Looking for a charming small town getaway? Stratford is a perfect choice. Although it’s best known as the site of the Stratford Festival, it’s really so much more. In fact, this pretty city has so many incredible things to see and do – so use this guide to find the best ways to experience Stratford Ontario so you don’t miss a thing.
The fact that Stratford is only a 1.5-hour drive from Toronto makes it the perfect place for a couple or girlfriend’s getaway. Let’s explore one of Ontario’s arguably most charming little cities.
About Stratford Ontario
The historic city of Stratford, with the very pretty Avon River flowing through the centre, was first settled in 1832. And, yes both the town and river were named after Stratford-upon-Avon in England. Amazingly, Stratford has some pretty neat history, so here are a few of the most noteworthy facts:
- The famous American inventor Thomas Edison briefly lived in Stratford in 1864 where he worked as a telegraph operator for the railway (lived at 19 Grange Street)
- Swans are the symbol of the city, and it all started in 1918 when swans were a gift to the city. Now, each spring 24 swans are released in the Avon River
- Stratford is the hometown of Justin Bieber, but any Belieber (aka super fan) would already know that
Learn all about Stratford and Perth County’s history at the Stratford Perth Museum. This museum brings a 200-year history to life with fun and interesting rotating exhibits.
Best Ways to Experience Stratford
The best way to experience Stratford is through its audio walking tours. And there are several to choose from – 8 and counting! This unique thing to do in Stratford really makes for the best way to really see and experience the city. With the exception of 2 foodie trails, these audio walking tours are among the best free things to do in Stratford. How it works is really simple – choose a theme and click your way from one stop to the next.
Foodie lovers – these trails are designed with you in mind:
- Bacon and Ale Tour – for $39 you will receive 5 vouchers to sample some delicious pork and brews around the city – note to self, this is not vegetarian-friendly!
- The Chocolate Trail – chocoholics take note – for $30 and 6 vouchers sample your way through some sweet, decadent, and creative chocolate offerings
6 Free Audio Walking Tours in Stratford:
- Art Walk – learn about the artist and the meaning behind some of the city’s best public art displays
- Bronze Star Audio Tour – learn about the homegrown talent to see who’s achieved national and international success
- Insta-Worthy Spots – get your camera ready and seek out all of the picture-perfect photo ops
- Justin Bieber Audio Tour – fans of Justin Bieber will get to see all of the star’s favourite spots in his hometown
- Stratford Gardens – no matter the season, the variety of plants and flowers that make up these beautiful gardens are a must see
- Tom Patterson Audio Tour – learn the interesting family history and contributions that Tom Patterson made in the early years of Stratford
Which theme would you most like to do? For a little inspiration, check out a few I did.
If you love admiring public art as much as I do, you’re going to love this Stratford art walk tour. Grab a coffee and start exploring.
I decided to start at Confederation Park, where you will find 7 art installations. Stroll under the canopy of large shade trees along the Avon River and discover some amazing public art displays. Adjacent to the park is Gallery Stratford one of Ontario’s longest-running public art galleries. Rotating exhibits and ‘Stratford Art in the Park’ events are reasons to always check out what might be happening when you visit the city.
From Confederation Park, I continued walking until I arrived at the Stratford Festival theatre. Amongst the pretty gardens, you will find 3 more statues.
Stratford is one of the most photogenic small towns in Ontario and is an Instagrammer’s dream. It won’t be hard to find some cute spots perfect for that photo op! But if you want to make sure you don’t miss any, this walking tour is for you.
Some of the best places this tour will take you will be:
- Allen’s Alley – Erie Street parking or Wellington Street
- York Street and York Lane
- Love Wins Mural – 70 Brunswick St
- Tir na nOg Gates – 36 Downie St
- Huron Street Bridge
Get your camera ready, the locations are endless!
STRATFORD GARDENS TOUR
Garden lovers, this one is for you! Just like what you might find in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Stratford is overflowing with flowers, gardens, and parks. Stroll through these pretty gardens and get some flower inspiration, not to mention the attractive backdrop for photos. Here are a few of my favourites.
- Dutch Memorial Garden – The Dutch Memorial Garden is located across Huron Street on the north side of the bridge at the intersection of Huron, Mornington, and William Streets
- Pergola and Shakespearean Gardens – Stratford’s Pergola is on the north shore of Lake Victoria, a short walk from the Shakespearean Gardens and The Dutch Memorial Garden. there are over 60 varieties of plants, including ones mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays. When the garden was first planted it only included plants and flowers that were mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays.
- The Festival Gardens – Several streets lead to The Festival Theatre and Gardens, but the most scenic approach is Lakeside Drive on the south side of the Avon River, passing the small island named for Tom Patterson, who is honoured for his inspiration to establish a Shakespeare Festival in Stratford.
THE CHOCOLATE TRAIL
If you’re a chocoholic, you’re going to love this walking tour. Who doesn’t love to indulge in some delicious chocolate treats, right? Stratford is home to some of the best chocolatiers, and the best way to experience some of the most decadent chocolate-themed offerings is to go on the Chocolate Trail. For $30.00, you will receive a detailed map showing all the places around the town where you can use your 6 vouchers. Rheo Thompson Candies have some of the best chocolates you’ll ever taste. My go-to fave is their classic Mint Smoothie.
