If you were to offer me 48 hours in any Ontario city, Stratford would always be among my top choices. In spring, summer, and fall it’s the kind of slow-paced city with enough going on that you’ll never be bored, while still providing the kind of laid-back feel that’s ideal for recharging your batteries. A lovely family getaway, a romantic couple’s retreat, or a girls’ night away from the city—Stratford is perfect for all of these. What makes Stratford different from all the other small towns in Southern Ontario?
- World-class theatre
I first took my daughter to a Stratford Festival musical when she was 4. We saw Gershwin’s Crazy for You, and she loved every minute of it. The following summer we went back to see The Sound of Music, another unforgettable experience. I was thrilled to be able to share my love of theatre with my daughter. She still listens and dances to both soundtracks, recalling with precision moments from both performances.
Every year The Stratford Festival incorporates a few shows into their lineup, which are appropriate for kids and targeted toward families. The internationally renowned reparatory theatre Festival, which runs from April to October, always includes works by William Shakespeare, new plays including Canadian premieres and translations, classic dramas, comedies, and award-winning musicals. Housed in four picturesque theatres across the city, all of which provide intimate experiences, The Festival is the perfect way to introduce your kids to live theatre. Discounts for children, students, seniors, and mid-week performances are available, making it possible to take your whole family without breaking the bank. What’s best about the Stratford Festival is that no matter what show you choose to see, you can always expect spectacular performances, stunning sets, and Canada’s finest talent.
Instead of opting for the family-friendly performance of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, which is getting rave reviews in Stratford this season, I took the opportunity to leave my kids at home with daddy this summer and head to Stratford with a girlfriend for an indulgent and peaceful getaway. We walked, and shopped, and ate (and ate some more!), and then laughed and cried our way through the incredible North American premiere of Shakespeare In Love. It was literally the perfect night away!
- Culinary delights
You could visit Stratford every summer and still never sample all the delicious food this city has to offer. From fine dining to casual take-out, from insanely delicious chocolate to local produce—there’s no way you’ll leave Stratford hungry. We typically arrive around lunchtime, and head straight to The York Street Kitchen. This sandwich spot uses local, fresh ingredients, and offers a customizable menu that means everyone can have exactly what they want. My suggestion; take your picnic lunch from York Street down to the river and eat under a big, shady tree while taking in Stratford’s stunning waterfront vistas. You’ll instantly feel relaxed and that will set the tone for the rest of your trip.
Dinner reservations are recommended during the Festival season, given the sheer number of people who descend upon this small city daily. For families, try Pazzo Taverna + Pizzeria and Fellini’s where you can enjoy Italian fare in a boisterous ambiance. If you’re sans kids, and you want to treat yourself, the best fine dining establishments in town, many of which house chefs from the local Stratford Chefs School, include Rundles, Revival House, The Prune Restaurant, and Bijou.
No matter how much you eat, you’ll want to save room for dessert. Because we didn’t have to follow the rules we tend to impart on our kids, my girlfriend and I decided to indulge in chocolate before dinner, heading out on the Stratford Chocolate Trail in the middle of the afternoon. (Purchase passes for $25+HST as the Stratford Tourism office). This self-guided tour allows you to choose six stops (all within walking distance) where you’ll visit Stratford’s unique restaurants, shops, and chocolate makers to sample sweet treats and learn about the products you taste. Even if you don’t do the Chocolate Trail, you must, must, must make time to stop by Rheo Thompson Candies. And you must, must, must try at least one Mint Smoothies® chocolates (though you’ll probably end up buying a few more to take home). At this acclaimed local chocolate shop, they make almost all of their 152 products by hand, in the chocolate factory attached to the store. They’ve been doing it this way since 1969—a taste of Stratford history.
- Stunning outdoor spaces
Now that you’ve eaten so much, you’ll want to take a walk—or a run—to make room for your next meal. Stratford has the most stunning paved trail that runs along the bank of the Avon River. Take a walk, hang out with the ducks and swans (the real stars of Stratford), or rent a bicycle and explore a little further. Avon Boat Rentals, just off York Street, offers bikes, as well as paddleboats, kayaks, canoes, and guided boat cruise tours. This is the perfect way to cool off on a hot day.
