Whilst towns across the UK race to become the next ‘hipster hotspot’, the small market town of Stratford-upon-Avon strives to preserve its character and its historic and cultural ties to Shakespeare. This pretty town in the West Midlands England is the 16th-century birthplace of one of the most famous writers of all time, William Shakespeare. I recently visited this unique town and I have created a guide to top experiences in Stratford-upon-Avon so that you can plan a fabulous visit for your next weekend break.
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Visit Shakespeare’s birthplace
Like most British people, my first memory of Shakespeare was sitting listlessly in an English literature class, waiting for my turn to recite a passage from ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’. I didn’t really understand it, I didn’t see the point of it and I was far too busy writing notes to David Ward to really connect with the material. Luckily as I have got older and the David Wards of this world have grown less appealing [he is bald now for one thing], I have a sudden urge to rediscover the bard and his magnificent range of works. What better place to start this literary journey than at Shakespeare’s birthplace?
This historic house is referred to by locals as ‘the birthplace’, in the sort of solemn tones normally reserved for delivering religious ceremonies. Here you can walk in Shakespeare’s footsteps and wander through the house where he grew up and view rare artefacts. Make sure you don’t touch the artefacts mind, from experience, they don’t really like it when you try and take a ‘bard selfie’ using the artefacts as props. “Look, look a Shakespeare selfie, a Shalfie”.
One of my favourite things about ‘the birthplace’ is that there is ‘live theatre on demand’ in the gardens. As you wander through the shrubbery you will hear famous passages being delivered by professional, properly kitted out actors, as a gathered audience shouts out play requests. There are not many English gardens where you hear “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy” as you potter around.
Stay at the Arden Hotel
The Arden hotel is a beautiful boutique hotel that is right on the doorstep of the RSC theatre, making it a great choice of hotel for theatre fans. Every inch of this sophisticated hotel is Instagrammable, from the views of the river, the suave lounge area and the pretty plates of food served in the restaurant. There is a real mix of contemporary and history here, with elegant furnishings and a classic style champagne bar.
Friendly an informative staff showed us around the hotel and pointed out various interesting features of the hotel, its history and what actors have stayed at the hotel whilst starring in a Royal Shakespeare Company play.
The champagne bar is the ideal place for a pre-dinner cocktail or two. It has a rather lovely ambience and staff will regale you with hilarious stories of the stars who have stayed at the hotel, which for legal reasons, I cannot possibly repeat here.
Our room had a very definite ‘country manor’ vibe, with fancy wooden furniture, plush chairs, neutral tones and flashes of olive green. The room had all the amenities you would want from a 4-star boutique hotel including a desk area, TV, coffee making facilities, mini fridge, ironing board, safe and lovely seating area.
The best part of our stay was making full use of the lovely big bath, One cannot simply stay in a lovely hotel and not have a ‘champagne bath’.
It’s a very pleasant stay at the Arden hotel, it’s right in the heart of the town and yet still manages to maintain a ‘country manor vibe’. The staff are friendly and efficient and the restaurant serves fantastic food, including a rather lovely breakfast to start your day with.
Behind the scenes tour of the Royal Shakespeare Company
The Royal Shakespeare Theatre is a large, thrust stage theatre that is devoted to the works of Shakespeare. Here you will find a huge variety of Shakespeare’s plays, as well as modern theatrical performances. A great way of learning more about the RSC and the works of the Bard is by going on a backstage tour of the RSC.
This guided tour takes you into the public and private parts of the theatre and are full of insider knowledge and information on how performances are created. I can honestly say I had no idea what a ‘thrust stage’ was until our friendly tour guide explained it was a type of staging and not just innuendo.
You can also visit the family-friendly exhibition, ‘The Play’s The Thing’, to learn more about the long history of plays of the RSC. There are interactive exhibits as well as the opportunity to take selfies with a variety of hats. Obviously, all the children had to wait their turn as I took 4000 selfies, it is important to teach kids patience right?
Walk along the canal paths
There are some picturesque walks in Stratford Upon Avon, especially when you wander around the canal paths, you will see your fair share of boats, birds and most importantly a fair selection of pubs. Husband Luke can normally be persuaded to have a walk if he knows there is a pint of Guinness at the end of it.
The 26-mile long canal runs from Stratford Upon Avon to Birmingham and the whole route can be walked if you are feeling particularly ambitious. There are also some rather lovely strolls to be had around the Recreation Ground, with lovely river views and a bandstand featuring musical performances throughout the summer season.
Visit Anne Hathaway’s cottage
The former home of Shakespeare’s wife Anne Hathaway is an adorable, fifteenth- century thatched cottage that now functions as a museum to its former residents. As you explore inside friendly staff will tell stories of the family tree and how various generations cashed in on the family name by selling bits of broken off furniture, those rascals!
The cottage is also surrounded by beautiful gardens complete with shrubbery, sculptures, orchards, woodland walks and huts where you can listen to some of Shakespeare’s most famous sonnets, it is all ever so romantic! So long as you don’t mind snap happy tourists walking by as you try and kiss your beloved.
See a play at the Royal Shakespeare Company Theatre
I’ll admit, like most of my social group, i’m not much of a theatregoer. The sparse few shows I have seen have mostly been tired old Broadway musicals, purchased as a lazy ‘dinner and show’ deal on LastMinute.com. The idea of going to watch a Shakespeare performance conjures up images of a fusty old theatre populated by a stuffy, affluent crowd of ‘arts patrons’. I was therefore surprised at the incredibly modern architecture and atmosphere of The Royal Shakespeare Company Theatre.
