good.

There is limited public parking throughout Whitby so make sure you check if your accommodation provides it otherwise you will need to find a public parking area. Most of the street parking is for residents and they have permits in their windows that are checked regularly.

Things to do

There are a number of different things to do in Whitby so I’m sure you’ll find something to suit everyone but here are a few of the things you HAVE to do.

Whitby Abbey Ruins

You can’t go to Whitby and not visit the abbey ruins! You’ll see them from almost anywhere in town as they stand impressively on the headland.

Today they’re looked after by English Heritage so if you have membership you’ll be able to enter the museum and site free. Otherwise it will cost £8.90 / adult and £5.30 / child. Opening times are currently 10am – 4pm Wednesday – Sunday but I would recommend checking English Heritage before you go for the most up to date information.

The main entrance and museum is located in the ruins of the old Cholmley family home, with the small museum on the upper level. They have an impressive gift shop on the ground floor too where you can buy all your Dracula memorabilia 🙂

You have to go through the museum before you enter the ruins – there is not much in the way of information through the abbey itself, so I highly recommend making the most of the museum and learning everything you can about the site and it’s history before heading outside.

I’ll give you a few bullet points about the history of Whitby Abbey to help you out (in case you don’t heed my advice about the museum lol).

  • The Synod of England was held here in 663-664 to determine whether to follow Celtic or Roman practices.
  • When the abbey was founded, Princess Hild was the abbess who would later be venerated to become St Hilda.
  • St Hilda is buried in Whitby and her bones were enshrined but this was later destroyed by the Vikings.
  • The abbey was sacked by Viking raids in the 9th century and stayed abandoned until the 1078 when a new monastery was built.
  • Between the 13th-15th century the abbey was rebuilt in the Gothic style.
  • In 1578, Sir Richard Cholmley purchased the abbey’s buildings and land and adapted the abbots house in a country manor.
  • By the 18th century, the abbey was in ruins again after the dissolution of the monasteries.
  • During the 19th century the abbey ruins became a popular attraction and landmark in the area.
  • The ruins of the abbey were inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
  • What was left of the abbey was shelled during 1914 by the Germans, causing substantial damage to the west front.
  • Illuminated Abbey happens every Halloween (25th – 31st Oct) where the abbey is lit up, they have characters in costume, ghost stories and a live performance of Dracula.
Image Source: © Historic England (illustration by Liam Wales)
St Mary’s Church

This church sits between the abbey and the 199 steps so if you’re walking up from town you’ll walk through the churchyard on your way to the abbey.

There has been a church on this site since 1110 but the interior dates back to the 18th century. Including all the individual box pews which I have never seen before.

Each box could be rented or purchased by a family and that would be their dedicated box every Sunday when they attended church. There are also box pews marked “For Strangers Only” and others reserved for the coastguard. Apparently these box pews were commonplace in churches during the 18th and 19th century but these are the first ones I’ve ever come across so I found them quite fascinating.

The church is free to enter but they suggest a donation, plus there is a small shop in the entrance selling information about the church, the local area and handcrafts.

I did spot a notice on the front door stating categorically that Dracula is not buried in the churchyard and also, he is not real but only a fictional character. I’m guessing they’ve had a number of tourists asking! But the church is mentioned in the book:

For a moment or two I could see nothing, as the shadow of a cloud obscured St. Mary’s Church. Then as the cloud passed I could see the ruins of the Abbey coming into view; and as the edge of a narrow band of light as sharp as a sword-cut moved along, the church and churchyard became gradually visible… It seemed to me as though something dark stood behind the seat where the white figure shone, and bent over it. What it was, whether man or beast, I could not tell.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula
St Mary’s Church Cemetery

Hard to miss this one – it surrounds the church! There are a few graves you can look out for, which we found quite fun to spot.

Graves with Skull & Crossbones: Local legend says these are the graves of pirates. Unfortunately, the real story is not as fun as that – the skull and crossbones is a symbol for a mason or freemason.

Grave of Dracula: If you do any tours of the area you’ll hear that Dracula is buried in the cemetery here. But just like the church says – he is not buried in Whitby.

Cast Iron Grave: This one is really cool! It’s a real cast iron gravestone for George Chapman, a famous engineer.

Grave of Humpty Dumpty: You’ll find this one directly behind the church in a little fenced area. There’s no discernible writing on it, but the grave is egg-shaped so is easy to spot. It’s not actually Humpty Dumpty (obviously) but a canon of the same name.

Grave of Dracula’s First Victim: Keep an eye out for the grave of Swales – in the book he becomes Dracula’s first victim in England. In reality, it was a just a name Bram Stoker spotted while wandering amongst the graves himself and not much is actually known about the man.

Take some time to wander around the cemetery, it’s a really interesting place and one of my favourite graveyard’s I’ve been in. If you’re looking closely at the inscriptions, you’ll notice that some of them say “In Remembrance” instead of “Here Lies.” This is because a lot of these are for sailors and fishermen that were lost at sea and never recovered.

199 Steps

Climb the steps from town up to St Mary’s Church and the abbey. There are a couple of stops on the way up where you can stop to take photo’s of the town (and catch your breath!).