If you’re with kids, you’ll also appreciate the many playgrounds in town and the Lions Outdoor Pool and Splash Area. If you’re feeling a bit more adventurous, it’s recommended that you head out of town, just a short drive, to the St. Marys Swimming Quarry—where I hear all the Festival actors go swimming on their days off.
- Unique accommodations
If you’re coming from Toronto, it’s just under two-hours drive to Stratford, so while you can easily visit for the day, there are many accommodations including pretty inns, bed and breakfasts, and hotels to accommodate individuals, couples, groups, and families. One of the best hotels for families is the newly renovated Best Western Plus, Arden Park Hotel. The rooms are spacious (and you can opt for adjoining rooms if you’re traveling with another family), there’s an indoor pool, and on-site restaurant. Right behind the hotel is the Festival Theatre and a large grassy area and play structure where kids can run off steam.
While you’re at the Festival Theatre, be sure to wander through the Stratford Festival Shop and take in the lovely gardens and water features surrounding the largest of the four theatres.
Looking for luxury? The Bruce Hotel is where you’ll want to spend the night. This four-diamond hotel, new to Stratford, is known as the finest hotel property in town with 25 luxurious rooms and small suites.
Looking for something charming, right in the centre of town? Bentley’s Lofts at 99 offers bi-level loft suites that are perfect for families traveling with kids or couples looking for a quite getaway with lots of space. This charming, newly renovated hotel has everything you need for a lovely mini-vacation.
It’s not hard to find somewhere to stay in Stratford, but you’ll want to book in advance for spring and summer weekends.
- Fabulous shopping, unique cultural experiences, and some really good coffee
To top off a perfect getaway in Stratford you’ll have to visit a few more places. First, is Family & Company, in my opinion, one of the best toy stores in Ontario. Why? It’s packed with unique toys, amazing gifts, books, crafts, puzzles, and outdoor playthings—a huge selection for kids of all ages. The staff are super friendly and helpful, and know what they’re talking about when it comes to kids’ ages, stages, and interests. If you take your kids, they’re going to want to buy something, that’s a given. If you go without your kids, you’ll probably still want to buy something. But you can feel good knowing you’re supporting a local independent retailer.
Shopping for clothes, art and antiques, home décor, accessories, books, or souvenirs? You’ve come to the right place. Stratford, and the surrounding areas, has some truly great shopping.
For a cultural experience that comes highly recommended you’ll want to check out the Stratford Perth Museum, which currently has, among other things, an exhibit dedicated to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe: Myths, Magic and Messages. On until October 31, this is a great accompaniment to the seeing the play. Another thing you may want to do, to take your child’s theatre experience a step further, is visit the Stratford Festival Costume Warehouse Tour, which provides four daily behind the scenes tours.
Finally, I have to mention the coffee. To start your day off right, Stratford has quite a few lovely coffee shops to choose from. My personal favourite is Balzac’s Coffee Roasters—another popular hangout for Festival actors—and a local gathering place. This was the first Balzac’s coffee shop location, named for the French novelist Honoré de Balzac, and is now among 12 locations across southern and eastern Ontario. If you’re traveling with kids, you may need a few coffee stops throughout the day. Revel is also amongst the best independent coffee shops in town.
To plan a visit that includes, arts, culture, theatre, food, nature, and tons of fun, you’ll want to check out www.visitstratford.ca which is set up to help you customize your trip to be the perfect getaway.
By Hailey Eisen
Hailey Eisen is a Toronto-based freelance writer & editor. She works as a content creator & communications strategist for Felicity [Inspiring Communications] and The Debut Group among others. Her work has appeared most recently in Women of Influence Magazine, Meetings & Incentive Travel, and online at the Yummy Mummy Club. Hailey is a book-lover, parent council volunteer, and seeker of kid-friendly adventures that she can share with her daughters, ages 3 and 6! Learn more at haileyeisen.com and follow her on Twitter @haileyeisen