Are you looking for a great getaway in Ontario? Stratford is a charming city on the Avon River, located about 2 hours from Toronto. The streets are lined with Victorian buildings, gardens, and unique shops. Stratford is best known for the Stratford Festival which stages modern and Shakespearean plays in several theatres around town throughout the summer months. Festival tickets can get pricey but there are plenty of free or low-cost activities for the budget traveller, too. Stratford could be explored in a day but I would recommend spending at least a couple of days to give you plenty of time to meander, enjoy some free and ticketed performances, and to explore the local shops and restaurants.
In the city of Stratford, there are lots of fantastic hotels, guesthouses, and Bed&Breakfast choices. I hadn't realized I was arriving during the World in a Weekend Festival, so vacancies were scarce. Luckily, I found a great queen room through AirBnB called Sue & Al's Place on Caledonia Street (open for guests seasonally May - Sept). I had a spacious and comfortable room that was walking distance to everything I wanted to explore: the neighbourhood, the theatres, parks, and the downtown core. I parked my car for the entire stay. I had one of two guest rooms located on the second floor with a shared bathroom. There was a coffee and muffin station set out every morning.
There are many things to do and see in this lovely town and these are my top suggestions based upon my 3 day visit:
Meander Along the Avon River
Start by going for a stroll along the Avon River. I walked along the river to Tom Patterson Island, named for the man who made the Festival happen. This beautiful park has lovely walking trails and also hosts outdoor dining events. During the winter the island is decorated with (free) elaborate light displays for the annual Lights on Stratford Winter Festival. During the summer and fall, it is a venue for Stratford Festival performances.
The island has many commemorative benches, some are memorials but some mark engagements, marriages, or are in gratitude to prominent townspeople. Stop and sit for a while and enjoy watching the world go by.
A fun activity is to rent a boat and paddle along the river. I had a choice between a paddle boat or a canoe from Avon Boathouse Rentals. I chose a canoe to enjoy the gorgeous scenery and pretty bridges at a very leisurely pace. Other travellers may choose a motorized tour.
The ducks and swans are very used to humans and followed me around, obviously hoping for a snack. Keep in mind that if you do want to give the birds a treat, make sure it is seed or grain. Bread should never be offered. The town keeps 24 swans. The swan is a town symbol. Every April, the swans parade from their cozy winter quarters across the road to the river. This is a big deal event and attracts many spectators.
The bandstand was the site of an important union rally in pursuit of safety and fair wages. I watched performances by two concert bands here.
Wander Around the Shakespearean Gardens
The nearby Shakespearean Gardens is one of the best and budget-friendly activities in Stratford, especially during the summer months when the plants are in bloom. The garden includes more than 60 varieties of plants, including all those mentioned in Shakespeare's plays. The gardens are maintained by municipal workers and dedicated volunteers.
In the 1930s a local, Thomas Orr, had an idea to increase tourism by creating the gardens, capitalizing on the connection between the English town and river of the same name, and the birthplace of William Shakespeare. The main industry, furniture manufacturing, was going through turbulent times as unions and owners clashed. Community leaders knew they needed another industry to survive. The success of this garden led another town leader, journalist Tom Patterson, to deepen this connection by creating the Shakespeare Festival twenty years later.
In the garden is a bust of Shakespeare and the last remaining chimney of the 19th century Dufton Woolen Mill. Although the garden is quite small, I spent two hours enjoying every garden bed and bloom.
Shop Downtown You are bound to find something to interest you in some of the best boutiques and unique stores. Whether you are looking for great coffee and snacks, clothing, home decor, or unique gifts, you will find that Stratford is a great place to find just what you didn't know you wanted. The main shopping street is Ontario Street but wandering further you will discover many more shops and boutiques near the beautiful City Hall on Downie Street. One of the joys of a road trip is not having to worry about how I can fit purchases into a suitcase and I took full advantage of that perk. I found several pieces of fun garden decor and a fairly large wall sign for my music room that I fell instantly in love with.
