Let’s be honest. The only time Berks County registers with some people is when there is inclement weather. But Berks gets a bum rap. The largest city in the county is Reading, and most of what people think they know about it goes back years or decades. Ask them what else is in Berks County and you can bet you’ll get zero answers.
Let’s change that misconception.
If you talk to Lisa Haggerty at gogreaterreading.com, you’d learn that, after just a year extolling Berks to LGBT travelers, there’s been some great positive feedback. The year-old expansion into LGBT-travel outreach is returning dividends and, trust us, you don’t want to be the last person to post on social media that you just figured out Reading has something to offer.
Last month, needing a photo at the Reading Fightin’ Phils game, we looked into exploring the Reading area. With my own ideas tainted by others, even though I had never been in Reading, we didn’t know what to expect. But there’s some pretty cool stuff, and a few extremely pleasant surprises, for the adventurer. If for nothing else, the only known pagoda in the country sits on top of a hill overlooking the area, and it’s a decent place to go chill.
What’s inn and what’s hot
There’s this one place to stay that’s so amazingly cool, you won’t be able to contain your enthusiasm walking up to the door. It’s so cool, we’re already talking about a winter trip to just spend 48 hours there.
The Inn at Centre Park (theinnatcentrepark.com) has only three bedroom suites in this historic three-story 1870s mansion. We stayed in the crown jewel, the Wilhelm Suite, which is stunningly decorated with chestnut-wood paneling, bookcases, fireplace, a comfortable sitting room and a huge claw-foot tub in the bathroom — and all of it glorious.
The inn is also popular, and well-suited for, weddings, receptions and cocktail hours, etc., and all can be held indoors, outdoors or a combination of both. I could wax eloquent about the inn for pages, but the photos tell the story better than words ever could.
Just a few blocks’ walk from the inn is a remarkable arts collective so diverse and so enveloping, just walking through the space made the artist in me want to relocate just to be a part of it. With several floors in multiple buildings, one can find as comprehensive a collection of arts being produced here as anywhere in the world.
Goggleworks (goggleworks.org) has artists in residence who use all forms of paints, papers, clay, wood, hot and warm glass, pencil, charcoal and about anything else you can think of. The name is derived from a former business in this factory-building complex. The space also includes a film theater, exhibit space, dance studios, musician space and a large open area for receptions and festivals.
It’s a great place to wander through, truly. But the best part is the opportunity it provides to interact with so many different people with such diverse talents and see the crazy variety of personal work adorning just about every available vertical and horizontal space. You can have a conversation with a glass blower and then tap the mind of a watercolorist or sketch artist immediately after. Any visit to Reading must include Goggleworks.
Reading is replete with fall festivals (gogreaterreading.com) to make it easy to do just that. Plus, every summer (plan ahead!) they hold days-long classes where you can try some new art hands-on with a professional. It could be a staycation art camp for you and a friend.
CRAB CAKE AT DAN'S AT GREEN HILLS
Soup to nuts
With a wide variety of dining options, you will be happy to know there’s a restaurant just outside Reading that has fine-dining qualities rivaling any famous-name-branded eatery in Philadelphia. Dan’s at Green Hills (dansatgreenhills.com), the former Dan’s in Reading, has just expanded with a patio area extending into the large backyard that makes dining al fresco more like dining in the great outdoors.
Exceptional food and a superb wine list are the lifeblood of any quality experience, and Dan’s doesn’t disappoint. Much of the menu includes daily fresh home- and locally grown vegetables and herbs, and it shows. On the late summer day we dined, a salad of select heirloom tomatoes with feta and microgreens was the perfect starter. A butternut squash soup also looked tempting. Dan’s website will keep you up to date on the weekly specials.
A perfectly pan-seared crab cake with caper-dill remoulade might be your choice for an appetizer, but the baked escargot in garlic butter and white wine grabbed my attention. Entrées run the gamut and include filet mignon, Asian tuna, duck breasts, sea scallops, rack of lamb — practically you name it. Having sampled the tuna and filet, I can tell you that if you and your dining partner can share, a surf and turf would be spectacular.
Ask a few locals the place to go for lunch or happy hour (or really any meal) and you’re sure to hear Peanut Bar (peanutbar.com). Peanut Bar has been a Reading institution for decades and in the Leifer family the entire time. Michael Leifer treats all guests like friends, and the staff is almost obsessed about making everyone who comes in feel welcomed.
Sandwiches, soups, salads and cheese-steaks dominate the all-day menu and the dinner menu offers create-your-own pasta dishes, mussels, crab cakes and a lot more. Happy-hour specials abound also. If you’re a fan of wings, you can get them any way you imagine and one way you never did: with peanut butter and jelly sauce.
