I’ll never forget the first play I ever read – The Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare. I was too young at the time to understand the underlying adult themes within the play, but I loved that the shrew’s name was Katherina (my middle name is Katherine), and more importantly, I loved the language used and how the words seemed to flow like music, so different than anything I’d ever read before.
The summer after I read that play, I was in the library looking for a book with enough pages and small enough words that I wouldn’t have to beg my mom to bring me back to the library again for at least a couple of days – I was an unusually fast reader back then – when I found the complete works of Shakespeare on one of the shelves in the adult section. (I was only 11, but had already exhausted everything in the library in my own age category by then.) I hadn’t forgotten how much I’d liked The Taming of the Shrew, so I was thrilled to finally be able to read not just something else by Shakespeare, but everything else by Shakespeare. I proudly took the book home and read it out loud alone in my bedroom, playing each of the characters myself because
I was a weird kid my little sister was too young to read the difficult lines with me.
I can’t remember if I made it through every play in that book (probably not), but over the course of the summer, I developed a long-lasting appreciation for Shakespeare and a few plays that have remained favorites ever since, one of which I was lucky enough to see performed at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. So when we started planning our trip to the Cotswolds, I knew we absolutely couldn’t miss visiting Stratford-upon-Avon, the birthplace of William Shakespeare.
As is usually the case in a town whose biggest claim to fame is that a historically significant figure once lived there, Stratford-upon-Avon has capitalized on its status as the birthplace of the Bard. There are Shakespeare bus tours, Shakespeare walking tours (led by guides in costume, of course), and annual festivals complete with costumes, performances, and parades. Signs throughout the town announce Shakespeare’s home, Shakespeare’s school, Shakespeare’s favorite pub (come have a drink in Shakespeare’s favorite booth!), Shakespeare’s brother’s father-in-law’s best friend’s house – it can get a little overwhelming, actually.
Truth be told, with hardly any actual records to go by, a lot of these claims are just guesses. The authentic Shakespeare-related places you want to visit in Stratford-upon-Avon are all part of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Five sights have been designated significant enough to preserve and maintain within the trust, and one ticket will get you into all of them. We made it to four out of the five Shakespeare Birthplace Trust sights on our trip to Stratford-upon-Avon, plus visited a location outside the trust that you won’t want to miss if your visit to the city is Shakespeare-related. We had varying opinions about each of the sights (keep reading for those), but still consider all of them “must-sees” for Shakespeare fans!
The home where Shakespeare was born is, for sure, the most popular sight on the “Shakespeare route”. Near the center of town, Shakespeare’s birthplace looks surprisingly large for the times from the outside, but the rooms on the inside are indeed just as small as would be expected of the 1500’s. We struggled to maneuver through them comfortably given how packed they were with visitors. And while I do appreciate that replicas help people visualize what these rooms might have looked like or been used for back in Shakespeare’s day, it all looked a little too new. Still, you can’t very well visit Shakespeare’s town of birth and skip visiting the actual room he was born in. That part is definitely cool! The other upside is that the performances out in the garden and the costumed characters in the house provide excellent entertainment and story-telling.
Harvard House/Shakespeare’s New Place
The next stop on our Shakespeare tour was Harvard House. Open to visitors while restorations were taking place on the site of Shakespeare’s New Place (the home he retired to and died in), Harvard House has more links to Harvard University in America than it does to Shakespeare. We walked through the Elizabethan town house, reading the information provided and wondering how in the world Harvard House was related to Shakespeare, when we realized it really wasn’t. Ha! Shakespeare’s New Place has since reopened, which offers a much more Shakespeare-oriented experience than Harvard House. The New Place was demolished in the 1700’s, but the gardens remain and the space has been re-imagined to help visitors get an idea of what it would have been like when Shakespeare lived there.
My favorite of the “in town” Shakespeare sights, Hall’s Croft was the home of Shakespeare’s daughter, Susanna. Quite a bit fancier than both Shakespeare’s birthplace and Harvard House, Hall’s Croft is a beautiful Jacobean home with low ceilings, exposed beams, and much larger rooms. Shakespeare’s family wasn’t hard-up by any means (they were upper middle class in those times), but Hall’s Croft is still quite the upgrade!
