Four years after moving to Pittsburgh for graduate school, I now know what most Pittsburghers know: this city is a destination. Straddling industrial history and an innovative future, Pittsburgh infatuated me much like a new lover, offering up inescapable charm, unexpected excitement, and a promise of good things to come. So I stayed.
What makes Pittsburgh so great? For me, the answer is simple: complexity. This city boasts a special blend of industrial grit, fresh sophistication, neighborly charm, and a dash of DIY-spirit. Pittsburgh is both the past and the future. It’s both small town and urban playground. Pittsburgh is an attitude and a can-do attitude at that.
The list I’ve comprised aims to help newcomers explore the city via both classic Pittsburgh experiences and lesser-known gems. This list is by no means comprehensive. My advice: explore this list, then go off the path. In PGH, you never know what’s around the corner, up a hill, or over a river, be it an inflatable duck or a vintage car race, a new wine bar or a timeless tavern. Find your own little Pittsburgh.
As Mr. Rogers (yep, also a Pittsburgher) sang, “I’ve always wanted to live in the neighborhood with you.”
THE PITTSBURGH ESSENTIALS, THEN AND NOW
Welcome to the ‘burgh!
THEN: Take the Incline to Mt. Washington
I like to suggest Mt. Washington as a “first date” with Pittsburgh; many people have fallen for this city from the top, where you can get a lay of the land. Luckily, you don’t need to hike up Mt. Washington to catch its stunning views. Ride one of the two remaining “inclines”—cable cars that closely follow the tracks of an early coal hoist. Built in the late 1800s, these mountainside transports offer a pleasant ride and spectacular views, all for a reasonable fare (the cost of a normal bus ride—or free with your Port Authority pass.)
NOW: Hike/Bike Frick Park
While Frick Park isn’t “new” to Pittsburgh, it is the youngest (and largest) of the regional parks, and is sometimes overlooked as a way to get to know this city. While Mt. Washington will give you a panorama view, Frick Park and its 664 acres will get you up close and personal with the region’s flora, fauna, and the people that live here. Stunning trails offer a way to leave urban life behind for a day, one of Pittsburgh’s best features.
Check out the adjacent Nine Mile Run Watershed, the largest urban stream restoration in the United States, to see new urban ecology projects at work, a great example Pittsburgh’s transformation from an industrial past to an environmentally-sound future.
THEN: Have a Sammich at Primanti Bros.
Disclaimer: I’m a vegetarian and not personally a fan of Primanti’s. There, I said it.
That aside, I still say you need to share a sammich (Pittsburghese for “sandwich”) with a friend (or 10 friends). This Pittsburgh chain has been keeping folks wondering, “how do I eat this?” since 1933, so go now and have the experience that every single person will ask you about until you do. Whether you like turkey, salami, bacon, ham, sweet sausage, or kielbasa, as the website claims, “it’s not a Primanti Bros. signature sandwich without a generous serving of crunchy, tart coleslaw and crisp French Fries piled high on top of soft Italian bread.”
Note: I recommend waiting at least one week after eating a Primanti’s sandwich before swimming or engaging in other vigorous physical activity.
NOW: Have a Sammich at Thin Man Sandwich Shop
The owners of this Strip District shop hail from a fine dining background and utilize fresh and local ingredients when possible. The signature sandwich, “The Thin Man,” showcases chicken liver mousse, local bacon, frisée, and red wine vinaigrette on a baguette. With several veggie options, this new shop is a good option for foodies seeking a quick, filling sammie in The Strip.
THEN: Visit Fallingwater
Built in the 1930s, Frank Lloyd Wright’s architectural masterpiece “Fallingwater” is worth every minute of the drive (about 90 minutes from downtown), and worth every penny you’ll spend. Touted as “the most unique home in the world” this destination is pretty much guaranteed to be beautiful any time of the year. Why not make a day of it and take a hike out in Ohiopyle State Park? Either way, you won’t be disappointed.
