Earlier this week, The New York Times published its latest 36 Hours feature spotlighting Pittsburgh as a national travel destination.
Lighting up social media feeds, Brendan Siegel’s 36 Hours in Pittsburgh sparked a range of responses, from excitement over the attention the beloved national column shines on local independent businesses, to a debate about its limitations in terms of the neighborhoods and people represented in the whirlwind itinerary. In particular, the article’s accompanying six-minute video drew criticism for its lack of diversity in terms of the business owners, artists, entrepreneurs and chefs interviewed. Readers weighed in across social media platforms—from comments made on NEXTpittsburgh‘s Facebook page, to an insightful analysis offered by EAT THAT, READ THIS creator Adam Shuck.
Tuesday’s piece marks the third time in the past 13 years that Pittsburgh has landed a spot in The New York Times‘ coveted 36 Hours travel column, which prompted us to wonder how the reporting compares in 2002, 2008 and 2015. For starters, The Andy Warhol Museum gets a nod all three years, readers might feel nostalgic for Kaufmann’s department store in 2002 and biking gets a big plug in 2015.
In Journey: 36 Hours in Pittsburgh, published in pre-Facebook era on December 6, 2002, writer John Schwartz opens his travel itinerary with something of a now-tired disclaimer:
“Tell a coworker that you’re headed to Pittsburgh for the weekend and the response might be a puzzled stare—or a cock of the head that signals readiness for the punch line. But there are plenty of reasons to visit Pittsburgh, which has transformed itself from a sooty industrial blight into an inviting city of technology and finance.”
Schwartz goes on to heap praise on Pittsburgh: “It has a stunning collection of grand museums, like the Carnegie Natural History and Art Museums; renowned universities; sports palaces (Steelers and Pirates); as well as breathtaking mountain views of the city and its three rivers (together, everyone: the Allegheny and the Monongahela become the Ohio). And don’t forget hearty helpings of great, throw-caution-to-the-winds meals that might leave you sighing, ‘If I lived here, I’d be dead by now.’ Air fare to Pittsburgh is so low, and tourism packages so plentiful, that it might be worth the trip just to grab a heart-stoppingly satisfying sandwich at Primanti Brothers.”
Friday’s plans start with a trip on the Monongahela Incline (note the writer’s use of the cliché “Steel City” moniker) for “the spectacular sight of the city as night falls or wander along the appropriately named Grandview Avenue” along with a “glance back at the jumble of grand houses, Victorian and modern, that perch above it all.”
Next, Schwartz heads to “the waterfront mall known as Station Square, with shopping and a choice of mostly mall-ish restaurants,” stopping at The Grand Concourse and Gandy Dancer Saloon,” followed by an after-dinner stroll through along the area’s fountains and steelmaking machinery.
Taking his explorations beyond city limits, Schwartz heads out early to Frank Lloyd Wright’s legendary masterpiece, Fallingwater, in Mill Run, PA, recommending that travelers take time to stroll around the grounds, hike in the surrounding Bear Run nature preserve and add on a trip to Wright’s other nearby masterpiece (which is every bit as worth seeing, if you ask us)—Kentuck Knob.
Before heading back to Pittsburgh via the turnpike, the writer indulges in a when-in-Rome moment, fueling up on deep-fried broccoli-cheddar poppers and a hickory-smoked bacon sandwich at Brady’s Restaurant along Route 31 in rural Acme, PA.
The day wraps with “more than 15 minutes with Andy” at The Warhol Museum on the Northside.
This writer must really dig funiculars because he’s back on an incline—this time the Duquesne—in the evening, with this tip: “be sure to check out the small exhibition of Pittsburgh lore, including plenty of old photographs that show the black smog that used to engulf the city.”
For dinner, Schwartz recommends skipping Mt. Washington’s “fancy, high-end hilltop restaurants” and instead heading to the South Side to peruse East Carson’s “eclectic mix of antique shops, galleries, craft stores and coffeehouses.” Remember it’s still 2002, so it seems no travel article is complete without a mention of Primanti Brothers and its signature French fries and cole slaw strategically placed between slices of Italian bread.
After-dinner drinks are called for at nearby Pipers Pub, where the Times recommends sampling one of “some 70 single-malt scotches or a truly intimidating selection of 24 imported beers on tap.”
Surprisingly, Station Square gets not one but two nods in 2002, with Sunday brunch at The Grand Concourse. Not your cup of tea? The paper also recommends heading to Pamela’s in Oakland, and not leaving town without a stop at Pittsburgh landmark, Kaufmann’s department store downtown (RIP Kaufmann’s and the building’s current tenant Macy’s, which just announced its imminent closure to make way for a new hotel and residential development).
