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Author of the most quoted lines in the English language, William Shakespeare was born in Stratford and the five houses linked to his life form the centrepiece of any visit. Look past the Bard-themed tearooms and remind yourself what it’s all about with a play at the world-famous theatre.
Take a tour through the Bard's five houses from his supposed first residence on Henley Street through to his retirement home at New Place. Best is his wife Anne Hathaway's pretty thatched cottage in Shottery (01789 204016; shakespeare.org.uk; 9am-5pm; all five houses £19).
Away from the tourist merry-goround of Stratford's main streets, the Holy Trinity Church, where Shakespeare is buried, sits in an idyllic riverside location. Carvings vie with handsome 16th- and 17th-century tombs (01789 266316; Stratford-upon-avon.org; Old Town; 8.30am-6pm Mon-Sat, 12.30-5pm Sun; £1.50).
For a crowd-free way to see the town, punt or row a boat past the weeping willows all the way down from the Royal Shakespeare Theatre to Holy Trinity Church (Avon Boating 01789 267073; avon-boating.co.uk; The Boathouse, Swan's Nest Lane; £4).
Coming to Stratford without seeing a play would be like going to Rome and not visiting the Vatican. The theatre complex, however, offers much more, including tours, workshops and talks (0844 800 1110; rsc.org.uk; Waterside; tickets from £12).
Named-checked in dozens of Shakespearean plays is Warwick, nine miles north of Stratford. It's dominated by the soaring turrets of medieval Warwick Castle with its grand interiors, creepy dungeon and manicured gardens (0870 442 2000; warwick-castle. co.uk; 10am-6pm; castle £20).
Eat & drink
Two minutes' walk from the Swan Theatre, the Dirty Duck 6 is a favourite thespian watering hole. Enjoy a ploughman's platter of hand-carved Chiltern ham on the riverside terrace or cosy up with beef and ale pie (01789 297312; Waterside; dirtyduck-pubstratford- upon-avon.co.uk; lunch & dinner; mains £8-£14).
Edward Moon's 7 is named after an itinerant cook who worked in the colonial service. His philosophy of spiced English food still inspires the menu - try the spiced lamb shank (01789- 267069; edwardmoon.com/ moonsrestaurant; 9 Chapel St; lunch & dinner; mains £10-£15).
Lambs 8 is the classiest restaurant in town, with modern styling that takes into account the fact that this is one of the oldest buildings in Stratford. The menu is similarly moderntraditional, with Gressingham duck with Savoy cabbage, and pan-fried calves' liver (01789 292554; lambsrestaurant.co.uk; 12 Sheep St; lunch Wed-Sun, dinner daily; mains £11-£16).
Still trading wines after 500 years, The Vintner 9 is housed in a 1600s timber-framed townhouse. It serves an excellent grill menu alongside more stylish dishes (01789 297259; thevintner. co.uk; 5 Sheep St; lunch & dinner; mains £9-£22).
Tailors 10 is one of Warwick's most inventive eateries, serving dishes such as blackcurrant pork fillet and smoked ham hock (01926 410590; tailorsrestaurant. co.uk; 22 Market Place, Warwick; lunch & dinner; two courses £28).
Stratford is renowned for its high standard b&bs and Ambleside Guest House 11 is one of the best located. The simple rooms overlook a flower-filled garden. The hosts are knowledgeable and helpful (01789 297239; amblesideguesthouse.co.uk; 41 Grove Rd; from £56).
Situated on the banks of the Avon in a 17th-century red-brick house, the Swan's Nest Hotel 12 offers some of the best views in town. Rooms are comfortable, if corporate in feel (0844 879 9140; macdonaldhotels.co.uk/ swansnest; Bridgefoot; from £69).
Despite its unprepossessing exterior, White Sails 13 has four rather glamorous rooms with palatial marble-tiled bathrooms. The rooms are attractively furnished with brass beds, framed prints and sumptuous materials (01789 264326; white-sails.co.uk; 85 Evesham Rd; from £95).
For the full-on Tudor inn experience, opt for the Shakespeare Hotel 15 in an atmospheric timbered building on Stratford's main drag. Rooms are tastefully decked out with the requisite four-poster beds and wood panelling, and have a sense of history lacking in the competition (01789 294997; mercure.com; Chapel St; from £105).
Unless you sleep overnight at the theatre, you can't get more central than the Arden Hotel 16. Having undergone a multi-million pound refurbishment this historic townhouse, facing the Swan Theatre, has 45 rooms decorated in rich royal colours and furnished with king-sized beds dressed in designer fabrics (01789 298682; theardenhotel stratford.com; Waterside; from £125).
When to go
Although Shakespeare is the biggest show in town, the top event on the cultural calendar is the contemporary Stratford Literary Festival in April-May. Otherwise, avoid the summer crowds and be the first to see new-season plays in September and October.
How to go
Trains run from Birmingham (from £6.50; londonmidland.com) and London Marylebone (from £18.50; chilternrailways.co.uk). Coaches run from Oxford (£12) and London Victoria (£15; nationalexpress.com).
Find your way
Stratford is small, compact and easily negotiated on foot. Bicycles are available for hire from Stratford Bike Hire (£13 all day; stratfordbikehire.com) and a City Sightseeing bus tours the main Shakespeare houses. If you drive, be prepared for high parking fees.
Contributions from Fionn Davenport.