NOW: Check Out The Tower at PNC Plaza
At the time of writing, construction is well underway on what PNC Bank is calling the “greenest skyscraper in America,” set for completion in 2015. Rising 30 stories downtown, the completed $400 million high-rise will feature a double-glass exterior “skin” to circulate fresh air through the building, as well as a solar chimney, and (according to a PNC spokesperson) an ability to “adapt itself to the outside environment” like a human organism. Much like Fallingwater, this skyscraper features innovative design elements that help integrate it into the natural world.
THEN: Shop the Strip District
On a sunny weekend morning, there are few things more invigorating than a stroll through “The Strip.” If you can handle the crowds, you’re in for a treat as you make your way through produce stands, open-air markets, Steelers goods, spice shops, magnificent murals, coffee spots, art markets, international food stores, taco stands, restaurants, and bars. Originally home to iron mills, foundries, and glass factories, The Strip is a foodie paradise and a true Pittsburgh experience, from the Public Market (2401 Penn Avenue, indoors) to Wholey’s fish market (1711 Penn Avenue).
Explore the walking map, and make sure you head out early, as many shops close by the afternoon.
NOW: Shop the Farmer’s Markets (this list is for city-sponsored markets only)
If the Strip District is rich in local history, these markets are rich in local food. There’s nothing more immediate than a ripe strawberry picked a few miles away. Pittsburgh is surrounded by some of the best farmland in the country, and from May to Thanksgiving, many neighborhoods host farmer’s markets that offer a fresh way to explore the city. You name it, you can find it—made by hand and locally—at one of these bountiful markets, which sell everything from just-picked produce to organic beauty products. And yes, there’s a great one in the Strip.
THEN: Visit The Warhol Museum
One of the four Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh, The Andy Warhol Museum is the most comprehensive single-artist museum in the world. This North Side facility’s permanent collection holds more than 8,000 works of art by Warhol including paintings, drawings, prints, photographs, sculpture, film, videotapes, and extensive archives. Enhanced by a rich calendar of programming and events, this must-see museum appeals to both art connoisseurs and novices alike.
Make a day of it and pair it up with a Pirates game (#6 below).
NOW: Unblurred Gallery Crawl
The First Friday has folks basking in the creative energy that is Unblurred. The stretch of Penn Avenue between the 4800 and 5500 blocks is transformed into a showcase of photography, sculpture, music, street food, dance, painting, and spoken word performances. “What started as an attempt to revitalize Penn Avenue between Negley and Mathilda,” says the Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation, “has transformed into one of the city’s hottest cultural events.”
THEN: Go to a(ny) Sporting Event
Here’s the deal: whether you love sports or hate them, this city bleeds black and yellow (that’s a Steelers reference, and yes, you need to know this). Though the Pirates, Penguins, and Steelers can be avoided (may I suggest grocery shopping on Sunday game days?), I believe it’s simply more fun to just get into it. After all, sports make up the fabric of the city in which you now live. My pick is a Pirates baseball game on a fair spring day or warm summer night. Tickets are affordable and PNC Park hosts one of the best views of the city skyline. Many night games feature a fantastic fireworks display afterward.
Still not convinced? After the 5th inning of every Pirates home game, four life-sized pierogies—Sauerkraut Sal, Cheese Chester, Jalapeno Hannah, and Onion Oliver—race around the bases. Wherever it came from, this tradition is delicious and delightful.
NOW: Go Kayaking on the River
While years ago, thoughts of gliding down Pittsburgh’s rivers would have been less than appealing, thanks to major river cleanup and beautification efforts, renting one of Kayak Pittsburgh’s boats now offers you an active and alternative way to take in the city. Pick a game day and float past PNC Park (and cheer on your favorite pierogi), or paddle down to Point State Park or up to Washington’s Landing.
THEN: Eat Pierogies
Yes, yes, my friends. Eat piergoies. Many, many pierogies. Whether you get them from S&D Polish Deli in the Strip District, from Pierogies Plus in McKees Rocks, or from a church basement, you’ll soon discover pierogies are everywhere here, they’re affordable, and they are downright tasty. Try a classic sauerkraut or potato and cheese, or fill up on some of the more innovative flavor combos popping up around town.
