The best of Reading
The 25 best things to do, places to go and areas to check out in Reading, Berkshire - all voted for by local experts
Welcome to your guide to the very best of Reading. Explore Reading was founded to spotlight everything there is to love about our town and this list does just that. In it, you’ll find 25 of Reading's best bars, restaurants, outdoor spots, shops, cultural spaces and more - all chosen by a panel of experts.
How this list was created
Explore Reading asked a panel of Reading experts, organisers and community leaders to submit individual lists of their top 10 things in Reading. This list has been compiled from all their choices in order, so the number one slot received the most number of votes., and so on.
The 25 best things to do in Reading
South Street Arts Centre
A couple of years ago it was entirely possible this entry might not even have made this list. In 2015 South Street Arts Centre almost shuttered after council budget cuts, but the people of Reading (you’re the best) rallied and a campaign to save South Street resulted in a grant from Arts Council England. The much loved arts venue used the funding to undergo vital repairs and reopened at the beginning of 2017.
A vital cultural hub, South Street Arts Centre runs Reading’s most vibrant and diverse programme of contemporary arts shows, comedy, drama, music and dance. It offers the best selection of stand up comedy in Reading, with edgier comics such as Lucy Porter, Sophie Hagen and Alun Cochrane all set to pick up the microphone next year. And it’s almost certainly the the only place in town you will see a Muppet Christmas Carol singalong or a quirky two woman show about masculinity and identity.
It’s run by a passionate and dedicated team who work hard to dispel the myth that Reading has no culture. We couldn’t think of a more deserving winner to be crowned the Best of Reading.
South Street Arts Centre, 21 South St, RG1 4QU. View website
The River Thames
According to Reading Museum, the River Thames has been attracting human activity for more than half a million years. That definitely makes it the oldest entry on this list, and well deserving of its spot as the second best thing in Reading.
Although it may seem a surprising entry, the Thames received an overwhelming number of nominations to this list - in fact there is only two votes between this and the top spot.
Reading is known for being a well-connected town and that all started with the River Thames. Once Reading’s gateway to the world, the Thames provided transport, trade and commerce. It was a vital asset in helping to grow our town and our industry. Today, the river is loved for the walks, wildlife and tranquility it offers outside of the town. The River Thames is both a peaceful escape from busy life and a much loved icon of our town.
Find out more about The River Thames at the Reading Riverside Museum.
Food & Drink
This is the first collective entry to make our list. Almost every single person on our panel nominated a different one of Reading's many great pubs, so this list celebrates them all together at number three. From our great town centre beer houses to cosy neighbourhood locals, each of our pubs were put forward for different reasons.
Honorable mentions go to The Nag's Head, loved for its impressive ale selection, the Allied Arms for its fabulous beer garden, The Retreat for its cosy, friendly feel and traditional, warm boozer The Hop Leaf.
We're lucky that Reading has a great and dedicated pub scene which is constantly evolving and seeking to improve itself. In almost every part of town you can find a welcoming pub with a fine ale selection, a friendly crowd and a cheery landlord. Pull up a stool and try them all.
Reading’s best pubs reviewed
Shed is home to the best sandwiches in town. Tucked under other best of Reading entry Milk Bar on Merchant’s Place, it's a real Reading hidden gem. Despite being hidden, it has a passionate following of lunch evangelists, including most of our panel, who happily sing the praises of the Top Toastie, freshly-made soup or Saucy Friday dishes to all who will listen.
But it’s not just the food that makes Shed number four on this list, and the most nominated cafe in town. Owners Pete Hefferan and Lydia Owen have build a friendly, relaxed cafe where they remember their customers and talk to you like friends. Having lunch at Shed is delicious, cosy, fun, and cheery. Almost like having lunch at your friend’s house. But a friend that makes you really good sandwiches.
8 Merchants Place, RG1 1DT. View website.
Picture the town of Reading, and you’ll likely picture Forbury Gardens. Prowled over by the magnificent Maiwand Lion, our beautiful Victorian public park is perhaps the most visible and picturesque spot in town.
These charming, manicured gardens originally formed part of the Reading Abbey quarter before becoming the public ’Pleasure Gardens’ in 1856, when they hosted markets and fairs. We’re delighted to see more of those, such as Reading Town Meal, Bastille Day and Feastival from Blue Collar Street Food, drawing the crowds back into our park over the past few years.
