When the Ravens head to Heinz Field stadium on Oct. 20 to take on the Pittsburgh Steelers, dedicated Baltimore fans will be in hot pursuit to cheer on their team. But rivalry and team loyalty aside, there’s plenty to do in The Steel City before and after the game. About a four-hour drive from Baltimore, Pittsburgh is an ideal destination for a three-day weekend or longer getaway. Stay in one of the many hotels in town (The Westin Convention Center, 1000 Penn Ave., 412-281-3700, starwoodhotels.com/westin, is lovely) for access to incredible museums, beautiful rivers, restaurants, bars, and streets that invite poking around and bargain shopping. Whether you wear your purple is up to you. (Fortune favors the brave.)
Situated between the East Coast and the Midwest, this city of about 307,000 has a distinctly American infatuation with self-improvement, innovation, and achievement. And it happens to be a city with a desire to make sure its visitors and citizens know and appreciate its history. On nearly every street, it seems, there are signs explaining the historic significance of certain locations: A labor strike started here, the site of the first professional football game in 1892, and even one dedicated to Johnny Unitas, a Pittsburgh native. (Nice try, Pittsburgh. He’s ours.)
Perhaps the best way to get an overview of the city is to make the slow, steady ascent up the steep Duquesne Incline (1197 W. Carson St., duquesneincline.org), as we did, in an 18-seat car pulled by a thick metal cable. There’s PNC Field; there’s Heinz Field; and there’s the PPG building, looking like a fairy-tale castle made of crystal as the sun sets over the city and the Monongahela River.
But, for now, we’re more concerned about the cable that seems to be groaning with the effort of lifting the half-full car, with its opaque transoms and ornate wooden trim up the hill. Of course, the car makes the 794-foot journey with its 400-foot elevation gain.
The Duquesne Incline, one of many examples of Pittsburgh ingenuity, has been in operation almost continuously since 1877. These days, riders pay a standard $2.50 fare (exact change required) to get to Grandview Avenue and the ritziest restaurants in town. Or families ride the car for the adventure of it and the great views of the city.
A history museum at the top of the Incline is another place for Pittsburgh to tell its story, matching views from the wide windows with photographs from the 1800s, showing fires, floods, and the infamous Pittsburgh smog. In keeping with the city’s affection for ingenuity, the massive gears of the Incline are also open for viewing for 50 cents.
The city’s history lesson begins at the Fort Pitt Museum (601 Commonwealth Pl., 412-281-9284, heinzhistorycenter.org),situated at Point State Park, a green wedge formed where the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers meet. These rivers made Pittsburgh a valuable “gateway to the West” and the object of acquisitive affection for France and England as well as the western headquarters of the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War.
The site includes the oldest structure in western Pennsylvania, the Fort Pitt Block House, which was built in 1764 and is open free of charge. A sliding admission fee (from free-$6) buys a trip inside the two-story museum, which details the site’s history through exhibits and a movie.
From Point State Park, a short walk along the Allegheny River and over the Seventh Street Bridge brings visitors to a museum that’s an entirely different can of soup-—The Andy Warhol Museum (117 Sandusky St., 412-237-8300, warhol.org).
The museum opened in 1994, seven years after Warhol’s death following gall-bladder surgery at the age of 58, and does an admirable job of capturing the brilliance and contradictions of an artist who turned the relationship between art and commerce on its head.
The stately 1911 building houses Warhol’s various prints—including the famous Marilyn and Soup Can works, when they’re not out on loan—but also has an entire room of televisions talking at once and another area with movies on continuous short loops, many unsuitable for young viewers. (I’m looking at you, Mario Banana.)
For an afternoon of quintessential Pittsburgh strolling, head over to The StripDistrict for shopping and lunch. Though its name sounds like the plot of one of those Andy Warhol films, The Strip is a charming jumble of restaurants and bars, offbeat and super-cheap stores, wholesale and retail food outlets, and flower shops.
On a Sunday morning, the lines are long outside two restaurants known for their breakfasts, DeLuca’s (2015 Penn Ave.) and Pamela’s Diner (several locations, including 60 21st St., pamelasdiner.com), a Cafe Hon-like spot heavy on the retro decorations. Good smells waft from ThePittsburgh Popcorn Company (several locations, including 209 21st St., pghpopcorn.com),which sells fresh-popped kernels in a variety of flavors, including peanut-butter-and-chocolate kettle corn.
After your meal, search through colorful board shorts and scarves, $5 each, on tables and racks outside Sunny’s Fashions (2100 Penn Ave.). Elsewhere, a table with T-shirts includes one with a very Pittsburgh slogan: “Yinz is proper. Y’all is stupid.”
Pittsburgh, like Baltimore, is one of the few places left in America with a distinct accent and dialect, and Yinz is part of that. If the classic Baltimore phrase is, “Yew gowin downy ocean, hon?” the classic morsel of Pittsburghese is “Yinz gowen dahntahn fer a sammitch?”
One highlight of The Strip is the Pittsburgh Public Market (2401 Penn Ave., pittsburghpublicmarket.org), a collection of stalls selling local beer, organic produce, clothes, soaps, and more.
There are tables in the center for eating the lunch you purchased at Sito’s,Gosia’s Pierogies, or Soup Nancys. It’s all fresh and inexpensive. You can hand the woman at Sito’s a $10 bill and walk away with an herbal iced tea, a Greek salad, three vegetarian grape leaves, tabbouleh, and a dollar in change. For dessert, wander over to the Enrico Biscotti Co. (2022 Penn Ave., 412-281-2602, enricobiscotti.com) for handmade biscotti.