For lodging circa-2002, the NYT suggests the Omni William Penn Hotel, Sheraton Hotel Station Square and Appletree Inn on South Negley Avenue—a restored 1884 Victorian house.
What does The New York Times seek out in Pittsburgh six years later?
The oft-evoked metaphor of Pittsburgh rising from the ashes appears in the Times‘ next 36-hour trek to town—which is accompanied by a slide show of Jeff Swensen’s beautiful images. Jeff Schlegel sets up his July 2008 travel itinerary with a nod to Pittsburgh’s 89 (did he count right?) authentic neighborhoods, terrific mix of culture, food, shopping and sports—and yikes—even the dreaded word hip makes an appearance:
“Pittsburgh has undergone a striking renaissance from a down-and-out smokestack to a gleaming cultural oasis. But old stereotypes die hard, and Pittsburgh probably doesn’t make many people’s short list for a cosmopolitan getaway. Too bad, because this city of 89 distinct neighborhoods is a cool and—dare I say, hip—city. There are great restaurants, excellent shopping, breakthrough galleries and prestigious museums. The convergence of three rivers and surrounding green hills also make it a surprisingly pretty urban setting. And if the Pirates are in town, head over to PNC Park. Besides the game, the ballpark offers a great excuse to explore downtown Pittsburgh and the river views.”
Friday’s top recommendations include getting your history fix at the Senator John Heinz History Center and Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum in the Strip District, and trying tasty martinis and sakes amidst a two-story wall of cascading water at Soba in Shadyside.
Schlegel caps off his night at Brillobox—now a local staple for trivia night, neighborhood gatherings, live music upstairs, vegetarian fare, DJ nights and more—which the author says: “feels like an arty East Village bar—little wonder, considering the 30-something artist couple who own it are former New Yorkers. They came back home to Pittsburgh, they said, to contribute to the city’s growing arts scene. Art film screenings, spoken-word performances and live music are held upstairs in a room decked out in velvet wallpaper and murals. Or just hang loose in the downstairs bar with its atmospheric red lights and an eclectic jukebox that has Goldfrapp, Patsy Cline and Snoop Dogg.”
Up early on Saturday, Schlegel heads to a favorite destination for travel writers—Pittsburgh’s Strip District. Perusing the iconic outdoor markets and international food kiosks, Schlegel recommends the Middle Eastern kebabs, Italian sausages, Greek baklava, coffee and pastry at La Prima, produce, clothing and vintage knickknacks.
Getting a much-deserved shout-out in all three 36 Hours in Pittsburgh features is The Andy Warhol Museum on the Northside. Schlegel digs deeper into Pittsburgh’s vibrant arts and cultural scene, with a visit to the Mattress Factory museum of contemporary art located in the historic Mexican War Streets.
Lawrenceville is clearly on the Times’ radar in 2008, and so when it’s time to shop, Schlegel heads to the 16:62 Design Zone, where some 100 locally owned businesses focus on home décor, contemporary art, clothing and architecture. Recommended stops include the Society for Contemporary Craft on Smallman Street (where we love to check out both the art and the shop). Do they use the 16:62 Design Zone designation anymore? No, they do not.
Magic hour is fast approaching in one of the country’s most scenic cities and, at 6 p.m., Schlegel says to grab the camera and take in the best views of Pittsburgh from Mount Washington via the Duquesne Incline, with a second Times nod to the archival materials housed in the cable car’s station: “There’s a neat little history museum that has old newspaper clippings, but the real spectacle is the view of downtown Pittsburgh, where the Allegheny and Monongahela meet to form the Ohio River.”
While up along Grandview Avenue, Schlegel hits the area’s “cliff-hugging restaurant row,” recommending “amazing seafood to go with the river views” at Monterey Bay Fish Grotto (which recently unveiled major renovations).
It’s refreshing to see that Schlegel continues his cultural explorations, taking in a contemporary play at City Theatre Company on Pittsburgh’s South Side. Following the show, Schlegel ventures out along East Carson Street’s continuous stretch of bars, seeking out one of the corridor’s less mainstream spots, Dee’s Cafe.
Brunch is really starting to blow up in Pittsburgh—it’s 2008 after all—and the author remains on the South Side for the winning combo of eclectic art and antiques, vintage clothing and vegan and vegetarian fare at local favorite Zenith (pro tip: get there before it opens at 11 a.m. to avoid the long lines).