Forbury Gardens is a lovely green space and a symbol of our town’s history and welcoming community. Grab lunch, escape the high street, sit back and admire the historic buildings and gleaming glass towers nestled around the park’s edges. It will remind you how much Reading has changed and grown.
Forbury Road, RG1 3BB.
The Grumpy Goat
Another of Reading’s much-loved independent businesses, The Grumpy Goat stock two of our very favourite things: ale and cheese.
Stepping through the door into their petite Harris Arcade space is like entering a veritable beer lover's Narnia. Everywhere you turn, shelves are piled high with over 400 different varieties of beer. It’s the biggest, and best, range of craft beers and real ales in Reading and includes local breweries Siren Craft Brew, Wild Weather Ales and Binghams Brewery, alongside American, Belgian and even Icelandic bottles. Next to the counter the cheese fridge is filled with excellent chunks of British and European cheeses such as the award-winning Two Hoots Barkham Blue.
Owners Anne-Marie Whitehouse and Charlie Beatty are passionate and enthusiastic about what they stock and make the shopping experience a delight. They’ve also started taking their passion for beer around town with events such as Beer Fridays and the Craft Theory beer and music festival. In return they’ve found a strong and dedicated following who are all happy to shout about The Grumpy Goat as one of the best things in Reading.
The Grumpy Goat 8-9 Harris Arcade, RG1 1DN. View website.
Tamp Culture Coffee
Food & DrinkTamp Culture started life as a pop up cart serving top notch coffee from a tiny Piaggio Ape van at the Gun Street entrance to The Oracle. Since then their quality pours and friendly space have proved so popular that Tamp has become a permanent fixture on that spot with a dedicated kiosk, seating and a expanded menu of food. Their coffee is some of the best in town; it’s all single-origin beans, roasted in-house and it comes with incredibly knowledgeable, but not patronising service. As well as the coffee, our panel also love Tamp for the passion, enthusiasm, creativity and pluck their team have shown in taking their small independent business from an idea, to a van, to one of the best things in Reading.
Tamp Culture Coffee, 3 Gun St, RG1 2JR. View more
Excitingly, it’s you, the people of Reading who our panel nominated as the number eight best thing in Reading. We’re a large town, and as this list shows we have many great restaurants, bars, shops, outdoor spaces and cultural spots, but ultimately it’s you, our community, who help to make it a better place to live.
Whether it was for the ease of making friends, the way you cheer and promote Reading’s independent businesses or the passionate support you bring to our town’s causes (and even sites like this one), our panel kept mentioning how great you are.
Be proud of what you bring to our town and keep making Reading’s community so vibrant and friendly.
If you’d like to help more people meet others in Reading, sign up to Reading Voluntary Action’s Champions to End Loneliness pledge.
It may just be ruins now, but in the 1100s Reading Abbey was one of the biggest monasteries in Europe. Commissioned by King Henry 1, the construction of the Abbey brought industry, visitors and growth to Reading. It was arguably the most important project in making Reading the large, prosperous town it is today.
A walk around our Abbey quarter is full of history and a reminder that Reading is far from the bland, chain-filled town it often gets accused of being. The Abbey Quarter project has done great work to conserve the ruins since 2009 and they will finally reopen in summer 2018 with a series of events set to reintroduce us to the quarter. When they do, go and take a walk in the footsteps of Reading history.
Reading Abbey, Abbey St, RG1 3BA. View website
Are You Listening? Festival
Reading Festival may get all the glory and national headlines, but it’s our town's smaller, one-day Are You Listening Festival that our panel nominated again and again as one of the best things to do in Reading. Held every April, it champions local acts with a line up that is 70 per cent Reading bands. They’re joined by some of the UK’s hottest bands to play memorable sets at venues across the town centre. This year’s lineup features Bristol punks Idles and alt-surf rockers Her’s.
Not only that but it’s all for a good cause as well. Organised in support of Reading Mencap, a local charity working with people with learning disabilities and their families, the festival has raised more than £40,000 over the last six years. There's always a great community atmosphere on AYL? Saturday as music fans zig-zag across town chatting with others as they go. It's one of our favourite days in Reading.