NOW: Eat a Pierogi-topped Dog at Franktuary
One of my favorite ways to enjoy a pierogi in this city is “smooshed” onto a (veggie) Pittsburgh-style dog, served up Franktuary’s Lawrenceville location. With its mission of “redeeming fast food, one frank at a time,” Franktuary sources quality meats and local produce, and even offers a local liquor option for each of their cocktails.
I’d also like to give a nod here to Pierogi Night for its community spirit. Friend them on Facebook and enjoy the monthly pop-up pierogi events!
THEN: The Nationality Rooms at the Cathedral of Learning
The Cathedral of Learning (University of Pittsburgh) houses 30 Nationality Rooms, stunningly unique classrooms that depict global heritage. Designed to represent the cultures of various ethnic groups that settled in Allegheny County, these ornate, cultural gems can be toured independently or with a guide. During the holiday season, the rooms are decorated in traditional styles.
NOW: City of Asylum House Publications
City of Asylum provides sanctuary to endangered writers from other nations, offering them a space to continue their creative work. Four homes on the North Side have been “published” by City of Asylum’s writers-in-residence. These spaces—rehabbed homes on Sampsonia Way—display works of public art that have incorporated text from the original authors who inhabited them. The text is worked into the buildings’ facades—thus “publishing” it in an art house that will hopefully become part of an architectural “public library” in the future.
THEN: Visit The Hill District
Home to August Wilson (and the setting for nearly all of his work) “The Hill,” as it’s known, forms one of the major geographic features of the city. While much of the lower Hill has been redeveloped, much of the middle and upper hill remains predominantly African-American, as it was when civil rights and jazz formed the fabric of the community about which Wilson wrote.
Get a copy of August Wilson: Pittsburgh Places in His Life and Plays, which will provide you with maps and historical context for the places that—though many are no longer operational—influenced the life work of one of American’s most important writers. Start at Freedom Corner and work your way in, and look for Minersville, a historic 19th century cemetery that pays tribute to the district’s Central European roots, as well.
NOW: Visit Braddock
Though in the “Now” category—Braddock is anything but new. Rich with history, Braddock is home to the original, still-operational Edgar Thompson Works Steel Mill. Part of the area hit hardest when industry collapsed, Braddock now hosts many new projects that offer renewed energy to this once-thriving community. Showcasing a melding of new and old infrastructure, ideas, and people, Braddock seems poised on the brink of a major community revitalization.
Check out Unsmoke Art Space and the community pizza oven, browse the beautiful library, see Grow Pittsburgh’s Braddock Farm, or visit chef Kevin Sousa’s restaurant Superior Motors (set to open in 2015). Search out the neighborhood’s works of public art, its community gardens, and the many local businesses that have been serving the community for years.
THEN: Go Play at Kennywood (Potato Patch Fries required)
Ah, Kennywood. A place so gosh-darn all-American it will melt your heart faster than ice cream in August. Founded in 1898, Kennywood is one of the oldest amusement parks in the world. You can expect all the classic fun here—from roller coasters and cotton candy to oversized stuffed animals and (overpriced) games. Halloween brings Phantom Fright Nights to the park for those among you with a propensity for creepy, crawly, terrifying fun.
If you go to Kennywood and you don’t order Potato Patch French fries (behind the Thunderbolt roller coaster), you’re doing it wrong. They are a Pittsburgh institution and you’ll be expected to have tried them.
NOW: Go to Banjo Night at the Elks Lodge!
I realize this isn’t a direct correlation to an amusement park, but Banjo Night at the North Side’s Elks Lodge #339 may be my favorite thing about this city. Like an amusement park, this event—held every Wednesday night from 8pm to 11pm—offers good, clean family fun. But for free. The Pittsburgh Banjo Club will play a whole lot of old-timey tunes while a mix of, well, old-timers and young, urban hipsters mix and mingle at community tables, munch on popcorn, drink cheap beer, and play the 50/50 raffle. Who knows, someone may even ask you to dance.
Can’t get your fill of the banjo? Walk around the corner to the Park House. This tavern hosts Wednesday night bluegrass jams, starting at 9pm, so you can hear some more strummin’.
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