If you are looking for a patio or terrace to enjoy a cool beverage and a snack, you'll need to look behind the buildings. Expect a great social atmosphere but the views are generally over parking lots.
Attend the World in a Weekend Festival
I arrived the first weekend in August, which is the World in a Weekend Festival, a fun weekend of live music and puppetry performances by local, national, and international artists. There are many free performances for families, children, and adults. Colourful characters roam the streets and concerts are held on barges floating in the river.
Locals and visitors bring chairs or blankets to sit in the shade along the river banks, or other public performance venues, many enjoying a picnic. I saw a variety of performances including Bùmarang, a Celtic trio, including harpist, fiddler, and a musician who played whistles, pipes, flutes, and other woodwinds. Their repertoire seemed absolutely perfect for the location and atmosphere.
I was delighted by the fiddler's little boy. At one point, he decided he wanted Mom’s attention. Dad expertly diverted him, telling the little one that he needed to help Mommy by playing along where the audience could get the full effect. It was a very serious responsibility.
My favourite performance was by the Shuffle Demons, a jazz group. Their performance was even more lively than their suits. They had the audience fully engaged, including those who took the opportunity to dance. I enjoyed their performance so much, I attended three performances that weekend.
Take a Walking Tour Stopping in the tourist information office, I discovered a wealth of information and some fun self-guided walking trails. The ones that immediately caught my eye were the Chocolate Trail and the Bacon & Ale Trail. The Bacon & Ale Trail introduces visitors to the pork and brewing history of the area. Participants purchase a set of 5 vouchers which can be redeemed at participating businesses (one voucher per establishment). Each business offers a treat appropriate to the theme. The vouchers do not expire, so you don't have to use all of them on the same day. You can choose to do the trail in a day or over the course of the entire year. Click here for the map and list of participants for 2022. I chose the Chocolate Trail. The Chocolate trail includes 6 vouchers for participating businesses. My favourite stop was the Boar's Head Pub, next to the historic Queen's Inn on Ontario Street. A voucher can be redeemed for a gluten-free brownie served with fudge sauce, berries, and French Vanilla ice cream... simply sumptuous. Click here for the 2022 map and participant list.
Another self-guided tour features local boy, Justin Bieber, who grew up in Stratford. The walk includes a look at his star on the Stratford Bronze Star Walk of Fame in front of the Avon Theatre. This Walk of Fame recognizes Stratford citizens who achieved national/international recognition or "contributed profoundly" to the community.
Catch a Performance at the Stratford Festival
A live performance at the highly-regarded Stratford Festival is likely the most popular activity for visitors. Stratford has 4 theatres: the Festival Theatre, Studio Theatre, Tom Patterson Theatre and the Avon Theatre. The festival was founded in 1952 by Tom Patterson to promote greater tourism built upon the success of the Shakespeare Garden to attract more Shakespeare fans. Today plays by the Bard are still the focus of the festival but non-Shakespeare works such as musicals and other original works are also part of the festival schedule. I decided to attend one of each.
I saw two shows: Othello and Billy Elliot. I enjoyed both thoroughly. The acting, staging, and costuming was spectacular and well-worth the hit to my wallet. Online tickets purchases (and late season performances) can save up to 50%.
The 2023 season will run from mid-April through October with 13 productions. The theme for next year's performances is "Duty vs Desire". Tickets go on sale in December (members get early sales beginning in November). Information on the season can be found on the Stratford Festival website.
You are sure to enjoy your visit to Stratford-on-Avon in Ontario. Plan ahead to save money on tickets and lodgings. Use their website to find out what activities are available during your time there or just wander around enjoying the atmosphere and discover the charm of the town.
Thanks for meandering with me! Have you enjoyed Stratford? Let me know in the comments what you enjoyed or are looking forward to experiencing. This blog will never be monetized, if you enjoyed it show your love by sharing the link with a friend or on social media to help me expand my audience. Become a member to get notified of new content, access to our members' forum, and a monthly newsletter!