Actress Sienna Miller forfeited her key to the city when she was filming The Mysteries of Pittsburgh and referred to the often-maligned city as “Shitsburgh.” But that’s a minority viewpoint. First-time visitors are often shocked by the city’s beauty, with its three rivers, bridges, tunnels and steep hillsides that offer spectacular vantage points.
Those who fly into Pittsburgh and then enter the downtown environs, known as the Golden Triangle, via the heavily travelled Parkway West and the Fort Pitt Tunnel are smacked in the face by the impressive skyline, dominated most notably by the impressive neo-Gothic PPG Place, designed by Philip Johnson and John Burgee. In the winter, the plaza lures visitors with its outdoor skating rink and scads of restaurants at nearby Market Square.
Culture is also a dominant force in the “Steel City,” which has turned to a less industrial economy in recent years. Often the top-ranked American city on The Economist’s list of most livable cities, Pittsburgh features many fine performance centres, including Heinz Hall, the Benedum Center and Byham Theater in the 14-square-block Cultural District. Art fans, particularly Warhol devotees, would enjoy a pilgrimage to the edgy Andy Warhol Museum to not only take in floors of artwork by the influential pop artist, a Pittsburgh native, but to see firsthand what a phenomenal pack-rat he was.
Further art forays can be made at the Mattress Factory, on the city’s North Shore, or the Carnegie Museums of Art and Natural History in the university district of Oakland, one of Pittsburgh’s many-faceted neighbourhoods. A must for a Pittsburgh visit is to go on a neighbourhood discovery tour: take in the trendy Lawrenceville, with its many earthy shops, restaurants and bars; Mount Washington, with its magnificent views of downtown and rows of pricey restaurants; Bloomfield’s Little Italy; the tree-lined and walkable Shadyside; the distinct shopping and dining pleasures of Squirrel Hill; the drunken and rowdy barhopping of South Side; and the foodie haven known as the Strip District. In the Strip District, look for Pittsburgh’s ethnic food influences, particularly Italian and Eastern European, although Asian, Mexican and South American dining has creeped into the mix. Pittsburgh might also be the capital of that delectable Polish dumpling, the pierogi. Also in the Strip District, you can enjoy biscotti at Enrico Biscotti, crepe pancakes at Pamela’s Diner, a massive cheese selection at Pennsylvania Macaroni Co, a fried-fish sandwich at Wholey’s Fish Market, or a heated lobster roll at Roland’s Seafood Grill, all established Pittsburgh destinations.
Distinctly Pittsburgh-ian is its love of sports of all kinds, although the holy trinity of baseball (the Pirates), football (the Steelers) and hockey (the Penguins) dominates. It’s difficult to ignore sports in Pittsburgh since the heavy traffic going to the downtown stadiums and arenas will often affect your driving plans.
Pittsburgh might be one of the few cities in the US where gay men and women fill the bars in sports garb for the not-so-fashion-forward but sports-obsessed. And they actually watch the games. Although filmed in Toronto, the American version of Queer As Folk was set in Pittsburgh. The show’s producers could have found two local streets where gays can roam from one club to another, Liberty Avenue downtown or Ellsworth Avenue in Shadyside. From glitzy dance clubs (Cruze Bar in the Strip District) to dives (the popular Cattivo, with its upstairs-downstairs bars in Lawrenceville), the gamut of gay bars is represented. One of the most popular haunts is 5801, in Shadyside, with its three bars, including a faux ski-lodge-style indoor-outdoor deck. For a sexy neon look, try Spin, also on Ellsworth, or for a bar so atmospherically dark you can barely see your hand to grab a drink, visit 941 and Tilden on Liberty Avenue. Non-smokers should note that many of Pittsburgh’s bars allow smoking.
Speaking of filming, Pittsburgh is a favourite film location because of its stunning vistas, gritty neighbourhoods and impressive architecture. Most recently, The Dark Knight Rises, Jack Reacher and The Perks of Being a Wallflower were filmed here. For zombie fanatics, Pittsburgh can lay claim to being the birthplace of the original Night of the Living Dead.
Pittsburgh also boasts a luminous theatre history. Recent Tony Award winners Billy Porter, of Kinky Boots, Patina Miller, of Pippin, and Judith Light, of The Assembled Parties, all graduated from Carnegie Mellon University’s distinguished School of Drama.
The finer hotels are in the condensed Golden Triangle area, including the Westin, the Fairmont, the Wyndham, the Omni William Penn, the Renaissance, Marriott City Center and Cambria Suites, which is right beside the Consol Energy Center, where the Penguins play.
For outdoor escapes, Schenley and Highland city parks cover great acreage and offer everything from golf to skating. Schenley also is home to the lovely Phipps Conservatory, with its seasonal gardens and colourful flower displays.
Those who think that Pittsburgh isn’t a destination city might find themselves quite surprised by its considerable charms, including its down-to-earth and friendly residents.