My day in Reading started at the Reading Railroad Heritage Museum. Although located in the borough of Hamburg (northern Berks County), it’s a good place to stop before going into “the city.” For $7, you can get on one of the hourly “Yard Tours,” where an expert on the Reading Railroad will take you inside the different rail cars and explain the rise and fall of the Reading Railroad. If you’ve never been to Berks County, but have played Monopoly, you should be familiar with the now-defunct Reading Railroad. There’s also a small museum, with a short video and a few smaller rooms full of exhibits.
From Hamburg, it’s less than 30 minutes down Highway 61 to the Berks History Center, which is on the north side of Reading and worth a visit. When it comes to food, I’m partial towards West Reading. Anyone who is a bit shy about going to what the New York Times called “the poorest city in America” back in 2011 should start in West Reading, which is the “hipster” area. For lunch, I headed to Taste of Crepes on Penn Ave., which is the pedestrian district of West Reading. I had a tip from a friend that two places on Penn Ave. sell French macarons. I stopped at both Ady Cakes and The Well Dressed Cake to get some to go.
After lunch, I headed to the Reading Public Museum, which is inside Museum Park, just a short drive south of West Reading. The Wyomissing Creek runs through Museum Park, making it a nice area to walk around and take some pictures before going into the museum. As bicyclers and joggers pass, you’ll feel far away from downtown or even West Reading. The museum has something for people of all ages. They were running an exhibit on the early years of Rolling Stone magazine as well as Clifford The Big Red Dog. You can easily spend a whole afternoon here, but I cut it down to two hours by skipping the children’s exhibits.
Berks County was an important stop on the Underground Railroad. Unlike Hamburg where the stop is now a private residence, the Reading stop on the Underground Railroad is a former church turned museum. Unlike the other stops I made, the Central PA African American Museum is near the center of the city. Like the Berks History Center, the building is easy to pass by. Although there are exhibits on the 2nd floor, the real highlight is looking at the hole that the escaped slaves hid inside. It’s more chilling than reading the exhibits upstairs. Street parking is easy to find.
From the museum, it’s a long and winding ride up to the Reading Pagoda. You can go inside for drinks or souvenirs, but most visitors just park and look down at the city. It’s not the most impressive view, but the pagoda is an interesting sight in an area not known for its Asian population.
For dinner, I headed back to West Reading. There are just too many interesting places there! I chose Papillon Brasserie. My server was from France and even served in the French military. When I ate my mussels incorrectly, he (very politely) showed me the proper way. In between servings, we talked about our experiences in France.
Penn Ave is an excellent walking street, both during the day and in the evening. After dinner, I walked around a bit. Almost immediately, I came across Van’s Café. Since there is no Vietnamese food where I live, I stopped in and got an order of spring rolls with peanut sauce to go. They also have bubble tea.
After spending 8 hours in Berks County’s only city (including my stop in Hamburg), I was ready to head home. I ate at restaurants that would be considered good in any major city and visited a world class museum as well as two museums that many people would overlook and be foolish for doing so. In summary, it was a perfect day in a too-often overlooked city (the 5th largest in Pennsylvania).