A proper maritime town, Whitby was fuelled for hundreds of years by its fishing, shipbuilding and whaling trades.
In the 18th century Britain’s greatest explorer Captain James Cook served his apprenticeship in the cosy old quarter east of the harbour.
That natural harbour is in a mighty crack between cliffs, and because the harbour entrance points north it’s one of the few places in England where you can watch the sun rise and set over the sea in summer.
Whitby’s international fame was sealed by Bram Stoker who based the opening to his novel, Dracula in the town.
Like everyone else he was captivated by the enigmatic ruins of Whitby Abbey, which cast an eldritch silhouette over the harbour’s east shoulder.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Whitby:
1. Whitby Abbey
There’s something special about the ruins of Whitby Abbey brooding over the harbour from the East Cliff.
These ruins were mentioned in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1890), and even at that time the monastery had been abandoned for 350 years.
It was set up in the middle of the 7th century by Oswy, the King of Northumbria.
The complex was rebuilt in Norman times and the extensive Gothic remains are from a couple of centuries later, with pinnacles, column bases and window tracery still showing.
After the abbey was suppressed by Henry VIII it became part of the Cholmley Estate, and at the mansion you can check out the visitor centre, which has artefacts and building stonework from different phases of the monument’s past.
There are also touch-screen displays that let you interact with a cast of characters, from Bram Stoker to the Saxon founder Lady Hilda.
2. 199 Steps
One of those things you simply have to do in Whitby is to climb the 199 steps that wind up from Church Lane to St Mary’s Church on the East Cliff.
You’ll be treading the same path as the creature “resembling a large dog” that climbed up to the abbey in Dracula.
The stairway is vertiginous, but the higher you go, the better the views back over the roofs of the old town and the harbour.
The steps also have their own charm, with black painted iron handrails and gaslights.
At the top you’ll know why you made the effort when you’re gazing across the town and surrounded by the sombre, weathered gravestones in St Mary’s churchyard, another inspiration for Dracula.
3. Whitby Harbour
As you see it today, Whitby’s picturesque harbour is the result of centuries of human intervention at the mouth of the River Esk.
At the very north you can walk out to the ends of the East and West Piers where there’s a pair of lighthouses.
On these piers are old mooring posts and captstans, holdovers from when vessels were pulled in and out of the harbour using manpower.
Further south are the long quays in front of the stiff slopes of the East and West Cliffs.
Spilling down to the water are jumbles of brick or stone houses on tight lanes.
The east side is especially charming, along the cobblestone Church Street, which intersects with little stable yards.
There are pubs, cute antiques shops, fish and chip shops, and a host of companies offering trips out to spot whales on the North Sea.
4. Whitby Beach
Beginning just west of the Esk are a few miles of Sandy Beach, and the section closest to the town under the West Cliff is Whitby Beach (or West Cliff Beach). If the ramp down the cliff looks daunting there’s a Cliff Lift that has been operating on and off since 1931. Whitby Beach is awarded the Blue Flag for its facilities and hygiene each year, and has a lifeguard on duty in summer.
The beach is on a light gradient, so while the sea can be choppy there’s normally lots of knee-high water to wade in, if you don’t mind the brisk temperatures.
In summer the beach comes to life with old-time seaside activities like donkey rides and stands selling snacks.
East of the harbour is Tate Hill Beach, while if you carry on west you’ll come to Upgang and Sandsend.
5. Sandsend Beach
Over the East Row Beck is the smaller but scenic Sandsend Beach, walled to the west by low cliffs.
It’s a beach to experience at any time of year, to be buffeted by the wind in winter or to soak up the more clement weather in summer.
The scene is awe-inspiring in stormy weather, and if you’re a fossil hunter the days after a storm are prime time to come looking for specimens.
Shells, ammonites and occasionally larger sea creatures are normally revealed after cliff-falls.
In summer, the Sandsend Beck has safe and shallow water for children to splash in, while there’s a surf school in summer if you’d like to ride the beach’s brisk rolling waves.
6. Whitby Museum
The Whitby Museum has all sorts of bits and pieces relating to Whitby and its natural history.
You can see a gallery full of enormous marine reptile fossils unearthed close to the town, as well as carved chunks of jet, a material first mined in Whitby by the Romans and made fashionable in Victorian times.
There are also model ships and items belonging to Captain James Cook and the Scoresbys, Whitby’s foremost whaling family.
By far the creepiest object is a Hand of Glory, a preserved right hand cut from the body of a criminal at the gallows, and put to superstitious uses in the 18th and 19th centuries.
7. Captain Cook Memorial Museum
On Grape Lane there’s a 17th-century house where Britain’s greatest explorer Captain James Cook served as an apprentice from the age of 19 in 1746. Cook would later return to this property for the winter of 1771-72 following his First Voyage, in which he made the first European encounter with Australia’s eastern coastline.