Saturday 28 April, 2018. Super early bird tickets are £17.50. Buy them online.
Food & Drink
Milk Bar has been serving up cocktails, music and fun upstairs at the old Afroba site on Merchant’s Place since 2012. It’s Reading’s most innovative and creative cocktail bar with a seriously impressive stash of rum and one of the best drinks lists in town. The staff know what they’re doing behind the bar too; they recently won the national Chairman’s Reserve Mai Tai Cocktail Competition.
Just like the bar, design is quirky and fun, with higgledy-piggledy chairs, a cocktail menu made up like a Ladybird book, local art on the bare brick walls and a former Jackson’s tailor’s table repurposed to house a DJ deck. It’s also home to great relaxed events, comedy sets and some of the most fun DJ nights in town. Milk is one of our rare indie businesses that is both a hidden gem and a much-loved favourite for those who have ventured up the stairs at the old forge.
8 Merchants Place, RG1 1DT. View website.
Food & Drink
In the past couple of years Reading has seen an exciting, independent coffee shop scene grow up in town. CUP, also called Coffee Under Pressure, is (spoiler alert) the first of these to make our list.
CUP wasn’t just nominated for its coffee though. Launched in 2015 by Maria Fyssaki and Nasos Nasios, a Greek couple with a heap of barista experience and a passion for quality coffee, CUP blends its caffeine with a laidback vibe, friendly atmosphere and one of the biggest loose leaf tea selections in town. There’s also a sprinkling of charming Greek elements such as thick brewed Greek coffee and slices of delicious spanakopita, a spinach filo pie for lunch.
Inside it’s a minimalist space but outside it overlooks the leafy St Mary’s Butts and nursing a coffee or a pot of tea there on a lazy sunny day is one of our favourite things to do. And lots of other Reading residents felt the same.
53 St. Marys Butts, RG1 2LG. View website.
The Oxford Road
The Oxford Road is the only street to make it onto this list and to some may seem like an odd entry. “Who cares that much about a road?”, you might think. But it isn't just a road, of course.
The Oxford Road is home to Turkish supermarkets, Polish delis, African barbers, Caribbean takeaways, Japanese restaurants, multiple churches, the Reading Islamic Centre, family-owned hardware stores and the beautiful red brick Battle Library, as well as so many of our residents.
It's a vibrant, bustling community running right through the heart of West Reading, reflecting our town’s diverse, dynamic population.
Blue Collar Food Market
Food & Drink
Since launching at the end of 2016, Blue Collar has done big things for Reading’s street food scene. Their weekly Wednesday markets have not only fed our hungry lunch time crowd but they’ve also proved an incubator for new, local vendors, such as regulars Georgian Feast, John the Greek and Peru Sabor, to experiment, grow and build a food-frenzied following.
Part of the success of Blue Collar is its big community feel, turn up on a Wednesday and you’ll often see lots of regulars queuing for their weekly dose of jerk chicken or cheesy bread. This summer that community was clearly on display at its series of dynamic weekend Feastivals in Forbury Gardens, which brought the town together over a mix of hay bales, international grub and relaxed day drinking. We look forward to more big blue things from Blue Collar next year.
Blue Collar Food Market is at Market Place, every Wednesday, 11am-4pm.
Read more about Blue Collar Food Market
University of Reading Whiteknights campus
At first I was slightly surprised to see the University of Reading campus start cropping up in our panel's submitted lists. But of course, as a west Reading resident I'd forgotten that as well as an academic hub, Whiteknights is also home to 130 hectares of beautiful green space in east Reading. It's perfect for weekend walks, ambles and strolls among nature. In fact, it's even award-winning, having picked up a Green Flag Award as the sixth best green space in the country.
It's loved by our panel for lots of different reasons. Some mentioned the lake and its fabulous bio diversity, some liked the peace and quiet outside of town and many mentioned the hidden botanical Harris Gardens. I also happen to love the campus-based Reading Film Theatre for indie cinema and the two on-site museums, of zoology and Greek history. Whatever reason you go, do visit. Don't forget about it. It's one of the best things in Reading, of course.
University of Reading, Whiteknights Road, Reading. View Website.
