Shakespearean allusions abound in Stratford, Ontario, one of Canada’s leading theatre hubs and hometown to perhaps its most famous superstar, Justin Bieber. But this small, picturesque city of 30,000 that is deferential to tradition, but also fun and forward–looking, isn’t just for Bard–loving theatre buffs and faithful Beliebers. This pocket of Southwestern Ontario stands out for mesmerizing riverbank views, streets dotted with 19th–century architecture and artisan shops, and a dining scene that punches far above its weight.
Old–timey Victorian homes, a long–standing repertory theatre festival, and a compelling local food scene make for an all–around entertaining stay.
Start your day with weekend brunch at well–coiffed Cafe Bouffon, which anchors a prime–time downtown corner overlooking an undulating river below. Outfitted with dangling crystal chandeliers, a vibrant orange ceiling, and gilded mirrors and boiserie, the café pours some accordingly polished mimosas, alongside crepes draped in maple cream, trays of fresh–baked French patisseries, and a decadent croque madame on waffles.
From there, you’re a stone’s throw from family–run Boathouse, where you can call dibs on a paddleboat, kayak or canoe to zoom in on the Avon River. Those who would rather stay on terra firma can take a stroll along a water–hugging path, savouring the view and sharing the way with Stratford’s active summer swan and duck communities. Head past the Perth County Courthouse, to the Shakespearean Gardens (formerly the site of a wool mill), where visitors will find a medley of plant life, including species oft–cited in Shakespearean plays, like rue and goutweed.
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Come lunchtime, make your way to El Cactus Taco Shop, where Mexican–born chef Alondra Galvez channels the flavours of her grandmother’s kitchen into a comforting menu of “botanas” (shareable snacks) and tacos that run the gamut from “hippie” vegan to marvellously meaty. Nab a coveted seat on the patio, and order the Sikil P'ak, a traditional Mayan dip made of pepitas, a cochinita (pulled pork) taco and a fruity margarita.
Exit the restaurant and you’re conveniently at the base of Ontario Street, the town’s main commercial drag and the ideal starting point for an afternoon of boutique hopping. Going east, you will find La Osa selling decades–old vintage clothing together with jewellery made of repurposed materials. Next, you will hit Fanfare, Wills & Prior and Diamond Dogs — in that order. The first is a circa–1967 bookstore, where literary types can browse CanLit, anthologies of dramatic works and a sweet selection of children's literature; homeware shop Wills & Prior is a two–storey showcase of all things decor, including a large selection of locally made goods, from maple serving boards to handcrafted porcelain serving bowls; and Diamond Dogs is a vinyl store stocked with everything from 1950s rock ’n’ roll to zany post–punk.
You will want to keep wandering through the downtown core, meandering along Wellington and Downie streets, whose intersection leads you straight to the imposing Stratford City Hall, but first carve out some time for a sweet. Unbeknownst to some, Stratford is a hotbed of sorts for talented chocolatiers, with Rhéo Thompson setting the bar. Its signature confection — and the de facto chocolate of Stratford — is the “mint smoothie,” small morsels encasing a soft minty filling. For a caffeine break, there are a number of indie options — Edison’s and revel being some of Stratfordites’ faves — as well as the first–ever Balzac’s.
Come festival season, all of Stratford really is a stage, with its restaurant workers perhaps its most unsung players. Make dinner reservations for 6 p.m. (and let your server in on the plans) so that your belly’s full in time for the sacred 8 p.m. curtain time. Lovage, a newcomer to Stratford’s small, yet mighty dining scene, makes for a flawless prelude to any evening production. Behind an eye–popping parsley green exterior, chef Jamie Crosby (an alum of Copenhagen’s Noma and Toronto’s Grey Gardens) prepares market–driven bistro fare displaying influences from around the world, with dishes like Spanish mackerel in XO sauce and Baccalà Mantecato, a Venetian salted cod spread.
You are now a 10–minute walk to the newly erected Tom Patterson Theatre, a curvy waterfront showpiece, swathed in scintillating bronze, floor–to–ceiling windows, and limestone accents — it was bestowed a prestigious Governor General's Medal in Architecture). Patterson (the person, not the playhouse) was a local journalist who drew on the town’s name, shared with William Shakespeare’s birthplace, to launch the now–iconic Stratford Festival. To mark the theatre’s grand opening — the build was complete in 2020, but its debut delayed by the pandemic — it’s staging productions of Richard III and All’s Well That Ends Well, the same two plays that kicked off the festival from beneath an outdoor tent back in 1953.
Make It a Weekend
Planning to stick around for a matinee? Occupying six and a half acres of land, The Bruce Hotel is a short walk from another Stratford main stage: the Festival Theatre. The boutique hotel is a 25–room operation brimming with old–world charm and nods to the patron saint (playwright) of Stratford — its halls display gowns worn in past performances, while its turn–down service includes fortune cookies that crack open to snippets of the oh–so–quotable Bard. The Bruce also offers an around–the–clock cookie hotline (just press a dedicated button on your room phone and get a plate delivered to your door) and experiences with a master beekeeper who oversees on–site hives producing roughly 500 pounds of honey per year.