By Rick Steves
Stratford is the most overrated tourist magnet in England, but nobody back home would understand if you skipped Shakespeare's house. The old town is compact, with the TI and theater along the riverbank and Shakespeare's birthplace a few blocks off the river; you can walk easily to everything except Anne Hathaway's and Mary Arden's places. The river has an idyllic yet playful feel, with a park along the opposite bank, paddleboats, and an old, one-man, crank-powered ferry just beyond the theater.
The TI is as central as can be, located where the main street hits the river. While the office has been swallowed whole by gimmicky knickknacks and fliers — and corrupted by a sales-pitch fervor — the people here can still be of some help.
City Sightseeing open-top buses constantly make the rounds, allowing visitors to hop on and hop off at every sight in town. Given the far-flung nature of two of the Shakespeare sights, and the value of the fun commentary provided, this tourmakes the town more manageable. The full circuit takes about an hour and comes with a steady and informative commentary.
Shakespeare's hometown is blanketed with opportunities for Bardolatry. There are five Shakespearean properties (below), all run by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, in and near Stratford. Each has a garden and helpful docents who love to tell a story.
Touring the Shakespeare Exhibition and Birthplace, you'll visit a modern museum before seeing Shakespeare's place of birth.
The Shakespeare exhibition provides a fine historical background, with actual historic artifacts. Linger in the museum rather than rushing to the old house, since the meat of your visit is here. It's the best introduction to the life and work of Shakespeare in Stratford, with an original 1623 First Folio of Shakespeare's work. Of the 700 printed, about 150 survive. (Most are in America, but three are in Stratford.) Western literature owes much to this folio, which collects 36 of the 37 known Shakespeare's plays (Pericles missed out). It came with an engraving of the only portrait from living memory of Shakespeare, and likely the most accurate depiction of the great playwright.
The birthplace, a half-timbered Elizabethan building furnished as it was when young William was growing up, is filled with bits about his life and work. It was restored in the 1800s after serving variously as a pub and a butcher's shop. Millions of visitors have rubbed it clean of anything original — only the creaky floorboards feel authentic. The house becomes interesting only if you talk up the attendants in each room.
While William Shakespeare (1564–1616) was born in this house, he spent most of his career in London, where he taught his play-going public about human nature with plots that entertained both the highest and the lowest minds. His tool was an unrivaled mastery of the English language. He retired — rich and famous — back in Stratford, spending his last five years at a house called New Place.
Little is known about Shakespeare the man. The scope of his brilliant work, his humble beginnings, and the fact that no original Shakespeare manuscripts survive raise a few scholarly eyebrows. While some wonder who penned all these plays, most scholars accept his authorship.
Anne Hathaway's Cottage, a mile out of town in Shottery, is a picturesque thatched 12-room farmhouse where the bard's wife grew up. It has little to do with Shakespeare but offers an intimate peek at lifestyles in Shakespeare's day. Guides in each room do their best to lecture to the stampeding crowds.
Mary Arden's House, the girlhood home of William's mom, is in Wilmcote, about three miles from town. This 16th-century farmhouse sees far fewer tourists, so the guides in each room have a chance to do a little better guiding. A 19th-century farming exhibit and a falconry demonstration are on the grounds.
Hall's Croft, the home of Shakespeare's daughter, who married a doctor, is in the town. This fine old Tudor house, the richest house of the group, is interesting only if you're into 16th-century medicine.
Nash's House, built beside New Place, is the house where Shakespeare retired and the least impressive of the properties. (Nash was the first husband of Shakespeare's granddaughter.) While Shakespeare's New Place is long gone, Nash's house has survived. It has the town's only general-history exhibit — fascinating if you like chips of Roman pottery.
Shakespeare's grave is in the riverside Holy Trinity Church (a 10-minute walk past the theater).