Launchpad’s bright, colourful stable doors aren’t just the entryway to their Merchant’s Place headquarters. They’re also a symbol of the mission statement at the Reading homeless charity: Opening Doors, Changing Lives.
Sadly for such a flourishing town, Reading has one of the highest rates of homelessness in the country. In 2017 government figures recorded 407 Reading households as ‘statutory homeless’. This figure doesn’t just count for street homelessness but also the ‘hidden homeless’, those who may have been forced out of rental accommodation with nowhere to go, families in temporary, unreliable accommodation or those relying on a friend’s sofa.
Powered by an army of over 100 volunteers, Launchpad work to prevent this homelessness as well as take care of these families and individuals. They don't just provide shelter but also care, education, counselling, skills and support.
Launchpad helps to turn around the lives of some of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged in our town. Their dedication and compassion truly reflects the best of Reading.
Find out more and support Launchpad at www.launchpadreading.org.uk
Food & Drink
Many of Reading’s restaurants got individual mentions from our expert panel but Bakery House was one of the few to keep popping up again and again (along with entry number 20 I Love Paella). Sat halfway up London Street, this unpretentious independent café has been the place to go for Lebanese food in Reading long before Comptoir Libanais arrived at the riverside.
Sure, it may look a bit like a nondescript kebab shop from the outside, but inside you’ll find a menu of exciting, affordable and delicious Lebanese dishes. It does terrific grilled meats and the light and crunchy falafel is the best in town. It’s also a great lunch spot, with shawarma platters featuring a generous portion of tender marinated chicken, vegetable rice, tabouleh, a big scoop of hummus and a home baked flatbread.
In recent months the service and portion sizes has dipped a little, but it’s still home to the best Lebanese food in town. Bakery House is a real hidden gem. Unassuming from the outside, but passionately loved by Reading residents who’ve stepped through the door.
82 London Street, RG1 4SJ. View website
Blagrave Street’s impressive Victorian-era Town Hall is possibly the most iconic of all Reading’s many red brick buildings. It’s been home to a museum since 1883 and now focuses on collections linked with Reading, our people and the area we live in.
Three floors are dedicated to the history of our town, including the natural history of the ground under our feet, Roman Silchester, and our industrial heritage - local favourites like Huntley and Palmers, Sutton’s and Jackson’s all make an appearance. And of course there’s the 70-metre-long replica of the Bayeux Tapestry a fascinating look at Anglo-Saxon war, invasion and intrigue set in embroidery. The museum shop is also one of my favourite places to pick up Reading-themed gifts.
Visiting is a lovely, insightful nostalgia-filled look at Reading and a delightful day out for kids and adults alike. Reading Museum shows us where our town has come from and what we can be in the future.
Reading Museum, Blagrave Street, RG1 1QH | Find out more
Reading International Solidarity Centre - RISC
Shops, Community, Food & Drink, Culture, Outdoor Spaces
RISC is possibly the only entry on this list to fit into every single category. The striking blue and orange building opened at the bottom of London Street in 1996 to promote sustainability, global issues and social justice. To the right, the World Shop sells ethical, fair trade products - you can find everything from charcoal toothpaste and crumbly organic fudge to wallets made from recycled tyres. The back corner is also home to one of Reading’s last few remaining independent bookshops with a focus on works from global authors.
To the left, Global Café is a coffee shop, restaurant, event space and sometime art gallery. By day there’s cuppas and cake, by night there’s original international cuisine from Tutu’s Ethiopian Table and an exciting range of craft beers behind the bar. Every month they host rousing talks, thoughtful film screenings and lively gigs. If that wasn’t enough, right at the top there’s also a sustainable roof garden.
RISC is an endearing, inspiring and welcoming space supporting Reading’s community and helping Reading’s community to support the wider world.
35-39 London St, RG1 4PS. View website.
I Love Paella
Food & Drink
I first discovered I Love Paella during their residency serving up quality Spanish food at The Horn in 2016. While tucking into their marvellous chicken paella, (which was simultaneously squidgy, juicy and crunchy) I had the thought that it was one of the best things in Reading and it needed to be shouted about. That’s when the idea for Explore Reading popped into my head.