Most impressive are the meats, sauces and other items smoked, marinated and created in-house. The crème-de-la-crème are the hand-cut and hand-sliced potatoes for fries and chips made to perfection. Add a nice beer selection and you’re ready to hang out and watch a game.
And don’t forget the peanuts. A bottomless basket of them before, during and after meals — and they encourage you to throw the shells on the floor. Yay!
West Reading boasts the town’s only microbrewery. It also has a string of really great shops akin to Carytown in Richmond or Main Street in New Hope. We wandered into a couple of kitschy places along there, including Cupcake Wars winner Ady Cakes. You might as well pull up a seat with a quart of milk when you walk in there.
Unfortunately, more than half the shops were closed when we were there. Which brings us to a very important travel point that we completely forgot this time: Check ahead when scheduling visits anywhere. A lot of businesses in West Reading are closed Sunday and Monday. Other days and hours are subject to small-business whims and holidays, so get online and be prepared.
On the brighter side, there is such a fun variety of shops here for eating, reading, listening, wearing, playing and coveting that crossing that bridge into West Reading is well worth the effort.
Get out of your seat
Reading is the county seat for Berks, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t other great places to check out. Above ground, underground, outdoors, indoors; there’s a wide selection of activities for the curious.
We’re great fans of the National Park Service (nps.gov), so whenever we’re off to some new place I always pull out our NPS Passport to the Parks and look up what’s nearby. Plus, we enjoy going for the new passport stamp we get at each location (though our all-time favorite will always be Dry Tortugas) and exploring what the site has to offer.
Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site (nps.gov/hofu/) may not sound as grand as, say, a canyon, but it was a relaxing and educational stop on our Berks County trip. The implications of having a large-blast furnace close to so much coal and ore are apparent when one considers the economies of the 1800s-1900s. While we were there, we also snagged a couple of random lumps of coal that needed a new home.
Crystal Cave (crystalcavepa.com), with its museum, drug store/ice-cream parlor and adjoining miniature golf course, are worth a countywide, countryside search. There’s one road leading to the cave, but several ways to get there. I imagine all are equally interesting drives. The road we found going there was certainly an adventure.
Spelunking has a great history and the story behind this cave is as interesting as any. Up front, I will tell you that my boyfriend was none too thrilled to go check out a cave, possibly because all he could picture was gray rock in a mountain that may or may not have a bear or snake in it.
But Crystal Cave is quite the looker. The 45-minute tour is factual and entertaining. When they do the lights-out segment, it’s especially unsettling. Underground temps are always chill: in the low- to mid-50s for every season, so it’s cool and damp no matter what the outside ambient temp is, winter, spring, summer or fall.
I love a good mini-golf course, but the one at Crystal Cave is fantastic, if for nothing else but the open space. It’s just yards away from the cave entrance under a canopy of trees, and spread out so that you don’t feel like the other groups are hovering on top of you. And the holes are fiendishly deceptive in their difficulty. Play fair, but remember it’s more fun to laugh at the ball ricocheting off a tree root than counting every stroke.
Kutztown and the countryside
The university here is a pretty cool campus, but the town is one of those college towns that has a lot going for it when school is in and when it’s not; it’s all still there, sans riff raff. Main Street has a lively variety of cafes, restaurants, shops and creative outlets. A couple of standouts are Spuds and La Cochina Mexicana. Spuds has some ridiculous fries. I’d go to college there just to eat there every week.
Kutztown is also where famous gay artist Keith Haring grew up. He was born in Reading but both claim him for their own. In the New Arts Program building is what’s believed to be the only Haring painting done on a floor. Though it’s impossible to see in its entirety, as the space is being utilized, it’s still pretty cool checking it out. They are very generous there, letting people come in to take a peek or a pic. Give them a buck for their trouble.
In the autumn, come out to Berks County for pumpkins and apples and other road stands for cider and mums. There are several wineries in which to partake also. Just pick a road, point the car and wander around until you see signs. That’s part of the fun of a weekend drive, right? And if you run across one of the corn mazes in the county, all the better.
Finally, if you’re live tree-cutters for Christmas like we are, you might have a favorite place to go already. We like to switch it up sometimes and go explore a new field. If you head out Berks way for your tree this year, put some time in the meter for the Christmas lights displays. There are several massive ones out that way. Holiday Lights at Gring’s Mill and Kozier’s Christmas Village are two spectacular displays that demand attention. Berksfun.com can help you out with those and others.