Yes, we want you to visit Reading.
We don’t have the dreaming spires of Oxford. We don’t have Windsor’s castle. And we don’t have Swindon’s outlet centre.
What we do have is lush coffee, a booming pub and craft beer scene, easily accessible countryside, unique shopping and…a contemporary art installation in a museum about the English countryside which we really want you to see. Seriously, it’s very good, but we thought you might want to see what else we have while you’re in the area.
So, if you’re sick of central, bored of Shoreditch and need a day-trip, get yourself an off-peak Return to Reading and do this stuff:
Let’s have eight cups of coffee
You’re already getting the shakes on the 25-minute Great Western journey from Paddington, and outside Reading station you’re confronted by a windswept square paved with grey redeveloped-in-the-21st-century stone, a tower block and a Pret-a-Manger.
Let’s get away from that, shall we?
Head past the oldest purpose-built railway hotel in the world, up the beautifully bricked Queen Victoria Street, past the Oracle and down to the George Hotel, a 16th-century coaching inn. Behind Dickensian windows on the ground floor is the welcoming glow of Workhouse Coffee, which has the honour of both being one of Britain’s 30 best and buzziest cafes and for being our only café without its own Wi-Fi. Take the time to disconnect, sample their signature blends, chat to the friendly staff and nibble on some absolutely lush pastries.
If you want to tank up, though, try these other places:
- Tamp Culture – we’ve seen it grow from tiny Piaggio Ape to full-blown kiosk. Their key to success? Expertly brewed, consistently excellent coffee.
- C.U.P. are a Reading institution who have an eye for location. Park yourself in either of their two cafes’ window seats for views onto either the medieval St Mary’s church or the Victorian Reading Museum and Town Hall. (they also do really nice speciality teas)
- Depending on the day Lincoln Coffee House may also be open, where you can pretend you work in the City of London as you busily order a mocha and a bagel (but it’s never quite the same).
Shop until you hate capitalism
Reading has shops. We have the only Clas Ohlson left in the country, and a pretty good Gap outlet. But, to be frank, you don’t have to come to Reading to buy a toaster from John Lewis, so let’s move onto what makes us unique.
After your coffee it’s only a short walk through the medieval Market Square and back toward the station, where you’ll find the 1930s Harris Arcade.
This is Reading’s mecca of independent shops. Enter from Station Road and satisfy your fandom cravings at Just Imagine Memorabilia, stuffed floor to ceiling with vintage toys, comics, records and odd bits and ends. Venture a little further and you’ll find Grumpy Goat, Reading’s Cheese and Beer institution, which stocks IPAs, DIPAs, Bitter, red ale, stout, porter, lager, wheat beer, cider, gin and much more in rows and columns and crates of beer which take up every conceivable space. They also run an annual craft beer and music festival at South Street Arts Festival.
Once you’ve stuffed your bag full of local cheeses and jazzy beers, pop into The Sound Machine and spend 30 minutes rooting through vinyl and cheap CDs. They won’t judge you if you walk away with a Destinys Child album. If you’re not a fan of browsing obsolete music formats, you can always pick up a cigar, browse African fashion, have a hat made or get a tattoo in the Arcade too.
If you love shopping and want more, try these:
- get a vintage frock in Frock & Roll
- the latest boardgames from Eclectic Games
- if you’re loaded, some jewellery from family jewellers Jacobs
- The usual suspects on Broad Street, The Oracle Shopping Centre and Broad Street Mall
Lunch your face off
We’ve got two Nando’s. We’ve even got a chicken shop called Fernandos which was sued by Nando’s and is now called Fernandez. But if you want something a little different, Reading has you covered.
Once you’ve had your fill of shopping, wander up Friar Street (named after a medieval friary at the end of the road) and, tucked behind Nando’s, you’ll find a place called Shed. It’s in a former forge, and its first floor becomes Reading’s best cocktail bar Milk after-hours. During the day, though, they sell the most lovingly put-together and tastiest things between two slices than you can imagine. Its popularity shows on weekday lunchtimes as workers near and far queue outside for a Top Toastie, a BBC, the daily soup and Lentil Power.
Shed isn’t the only one flying the flag for interesting, independent food in Reading. If sandwiches and soup aren’t your thing, try these instead:
- Lebanese food at Bakery House on London Street. Get their mixed Shawarma and thank us later.
- C.U.P. (who you may remember from the coffee) also do very decent sandwiches and salads
- The Lyndhurst always has an interesting, delicious menu and you can’t leave until you’ve had their Scotch Egg.
- Picnic are another Reading institution with a nice little cafe off Market Place
- If you’re gluten-intolerant, we have a whole cafe for that called Nibsy’s
Reading has culture?
Yes, Reading has culture. From a thriving local art scene to big names at the Town Hall; from England’s best 6-sided venue to an arts centre saved by the community; and from a Victorian replica of the Bayeux tapestry to England’s national museum on English rural life – repeat after us: Reading has culture.
