Three rivers, five ways: discover Pittsburgh via its waterways

In this Pennsylvania hub, the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers converge into the Ohio. Finding out more has been made easier with the launch of direct British Airways flights connecting London Heathrow airport to Pittsburgh International from June 2022.

The Pittsburgh skyline with the Duquesne Incline, a funicular that rises 1,000ft above water level to the crest of the Mount Washington neighbourhood. The top station awards expansive views of downtown from above. 

Photograph by Dustin McGrew
By Christine H. O’Toole
Published 6 Jun 2022, 11:00 BST

Once known as the industrial hub for steel mining and coal work, Pittsburgh’s navigable waterways were three great reasons for its development. Flowing through the heart of this western Pennsylvania city, the Monogahela, the Allegheny and the Ohio rivers have defined its history as an innovative technology hub; its architecture, brawny and graceful; and its culture, where a thriving arts district anchors downtown. Today, they also offer a focus for outdoor fun: cleaner and greener, this metro area of 1.2 million people goes to the riverfront for play. 

1. The Great Allegheny Passage

The Allegheny Mountains, underlaid with iron ore and coal, made Pittsburgh’s fortune. For generations, the city’s bridges held the weight of their steel, but over the past 30 years, rusty riverfront railways have been converted to public cycling paths. Discover them along the Great Allegheny Passage, routinely hailed as one of the best long-distance bike trails of the US. Begin at Point State Park — a hilly urban forest, punctuated by a 150ft fountain, that marks the confluence of the three rivers — and follow the trail along the Downtown district and beyond, whether it’s an afternoon jaunt to a riverside beer garden or a 300-mile through-trip to Washington, DC. Day trips to scenic trail towns like Ohiopyle (just four miles from Fallingwater, Frank Lloyd Wright’s architectural wonder) make it a popular weekend choice, too.

Alternatively, to discover more of the city, the trio of downtown bridges on the Allegheny River — nicknamed the Three Sisters for their identical heights and golden colour — are the gateway to the North Shore. The Andy Warhol Museum, the Children’s Museum and the city’s football and baseball stadiums command this waterfront. Bike lanes also carry shoppers to The Strip District, a bustling open market. Golden Triangle Bike and POGOH, the city’s bike share programme, both offer e-bikes and standard cruisers for rentals.

Over the past 30 years, old riverfront railways have been converted to public cycling paths, clearing the way to the North Shore, the Downtown district and beyond.

Photograph by JP Diroll

2. Postcard views

Brightly painted funiculars rise from water level to the crest of Mount Washington, a city neighbourhood with expansive views of downtown from above. Part of the city’s public transit system, the much-loved antique cable-cars of the Duquesne Incline silently climb 1,000ft above the confluence — and at $5 (£6) for a round trip, they’re also one of the city’s bargains. Disembark at the top station to stroll to the observation decks along the aptly-named Grandview Avenue, which runs the length of the mount. Alternatively, follow signs to the 257-acre Emerald View Park. The city’s newest public green space, created in 2005, is also one of its steepest, with switchback hiking trails and picnic areas opening to downtown vistas.

Mount Washington’s signature soundtrack blends the whistles of river barges, mile-long freight trains and wild chants and cheers — the latter from the city’s downtown sports stadiums. On Sunday afternoons, the waterfront Heinz Field, a local favourite, comes alive with black-and-yellow-clad fans cheering the beloved Pittsburgh Steelers. Reached by bridges, ferryboats or the city subway, the venues are an easy stroll from North Shore cultural attractions. 

3. On the water 

For an outing on a sternwheeler [a steamer propelled by a paddle wheel] opt for family-friendly daytime and dinner cruises aboard the Gateway Clipper Fleet, from sightseeing trips taking in all three rivers and family-friendly excursions to dinner and dance tours — all offering views of downtown skyscrapers.

Meanwhile, experience-provider Rivers of Steel showcases the innovation of southwestern Pennsylvania’s industrial heritage through a range initiatives and transformative experiences. Not a single working steel mill operates within the city limits today, but for a glimpse of the past, the operator books passengers on trips up the 'Mon' to the skeleton of the Carrie Furnaces, the only remaining blast furnaces in the region. The historic landmark has reinvented itself as a contemporary art park, with massive sculptures, outdoor performances and drive-in movies.

4. Active experiences

Discover the city from water to see it from a new perspective. Kayak Pittsburgh — which has plans to relocate to a flagship downtown dock in front of the David L Lawrence Convention Center in 2023 — operates seasonally, with special events including full moon evenings and fireworks displays. The outfitter is part of Venture Outdoors, which books various friendly, high-energy group activities, from snowshoeing to social hikes and art walks. 

While downtown streams are generally gentle, other local waterways get tough. The Youghiogheny River, about a one-hour drive south of the city, attracts daredevil white-water rafters and expert paddlers who ‘shoot the falls’ — hurtling their kayaks over an 18ft waterfall.

Kayaking along the Allegheny River. While downtown streams are generally gentle, other local waterways — such as the Youghiogheny River, about a one-hour drive south of the city — get tough.

Photograph by JP Diroll

5. Waterside areas to discover

The city centre has a wealth of attractions, but lesser-known neighbourhoods offer much to discover, too. Follow the Allegheny River to St Nicholas Croatian Church in Millvale, which honours the families who founded the hillside town. Artist Maxo Vanka’s murals depict the clashes of war, capital and labour; restored and illuminated, they’re a tribute to the generations of immigrants who powered Pittsburgh’s mills.

The city’s ethnic riverside communities have swapped recipes for years, and in Lawrenceville, chefs are reinterpreting old favourites. Apteka offers an unusual vegan menu of pierogies, pairing these beloved Polish dumplings with crepes, smoked cabbage and cordials of quince and juniper. Piccolo Forno offers Italian creations like salmon triangoli, while a new international flavour on Butler Street is Pusadee’s Garden, serving Thai specialities in a garden space.

Plan your trip

British Airways operates direct flights from London Heathrow to Pittsburgh International in eight hours and a half.

For more information, visit visitpittsburgh.com

Published in the July/August 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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