AL FRESCO DINING
Beyond the audio walking tours, another great experience in Stratford is the Al Fresco Dining. What started during the pandemic and has stuck is outdoor dining – picnic style, or as Italians call it al fresco.
With the city’s help, some of Stratford’s favourite restaurants offer delicious food + alcohol to dine outside in public areas such as Market Square, Upper Queen’s Park, and Tom Patterson Island to name a few. As part of the Al Fresco project, up to 200 people can enjoy a meal outside on the many picnic tables spread across the city. A recommended favourite of mine is York Street Kitchen Bistro. If you love sandwiches as much as I do, then give them a try!
Top Things to Do in Stratford
Now that you have had some fun exploring the audio walking tours, let’s keep discovering what Stratford has to offer. Here are the best things to do in Stratford.
SHOP THE CHARMING DOWNTOWN
I adore visiting small towns in Ontario simply for their charming downtown main streets. And, Stratford’s downtown is one of my favourites. It’s chockfull of some amazing shops. You know the ones where you won’t see anything else like it anywhere else. Stroll along Stratford’s main streets – Ontario, Downie, and York Streets to find those one-of-a-kind shops.
Here are some of my go-to shopping faves in Stratford:
- Bradshaws – for all your kitchen and dining needs – gadgets, knives, dishware, linens – you name it, they have it!
- Distill – for top-quality and amazing Canadian designers in fashion, jewellery, and some home décor objects.
- Watson’s Chelsea Bazaar – is a collection of a little bit of everything – from kitchenware to giftware to home décor plus so much more. I always go to Watson’s for their French imports.
- Wills & Prior – gorgeous home interiors that you’ll swoon over – everything from bedding to rugs to furniture and home décor objects. Not to mention their shop is very instagrammable.
ADMIRE THE HISTORICAL BUILDINGS
Part of the charm of downtown Stratford is the 19th-century era architecture. Attractive red brick buildings with intricate details with lots of Gothic Revival details. Here are some of Stratford’s most historical buildings to seek out.
The most popular building is Stratford City Hall – why – well it’s just so beautiful. You can’t help but admire the cupola, bell tower, and all those gables. Not to mention the unique shape of this building, almost like a hexagon. It’s no wonder this 1898 building was designated a National Historic Site of Canada.
The Perth County Courthouse from 1887 is a real eye-catching building. Designed in Queen Anne Revival style this building has so many pretty details, not to mention the attractive terra cotta brick. Just as beautiful is the public library from 1903.
You might be wondering about a lone chimney that stands tall in the Shakespeare Gardens. It happens to be the remains of the 19th-century Dufton Woollen Mill.
TAKE IN THEATRE SHOW AT STRATFORD FESTIVAL
The most popular attraction in Stratford is hands down the Stratford Festival. Visitors from near and far come to see world-renowned theatre productions. The 4 distinctive theatres – Festival Theatre, Studio Theatre, Avon Theatre, and the newly opened Tom Patterson Theatre – are all incredible, as are the performances. Over the years, we’ve seen many productions from the Shakespearean classics to musicals.
The Stratford Shakespearean Festival got its start in 1952 by journalist, Tom Patterson. The first season of the festival began in July 1953 with a performance of Richard III and All’s Well That Ends Well. Today the Festival is known as the largest classical repertory theatre company in North America.
PADDLE BOAT RIDE ALONG THE AVON RIVER
As one of Stratford’s fun things to do, take a paddle boat ride along the Avon River. Leisurely paddle your way past the scenic river bank where you can admire the city, its buildings and gardens from the water. Not to mention, you will share the river with the swans. Simply make your way to the Avon Boat Rentals to enjoy the beauty of the Avon River by paddle boat.
WORLD’S SMALLEST MOVIE THEATRE
Did you know that the world’s smallest movie theatre is in Stratford Ontario? Showing one movie that holds 13 people is a fun, novelty thing to do in Stratford. It also has a lot of historic movie memorabilia that takes you back in time.
NIGHTTIME STROLL UNDER THE LIGHTS
Looking for that perfect way to end your evening in Stratford? After a late dinner, visit the Lights on Stratford exhibit. Gaze upon the pretty light displays along the Avon River. Twinkle lights line the trees and bridges for the prettiest display. Stroll across the bridge to Tom Patterson Island for the best views.
