STRATFORD

Stratford has a special kind of magic. And it’s no wonder: it’s home to a world-famous theatre festival in a picturesque setting along the Avon River. But there’s a whole lot more to “festival city” than the obvious — as a year-round destination, Stratford boasts an impressive culinary scene and lively local arts. Bonus: It’s easy to get to Stratford by bus or train, and the walkability of the downtown core won’t have you missing your car, making it a good weekend or weekday getaway.

July 05, 2023 | Photo Courtesy of Destination Stratford



Day One

MORNING

STRATFORD DOWNTOWN

BROWSE THE BEAUTY

There are few more relaxing ways to start a day than by strolling through beautiful Stratford, where time seems to slow down. You can too, at one of the city’s indie coffee shops. For healthy deliciousness, try The Ashborne Café Bar, for a cute and cozy spot, pop into The Livery Yard; or visit revel, which is known for its pastry and serious coffee attitude (its slogan is “independent coffee for a revolution”). Along the way, browse boutiques and galleries — a few possibilities are Distill Gallery for well-crafted Canadian designs, Gallery Indigena, which celebrates and promotes art of native peoples, or visit the newly reopened Agora Gallery.

You can’t help but notice Stratford’s unique, Y-shaped layout, a design based around the point where four townships met, today centred around red-bricked City Hall, located on a triangular-shaped city “square.” In the mid-1830s the settlement was called Stratford as a tip of the hat to England’s Stratford-upon-Avon, birthplace of William Shakespeare. But its architecture is unique and variable: residential streets reveal homes in styles ranging from Ontario Gothic and Victorian to Arts and Crafts. There’s even a Beaux-Arts mansion at 210 Water Street, the former home of furniture magnate George McLagan — once upon a time Stratford dominated Canada’s furniture market. Free self-guided audio walking tours provide curated routes, including the Saints and Sinners, which delves into Stratford’s streets and the people who once lived on them. Or take the Tom Patterson tour, which tells the tale of the founder of the Stratford Festival, and how his vision shaped the future of Stratford.

Photo Courtesy of Destination Stratford

AFTERNOON

SHAKESPEAREAN GARDENS & UPPER QUEEN’S PARK

GARDENS GALORE

Stratford’s parks are linked by the tranquil Avon River, but it wasn’t always thus. Citizens in the early 20th century fought for riverside parkland rather than rail lines. Enjoy the results of their civic-minded pride, starting with the Shakespearean Gardens. Once home to the Dufton Woolen Mill; today an impressive chimney is all that remains to mark that history. Originally, the garden contained only plants referenced in Shakespeare’s plays. You’ll still find fennel, rue, tarragon, rosemary and the like, but also find plants common to Shakespeare’s times, and benches upon which to admire them. Next, your green walk takes you to the jewel-like Tom Patterson Theatre, its natural gardens planted with indigenous species that coincide with the spring-through-fall performance schedule.

Then it’s Upper Queen’s Park, a perfect place to relax with picnics or paddling — you can explore the two-kilometre Lake Victoria via canoe, kayak or paddle boat rental. The park itself is home to the iconic Festival Theatre, where the Stratford Festival all began. The “Miracle of Stratford,” as some early patrons called it, started in a tent, and the Festival Theatre still evokes a glorious tent-like feel. It’s surrounded by the Arthur Meighen Garden, which has rightfully been called “a botanist’s delight” for its neatly-labelled perennials. A walk on the north side of the Avon brings you to the Falstaff Family Centre, where you’ll find the Medicine Wheel Garden, planted by a member of the Haudenosaunee of the Oneida Nation. As you wander by the Avon, you’re likely to see Stratford’s beloved swans. These long-necked beauties return each spring in the annual Stratford swan release.

Photo Courtesy of Destination Stratford

EVENING

DINING AND THEATRE-GOING

WORLD RENOWNED, LOCALLY LOVED

Dame Maggie Smith, Christopher Plummer, Martha Henry, Paul Gross… the list of brilliant actors who’ve played Stratford is long. The continent’s largest repertory theatre festival was founded in 1952 by Stratford local journalist Tom Patterson. It specialized in the works of William Shakespeare and transformed the small city, then in an industrial decline, into an international destination for theatre goers. Today, the festival hosts a dozen plus productions running from April through October, including contemporary dramas, stellar musicals and ground-breaking performances of the Bard’s work.