The steps date back to at least 1340 but they were wooden until 1774 when they were replaced with stone.

On your way up, take a moment to think about the people who would have to carry the coffins up to the church from town. Apparently that’s the reason there are stops and benches along the way, to give the pall-bearers a chance to catch their breath!

If you’ve read Dracula, you’ll know that the steps also feature in the book – when in dog form, he runs from his wrecked ship on the beach, up the steps to the church yard above.

East Side

Make some time to explore the narrow lanes and shops of the East Side. Many of the buildings on this side of the river were built between the 15th – 17th centuries and hold a lot of charm.

We stopped in a tiny little chocolate shop called Justin Chocolatier that you could literally fit two people into, to buy a strawberry filled chocolate coffin – coz you know? Darcula!

There are also some cute little gift shops, nice cafes and bars to check out and your usual high street shops mixed in. We found a little cafe down one of the narrow little lanes that I highly recommend – simply called The Coffee Shop! It’s located on Grape Lane, right across the road for the Captain Cook museum so if you’re planning a visit to the museum, why not stop in for a coffee! The staff are super friendly and the food and coffee were amazing.

Captain Cook Museum

The Captain Cook Museum is housed in the actual home a young James Cook lived in as an apprentice in the 1700’s, it was owned by John Walker who Cook was apprenticed to. The house and it’s original internal decor have been restored to how it would have looked in 1746 when Cook first moved there.

Each of the rooms upstairs are dedicated to different eras of Cook’s life and career, starting in Whitby and his voyages to Canada, followed by his most famous voyages to the “End of the Earth,” when he was searching for the fabled Southern Continent. Instead he found New Zealand and Australia and became the first to accurately map both countries and both New Zealand and Australia still have towns and beaches named by Cook.

The museum costs £6.20 / adult and £3.50 / child. There is a small gift shop where you pay and you’ll circle back here at the end of your tour through the house. If you’re visiting with children, they offer a free activity trail for them to participate in.

Go on a Ghost Walk

Ghost walks are a great way to get to know a town. You’ll wander through streets and alleys that you may not necessarily explore in the daytime, you’ll hear fun tales and legends about the town and area and if you’re really lucky – you might even spot a ghost!

We chose to do ours with Dr Crank. He runs Whitby Walks which includes a Ghost Walk tour and an In Search of Dracula tour. Tours cost £5 for adults and £3 for children (bring cash) and leave from the Whale Bone Arch at 7:30pm, most Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights for the Ghost Walk. The Dracula tour is less frequent and only runs a couple of Tuesday’s month – though this may be more frequent in the summer months. The website has all the dates for the current month though, so keep it handy and make sure you check it when you’re in Whitby!

Dr Crank is an awesome tour guide – and yes, he really is a doctor; and yes, his surname really is Crank! He lead us down narrow alleys, stopping at different locations to regale us with the scary tales that relate to that spot. He also took us to “Dracula’s Bench,” which is supposedly where Bram Stoker would spend his days while he was staying in Whitby in the 1880-1890’s.

He’ll also tell you about the screaming tunnel, the Dutchman’s horse, the burning girl, the headless horseman, the hand of glory, the Whitby witches, the Barguest hound, the grey lady and the haunted lighthouse. The tour finishes back where you started by the Whale Bone Arch, and from there you can go your own way – hopefully without any ghostly attachments!

West Side, Pier & Lighthouse

There are a number of shops, bars and restaurants along the waterfront on the West Side that are worth checking out. Also, the main town centre is located on the West Side.

The pier is on the West Side as well and you can walk all the way along to the end and checkout the lighthouse. The lighthouse is open for people to walk up but there is a small fee charged – we didn’t go up ourselves but I imagine you get a nice view back over the town and River Esk and out to sea.

If you walk to the very end of the pier, you will also get a nice view out to sea and along the coast. If you’re super lucky, you might even spot a whale, dolphin or seal out in the open waters! We didn’t unfortunately, but I’m hoping next time we’re there we will!

Take a Boat Tour

This is something you should definitely do and there are so many to choose from. All you need to do is walk along the waterfront on the West Side and pick one!

Bark Endeavour: We wanted to go out on this one but unfortunately we got there too late and missed out. It’s a mini replica of Captain Cook’s famous Endeavour that takes tourists on a 25min journey from Whitby to Sandsend and back. Sailings go from 10:30am – 4:30pm most days, depending on tides and weather. Tickets are about £3 per person (I think!).

Whitby Coastal Cruises: This is the company we went with for our 20-25 min trip down the coast and back. We even saw a grey seal on the way out of the harbour! The 20-25 min cruise only costs £3 per person and runs every 30 mins (very similar to the Endeavour cruise). They also have a couple of other cruise options, including a sunset cruise and a river cruise – check out their website for costs and sailing times.

Whitby’s Old Lifeboat Tours: I saw these ones going in and out on their tours and the restored lifeboats look really neat! The tours run from April – October, leaving every 30 mins starting from 10:30am and run through until dusk.

Whitby Museum & Pannett Park

The museum is located in Pannett Park at the top of the hill, looking down over the town and it only takes about 10 mins to walk up from the waterfront.

