Rupert Parker’s guide to Pittsburgh finds this once-industrial city has undergone a huge transformation.
Pittsburgh doesn’t readily spring to mind as one of those iconic US cities like New York, Washington, San Francisco and even its state-mate Philadelphia. Yet it can stand with the best of them, particularly now it’s cast off its industrial past and once again is booming.
Attractively situated at the confluence of the Monongahela, Allegheny and Ohio rivers, surrounded by wooded hills, it was from the 1800s a city of belching chimneys, pollution and grime. It became the world’s largest producer of steel until the 1960’s when industry started moving overseas. Now the mills and furnaces are quiet, the factories demolished or transformed, and the banks of the river have attractive green spaces
There was big money made here and the cultural legacy of Andrew Carnegie, the Mellon bankers, the Frick coal merchants and the Heinz family lives on. You’ll find impressive Art Galleries, including one devoted to Andy Warhol, the city’s most famous artist, and a brand-new Moon-shot Museum dedicated to space exploration. Immigrants were drawn here to work, and their influence is reflected in the diverse food on offer.
An excellent way of getting to know the city is to take a bike on the Great Allegheny Passage or GAP Trail along the traffic-free riverside paths. It will take you through parks, over bridges and past amazing murals. If you’re feeling keen you can cycle all 335 miles to Washington DC. If not, relax with a beer at the Sly Fox brewery.
Close to downtown, on the banks of the Allegheny, the warehouses of the Strip District have been repurposed to house a variety of ethnic food stores and cafes. A ‘Burgh Bits and Bites tour allows you to taste the specialities of the city’s many immigrants. Of course, there’s an Italian meat shop but there’s also Middle Eastern Hummus and Pita bread, plus Greek specialities as well as Empanadas and Tamales from Reyna’s Latin American grocery.
The Carnegie Museum of Art was probably the first to start collecting the “Old Masters of tomorrow” and is one of the leading institutions in America. Its spacious halls, with high ceilings, are ideal for displaying what was once called Modern Art with impressionists, cubists and surrealists rubbing shoulders with American landscape artists.
Andy Warhol was born in Pittsburgh and the largest museum in the world dedicated to a single artist spreads over seven floors of a converted Victorian warehouse. As well as iconic pop art and portraiture, it has archival collections of Warhol belongings.
The Mattress Factory takes alternative art forms to another level with installations, videos and performance art. It’s notorious for pushing the boundaries of both artist and viewer. Exhibitions in 2022 include “Shrine” – a celebration of Black motherhood – developed with local Pittsburgh arts residency “Sibyls Shrine,” and installations from international artist Doreen Chan.
Located in the historic Engine House 25 in Lawrenceville is a museum devoted to Pittsburgh baseball legend Roberto Clemente with the largest collection of Clemente memorabilia. Originally from Puerto Rico, he joined The Pirates in 1954 and he rose to become one of the greatest baseball players of his time. Surprisingly, in the basement, founder and curator Duane Rieder makes wine from the grapes of premium growers in California, Chile, and South Africa. It’s very good indeed.
At the HQ of space robotics company Astrobotic Technology Inc. is the brand-new Moonshot Museum, Pennsylvania’s first to concentrate on space. The interactive exhibits deal with the future of human space exploration and visitors can take part in simulated lunar missions. Even better, one side of the space is a wall of glass where you can watch real lunar landers and rovers being built and readied to fly to the Moon.
NFL football is like a religion in Pittsburgh and the local team, the Steelers, achieved a remarkable run of four Super Bowl championships in six years during the 1970s. Match days at the Acrisure Stadium attract fans from all over the USA, often arriving at the start of the weekend to commence the festivities. Inside the stadium, the atmosphere is electric, although on the day I was there I saw them lose to the New England Patriots.
Take a one-hour trip southeast of Pittsburgh to the Laurel Highlands where there are two iconic houses designed by famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright. The first is Fallingwater, built in the late 1930s, into a cliff of waterfalls. This building put the architect on the map and still contains all his original fittings and artwork. Even now its situation still astonishes, the various levels cantilevered out over the water.
Twenty minutes away is one of the last houses he designed, again integrated into the middle of nature, but this time on the wooded hillside of Kentuck Knob. There are tremendous views across the Youghiogheny River Gorge where you might be tempted to go white water rafting. The small village of Ohiopyle nearby is the base for picking up a boat or setting off hiking or biking.
Tell Me More About Pittsburgh
Visit Pittsburgh has information about the city.
Return fares with British Airways from London Heathrow to Pittsburgh start from £505. Operating year-round on Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday, the flight departs London at 16:45 and lands in Pittsburgh at 19:50 local time, taking eight hours and 15 minutes.
Rooms at TRYP by Wyndham Pittsburgh/Lawrenceville start from $159 (£134).
Try the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP Trail) with Golden Triangle Bike Rentals – bike hire from $20 (£17) for 2 hours, $30 (£25) for 4 hours, $40 (£33.50) for a full day. Pittsburgh guided tour costs $35 (£30) per person (2-2.5 hours)
Mattress Factory – entry costs $20 (£17) per adult and $15 (£12.50) for seniors and students (children under 6 go free)
Carnegie Museum of Art – entry costs $20 (£17) per adult and $12 (£10) per child or student (includes entry to both museums of art and natural history).
The Andy Warhol Museum – entry costs $20 (£17) per adult and $10 (£8.50) per child.
The Clemente Museum –tours cost $21 (£17.50) per person.
Moonshot Museum opens in mid-October 2022.
Kentuck Knob – tours cost $28 (£28.50) per adult and $18 per child and student.
Fallingwater – guided architectural tour costs $32 (£27) per person.
‘Burgh Bits and Bites tour of the Strip District costs $46 (£28.50) per person.
Industry Public House serves craft beer, cocktails and American comfort food.
Primanti Bros. in the Strip District serves the “almost famous Pittsburgh sandwich.”
Monterey Bay Fish Grotto serves high-end seafood.
Walter’s Southern Kitchen has some of the best BBQ and southern food in the city.