We were starting to get a little hungry at this point, so we ate a quick bite at the cafe at Hall’s Croft. Serving up popular dishes from the Tudor period, we each had a bowl of potage, which sounds sort of horrible, but is actually a delicious veggie soup with a chunk of bread. Definitely recommend it!
Holy Trinity Church
After Hall’s Croft, we walked to the one sight on this list that is not a part of Shakespeare’s Birthplace Trust – Holy Trinity Church. This is where you’ll find Shakespeare’s final resting place. He is buried inside the church where he served as a rector during his later years. Holy Trinity Church is free to enter, and the grave is easy to find as it is right in front of the alter – only the best for England’s national poet!
Anne Hathaway’s Cottage
The first four sights on our Shakespeare tour were all within a short walking distance of each other, but getting to Anne Hathaway’s Cottage requires either a quick drive or a one-mile walk. This adorable cottage out in the country is where Anne Hathaway, Shakespeare’s wife, grew up. Shakespeare also courted Anne here, but their first home together as a married couple was actually his birthplace. Anne Hathaway’s family cottage is incredibly well-preserved and a few pieces of original furniture still remain, but as much as I enjoyed walking through it and hearing stories of Shakespeare and Anne’s love story, I think I enjoyed the cottage gardens even more. There is an orchard on site, as well as a lavender garden – so beautiful to see it blooming in September! Anne Hathaway’s Cottage was easily my favorite Shakespeare sight in Stratford-upon-Avon.
Mary Arden’s Farm
The final sight in the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust is Mary Arden’s Farm, the childhood home of Shakespeare’s mother. At three miles from Stratford-upon-Avon, you’re going to want to drive to the farm or take the train a couple stops to Wilmcote and then walk the rest of the way. I have no pictures to show for this one because it’s the one sight we weren’t able to visit thanks to the typical English weather ruining our plans, but if the weather is on your side, you won’t want to miss it! Mary Arden’s Farm has been turned into an open-air museum with Tudor-style farmers on-site to show visitors what farm life in the 16th century would have been like. Visiting the farm is a very hands-on experience with opportunities to both feed the animals and assist with farm chores. (I know feeding the goats is totally something for the kids, but I’m so bummed I missed getting to do that!)
A variety of tickets are available for the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust sights. I recommend the 5-sight pass, but if you know you won’t be able to make it out to the two sights further outside the city, the Town Houses Pass is a good choice. All tickets are good for 12 months which means if you have more than a day in Stratford-upon-Avon or plan to return in the future, you can spread your visit to the Shakespeare sights out over the course of two or more days. (One day is sufficient to see them all, though, if that’s all you have.) Tickets can be bought online here.
It’s a really good idea to check the website before you go to make sure the sights you want to see are open on the day and time you plan to visit. Closures happen seasonally and occasionally for upkeep and restorations. A current list of opening times can be found here.
At Holy Trinity Church, entrance is free. A small donation is requested, but not required. Opening times for the church can be found here, but be prepared for unlisted closures. When we visited, a choir was performing and the church was temporarily closed to visitors. Luckily, we’d arrived only a half hour before the end of the performance, so we waited it out, but had we not lucked out with our timing, we might have missed it!
Not a fan of Shakespeare? No worries – the Shakespeare-related sights are certainly not the only things to do in Stratford-upon-Avon. Unlike the smaller towns and villages in the Cotswolds, Stratford-upon-Avon is an actual city. There is no shortage of shops, restaurants, and pubs in this town. (Although, when you’ve got 15th century half-timbered cottages directly opposite modern establishments like Debenhams, it does make for a pretty unusual dynamic!)
Since the River Avon flows right through Stratford-upon-Avon, companies offering boat tours aren’t hard to find. Or if you’re feeling a little more active, you can hire a boat yourself. Tourist attractions abound for both adults and kids in the city, but if you want my opinion, the best part about Stratford-upon-Avon is the same thing that is so attractive about the rest of the Cotswolds – the city just looks so quintessentially English that simply walking through it and looking at things is the most fun way to experience it. Eat where the food smells good, grab a tea or a drink in a cool cafe or pub, or just sit by the river and watch the boats float by. Stratford-upon-Avon may be a city, but the laid-back, slower-paced vibe of the Cotswolds still lives here, too!
For more great places to see in the Cotswolds, check out 7 Charming Towns To Visit In The Cotswolds.
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