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A guide to Pittsburgh, America's characterful cultural powerhouse

America’s steel city is forging a new name for itself as an incubator for cutting-edge tech, offbeat arts and innovative places to eat, drink and dance.

By Joe Sills
Published 27 May 2022, 06:04 BST
Market Square.

Market Square is filled with creative, independent vendors from across the state to sell artwork, furniture, clothing and candles.

Photograph by Christine Armbruster

Arrive in Pittsburgh via the Fort Pitt Tunnel, and you’ll emerge to find one of America’s most striking skylines rising above you. At sunset, this is truly spectacular: the collage of shimmering glass towers, Victorian bridges and rippling rivers a thrilling system shock.

Here in Pennsylvania, in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, a city that gained fame as a forge for US steel is being remade for a new future. Tech company Astrobotic Technology is launching a mission to the moon from Pittsburgh, while artists are finding refuge from global conflict within its walls at pioneering safe haven City of Asylum. And the opulent remains of the Gilded Age at places like the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens create form a spectacular backdrop to all that 21st-century innovation and creativity.

The birthplace of Andy Warhol, Pittsburgh embraces its creative side with quirky museums like Bicycle Heaven, Randyland outdoors art museum, and the Mattress Factory — not to mention a gallery dedicated to the enigmatic artist himself. The city’s Civil Rights legacy as a post-Civil War nexus for Americans fleeing the South is showcased powerfully at the August Wilson African American Cultural Center.

Lunch  at Spork.

Photograph by Christine Armbruster

This isn’t a city of blockbuster sights; Pittsburgh is for return visitors to America, keen to eager to explore beyond the likes of New York or LA. There’s no better way to get to know the city than by sampling the contrasting flavours of its 90 neighbourhoods, each paying homage to a unique identity. In the Strip District, red-brick warehouses that were once home to foundries, mills and workshops now house organic grocery stores, indie boutiques and some of the city’s best new restaurants — along with foodie founding father Mancini’s Bread, producer of the Pittsburgh pepperoni roll, among other things. Over in Allentown, distinctly modern tastes are catered to at heavy metal-themed coffee shop Black Forge Coffee House and vegan Asian and American restaurant Onion Maiden.

Pittsburgh has a way of quickly endearing itself to visitors, notably in summer, after snow heaps have melted from pavements and parks, giving way to cafe tables and baseball games. Baseball is big here with games afoot in every green space; PNC Park pays homage to one of the sport’s legends, Puerto Rican Pittsburgh Pirates right fielder Roberto Clemente, cast in bronze. The ‘City of Bridges’ is a contrasting patchwork of steel and leafy parks set along the banks of three rivers, replete with summer festivals, including such headliners as June’s Three Rivers Arts Festival: 10 days of free art and music right across the heart of Downtown. 

 Hotcakes at Pamela’s Diner.

Photograph by Christine Armbruster

Things to see and do


Mattress Factory: Step into a bewildering world of darkness, light and texture at this contemporary art museum (it calls itself a ‘laboratory’), housed in a former mattress warehouse. Founded in 1977, it offers four floors of interactive exhibits — both revolving exhibitions and permanent pieces by the likes of Greer Lankton, James Turrell and Yayoi Kusama. 

August Wilson African American Cultural Center: Pittsburgh native August Wilson blazed a trail for Black playwrights and poets in the 1960s and ’70s. His 10-play Century Cycle (chronicling the Black experience in Pittsburgh in the 20th century) is a key piece of US theatre; today visitors can see the works staged at this cultural centre, whose calendar of events, poetry readings and talks honour Wilson’s legacy. 

Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens: Enter an enchanting world of plant life under glass at The Phipps Conservatory. Its sprawling Victorian greenhouse contains flora from around the globe, amid waterfalls, ponds, a desert landscape and a tropical forest. 

The Andy Warhol Museum: Although best known for a groundbreaking creative stint in New York, the paradigm-shaking artist was born and raised in Pittsburgh. His eponymous museum, located in the North Shore area, is home to the largest collection of Warhol’s artworks and archival materials. Dive into his fascinating life while wandering through a recreation of his film studio, browsing archives of his films and taking an in-depth look at his friendship with fellow iconoclast, Venezuelan-American sculptor Marisol Escobar. 

Craft cocktails at Spork.