Since then, I Love Paella has moved to the beautiful canalside pub The Fisherman’s Cottage and are serving up an even bigger menu of paella, tapas and even burgers all with an authentic Spanish flavour. A cosy location, a creative and shareable menu and a friendly, laid back vibe all add up to make it one of the best things to do in Reading. It’s also one of Reading’s pop up-turned-real thing success stories and we hope their success paves the way for more Reading street food vendors and food-makers with a dream to make it big. And when you go, order the salt cod churros. You won't regret it.
The Fisherman’s Cottage, 3 Canal way, Reading, RG1 3HJ. See opening hours.
Reading Black History Mural
The iconic Black History Mural has stood tall and proud at the end of London Street since 1990. The 36-metre-long artwork was commissioned by the Central Club in 1987 to celebrate Reading’s strong African-Caribbean community, the role that black people have played throughout history and the work of the Central Club. Painted by Alan Howard, with support from apprentices from the youth provision, the mural includes depictions of Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King and Bob Marley as well as Reading residents and founding club members.
Unfortunately, the future of the mural is currently somewhat uncertain, as the building is currently up for sale. But Reading Borough Council have announced any proposals must include plans to secure the mural's future. We hope the Black History Mural stays as a symbol of Reading’s diverse community for many years to come.
Reading Farmer's Market
Every two weeks, farmers from around Berkshire and south Oxfordshire set up stalls at the former auction house of the Great Knolly’s Street Cattle Market for Reading Farmer’s Market. It’s a charming, vibrant and bustling community of sellers that has been going since 1999 and is an enjoyable place to stock up on your weekly groceries, meet the families behind your food and find out where your produce comes from.
Regular vendors include Q Gardens fruit farm, fresh fish from Brookleas, bread from The Old Farmhouse Bakery and pork goods from the very friendly Dew’s Meadow Farm. As well as produce, there are tables of kitchen treats including cheeses, chocolates, oils, preserves and more from vendors on rotation. You can also make a morning of it with a hearty English breakfast from farm-fresh goods cooked on a delicious-smelling grill next to the entrance. Perfect to power you through the shopping trip. Read more about food markets in Reading.
The Cattle Market, Great Knolly’s Street | The first and third Saturdays of the month | 8.30am – midday | View website.
Almost all of our panel name-checked one of Reading’s many beautiful green spaces and gardens, including Caversham Court Gardens, Balmore Walk and Palmer Park. But it was Tilehurst’s Prospect Park that picked up the most votes from dedicated West Reading residents.
It’s Reading’s largest open space and is loved for its wide grassy spaces, oak woodland, sports facilities, children’s playground and even miniature steam train. At weekends it’s vibrant and bustling with five-a-side tournaments, running groups, dog walkers, families and car boot sellers alike.
Amble to the top of the hill at the park’s centre for a sweeping view towards The Kennet and Green Park with its towering wind turbine, and to see the beautiful Regency-era Mansion House - once home to the Liebenrood family, it’s now home to a slightly less lovely, but family-friendly Harvester.
Liebenrood Rd, Reading, RG30 2ND.
Just Imagine Memorabila
Run by Jim B Donovan, the DJ behind some of the most popular nights at Milk, JIM (see what he did there?) is a joyful treasure trove of vinyl, music, comics and games.
Shelves heave under the weight of second hand memorabilia in this cupboard-like Harris Arcade store. Look out for Thunderbirds action figures, board games, back issues of the Beano or DC comics and VHS copies of old Doctor Who episodes.
Pride of place in the centre of room are the rows of CDs and crates upon crates of vinyl records organised by decade. Go crate digging to find everything from the Rolling Stones to rare soul, ska and hip hop.
14 Harris Arcade, Station Rd, Reading, RG1 1LG. Open Tuesday to Friday 12-4.30pm, Saturday 10.30am - 4.30pm. View website.
The Rising Sun Arts Centre
On even the most average of weeks The Rising Sun Arts Centre plays host to art classes, yoga sessions, African drumming workshops, tango lessons, film nights, book clubs and tea dances. And that's before we even get to the lively weekend gigs held in the cosy, sweaty front room.
The arts centre started life as a squat for a group of artists who saw potential in the beautiful Victorian red-bricked building on Silver Street. By the mid '90s it had gained charity status and it’s been run by a passionate and dedicated community of volunteers ever since. It enters the list as one of Reading’s most vibrant, welcoming and hands on arts centres.