Several years ago, I lived in Asia for 2.5 years teaching English and traveling around the continent. This experience gave me a great appreciation for Asian culture, and I’m always drawn to it in my travels around Pennsylvania. That’s why the Reading Pagoda has been high on my list of things to do in Reading, PA for a long time.
Why it took me so long to get to the area to visit this very unique building, I don’t know. However, I was very excited to finally have the chance to check it out during a recent visit to Berks County, Pennsylvania.
The Reading Pagoda sits high above downtown Reading atop Mount Penn, 620 feet above the city below. The pagoda is an imposing sight above the city and can be seen from many parts of both downtown Reading and West Reading.
The Pagoda was built between 1906 and 1908 by William A. Witman, Sr. Witman had recently traveled to Japan and brought back a photo of a pagoda there on which the structure was based. Witman’s pagoda was to be the centerpiece of a resort on Mount Penn and was built on a stone quarry that he owned.
For a variety of reasons, the resort never opened, and by 1910, Witman gave up on his dream, selling the property to another local businessman. It was then given to the City of Reading in 1912.
Today, the property has been fully restored and is maintained by both the city and non-profit partners.
It sits in the middle of the 1200-acre Mount Penn Preserve, which also includes the Reading Fire Tower. A single road winds its way up the mountainside to the pagoda. While the area around the pagoda is open at any time, the interior is only open on Saturdays and Sundays from 12pm-4pm. (Note: The interior is currently closed. As I state below, the interior is interesting, but the main draw is the exterior area, so I wouldn’t skip it just because you can’t go inside.)
The Reading Pagoda has seven stories, with the second story being level with the parking lot and viewing area. Entrance to the pagoda is through the first-floor gift shop. Here, you can pick up a pagoda souvenir or get a light snack.
After paying a small donation, 87 narrow stairs and hallways lead to the top of the pagoda, roughly 40-50 feet above the parking lot below. At the top of the structure is a small viewing area, which features 360-degree windows for views in every direction. I was a bit disappointed that the windows didn’t open, but they are kept clean enough so as not to distract from the view.
The viewing area contains two coin-operated binoculars as well as a large metal bell. This bell was cast in Japan in 1739 in Obata, Mie Prefecture. It once hung in a Buddhist temple in either Ogose or Hannō, just north of Tokyo. After the temple was closed, the bell was purchased by Witman in 1906 and arrived in Reading in 1907. It has hung in the top of the Pagoda since it was built.
Before leaving the Reading Pagoda, make sure to check out the small museum on the sixth floor. The museum features a bit of history about the pagoda and artifacts from the early years, including many advertisements from decades past.
While the inside of the pagoda is certainly worth the $1 suggested donation, the true highlight of any visit to the area is the exterior of the pagoda itself and the view of downtown Reading.
A small parking area sits next to a viewing platform that offers fantastic views of the city over 600 feet below. On a clear day, you can see 30 miles from this vantage point.
Visitors can walk around the base of the pagoda as well, taking advantage of additional vantage points and unique views of the pagoda.
Given the Reading Pagoda’s limited operating hours and the quality of the view from outside the pagoda, I wouldn’t plan your entire trip around trying to visit when it is officially open. However, if you happen to visit on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon, the low cost of admission and small, but interesting museum makse a visit to the top worthwhile.
I would, however, consider a visit to the top of Mount Penn to see the Reading Pagoda a must-visit attraction for anyone that loves quirky sites or great overlooks. It’s also one of the best Asian cultural sites in Pennsylvania, along with Shofuso in Philly and the Maridon Museum in western PA.
The view from the pagoda, especially at sunset or after dark is something that should definitely be on your list when visiting Berks County, Pennsylvania.
Hours: Exterior Open 24/7
Cost: Exterior: Free
Address: 98 Duryea Dr