Photograph by Christine Armbruster

Carnegie Museums: The Oakland neighbourhood is home to a complex of museums and galleries. The Carnegie Museum of Natural History puts visitors face to face with two towering Tyrannosaurus rexes and the Wertz Gallery dazzles with its displays of jewels and gems; the Carnegie Museum of Art, meanwhile, is home to works by the world’s finest impressionist painters, including van Gogh, Monet, Cézanne, Degas, Manet, Pissarro and 
Matisse. 

Point State Park: Stroll beneath the Pittsburgh skyline at Point State Park, where a mesmerising fountain marks the merging of the Monongahela and Allegheny Rivers. Just moments from Downtown — the oldest part of the city, dubbed the ‘Golden Triangle’ as it was where the city’s power and wealth were once concentrated — the park showcases local history at the Fort Pitt Museum and Fort Pitt Block House. 

The Great Allegheny Passage: To cycle along the Great Allegheny Passage (two former railroad corridors) is to ride through the pages of Pittsburgh history. This rails-to-trails path streaks 150 miles through rural Appalachia, past the remnants of the mines, mansions and railway stations that marked America’s expansion westward. Bike rentals are available from Golden Triangle Bike, with lodgings ranging from boutique hotels to hostels.

Paddle to a Pirates Game: Venture Outdoors rents solo and tandem kayaks in the shadow of the 38,000-seat PNC Park, home to one of the most storied franchises in US sport, the Pittsburgh Pirates baseball team. If you work up an appetite, it’s worth noting that the stadium serves much more than hotdogs; try a Primanti Bros sandwich, local barbecue, chipotle-loaded tater tots (totchos) and even quinoa salads.

The Industrialist hotel, set in a 1902 skyscraper.

Photograph by Christine Armbruster

Where to eat


Pamela's Diner: Ask Pittsburgh natives where to grab breakfast, and Pamela’s Diner inevitably comes up first. With five locations around the city, this 
casual, diner-style breakfast chain is a local food franchise icon. Try the crepe-style hotcakes — think airy, deep-fried pancakes — and order a side of crispy potatoes for good measure. 

Federal Galley: A hip food hall within walking distance of the Andy Warhol Museum, Federal Galley serves as a testing ground for startup restaurants, showcasing cuisines from all corners of the globe beneath its corrugated tin roof. With a changing roster of restaurants, there’s something for every appetite, from American breakfasts to burrata pizza, short ribs, buffalo cauliflower, fancy salads and much more. 

Spork: Pittsburgh has no shortage of creative, contemporary restaurants, and Spork sits at the top of the list. This chef-owned restaurant brings in fresh produce from an adjacent vegetable farm to create New American tapas-type fare. Go all in with rock shrimp-stuffed jalapeño, seared scallops and Wagyu tartare. 

Randyland art gallery.

Photograph by Christine Armbruster

Where to go shopping


The Pennsylvania Macaroni CoAn aura of reverence surrounds this historic, Strip District grocery store. A few steps inside reveal why: patrons are greeted with walls of pasta and imported Italian goods, but the real treat is further inside, where Pennsylvania Macaroni Co. houses a gargantuan deli selection: perfect ingredients for a riverside picnic. 

Grandpa Joe's Candy Shop: Pop Rocks, Wacky Wafers, Peppermint Patties and more. Live every child’s dream at this brightly coloured shrine to sugar and sweet treats on Penn Avenue. It’s home to hundreds of varieties of US candy, vintage-style, glass-bottled fizzy drinks and the blowout $5 (£3.80) Candy Buffet. To add to the fun, there’s also a range of quirky puzzles, badges and games. 

Market Square: Summer sees night markets return to Downtown’s Market Square. Set beneath the glimmering, onyx glass of the PPG Place complex, this pop-up market brings creative, independent vendors from across the state to sell artwork, furniture, clothing and candles. Saturdays, June to October. 

Iconic Strip District grocery store, Pennsylvania Macaroni Co. 
 

Photograph by Christine Armbruster

How to explore like a local


City of Asylum: This nonprofit, home to the world’s largest writer residency programme, is safe haven for writers living in exile or threat of persecution, from as far afield as Myanmar, El Salvador, Vietnam and Turkey. Stop by its bookstore and 40 North Bar & Restaurant house for a curated collection of works and excellent brunch and dinner offerings.   