Of course, it’s impossible todiscussfood in Pittsburgh without mentioning the H.J. Heinz Co. Henry John Heinz founded the ketchup juggernaut in the mid-1800s that still bears his name, selling horseradish, pickles, and vinegars in and around Pittsburgh. The company, now global, is still headquartered here, though the beautiful red-brick buildings that were once food-processing factories have been converted to riverside condos.
The Heinz name is prominent on museums and other buildings throughout Pittsburgh. The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra plays at Heinz Hall, and there’s the aforementioned Heinz Field.The Senator John Heinz History Center (1212 Smallman St., 412-454-6000, heinzhistorycenter.org) also houses the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum. Together, they provide a heart-stirring overview of Pittsburgh history and innovation, including sports triumphs that might rankle Baltimore fans just a little. (But then we remember we’re the reigning Super Bowl champs, and all is right with the world.)
Pittsburgh sports lovers can shout themselves hoarse for their teams at relatively new stadiums. Both Heinz Field and PNC Park, where the Pittsburgh Pirates play,opened in 2001.
Two stories of the seven-story History Center are devoted to Western Pennsylvania sports, highlighting nearly every form of athletic endeavor imaginable, including archery, rowing, mountain climbing, and speedboat racing. One room practically throbs with stirring music and televised moments of Steelers’ and other Pittsburgh sports teams’ triumphs. Another display shows a row of lockers filled with the uniforms and equipment of some of Pittsburgh’s brightest athletic luminaries.
Pittsburgh’s importance in American and world history is highlighted through the stories of Pittsburghers who changed the world, including David McCullough, Andrew Mellon, Andrew Carnegie, and George Ferris (inventor of the eponymous wheel). Parenting was transformed mid-century by a triumvirate of Pittsburgh men: Dr. Jonas Salk, who led the team that invented the polio vaccine; Dr. Benjamin Spock, author of Baby and Child Care; and Fred Rogers, who launched his children’s television show from Pittsburgh’s WQED in 1968.
While Pittsburgh rightly celebrates its rich history, it is also a city that now frequently tops national and international lists of “most-livable cities.” The downtown is vibrant with restaurants, bars, and interesting shops.
One relatively new addition is the August Wilson Center for African American Culture (980 Liberty Ave., 412-258-2700, augustwilsoncenter.org), which opened in 2009. It’s a stunning, light-filled structure honoring the famous playwright, who based most of his plays in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, where he grew up. The venue is part performing-arts center, part museum, and part school of the arts. It’s definitely worth visiting for its exhibitions exploring African-American culture in Pittsburgh.
After soaking up history, feast at some of Pittsbugh’s finer restaurants. Seviche (930 Penn Ave., seviche.com),serving a combination of Latin and Asian food, is jammed on weekend nights with dressed-up crowds thumbing their iPhones as they wait for their sushi and mojitos to arrive. Habitat (510 Market St., habitatrestaurant.com) has a stylish interior, open kitchen, and a focus on organic, local ingredients.
But the old-school eateries are still best. Pittsburgh is best known for its enormous sandwiches. Sammy’s Famous Corned Beef (217 Ninth St.) is an order-at-the-counter hangout, scuffed and dark inside, with plenty of beer on tap and sandwiches fat with salty, delicious meat. But no trip to Pittsburgh is complete without a sandwich from Primanti Bros.,with locations in and around Pittsburgh, including the original Strip District restaurant(46 18th St., primantibros.com), which opened in 1933.
A Primanti sandwich usually starts with a mound of meat (pastrami, steak, and chicken are some of the more popular choices) fried up on a griddle. Then it’s placed on a fat slice of Italian bread, topped with French fries, coleslaw, tomato slices, and the second wedge of bread. According to eyewitnesses, some people are able to open their mouths wide enough to bite into these behemoths without disturbing the contents.
Brewing equipment fills the apse at The Church Brew Works (3525 Liberty Ave., churchbrew.com), a restaurant and brewery in a former Baptist church. Diners sit under soaring ceilings and enjoy crowd-pleasing fare like meatloaf, pulled pork, and many salads, including a “traditional Pittsburgh-style” salad, which means it has French fries nestled among the greens.
If you have time, consider taking a short drive to the Oakland neighborhood, home to the awe-inspiring Carnegie Museum of Art and Carnegie Museum of Natural History (4400 Forbes Ave., carnegiemuseums.org)and the University of Pittsburgh campus with its famous Nationality Rooms (nationalityrooms.pitt.edu/about).
The combined Carnegie museums are truly world-class. The art museum bulges with big-name works, including spectacular Degas and Van Gogh paintings. The natural-history museum is a wonder of reconstructed dinosaurs, fossils, and interactive fun.
The University of Pittsburgh campus, just across the street, is home to the serene Heinz Memorial Chapel, but the real draw is the 42-story, thrillingly gloomy Cathedral of Learning with its 29 themed rooms, decorated to represent ethnic groups of the region, from African to Yugoslavian. The majority of the rooms are real classrooms, and adult visitors pay $4 to tour at their leisure, with recorded messages that explain the significance of what they are seeing.
As it turns out, Pittsburgh is much more than the home of zealous black-and-gold football fans. After a visit, you just may gain a new perspective on the world. (But it’s still okay to boo the Steelers.)