The Essential Pittsburgh, on a Tight Time Budget

After many years of wanting to visit Pittsburgh, we finally had our chance for a very brief, day and a half exploration. We found a city that was totally different from the image of the polluted, dying steel center of the 1960s and 70s. Although the city generally lacks the modern high-rises that dominate fast-growing cities, its older buildings have been painstaking restored and these and the rest of the city is clean and well maintained. Another pleasant surprise is the incredible pride that its residents have in the city and the lengths they will go to help visitors explore the city’s charms.


Downtown Pittsburgh

Our downtown tour was very brief. Although we walked through and saw most of downtown, we focused primarily on:

  • Market Square, with its fortress-like, Phillip Johnson-designed PPG complex and park surrounded by popular restaurants. Not, big, fancy expense-account palaces, but everyday lunch houses. Among the most interesting and the most packed were:
    • Primante Brothers, a sandwich shop that was initially created for steelworkers and truckers who were looking for an entire meal that could be eaten on the run. The result, a huge sandwich, with your choice of meat, topped with salad (coleslaw) and potatoes (French fries);
    • Diamond Market, which offers a particularly large selection of burgers and BBQ; and
    • The 140-year old Original Oyster House, whose interior hasn’t been upgraded much and who most popular dishes appear to be fried oyster cakes and fried fish .
  • Point State Park, with its views, a huge (unfortunately no longer operational) fountain, the original Fort Pitt Block House and Fort House Museum, which provides an interesting overview of the French and English histories in the area and the French and Indian War; and a brief stop at the
  • Heinz Visitor Center and Gift Store, which provided an overview of the company’s history.


Strip District

From there, we were off to the Strip District, a wonderfully renovated warehouse district with a Public Market, some of the city’s hippest nightclubs and the wonderful Penn St section which is lined with discount clothing stores (especially anything with the ubiquitous Steelers logo and colors), macaroni and sausage factories, bakeries, spice and kitchen supply stores, big markets dedicated to Mexican, Italian, Asian and Mediterranean foods, and two of the biggest retail fish and meat markets that we have ever explored.


Station Square and Mount Washington

Then across the river to Station Square. Although the complex is filled with many of the chain restaurants that can be seen in any city, it has two particularly interesting features. One is the old passenger railway station with its Grand Concourse restaurant, whose walls and ceiling are beautifully restored to the elegance of the old age of railroad travel. The second is Bessemer Court and a river walk that is lined with remnants of Pittsburgh’s steel making heritage and especially a reconstructed 10-ton Bessemer converter which revolutionized the steel making process in the 1930s.

We then took a one-mile walk along the river, with its views of downtown, to the Duquesne Incline; one of the two remaining (of a total of 15) incline railways built in the late 1800s to haul coal down from Coal Hill (now called Mt. Washington) to the city’s blast furnaces. The Duquesne and Monongahela inclines have since been converted to carry passengers up incredibly panoramic Mount Washington, to a residential area and some of the nicest restaurants in the city.

We did an early dinner at Monterey Bay, a seafood restaurant atop a high-rise, atop Mount Washington, with an absolutely amazing window-side view of downtown Pittsburg and its many bridges. Through dinner, we stared at the view, watching the wonderful changes between daytime, twilight (our favorite) and night views. We were also pretty amazed with the menu, which offered almost 20 different species of fish flown in fresh from all over the world, from Japan to Hawaii, Alaska, Chile and Greece. (It also has a nice, albeit overpriced wine list.) After being disappointed with the Hawaiian swordfish with aged balsamic sauce, I did something I never do—got the same dish as Joyce, the absolutely delicious, rich Hawaiian Escolar (Butterfish), coated with a parmesan crust and served with a parmesan cream sauce.


Museum Stops and Stop Byes

Our museum stops were, unfortunately, limited by our tight schedule. Still, we had to visit the Andy Warhol Museum and the Mattress Factory (contemporary installation art):

  • Andy Warhol Museum consists of seven floors, four of which are filled with his ownwork. It tells and shows the full story of his childhood in Pittsburgh, his rapid success as a commercial artist in New York and his creation of the Factory, where he experimented with silk screening, music (with the Velvet Underground), video and television and his creation of the Pop Art movement.
  • Mattress Factory, which is spread across two buildings in an emerging art district in North Pittsburg, is spread across two buildings. Although the art by the Factory’s resident and visiting artists is certainly mind-expanding, some of the other buildings in the area, artistically decorated and painted as murals, are almost as interesting as the Factory itself.

BTW, if you find yourself in North Pittsburgh for lunch, you can get a real neighborhood experience by stopping at Max’s Allegheny Tavern. Max’s, an old German restaurant in the middle of a German-American enclave, draws a big crowd with its sauerbraten, hasenpfeffer, potato pancakes, perogies, sauerkraut and its big selections of wursts, schnitzels and other German specialties.

Since our Museum time was so limited, we unfortunately had to pass on four others that we would have really liked to visit:

  • Senator John Heinz Museum, which has a big Pittsburgh sports section, one on the area’s technological innovations and a special exhibit on the American flag;
  • Carnegie Museum of Art; particularly for its European Art and its Architectural Center;
  • Carnegie Science Center, particularly for its flight, biology, robotics and energy sections and its large model railroad depicting 1900-era Western Pennsylvania; and
  • Frick estate, named “Clayton” (which we did see from the outside on a drive-by) and museum, which was hosting a Tiffany exhibition we had already seen at another museum).


University of Pittsburgh

We spent the rest of our brief visit at the University of Pittsburgh campus to see a Chapel and a Cathedral;

  • Heinz Memorial Chapel is almost a cathedral, with it majestic Gothic spire, its floor-to-ceiling (73-feet) stained glass windows, marble alter and carved woodwork. Although the chapel is theoretically open to the public on Saturdays, the only way to get in is to time your visit between two of the five weddings that are held, morning to evening;
  • Cathedral of Learning is a magnificent 42-story gothic tower. The bottom floor is a five-story high study hall with the arches, majesty and atmosphere of an ancient European cathedral. Meanwhile, 27 of the Cathedral’s hundreds of rooms are classrooms that were funded and designed by 27 Pittsburgh nationalities in the style of 1787 (the year the university was founded) or earlier styles of their countries. Each room is unique and most are open for viewing, with written or audio descriptions. Some, like the Chinese, English and French rooms are particularly lovely.

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