I was interested to experience the RSC’s Victorian styled take on Shakespeare’s classic comedy, Twelfth Night. We arrived for a pre-theatre dinner at the RSC’s rooftop restaurant and I was initially surprised by the mixed crowd, it was far more metropolitan than I had imagined. Sure there was the horde of older people that I had expected but there were also young couples and family groups who had all come together to watch one Shakespeare’s better-known works in this dramatically modern and slick theatre building.
It was suddenly showtime and as we made our way to our seats, we became aware of the scale of the theatre, the RSC’s thrust stage auditorium holds just over 1000 people and it seems to be packed to the rafters for the show. As the play unfolded we thoroughly enjoyed the story of unrequited love, performed so splendidly by the talented cast. There were several well-known acting names delivering rousing speeches including Adrian Edmondson as Malvoloio, John Hodgkinson as Sir Toby Belch and Kara Tointon as Olivia.
The lines were perfectly delivered and the performances were so incredibly crafted that it was not difficult to follow along, even though we were unfamiliar with the play. The Shakespearean dialogue was actually easier to comprehend than the rather tangled storyline. You will need to pay careful attention to this hilarious but bizarre love story, with plot points including ‘boy meets girl, but girl has disguised herself as a man’, a lost twin brother in a shipwreck, a Duke pining after a lady in mourning, as well as the occasional comedic duel. The trick is to limit your wine consumption before and during the show, as you want to stay sharp to fully comprehend the elaborate storyline.
It was a fantastic experience to see Shakespeare’s work come to life in a sophisticated performance with beautifully detailed and ornate sets as a backdrop. Getting dressed up and going to the theatre feels like such an occasion, especially when combined with dinner and drinks. We felt as if we had had a proper date, I even put on a dress and brushed my hair, what a treat it is to be married to me! Even if Shakespeare isn’t your bag, there are modern plays on offer at the RSC should you wish to become a ‘theatre-goer’. Our visit to the RSC has certainly inspired a new curiosity about theatre and hopefully, our date nights will now be broader than merely Netflix and a discount price takeaway.
Discover fabulous foodie places
You might not think of Stratford-upon-Avon s being particularly progressive in terms of culinary offerings but there are foodie finds in this town if you know where to look. From afternoon tea to fine dining, there is something to suit all tastes and budgets here.
The Fourteas Cafe
This Vintage-themed cafe takes you back to the 1940’s with ration book menus, jolly good British decor and an original Anderson shelter in the garden. It’s the little touches here that make an afternoon tea here so special, I recommend a fruit scone with strawberry jam and clotted cream!
Orangemabel is where you come for fabulous cakes, teas and lunches in a highly Instagrammable venue. Have high tea served on vintage china and take in the beautiful decor. This cute teashop is full of what I like to call ‘Pinterest goals’, as well as serving up delicious cakes and sandwiches. I would highly recommend one of their enormous sandwiches for lunch, it will set you up for the rest of the day!
RSC Rooftop Restaurant
On the third floor of the RSC you will find the contemporary rooftop restaurant, serving modern British cuisine as well as providing gorgeous views of Stratford. If you are looking for pre-theatre dinner this is the place to come, the menu and service have the theatre-goer in mind with simple yet delicious dishes and fast service so you don’t miss that Front of House call time. Typical menu options include Mexican vegetable and three bean chill, Pot roast pork collar and Crab linguini.
The Waterside Brasserie
The Waterside Brasserie located in the gorgeous Arden Hotel offers a stylish, fine dining experience in the heart of Stratford. Pop your glad rags on and prepare yourself for a culinary sensation with dishes carefully crafted using fresh, local produce. Choose from the à la carte menu or if you are seeing a show, the Pre-theatre dinner or lunch menu.
Typical menu offerings here include Hereford beef two ways, Roast pheasant supreme and Wild mushroom and spinach risotto. The dishes are of discernable quality, with complex flavours and textures that are beautifully balanced. Helpful waiting staff are also on hand to recommend wines and are happy to answer questions about the menu and the ingredients. It is definitely a dining experience to remember!
View Stratford from above in the RSC Tower
The RSC’s large tower came about after an ambitious three-and-a-half year remodelling that saw the transformation of the theatre. The new tower plays homage to the long-gone water-tower that used to form part of the theatre in days gone by. You can purchase tickets to the tower for a mere £2.50 per adult and enjoy panoramic views of Stratford when you take the lift to the top of the tower.
Now admittedly the tickets are so reasonably priced as once you have admired the view there isn’t a whole lot else to do up there. Once you have taken a few quick snaps, remarked how ‘very high up’ you are in the typical British small talk way, you have frankly exhausted all options. That’s not to say the view isn’t worth it mind, despite the rain that morning we had a pretty clear view of the pretty town and the river, also, if you descend via the stairs, there is an exhibition installed on the walls.
Our visit to Stratford-upon-Avon certainly exceeded our expectations. I initially thought it was a town for pensioners on coach trips and came away realising it’s a vibrant and historic market town, with so much to offer. Yes, it capitalises heavily on its Shakespeare connections but there are also lovely walks, shopping areas, quirky cafes and canal boat tours, for those who like discovering a place by boat. I would really recommend a visit to the Bard’s hometown to discover a new love for Shakespeare and of quaint English towns.
Have you ever been to Stratford-upon-Avon? What did you think of my article on top experiences in Stratford-upon-Avon? Let me know what you think in the comments below. You can also check out great places to stay in Stratford-upon-Avon with Airbnb. Click on this Airbnb link to get £25 in travel credit when you sign up.
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Thank you to the RSC for organising a brilliant stay for us in Stratford-upon-Avon!