Considering how affordable Pittsburgh is known to be, it wouldn’t be surprising for a New Yorker to sweep in for the weekend and consider money no object. After all, the price tag of nearly everything here—from cocktails to hotel prices—likely feels like a steal compared to pricey New York.
But writer Lucas Peterson of The New York Times took the opposite approach. Known as the Frugal Traveler, he visits Pittsburgh in a piece titled, “Built on Steel, Pittsburgh Now Thrives on Culture,” with a budget in mind, and this mindset led him on a path to experiencing Pittsburgh much in the way locals do.
Peterson begins his journey in East Liberty:
My $97 room at the Hotel Indigo East Liberty (a quick walk from a recently opened Ace Hotel) was good, and the service was excellent. After I checked in, one of the managers recommended that I head down the street to Kelly’s Bar and Lounge, an old neighborhood bar that has been revamped. It was a good suggestion—the mac and cheese ($5 for a small) was gooey, slightly spicy and with plenty of crunchy crust. The $4 daily special cocktail (it was a daiquiri when I was there) made an ideal pairing.
He then stops for a Primanti’s sandwich, which may seem cliché, but let’s be honest, we eat them, too. Then it’s off to the Andy Warhol Museum, Heinz History Center and August Wilson Center, all of which would make any list of Pittsburgh must-sees.
But Peterson then digs a little deeper into Pittsburgh’s cultural scene, pointing out to readers something that locals know well: It’s thriving.
Mr. Wilson is one of the city’s literary giants, but Pittsburgh serves writers in a different way: granting them a place to work in peace. The nonprofit City of Asylum provides housing and financial assistance for exiled writers. Previous residents have included the Chinese poet Huang Xiang, whose “House Poem” home is painted with Chinese characters. I also visited the City of Asylum bookstore on North Avenue, which opened in January in an old Masonic hall.
The music scene in Steel City is strong as well. I attended performances at sites both traditional (the Rex Theater, a gorgeous 1905 former vaudeville stage, where I saw a free show by the jam band Aqueous) and nontraditional. The most fascinating, hands down, was Banjo Night at Allegheny Elks Lodge No. 339, on Cedar Avenue. A huge American flag adorned the center of the stage, in front of which sat around 15 to 20 banjo players. “Let’s do ‘China Boy’!” the bandleader announced from his chair, and the band started up the 1922 tune.
It was a night of good vibes, according to Peterson, and of course, as was his M.O., it was had on the cheap. “All generations were united by love of the music,” he writes, “and people were dancing and clapping their hands over the good beer (I had a pale ale from the local Yellow Bridge Brewing, $3.50) and food (a surprisingly good muffuletta sandwich, which was loaded with meat, cheese and olive tapenade, cost $6).”