William Shakespeare's influence on a central Ontario village established by the Canada Company arose in the early 1820s—more than 200 years after the Bard of Avon's death. William Sargaint's Shakespeare Hotel was located in the creekside hamlet, and one of the Canada Company's directors, Thomas Mercer Jones, bestowed a picture of the renowned playwright on the proprietor. Jones then named the new village Stratford, and the creek, known as the Little Thames, became the Avon River.
Stratford, located 145 km east of Toronto, now boasts a population of 32,000 people, but the town welcomes more than 500,000 visitors a year to its famous Stratford Shakespeare Festival. Tourists stay in guest homes, bed-and-breakfast establishments or first-class hotels. Local restaurants offer everything from casual snacks to haute cuisine.
Lauded actor Sir Alec Guinness and highly regarded Shakespearean director Tyrone Guthrie launched the Stratford Festival in 1953. The company’s first production took place in a makeshift tent. Stratford’s Shakespeare Festival is now one of the world’s largest classical repertory companies. Each year, from April through October, Stratford visitors flock to Shakespearean and other theatrical productions at the festival’s four theaters.
Most visitors to Stratford plan their trips based on the schedule of plays they want to see. The festival mounts 12 to 16 productions a year—in the busiest part of the season, as many as eight plays may be shown on the same day. In addition to plays, the festival offers numerous concerts, as well as workshops and lectures where audience members can meet performers and other notable behind-the-scenes personalities. Avid theatre buffs will enjoy exploring the Stratford Festival Archives on Douro Street. Stores at area theaters purvey everything Shakespeare, from toys to costumes to scripts.
There are more things to do in Stratford outside the theatrical realm. Sounds of the Stratford Summer Music Festival can be heard for five weeks in July and August. Musicians and musical groups perform at both indoor and outdoor venues throughout town. You might hear music coming from a barge on the Avon River or enjoy a classical recital while dining in a Stratford restaurant.
And speaking of dining, there is another especially tasty thing to do in Stratford. One weekend in September, gourmands and gourmet chefs head to the Savour Stratford Perth County Annual Culinary Festival. Awarded the best culinary experience in Ontario by the Ontario Tourism Culinary Alliance, the festival features cooking competitions utilising the abundant local produce, artisanal cheeses and Amish-farmed meats from this rich agricultural region.
Additional Stratford activities include exploring the history of the town at Stratford Perth Museum and browsing artists’ works at Gallery Stratford. From June to September, three days a week, Stratford tourists can browse and buy juried arts and crafts exhibited outdoors at Art in the Park. Fresh-air summer activities take place on Stratford’s Avon River, where you can rent paddleboats, kayaks or canoes and enjoy a view of the town’s quaint Victorian architecture from the “Little Thames.”