Four years after moving to Pittsburgh for graduate school, I now know what most Pittsburghers know: this city is a destination. Straddling industrial history and an innovative future, Pittsburgh infatuated me much like a new lover, offering up inescapable charm, unexpected excitement, and a promise of good things to come. So I stayed.
What makes Pittsburgh so great? For me, the answer is simple: complexity. This city boasts a special blend of industrial grit, fresh sophistication, neighborly charm, and a dash of DIY-spirit. Pittsburgh is both the past and the future. It’s both small town and urban playground. Pittsburgh is an attitude and a can-do attitude at that.
The list I’ve comprised aims to help newcomers explore the city via both classic Pittsburgh experiences and lesser-known gems. This list is by no means comprehensive. My advice: explore this list, then go off the path. In PGH, you never know what’s around the corner, up a hill, or over a river, be it an inflatable duck or a vintage car race, a new wine bar or a timeless tavern. Find your own little Pittsburgh.
As Mr. Rogers (yep, also a Pittsburgher) sang, “I’ve always wanted to live in the neighborhood with you.”
THE PITTSBURGH ESSENTIALS, THEN AND NOW
Welcome to the ‘burgh!
THEN: Take the Incline to Mt. Washington
I like to suggest Mt. Washington as a “first date” with Pittsburgh; many people have fallen for this city from the top, where you can get a lay of the land. Luckily, you don’t need to hike up Mt. Washington to catch its stunning views. Ride one of the two remaining “inclines”—cable cars that closely follow the tracks of an early coal hoist. Built in the late 1800s, these mountainside transports offer a pleasant ride and spectacular views, all for a reasonable fare (the cost of a normal bus ride—or free with your Port Authority pass.)
NOW: Hike/Bike Frick Park
While Frick Park isn’t “new” to Pittsburgh, it is the youngest (and largest) of the regional parks, and is sometimes overlooked as a way to get to know this city. While Mt. Washington will give you a panorama view, Frick Park and its 664 acres will get you up close and personal with the region’s flora, fauna, and the people that live here. Stunning trails offer a way to leave urban life behind for a day, one of Pittsburgh’s best features.
Check out the adjacent Nine Mile Run Watershed, the largest urban stream restoration in the United States, to see new urban ecology projects at work, a great example Pittsburgh’s transformation from an industrial past to an environmentally-sound future.
THEN: Have a Sammich at Primanti Bros.
Disclaimer: I’m a vegetarian and not personally a fan of Primanti’s. There, I said it.
That aside, I still say you need to share a sammich (Pittsburghese for “sandwich”) with a friend (or 10 friends). This Pittsburgh chain has been keeping folks wondering, “how do I eat this?” since 1933, so go now and have the experience that every single person will ask you about until you do. Whether you like turkey, salami, bacon, ham, sweet sausage, or kielbasa, as the website claims, “it’s not a Primanti Bros. signature sandwich without a generous serving of crunchy, tart coleslaw and crisp French Fries piled high on top of soft Italian bread.”
Note: I recommend waiting at least one week after eating a Primanti’s sandwich before swimming or engaging in other vigorous physical activity.
NOW: Have a Sammich at Thin Man Sandwich Shop
The owners of this Strip District shop hail from a fine dining background and utilize fresh and local ingredients when possible. The signature sandwich, “The Thin Man,” showcases chicken liver mousse, local bacon, frisée, and red wine vinaigrette on a baguette. With several veggie options, this new shop is a good option for foodies seeking a quick, filling sammie in The Strip.
THEN: Visit Fallingwater
Built in the 1930s, Frank Lloyd Wright’s architectural masterpiece “Fallingwater” is worth every minute of the drive (about 90 minutes from downtown), and worth every penny you’ll spend. Touted as “the most unique home in the world” this destination is pretty much guaranteed to be beautiful any time of the year. Why not make a day of it and take a hike out in Ohiopyle State Park? Either way, you won’t be disappointed.