Reading International has been bringing world-class contemporary art to Reading over the past few years, most notably when they got the likes of Ralph Fiennes down to read De Profundis in Reading Gaol, where Oscar Wilde was imprisoned for homosexuality. They’ve also invited internationally-renowned artist Steven Claydon to place three large sculptural pieces in the Museum of English Rural Life. They’re very hard to miss, made out of cages and bright orange scaffolding enclosing a mixture of our own objects and New Guinean and Melanesian folk objects. As Steven says in our blog:
Objects have a curious way of adapting and enduring through the changes inferred and imposed on them.
I wanted the pieces from my collection to be able to shed new light on the indigenous objects at The MERL through their similarities and their alterity or ‘otherness’; to catalyse a re-reading via an altered context.
After lunch, wander south and down Georgian London Street, past the Shenhai Olympia Ballroom where the Rolling Stones once played, and take a detour through the tranquil University of Reading London Road campus and give us a visit.
If you’re hanging around though, take the chance to laugh, learn and be inspired at these other places:
- Explore the animal kingdom, art, sculpture, biscuit tins and the replica Bayeux Tapestry at Reading Museum
- Book a comedy show at South Street Arts Centre
- Go off the beaten path and visit the University museums: the Ure Museum of Greek Archaeology and the Cole Zoology Museum
Walk it off
We have trees for you to look at. We have rivers for you to stare at swans. We have slightly grim but sometimes nice canal-side footpaths to amble along and avoid bikes on.
But since you’re only here for the day, take a brisk walk back into town and through Forbury Gardens, Reading’s centuries-old gathering space. Relax under the imposing glare of the Maiwand Lion, splash about in sculptural fountains and climb a civil war-mound-which-used-to-be-a-fort. Continue through to Reading Abbey Ruins, the imposing and romantic remains of one of Britain’s most important religious sites and the burial place of Henry I.
If you’re here for a longer day or if you want to come back, try these too:
- Go for a Thames river walk up to Sonning, where you can see about a million swans, maybe some grebes, and end the walk with either a cup of tea or a pint at The Bull Inn
- Go for a wander down the Kennet and Avon canal, formerly the town’s trade artery, and see how many WWII pill boxes you can find
- Take a river cruise up the Thames and visit Mapledurham, a mill and Elizabethan house
- Explore the Green Flag-awarded Whiteknights Park and ogle the mandarin ducks and nice Victorian houses. If you really want a bit of nice go to the Harris Gardens, the University’s botanical gardens and one of the most relaxing places in town.
- If you cycle, take a day-trip into the Chilterns, up the Thames to Goring, out into West Berkshire or into Hampshire. It only takes 15-25 minutes to get out of the sprawl and into some of the lushest countryside around.
Reading is a surprisingly good place to stuff your face.
We defer to our local food blogger Edible Reading for insightful recommendations, but for what it’s worth we’ve collected some things together:
- Pepe Sale is a family-run Sardinian restaurant hidden away in the most Soviet Russia-esque part of Reading, but their quality is obvious in everything they do, from the ingredients, the presentation, the taste and the friendliness of staff. They don’t do pizza though, so if you need a thin-crust fix take the extra time to travel to Caversham and have the best pizza of your life at Papa Gee.
- House of Flavours, in our opinion, is the best place for Indian food in Reading. Ask others though and you may get another answer, but that’s only because there’s a lot of stiff competition.
- If you’re feeling really fancy, go to London Street Brasserie
- Dirty burgers and dirty fries are 7 Bone’s speciality, and Honest Burger deserve kudos for creating locally-inspired burgers and pairing with local breweries
- Tutu’s Kitchen at RISC do the best Ethiopan in town, King’s Grill a mean kebab, Sapana bring a taste of Nepal.
- Really, just look at Edible Reading’s list.
Reading has a thriving bar and pub scene. We’re surrounded by established and up and coming breweries, have brassy new pubs and classic old man pubs, and even some wine bars.
Rather than assume your taste for you, we’re going to give you the best of each:
- Beer: Nothing really beats the CAMRA-award winning Nag’s Head in terms of variety, quality and atmosphere. It’s a pub with a local feel but a beer selection that puts any other to shame. If it’s a bit too far out for you though, the Greyfriar is good for a pre-train pint, the Alehouse is a beautiful timewarp and the Horn is the only one with a jukebox.
- Cocktails: Milk is by far the best cocktail bar in town, and usually has comedy, live music or club nights on the weekend. Try their signature Milk bottle or ask the friendly staff for a recommendation.
- Wine: There are only really two options: Tasting House off Broad Street, which ties in tasting boards with your wine, or Veeno, an Italian wine bar next to Forbury Gardens.
You can also turn yourself into a public disturbance for less than a tenner in no less than three Wetherspoons, an O’Neills, a Walkabout, a Varsity and a variety of other copy and paste boozers.
Go home, but come back
Reading is quietly becoming a good place to eat, drink, experience culture and have a good time. We’re very proud of it and would love for you to come again, but please don’t tell too many people or they might ruin it.