I flew into Pittsburgh’s airport not knowing what to expect. The name “Pittsburgh” conjured up for me gnarly images of rusting steel mills and people in pickups waving yellow “Terrible Towels.” But after touring this serendipitous city, I would recommend it to anyone as a very desirable place to visit.
You might be surprised to learn, as I was, that Pittsburgh has been awarded a gazillion accolades as “most livable city,” “best city to relocate to” and “No. 1 city where boomers should retire.” Forbes.com named it as one of the 10 unexpectedly romantic cities in the world while National Geographic Traveler included it in its list of “Best of the World – Must-See Places to Visit.”
So what’s up? Why does this city seemingly fly so far under the radar of most folks?
It is true that Pittsburgh used to be the pits, as evidenced by its 50 percent population decline after 1960. But it’s a prime example of the American attitude that when the going gets tough, the tough get going. Today, Pittsburgh is going places because of its self-styled “extreme metropolitan makeover.” It is, in fact, a model of how a rust belt city can transform itself into a multi-faceted business center, cultural mecca and environmental wonder. With an architecturally stunning downtown that’s framed by the merging of two rivers, Pittsburgh is a scenic delight.
I got my first insight into the Pittsburgher mentality as I neared the airport exit. Prominently displayed between the escalators are two life-sized statues of the city’s most revered citizens: George Washington (for his early exploits in the French and Indian War) and…get ready for this…Franco Harris of the Pittsburgh Steelers (whose “immaculate reception,” the placard explains, was one of the “most dramatic plays in Pittsburgh Steelers and NFL history.”)
This struck me as a rather incongruous pairing, given the city’s nearly 250 years of historic figures to choose from. The next morning I still found myself pondering this conundrum, so during my taxi ride to downtown, I asked my driver if he was aware of the two statues at the airport. No, he said. Jokingly, I asked him to take a guess who the second statue might be, if the first was George Washington. He rolled his eyes, murmured that he had no real idea, then he hesitantly offered…Franco Harris? I just sat there and laughed in disbelief. This city loves its sports, that’s for sure.
My affable guide to the city’s sights was Lynne Glover, from VisitPittsburgh. We started our one day together by meeting for breakfast at Coca Café, one of her favorite local restaurants in Lawrenceville, one of the 90 ethnic neighborhoods that comprise Pittsburgh. Everything on the menu was unique but delicious sounding, like my breakfast quesadilla made with scrambled eggs, spicy black beans and avocados.
After breakfast, we parked near the University of Pittsburgh and spent the next few hours sampling some of the menu of attractions that this city offers, starting with the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. The dinosaur hall and gems and minerals exhibits were engrossing; and while they weren’t as large as some others that I’ve seen, what I liked was the high quality of the displays and rarity of the specimens (this is a T-Rex lovers’ paradise). It is definitely worth spending a few hours here.
Next, we walked across the street to the world famous and unique Cathedral of Learning. This 53-story building, which is part of the University of Pittsburgh, features 29 Nationality Rooms on the first three floors. What makes these rooms so special is that each one is styled after an ethnic group that settled this region, complete with wood-paneled walls, antique chairs, stained glass windows and a wide range of ethnic artifacts. Although this building isn’t a church, as its name implies, the main floor of the Cathedral is designed like a gothic church and under the graceful, fluted arches, students sit together at tables to study. Fascinating place.
In this same area we visited some additional places that I found worthwhile and would recommend to visitors:
- The Soldiers and Sailors Museum is housed in an imposing neo-classical building with towering Greek columns; it honors the various wars in which local soldiers participated. My favorite item was a face casting taken directly from Abraham Lincoln the month he died.
- Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Garden offers a series of glass-enclosed areas with the kinds of exotic plants you would expect in a first- rate botanical garden, which this is. In keeping with Pittsburgh’s green commitment, one of the buildings here is a “living building” with net-zero energy and water usage, which is a rarity.
- The Conflict Kitchen isn’t so much a major tourist attraction as it is a barometer of the open, global thinking that I find refreshing in a university town. Tucked in the park between the museum and the university, this cafe only serves foods from places with which the United States is in conflict (e.g., Cuban food). Pittsburgh is an education powerhouse, with ten colleges and universities in Allegheny County alone.
Lastly, we drove to the river, across from the famous Pittsburgh Steelers’ football stadium, where we parked and rode the Duquesne Incline to the top of the steep hillside. Once we reached the upper station, we walked to a nearby restaurant, the Coal Hill Steakhouse, whose nondescript exterior masked an attractive interior and an outdoor balcony with a stunning 180 degree view. From this lookout you can see the downtown skyscrapers wedged between the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers, Heinz Field (the Steelers’ football stadium), the Pirates’ baseball stadium, and a smoke-free urban expanse tucked among the surrounding hills.
I counted nine bridges within a remarkably short distance, which gives proof to the city’s claim that this metropolitan area has more bridges than any other city in the world (446 bridges). In keeping with the vibrant arts and culture scene here (another claim worth checking out: “Pittsburgh is one of the best arts and culture destinations in the country”), I spotted a large yellow duck floating in the river at the edge of downtown. One doesn’t often see a 40-foot, bright yellow plastic duck bobbing in a major city center’s river, but it made sense when I learned that it was part of an international art festival making its debut here.
The big yellow duck was just one of many pleasant surprises that I found in Pittsburgh. If I had to summarize my experience of this town, it would be this: Pittsburgh is surprisingly attractive, safe, clean, artistic and it offers enough world-class attractions that I would unhesitatingly recommend a multi-day visit to anyone.
While walking through the airport to the gate for my return flight, I chuckled when I spotted a large glass case, mounted prominently on the wall, filled with original Franco Harris memorabilia. I acknowledged that Pittsburgh, like Franco, is indeed a winner.