Standing along the eastern banks of the Schuylkill River, Reading (pop. 88,495) is most famous these days as the childhood home of pop superstar Taylor Swift. Ornately turreted row houses line 5th Street (US-222 Business) through the residential districts, downtown holds a number of well-maintained businesses and signs from the first half of the 20th century, and a photogenic 72-foot, 110-year-old pagoda offers panoramic views from the summit of Mt. Penn, east of town.
For history buffs, two worthwhile places to visit sit southeast of Reading along the Schuylkill River. The closer of these is at Birdsboro, 10 miles from town and a mile south of US-422. The Daniel Boone Homestead (610/582-4900, Thurs.-Sun., tours $7, self-guided tours $3) marks the site where the great frontiersman was born in 1734.
Well worth the winding five-mile drive south of Birdsboro via Hwy-345, the Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site (daily summer, free) preserves intact an entire iron-making community that thrived here from the colonial era until the mid-1880s. Park rangers fire up the furnace and demonstrate the primitive foundry (melting aluminum rather than iron to take the “heat” off the ancient tools), and exhibits trace the iron-making process—mining the ore, making charcoal, and fabricating the finished product, which here at Hopewell was primarily pig iron and stoves.
Detour: Roadside America
One of the quirkiest tourist attractions in the United States, Roadside America (610/488-6241, Thurs.-Mon., $8 adults) stands alongside the I-78 freeway, 20 miles northwest of Reading in the village of Shartlesville. Built by Reading native Laurence Gieringer, Roadside America is a giant 1:32 scale model of bygone Americana, fleshed out with animated scenes that trace a typical day in the life of the country—circa 1930s, when Roadside America first opened to the public. As you walk around the edges of the 7,450-square-foot exhibit, you can push buttons to make wheels spin, lights flash, and pumps pump, and you’ll see a little of everything rural: an 1830s New England village featuring a church and choral music; a canyon and lake complete with waterfalls and resort cabins; a model of Henry Ford’s workshop in Dearborn, Michigan, where he built one of the first “horseless carriages”; various turnpikes, canals, highways, and railroads; a coal mine; and a mock-up of the San Francisco Bay Bridge, the closest Roadside comes to a city scene.
Though it’s definitely a fine example of kitsch, Roadside America is also an oddly compelling place, and only the hardest-hearted road-tripper will be able to hold back the tears when, every half hour or so, the sun sets and Kate Smith bursts into “God Bless America.”