Stratford-upon-Avon is wildly popular with visitors. And no wonder - it has a lot to recommend it. But you need to plan your visit carefully and do your research or you could be disappointed. These tips will point you in the right direction for making the most of your trip.
Some of what's on offer in Stratford-upon-Avon just reinforces out-of-date stereotypes about the UK. Visitors who are not careful and selective could find a level of bad service, unappealing food and tired, overpriced accommodations that more customer-oriented English towns left behind decades ago.
Blame the Bard. The lure of Shakespeare's birthplace is undoubtedly responsible for both what's good and what's bad about this market town. There's no denying that it's a "must visit" place for anyone interested in literature, theater, western culture and English history. But it is also a place where sheer volume has allowed some local innkeepers and restaurateurs, to take visitors for granted. It's a case of separating the good and the bad while steering clear of the greedy.
- Picturesque, 15th to 17th-century architecture - half-timbered buildings, thatched roofs - have been preserved in pristine condition because the town has been attracting visitors almost since Shakespeare died. Check out the guest book in the Shakespeare birthplace house and you'll see that Charles Dickens, Samuel Pepys, even Benjamin Franklin, have visited.
- The Royal Shakespeare Company was founded here in Victorian times. It is a genuine treasure of world culture and a terrific place to see a play. In 2010, the theater underwent a major renovation project making it even more of a pleasure to visit.
- The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, founded in the 19th century, has turned five Shakespeare houses into outstanding visitor attractions.
- Boat Trips on the River Avon - Several local companies offer short, daytime cruises and lunch cruises for a pleasant way to escape the crowds and see Shakespeare's home town from a different perspective. Check out Bancroft Cruisers and Avon Boating (who operate traditional Edwardian passenger launches) for their schedules and prices.
Stratford-upon-Avon - The Bad
Shakespeare also attracts millions of visitors from all over the world. They've been coming for hundreds of years - and they come regardless of the quality of much of what they find. For some, the captive audience is a license for lack of effort. As a result:
- Hotel accommodation within the town can be second rate, tired and over priced.
- It is hard, though not impossible, to find fairly priced, good quality meals.For a town with so many visitors ready and willing to spend money, there are, surprisingly, no really notable restaurants.
- A few locally promoted "attractions" - involving hauntings, costumed interpreters, and dioramas - are hardly worthy of a substandard theme park. Fortunately, there are fewer of these attractions than there used to be.
- On national holidays, school vacations and all summer long, the crowds are astounding.
Top 7 Ways to Avoid the Pitfalls
It is still really worth visiting Stratford-upon-Avon for a day or two. Just keep these pointers in mind:
- Avoid the obvious. Don't look for good food or great rooms in the prettiest half-timbered buildings - unless someone has specifically recommended them to you. They've been trading on their good looks for years. We were recently served the worst afternoon tea we'd ever had in England in one such place - badly cut sandwiches made of dried out ham, stale cakes. And, to add insult to injury, it was expensive.
- Avoid UK national holidays and school vacations when every school child in the UK, France, and Germany is on a school or family trip to Stratford-upon-Avon. The Waterside area gets as crowded as Times Square on New Year's Eve.
- Skip "attractions" that are clearly hyped for tourists. "Shakespearience" is one that's worth a miss. And we didn't find much to recommend about "Tudor World". Save your money and spend it across the road on an RSC production instead.
- Ask a local. Local people go out for meals and drinks too. Find out the places they like. The clerk in the wine store directed me to a trendy cocktail bar in, of all place, the Holiday Inn.
- Avoid restaurants that look "fancy". They are likely to be expensive and pretentious. Nothing is worse than being served mutton presented as lamb. When it comes to food and drink, the simpler the better in Stratford-upon-Avon.
- If you stay in town, go for simpler in accommodations too. Within the town limits, an unpretentious B&B will probably be friendlier, more comfortable and better value for money than the mid-priced hotels. If you prefer hotels, The Arden, across the street from the Royal Shakespeare Theatre and the Crowne Plaza, not far away and on the river, are good choices.
- Try staying just outside the town. A few country house hotels on the fringes of Stratford-upon-Avon are very charming. And, depending on the time of year, pretty good value too. We can recommend the Hallmark Welcombe Hotel on an 18-hole golf course, with a lovely spa and some gorgeous feature rooms.