Bicycle Heaven: A real local labour of love, the world’s largest museum dedicated to bicycles awaits beyond the unassuming doors of Bicycle Heaven. The collection — begun by owners Craig and Mindy Morrow in 2011 — has grown into an astounding show of steel and aluminium Americana, from a 19th-century Boneshaker to The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine bike, horns, bells and memorabilia. 

Schenley Park: Sweeping views of Downtown, a public golf course, tennis courts, lakes and a swimming pool... Schenley Park has it all. Wedged between two university campuses, its 300 acres comprise one of the most beautiful public spaces in America, with walking trails that offer scenic respite for those keen to escape the city. 

Federal Galley, a startup restaurant incubator.

Photograph by Christine Armbruster

Where to stay


Tryp by Wyndham: School lockers and yearbook photos mingle with multimedia artwork installations and retro-chic rooms at this Lawrenceville pad. Built from the rubble of a former school, the stylish hotel showcases ‘American fare with an Eastern European accent’ at the Brick Shop restaurant and offers views of the rolling hills that surround the city from rooftop patio and bar Over Eden. 

The Industrialist: Step off Wood Street and into a chic, modern ode to Pittsburgh’s past. Opened in 2021, this renovation of the 18-storey, 1902 Arrot Building offers stunning views of the Monongahela River and is an easy walk away from the shopping and dining venues at Market Square. Its 124 guest rooms are all dark hues and brass fixtures — a vibe echoed in the stylish lounge and The Rebel Room, a ground-floor cocktail bar and restaurant. 

The Oaklander Hotel, autograph collection: This luxe, boutique hotel, set within the University of Pittsburgh campus, is decked out in riveted metal, wood and floor-to-ceiling windows and offers views of Schenley Park and the university’s 535ft-tall Cathedral of Learning. As well as 167 chic guest rooms, The Oaklander houses a French-inspired restaurant, Spirits & Tales.

The Rebel Room, at The Industrialist Hotel.

Photograph by Christine Armbruster

Where to go for nightlife


Trace brewing: Celebrate Pittsburgh’s diversity at Trace Brewing, a Bloomfield brewery and coffeehouse with a bustling summer beer garden. In conjunction with Pittsburgh Pride Festival (4 to 5 June 2022), the streets around Trace are closed for the venue’s drag acts, DJs, dancing and more. It also hosts monthly coffee art contests between local baristas, drag shows and concerts. 

East End Brewing CompanyOwner Scott Smith started what was to become the city’s go-to craft brewery in 2004. Today, he’s viewed by locals as the godfather of Pittsburgh’s resurgent brewery scene. His brewery showcases its inner workings to out-of-town guests via tours. Smith’s beer has stood the test of time, too. The Partly Clahdy IPA — named for local meteorologist Joe DeNardo’s famous Pittsburgh-accented catchphrase — is a staple; and the house-made pizzas are top-notch. 

Inner Groove Brewing: This Verona brewery has quickly earned a reputation for exquisite sour beers. Founded in 2019 by two couples, Inner Groove is built around live music and innovative brews. It’s set to expand into a second location in Allentown later this year, where you can expect block parties and concerts to complement its growing batch of brews. 

Getting there & around

From this June, British Airways flies nonstop from Heathrow to Pittsburgh. Numerous airlines including Delta Air Lines, United Airlines and Air Canada, offer indirect flights, via East Coast US hubs.       

Average flight time: 9h.

Pittsburgh serves as a testing ground for new rideshare technologies from the likes of Google, Ford and Uber. Most neighbourhoods are walkable, but these cheap taxi services are useful to link up outlying destinations, and for the airport. The Port Authority’s 28X Airport Flyer bus takes 38 minutes to reach Downtown. 

When to go

Winter can be grey and cold (between -7C and 5C). From April to September, beer gardens and patios come to life as visitors and locals alike enjoy mild temperatures and bountiful outdoor activities, from sporting events to festivals and concerts.

How to do it

Pittsburgh is great to explore by bike or on foot via guided sightseeing or food tours

British Airways Holidays offers five nights in Pittsburgh in June, room only, at the Crowne Plaza Suites Pittsburgh South from £769 per person, including return flights from Heathrow. 

Published in the June 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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