By Rick Steves
Stratford is the most overrated tourist magnet in England, but nobody back home would understand if you skipped Shakespeare's house. Shakespeare's hometown is blanketed with opportunities for Bardolatry. Each of its five Shakespearean properties has a garden and helpful docents who love to tell a story.
Stratford has a compact old town; you can walk easily to everything except Mary Arden's place and Anne Hathaway's cottage, both of which lie just outside town. The River Avon, which flows right through town, 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.
For a quick overview of the town and its famous playwright, take one of Stratford Town Walks' entertaining, award-winning two-hour tours, which run daily, rain or shine. Or you can opt for one of City Sightseeing's open-top buses, which constantly make the rounds between sights, allowing visitors to hop on and hop off as they like. Given the far-flung nature of two of the Shakespeare sights, and the value of the fun commentary provided, this tour makes the town more manageable. The full circuit takes about an hour and comes with a steady and informative commentary.
The prime sight in town is Shakespeare's Birthplace, a half-timbered Elizabethan building where young William grew up. Shakespeare's father, John — who came from humble beginnings, but bettered himself by pursuing a career in glove-making (you can see the window where he sold them to customers on the street) — provided his family with a comfortable, upper-middle-class existence. This is also the house where Shakespeare and his bride, Anne Hathaway, began their married life together.
I have to admit that I find birthplace itself a bit underwhelming — it's as if millions of visitors have rubbed it clean of anything authentic. It was restored in the 1800s, and, while the furnishings seem tacky and modern, they're supposed to be true to 1575, when William was 11. Still, the house makes for a good introduction to the Bard, largely thanks to its entertaining modern exhibit (which you see at the start of your visit) and the helpful, well-versed, and often costumed docents, who are eager to engage with travelers and answer questions. With some imagination you might get the sense that Shakespeare's ghost still haunts these halls.
While William Shakespeare 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 remains of the house he purchased in 1597 (it was demolished in the 18th century), though you can stroll the gardens adjacent to New Place. Next door, Nash's House (Nash was the first husband of Shakespeare's granddaughter...not exactly a close connection) features information on the Bard's golden years in New Place. (While Nash's House is under renovation, the similar Harvard House is open to visitors.)
Hall's Croft, the old Jacobean former home of Shakespeare's daughter, is the fanciest of the Shakespeare-related houses. Since Susanna married a doctor, the exhibits here are focused on 17th-century medicine, but there's little here about Susanna's dad. If you do visit, be sure to chat up one of the docents, who can really help bring the plague — and some of the bizarre remedies of the time — to life.
Along with Shakespeare's birthplace, my favorite of the five main sights is Mary Arden's Farm, the girlhood home of William's mom. Built around two historic farmhouses, it's an open-air folk museum depicting 16th-century farm life...which happens to have ties to Shakespeare. (The Bard is basically an afterthought here.) It's an active, hands-on place with plenty to engage kids.
Wander from building to building, through farmhouses with good displays about farm life. Throughout the complex, period interpreters in Tudor costumes going through the day's chores as people back then would have done — activities such as milking the sheep and cutting wood to do repairs on the house. They're there to answer questions and provide fun insight into what life was like at the time.
The farm is in Wilmcote, about three miles from Stratford. If you don't have your own wheels and haven't opted for the hop-on, hop-off sightseeing bus, just take the train two stops from Stratford's station (the farm is just a five-minute walk from Wilmcote's train station).
Anne Hathaway's Cottage, is the 12-room farmhouse where the bard's wife grew up. William courted Anne here — she was 26, he was only 18 — and his tactics proved successful. (Maybe a little too much, as she was several months pregnant at their wedding.) The Hathaway family lived here for 400 years, until 1911, and much of the family's 92-acre farm remains part of the sight.
The picturesque thatched cottage looks cute enough to eat. Offering an intimate peek at life in Shakespeare's day, it feels even more authentic than his birthplace. It's fun to imagine the writer of some of the world's greatest romances wooing his favorite girl right here during his formative years. While most tourists just stampede through, you'll have a more informative visit if you pause to listen to the docents.
The cottage's gardens may be even more interesting. They include a butterfly train and fun sculpture garden littered with modern interpretations of Shakespearean characters. The cottage is a mile out of town in Shottery — a 30-minute walk from central Stratford, a stop on the hop-on, hop-off tour bus, or a quick taxi ride from town.
Shakespeare's grave is in the riverside Holy Trinity Church, back in town, where he had been serving as a rector in his last years. While the church is surrounded by an evocative graveyard, the Bard is instead entombed in a place of honor, inside the church and right in front of the altar.