Best Restaurants in Stratford
CAFES IN STRATFORD
- The Livery Yard – get your caffeine fix here – espresso, latte, cappuccino, macchiato – coffee lovers will want to seek this coffee shop out. Grab to go or stay a while and give in to your temptation of a baked treat, the banana walnut loaf is worth the calories! Located at 104 Downie St
- Edison’s Cafe – this little gem is owned and operated by a husband and wife team. Set in a historical building, yes the famous inventor Thomas Edison lived upstairs, is still intact. The black and white interior looks gorgeous against the exposed red brick. Chic, yet comfortable- it’s a great spot for your morning coffee and yummy baked good or healthy lunch. Vegetarians (like me), take note, this is the place to stop at. Located at 46 Ontario St
- Revel – for all the coffee connoisseurs, this is the place to get your freshly brewed coffee. Aside from the really good coffee, the interior is super cool too. Don’t leave without trying their almond croissant. Located at 37 Market Place
BEST FOOD AND DINING SPOTS
- Revival House – is a wonderful restaurant that’s in a beautiful old church. On warmer days, the best place to dine is on their patio surrounded by pretty flowers, but equally, as amazing, dine inside so that you can admire the interior. Go here for the delicious weekend brunch – the avocado toast is my pick!
- Bijou – transports you to France through its farm-to-table menu. Go here for the lively, friendly French café vibes and food!
- Braai House – offers some seriously delicious food, so be sure to splurge on the tasting menu to sample a variety of dishes. Want an intagrammable restaurant- this is your pick!
- The Alley – a sister restaurant to Braai House offers some great vegetarian dishes. Go here for their relaxed dining, especially the Alley patio!
- el Cactus Taco Shop – cute, cheerful, and the most amazing, authentic Mexican food going. Treat yourself here if you are looking for some great-tasting take-out!
BEST BREWERIES IN STRATFORD
Whether you decide to experience the Bacon and Ale Trail or go it alone, here are some of the breweries you need to check out in Stratford.
- Stratford Brewing Company – Stratford’s very own microbrewer which can now be found in some select LCBO stores
- Black Swan – you might have already sampled their beers, likely the ales, if you’ve dined in Bayfield or Kitchener
- Heritage Hops Brew Co – onsite microbrewery now sold in local LCBO – go here for the live music events happening almost every weekend
- Mercer Kitchen – is a delicious eatery, Beer Hall and Hotel. They have a wide range of micro beer offerings from across Ontario – so this is the place to come if you want to eat along with drink – highly recommend one of their tasty Bowls!
Where to Stay in Stratford
Seeing that I only live 40 minutes east of Stratford, I’ve never needed to stay overnight. But if I did, here are some of the coolest places to stay.
- Edison’s Inn and The Perth County Inn – 2 boutique inns that offer modern hotel rooms in the historic 19th-century downtown buildings
- Mercer Hotel – sitting above the Mercer Kitchen you can expect to find the same uber cool designed space in their boutique hotel space
- The Devlin – 1-bedroom apartment in the former 19th-century post office and bookbinding shop
- Juliet Loft – 2-bedroom restored apartment with exposed red brick in a newly renovated loft space above some of the best restaurants in Stratford
- The Bradshaw Lofts – the former factory in a historic building has been restored into a very cool architectural space featuring 12 modern suites
- And, if you’re a fan of charming B&Bs, click here to do a search
Best Time to Go to Stratford
Beyond the popular Stratford Festival, here are the top year-round festivals in Stratford that you may want to plan your trip around.
- Stratford Summer Music – This annual multi-week festival features over 350 artists in over 100 events and is set in indoor and outdoor venues throughout the city.
- Sunday Market in Stratford – while most towns and cities host their Farmers Market on Saturdays, not Stratford. Feel and see the community spirit and shop local on the
- Stratford Art in the Park – from mid-May to mid-September talented artists and artisans display their work under the canopy of trees by the Avon River. Note: 2022 season runs from Saturday, May 21st until Wednesday, Sept 28th.
- Christmas Market in Stratford – held in Market Square, Stratford hosts a small outdoor Victorian Christmas market complete with a carousel, food, and craft vendors. Visit during this festive time and then explore the downtown shops where you’ll find the perfect gift for those hard-to-shop-for people on your list.
- Lights on Stratford – what started in the pandemic has now become award-winning is a modern take on light art installations that transform that historic downtown and parks. Note: 2022 season is from December 16, 2022, to January 27, 2023.
Best Day Trips from Stratford
Stratford makes a great home base to explore the surrounding area and nearby charming small towns. If that’s the case, check out some of these other guides:
- Discover the historic town of St. Marys located in Perth County at the junction of the Thames River and Trout Creek. Stratford to St. Marys is 15 minutes.
- Explore all of the amazing things to do in Elora – from the Elora Gorge to the thriving arts community, and the charming downtown with lots of great restaurants and shopping. Stratford to Elora is just under an hour’s drive.
- Visit the delightful village of Bayfield, situated on the shores of Lake Huron and features a historic downtown filled with lovely shops and restaurants. Stratford to Bayfield is 50 minutes.
- Goderich, known as one of Ontario’s prettiest towns, sits on the shores of Lake Huron and features a historic downtown. Stratford to Goderich is an hour’s drive.
- Head to the rural region of Norfolk County on the north shore of Lake Erie offering beach towns, lavender farms, wineries, and more. Stratford to Norfolk County is an hour’s drive.
As a holidaymaker…
Experience Stratford Ontario – a place so rich in arts, history, and culture, with an amazing food scene – like seriously, you can eat your way through this town! Stratford offers up some really cool small town vibes with a little bit of something for everyone who visits here.