Sunday afternoon calls for some explorations in higher learning, with a trip to Oakland. Highlights include the Nationality Rooms at the Cathedral of Learning, outstanding collections at Carnegie Museum of Art and Carnegie Natural History Museum, a self-guided walking tour of Oakland and a stop to see the brick wall on Roberto Clemente Drive that was once part of legendary Forbes Field.
At the time of 2008’s feature, JetBlue still ran nonstop flights from NYC’s Kennedy Airport to Pittsburgh (RIP that convenience). For lodging, the Times suggests The Parador Inn or the Priory on the Northside, or the Renaissance Pittsburgh Hotel downtown (for brand new boutique hotels—a twinkle in developers’ eyes in 2008—see 2015’s entry).
Fast forward seven years to find writer Brendan Spiegel introducing his whirlwind 36 Hours in Pittsburgh feature with these descriptive words:
“Sometimes gritty, always hilly, Steel City’s charms are often hidden below the surface. While the revitalization of downtown Pittsburgh has earned lots of attention, lately much of the action is found farther out, in once-overlooked neighborhoods like Lawrenceville and East Liberty. Here, old-school stalwarts mingle with artsy young people, helping to create a city that serves as a canvas for the kind of urban dreams that more crowded and expensive cities can’t foster. It’s a place where abandoned buildings reveal art museums in the making, where decaying industrial sites prove ripe for urban exploration, where residential streets hide kitchens turning out remarkably fresh, local food. Best of all, if you aren’t afraid of a few slopes, it can be easily explored by bike or even on foot.”
This time around, the Times features a Lawrenceville-centric itinerary and a particular focus on the many independent business owners, entrepreneurs, chefs and artists who are shaping the city’s communities in the first quarter of the 21st century.
Also a sign of the times is the expanded format of the travel article, which is accompanied by a slick six-minute video that features interviews with the people behind many of the restaurants, clubs, boutiques and businesses mentioned in the feature (and prompts the outcry: where are the people of color? from Pittsburghers. Even the mayor chimed in.)
Spiegel kicks off Friday with a visit to “Writers’ Way,” (aka the Mexican War Streets’ tiny but charming alley, Sampsonia Way), which includes City of Asylum’s House Poem, one of four houses-turned-public-art-projects. As Spiegel observes: “From industrial eyesores to ultramodern lofts, Pittsburgh has no shortage of architectural styles—but only one building is covered by giant poetry written in Chinese calligraphy. ”
With an appetite, the NYT heads next to Salt of the Earth on Penn Avenue for dinner (failing to note that the restaurant is closing on August 1) , followed by craft cocktails at The Livermore and live jazz at the adjacent Cloakroom. Other hotspots for Friday night? Lawrenceville’s Civil War-themed Arsenal Cider House and new Italian bar, Grapperia.
Rising early on Saturday, the writer heads straight to the aromatic Bread and Salt Bakery in Bloomfield to savor baker Rick Easton’s “perfect versions of classic Italian breads like pane antico, made with locally grown wheat,” along with the shop’s irresistible Roman-style pizza taglio. Saturday calls for shopping local in Lawrenceville, where independent businesses are thriving, such as Pageboy boutique and hair salon, Pittsburgh Furniture Company, Wildcard and Wild Purveyors.
Saturday’s dinner pick? Justin Severino’s Cure, where “charcuterie plates venture far beyond your typical prosciutto trio.” For after-meal entertainment, Spiegel heads to the neighborhood-based single-screen Row House Cinema for old-school flicks and to adjoining Atlas Bottle Works for an assortment of craft beers.
Sunday’s Pittsburgh itinerary is packed with cuisine and culture, with trips to La Gourmandine bakery in Lawrencville and the one-of-a-kind Bicycle Heaven museum in Manchester.
Since Pittsburgh is a city you definitely should see on two wheels, the NYT explores the region’s expansive networks of urban trails, recommending stops along the Three Rivers Heritage Trail, South Shore Riverfront Park, the Hot Metal Bridge and the Carrie Furnaces.
Where to rest your weary head? This time around, the city’s new boutique hotels top the lists, including Downtown’s Hotel Monaco and the soon-to-open Hotel Indigo Pittsburgh in East Liberty.
Realizing that travelers can only take in so much in a new city in a mere 36 hours—and that The New York Times is just scratching the surface—we encourage our readers to keep exploring the city and the pages of NEXT for much more about Pittsburgh’s people, places, culture and experiences.