Play-goers have four venues to choose from: the Festival Theatre, with its famous thrust stage allowing audience members to sit on three sides (a design that inspired imitations around the world); downtown’s Avon Theatre, known for lavish sets on a traditional proscenium arch stage; the intimate Studio Theatre, and the Tom Patterson Theatre, a curling rink-turned-theatre recently transformed into an award-winning venue. Note: while the play may be the thing, so are innovative cultural talks, concerts, master classes and dining experiences, all offered by the Festival’s Meighen Forum.

Robert Markus (left) as Mark Cohen and Kolton Stewart as Roger Davis with members of the company in Rent. Stratford Festival 2023. Photo by Jordy Clarke, Courtesy of Stratford Festival.

Of course, if the stages are dark you could opt to linger at one of Stratford’s many acclaimed restaurants. Visit Revival House for innovative dishes served in a striking former church; Stratford Thai for authentic Thai cuisine, Raja for Northern Indian curries and tandoori, or The Common for its eclectic globally-inspired menu. Then there’s Stratford Chefs School, where – during the school year – students prep and serve exceptional prix fixe menus for the public.

Photo by Terry Manzo. Courtesy of Stratford Chefs School

Day Two

MORNING

STRATFORD-PERTH MUSEUM; GALLERY STRATFORD

HISTORY, ART, AND ARCHITECTURE

With a plethora of theatre, dining, and walking options you might be tempted to overlook museums and galleries, but don’t! The Stratford-Perth Museum, located in an 1870 Victorian home, has so much to offer. Situated amid woodlots and trails, the museum boasts one of Ontario’s earliest ongoing collections of regional history, from quilts to CN railway equipment. It also mounts rotating exhibits exploring more recent cultural ground, including an exhibition devoted to hometown popstar, Justin Bieber. Plus, you can learn and create with workshops on everything from Indigenous storytelling and crafting to how to decorate a Shakespearean sonnet.

Gallery Stratford, located in Stratford’s cottage-like 1883 original pump house, was slated for potential demolition in the 1960s but was saved by the Stratford Art Society’s proposal to create a gallery of regional and Canadian contemporary art. Today it’s an active cultural centre with a community studio that offers classes, as well as home to a permanent collection of Canadian work. It’s also the jumping-off point for the self-guided Stratford Public Art Walk. Along the way, check out Copperlight, a community arts centre in the repurposed Knox Presbyterian Church.

Photo by Scott Wishart. Photo courtesy of Stratford Perth Museum

AFTERNOON

CULINARY TRAILS

FABULOUS FOOD YEAR ROUND

Stratford’s culinary reputation springs from a proud agricultural history. There are more dairy farms within a 100-kilometre radius of Stratford than anywhere else in Canada, and the city’s home to one of the province’s oldest farmers’ markets, open Saturday mornings all year round. So, yes, come for the strolls, the swans, and the Shakespeare, but stay for Stratford’s fabulous food.

In addition to the many restaurants and cafés, explore local cuisine via self-guided Culinary Trails. The Chocolate Trail offers everything from hand-made truffles to chocolate-imbued teas and honey, plus a chance to meet confectioners and bakers. If pork and pints speak to you, take the Bacon & Ale Trail (bacon popcorn, bacon shortbread, bacon burgers, anyone?), while learning about Stratford’s long pork and brewery history. The al fresco Savour & Sip Trail (available ‘til the end of October) is literally a moveable feast; a true picnic lover’s dream.

Photo Courtesy of Destination Stratford

EVENING

STRATFORD SUMMER MUSIC (WINTER TOO)

IF MUSIC BE THE FOOD OF LOVE…

Stratford’s impact on musicians is legendary, inspiring jazz great Duke Ellington to create “Such Sweet Thunder,” a tribute to Shakespearean works, and classical genius Glenn Gould to perform frequently at the Stratford Festival in its early years. That legacy continues with Stratford Summer Music, an acclaimed festival featuring over one hundred talented musicians performing in eclectic venues, from a floating barge to a mid-century modern church. Then there’s the Stratford Concert Band, Symphony Orchestra and Concert Choir. Visiting in the fall and winter? After summer is over, the music plays on at venues like Heritage Hops Brew Co., Revival House, and The Hall.

KUNÉ at Stratford Summer Music 2022, Courtesy of Stratford Summer Music

YOUR TRIP AT A GLANCE


NEED A MAP?

This guide represents a two-day experience, highlighting one of the many wonderful destinations in the area. To suggest a destination for a future guide, please contact us.

All editorial decisions were made at the sole discretion of Ontario Culture Days staff. This guide was written by Li Robbins.