Take some time to check out the park on the way up – apparently it has the best playground in the north of England! The park is also planted with some really lovely trees and flowers and is a nice place to wander through or picnic in.

Entry is £5 per adult and free for children and it lasts 12 months meaning you can visit multiple times in a 12 month period.

The collection isn’t huge but they hold a lot of items relating to Whitby’s history, going all the way back to the dinosaurs with a number of original fossils on display (and by original, I mean not casts!).

When you go in you’ll be given a map of the museum, showing the different collections as well as about a dozen “not to be missed” items – including the legendary Hand of Glory! Legend has it, the hand was found in the wall of a cottage in Castleton in the early 1900’s by a local stonemason before being donated to the museum in 1935. Also, it’s supposed to be the only true hand of glory in existence!

Other things to do in Whitby

The above list covers all the things I’ve done myself and would check out again, but just in case some of these aren’t to your liking or you have more time town, I’ve put together a list of some things to check out:

  • Whitby Whale Watching Tour – tours run through July and August in the evenings and then all through the month of September. This is the best time of year to see the different species of whales, dolphins and birds that come to the region during the summer months. Tours book up really fast (hence why I haven’t been on it yet!) so make sure you book as early as you can.
  • Whitby Glass – this is where you’ll find the famous Whitby Lucky Ducks! Apparently they were first made for local actors, because actors always carry an amulet or charm with them while on stage.
  • Whitby Town Open-Top Bus – I’ve been on a few of these in different towns around the world, and they’re always a good way to see things when you don’t have much time or if you just want to know more about the town and its history.
  • Dracula Experience – you’ll find this one on the West Side as you walk towards the pier. It’s an interactive experience including memorabilia from the legend and films.

Cool places to check out near Whitby

If you’re driving to Whitby and you’re like us and like to stop at different places on your way – there are some really cool things to do on the way to and around Whitby.

Scarborough

On our way up we decided to stop in Scarborough for a few hours to check out the castle and have a wander through the town – it was my first experience of a typical English seaside town! Very different to beach towns in NZ but it was really nice to be near the ocean again.

Scarborough Castle

I highly recommend heading up the hill to the castle. It’s run by English Heritage so if you’re member then it’s free, otherwise it will cost you £6.90 / adult and £4.10 / child.

There is a lot of history here, dating back nearly 3,000 years with remains of Roman signal towers on the edge of the cliff. The castle itself has stood on the site since the mid-12th century and played an important role in English history throughout the middle ages. It was used a royal residence from the time it was built until 1484 when Richard III stayed there while assembling a fleet to fight the invasion of Henry Tudor (later Henry VII).

After Richard III left, the castle began to fall into disrepair, though it continued to be used in times of crisis. In 1645, it withstood the bloodiest siege in it’s history when Sir Hugh Cholmley holed up in the castle for 5 months to resist the Parliamentarian forces. It was during this siege that the walls of the castle collapsed and it was only opposition from the town that stopped them from destroying the castle completely and it was left as it stands today.

Scarborough Town

Scarborough is a classic English seaside town (so I’m told!), complete with penny arcades, more ice cream stalls than you can count and a fairground on the waterfront.

We spent about an hour checking out the arcades and stopped for a frozen yogurt at a 1950’s-style milkshake bar. It was a lot of fun sitting outside watching all the people go by.

Robin Hood’s Bay

Only a 10-15 minute drive from Whitby, you’ll find a super cute and tiny fishing village tucked down between two cliffs that is accessible by a really steep walk down the hill.

Leave your car in the car park at the top of the hill (I think it costs around £3 an hour) and walk down the hill. Make sure you stop on the way down to look out over the water, you’ll get a really nice view down over the harbour and along the cliffs to the next village.

There are a handful of shops to check out on the way down including one that is a second hand bookshop/musuem/crystal and fossil shop. It’s definitely an odd collection but an interesting look-see all the same.

If you’re there during the day and the tide is out, take some time to wander along the rocks looking for fossils. Many have been found in the rocks and in the cliffs around the village, so you never know! You might find a previously unknown dinosaur!

If you’re there at night, stop at one of the pubs for dinner before joining on the Robin Hood’s Bay Ghost Walk with the Whitby Storyteller. Rose is an amazing storyteller and she’ll keep you riveted throughout the whole walk while she tells you tales about spirits, smugglers and local legend.

Goathland

Only about 15-20 mins drive from Whitby you’ll find a tiny village called Goathland – it may not look like much but if you ever watched Heartbeat you might recognise it as “Aidensfield.” There is only half a dozen shops here including a tea shop which is a nice place to grab some lunch.

Make sure you head down to the train station as well. All you Harry Potter fans out there will recognise it instantly as Hogsmeade station and if you time it right, you might even see the Hogwarts Express pass through! Well it’s not the Hogwarts train but it’s a steam train that runs through Goathland on it’s way to Whitby.

There’s probably something I’ve missed, if so let me know and I’ll make sure to check it out next time I’m in Whitby! It’s a great little town and one I’ll be visiting regularly – I hope you enjoy it too 🙂

Chel xx

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