About this series: With COVID-19 restrictions expected to ease over the next few months, Wheels wants to inspire you to get ready to explore – but only when it is safe to do so. This series of daytrips and weekend drives highlights great experiences you can have in the province once conditions allow and show you why Ontario is “Ours to Discover” this summer and beyond.
For the full series, click here.
If you are craving European-style outdoor dining, shade-filled picnic spots, quaint gardens and plenty of walking paths, Stratford is it. While this small city is best known for its annual Stratford Festival, with its productions of works by William Shakespeare and other playwrights (which will take place under vaulted tents this summer), there is a lot more it offers a road tripper looking for a day-long escape from the city. Just remember, skip Mondays, as some businesses and dining establishments are closed that day to reflect the theatre’s performance schedule.
In the morning: A direct route from Toronto to Stratford will take about one-hour and 45-minutes, with the journey made mostly by driving west along Hwy 401 and then exiting onto Hwy 8 at Kitchener. If you want to take a more meandering route, you can also use Hwy 7 starting in Georgetown and heading through Acton, Guelph and Kitchener before heading on Hwy 8. This option will take about two hours but will also see you pass Mennonite farm stands and shops you can explore along the way. Those looking for a deal will want to visit The New Hamburg Thrift Centre located off Hwy 8 at Bleams Road, which sells clothing and antiques with proceeds supporting the work of Mennonite Central Committee.
Arriving in Stratford, head straight to Cafe Bouffon for a classic Parisian-style coffee and a morning pastry, think cardamon demerara morning buns or dark chocolate eclairs, that you can enjoy at a picnic table or under the trees in the neighbouring Memorial Gardens Stratford. The parkette is ideally situated to help you set your geographic and historical bearings. Directly in front of you will be the Avon Pedal Boat Rentals and River Cruise boathouse, where you can rent a kayak or paddleboat to explore the Avon River that flows through the city. There is also a path along the water that loops around some of the city’s most stately homes and the Stratford Festival’s impressive theatres.
While the new Tom Patterson Theatre is architecturally stunning, to the east of it you will find one of the two tents where festival performances will be held this year. A modified Stratford Festival for 2021
will feature six plays and five cabarets performed three times a day, with outdoor shows at 11 a.m., 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. Seating at performances is limited to 100 people, so plan ahead if you want tickets.
Around noon: Once you complete your loop back to the boathouse you will be spoiled for lunch options, including some new establishments. Back to Cafe Bouffon, walk downhill along Ontario Street toward the city’s iconic courthouse (if its doors are open, pop inside and learn about the city’s history through its displays). Across from the courthouse you will find the new Perth County Inn that houses three diverse dinning options: the El Cactus Taco Shop serves fresh Mexican cuisine, including gluten-free corn tortillas; the izakaya-style dishes (healthy bowls rather than sushi rolls) created at Hungry Ninja; and the Cuban snacks and specialty cocktails at Relic Lobby Bar.
In Stratford, it is permitted for restaurants to sell alcoholic beverages that can be enjoyed in a surprising number of spaces: Market Square, Tom Patterson Island, Memorial Gardens or the South Shoreline of the park system between Huron Street Bridge to Upper Queens Park. The stipulations are that only restaurant-purchased liquor is allowed, it must be carried in a sealed container and can be only enjoyed in identified al fresco spaces (of which there are many). It is worth taking a walk around Market Square at Stratford City Hall to peruse the different menus and purchase lunch, as well as check out the stalls selling everything from clothing to chocolate.
In the afternoon: Depending on your mood, you can spend post-lunch ambling through the city or hiking next to the Avon. The Stratford Perth Museum is in a historic building a short drive outside town on Hwy 8 that features exhibits telling the story of the community, including one of its most famous residents, Justin Bieber. A display at the museum chronicles his rise from street busker and local hockey player to world-famous singer, while other exhibits chronicle the importance of the railway to the development of the region, its agricultural roots and blue-collar beginnings.
If you need a little more exercise after lunch, you can hike through the Shakespearean Gardens, which is located beside the courthouse and opposite the Perth County Inn, and then next to the river along TJ Dolan Drive. The walk can be completed in an hour and ends at the Avondale Cemetery, a popular dog walking spot.
In the evening: Make your way back to the downtown Stratford for dinner. Options include The Red Rabbit, a bistro that is creating monthly themed menus featuring international cuisine, and Braai House that serves dishes such as peri peri chicken and coconut-curry salmon cooked in wood-fired oven. After, take a few minutes to decide whether you want to stay in Stratford a little while longer or begin your drive back to Toronto. After all, you still haven’t even seen a play. There’s one that starts at 7 p.m.
SIDEBAR: For the drive
Learn about Stratford by listening to one of the audio tours of the city available on visitstratford.ca. The website also includes self-guided walking tours and maps you can use once you arrive in the city. Its art tour is narrated by Stratford’s own singer-songwriter Dayna Manning and includes her inspiring music. Another option is The Performers Podcast, which includes interviews with actors who have connections to the Stratford Festival (performerspodcast.com).
SIDEBAR: COVID-19 need to know
Travel restrictions and advice continue to change as summer progresses and more people are vaccinated. Detailed information on local measures in Stratford are available from the Huron Perth Public Health website at hpph.ca.
TIMELINE SIDEBAR: Drive Guide
- 9 a.m. Leave Toronto
- Drive west on Hwy 401
- Exit onto Hwy 8
- 11 a.m. Cafe Bouffon
- 11:15 a.m. Memorial Gardens Stratford
- 11:30 a.m. Walk along Avon River
- 12:30 p.m. Perth County Inn
- 1:30 p.m. Market Square
- 2:00 p.m. The Stratford Perth Museum
- 3:30 p.m. Shakespearean Gardens
- 4 p.m. Stroll TJ Dolan Drive
- 5:30 p.m. Dinner in downtown
- 7 p.m. Stratford Festival or drive back to Toronto
NOTE: Times are suggestions only