The museum has absorbing correspondence from Cook’s three voyages, as well as model ships, Maori artefacts, authentic charts and maps, and sketches and paintings by the artists who travelled with Cook on his expeditions.
8. St Mary’s Church
At the top of those 199 Steps, and before you get to Whitby Abbey, you’ll be confronted by the compact Church of St Mary.
The building goes back to a Norman church, consecrated at the start of the 12th century.
The tower, choir and parts of the nave all date to that earliest period, and at the transept you can look for the three Gothic lancet windows.
The rest of the building was enlarged in the 1700s and nearly all of its fittings date from the turn of the 19th century, but you can find an older Jacobean pew from the 1600s.
There’s also monument to the local landowner Richard Cholmeley who died in 1631.
9. Pannett Park
The high sloping park around the Whitby Museum will keep you in this picturesque part of town a while longer.
Pannett Park was voted “Best Public Park in Yorkshire” in 2014, and has a superb prospect east to Whitby Abbey.
There are wooded areas, a lily pond, all manner of formal flowerbeds, a floral clock, rose gardens, pergolas and a playground for children.
In the Jurassic Garden you’ll also catch sight of a sea creature, based on the prehistoric exhibits at the museum.
Children can also take on the turtle and maths trails, while you can take a few minutes of repose with a picnic, basking in the scenery.
10. North York Moors Historical Railway
Whitby is the northern terminus of this heritage line that begins down in Pickering, 20 miles to the south, and runs through the enchanting North York Moors scenery every day from March to November.
It takes 1 hour 40 minutes to get down to Pickering on these steam trains, but you’ll have lots of excuses to get off at stops along the route.
Levisham Station for instance has been frozen in time at 1912, while Goathland appeared as Hogsmeade Station in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.
At Grosmont you can get off to look around the line’s engine sheds where the locomotives are stored and maintained.
11. Whitby Swing Bridge
There has been a bridge at this setting, on the dividing line between the upper and lower harbour areas for hundreds of years.
It was subject to a toll after a grant by King Edward III in the 14th century and has had moving parts to allow harbour traffic to pass through since 1629. The first swing bridge was built in 1833, but because of its low clearance this had to be replaced by the current bridge in 1909. The bridge is manually operated, by an attendant who keeps an ear on the radio to listen out for approaching vessels for two hours either side of high water.
12. RNLI Lifeboat Museum
The Royal National Lifeboat Institution has had a presence in Whitby since 1802 and has staged many daring rescues in that time.
Over the last 215 years a total of 36 RNLI medals for gallantry have been presented to its crew members, all of whom were volunteers.
The RNLI Lifeboat Museum is in a historic double boathouse, used by the institution from 1895 to 1957. Head in for vintage lifeboat and all sorts of compelling memtos, like a life preserver from the wreck of the SS Rohilla, a First World War hospital ship that ran aground off Whitby in 1914, as well as medals, antique equipment, model boats, and black and white photographs.
13. Robin Hood’s Bay
Hardly five miles out of Whitby, on the road to Scarborough, you’ll arrive at an extraordinarily scenic coastal village.
The old fishing cottages in Robin Hood’s Bay cascade down to the water from the top of a menacing cliff.
In the 18th century this village was the den of smugglers, sneaking gin, tea, tobacco and rum ashore via a network of tunnels still believed to run below the cramped warren of streets.
Walking to and from the harbour will give your calves a good workout, but afterwards you can recharge with a drink or meal by the fire at a traditional inn.
On settled days families flock to Robin Hood Bay to go rockpooling at low tide.
14. Falling Foss Tea Garden
A 15-minute drive south into the North York Moors will bring you to a tea garden at the top of the magical Falling Foss Waterfall, which is ten metres high.
The garden is in the grounds of the endearing cottage, Midge Hall, and nestles in ancient woodland.
After ambling through Littlebeck and down to the foot of the waterfall you can come in for a cream tea, light meal, slice of homemade cake or ice cream.
There are benches outside among the trees next to fire pits, while the cottage has a small arts and crafts display.
15. North York Moors
Whitby is couched in the North York Moors, a national park with some of the largest swathes of heather moorland in the UK. In keeping with Whitby the landscapes are romantic, wild and moody.
The tallest hills, or high moors, reach above 400 metres and the deep valleys (dales) in between have farmland or ancient oak woodland home to roe and fallow deer.
As well as endless choices for walks (try tracing Whitby’s river back along the Esk Valley), there are lots of worthwhile family days out, from open farms to miniature railways.
You can also delve into the park’s wildlife and geology at the visitor centre 15 miles west of Whitby in Danby.