If your mental image of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania is one of a grungy industrial morass with maybe a little old school smog and a couple of polluted rivers thrown in for good measure, let today’s city surprise you….
This is a green, clean, walkable place with spectacular architecture, excellent transportation options, and plenty of places to find great food.
You can walk around downtown Pittsburgh and see all of the places below in one day – if you hustle in comfy walking shoes – although you can always save your feet and some time by jumping onto the light rail or bus. They are free to ride in the downtown core.
Point State Park and Riverside Trails
The photo below will help orient you to the city – the “Golden Triangle” portion of it comes to a point where the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers converge to become the Ohio River.
That is Point State Park.
Start your day there with a stroll and a look at the fountain right at the tip, and maybe a visit to the Fort Pitt Museum to see why western Pennsylvania and these grounds in particular were so important in the French & Indian War and the American Revolution.
You can also access the Three Rivers Heritage Trail system from the park, for further exploration up and down the riverfront on foot or by bike.
The French-built Fort Duquesne was here (pronounced Doo-CANE) and then the British built Fort Pitt in the same area; a blockhouse from the original Fort Pitt is still standing.
Working back into the city from Point State Park, look for an historical marker tucked into a pocket park in the Gateway office complex.
In November 1920, station KDKA (still in operation today) made the first commercial radio broadcast from Pittsburgh, giving listeners the results of the Harding-Cox presidential election.
Pittsburgh Pirates Baseball
Between football (Pittsburgh Steelers,) hockey (Pittsburgh Penguins,) soccer (Pittsburgh Riverhounds,) and baseball (Pittsburgh Pirates,) this is a sports-mad city covered in black and gold fan colors.
The most accessible sports venue for our walking tour, though, is probably PNC Park, a stunning ballpark right on the Allegheny River.
You can walk over the Roberto Clemente Bridge from downtown to get to it.
Clemente played for the Pirates from 1955-1972….quite a legacy.
While you’re on this North Shore side of the city, spend some time at the Andy Warhol Museum near PNC Park (pop artist Warhol was a Pittsburgh native) or simply walk back over one of the three pedestrian-friendly bridges to return to the main downtown area.
Besides Clemente’s bridge, one is named for Warhol and the other for naturalist and influential Silent Spring author Rachel Carson, a native of the region.
They’re called the Three Sisters bridges and are well-lighted at night, too.
Market Square and PPG Place
There’s a small cafe at the Warhol Museum, but if you can hold out a little longer, make your way back across from the North Side and across town a little, to Market Square.
There are so many options for places to eat there, from Greek to burgers to pierogies to a few chain places to the massive sandwiches at Primanti Brothers.
One side of Market Square is taken up with six buildings that appear to be a modern castle or maybe a home for Batman, complete with 231 glass spires. It’s called PPG Place – the PPG originally stood for the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company.
They commissioned famous architect Philip Johnson in the early 1980s to create an ode to plate glass, and boy, did he ever….
That’s how it is with a walk around downtown Pittsburgh; it is going to take awhile, because you’ll want to stop and marvel at the variety of lovely architecture, and the special touches that make it so unique.
I was entranced by a little detail at the enormous stone edifice that is the 1888 Allegheny County Courthouse.
It is a “Bridge of Sighs” Venetian-style stone bridge that arches over the street between the courthouse and what used to be the jail, but now rather oddly houses Family Court.
Look for the little courtyard garden around the corner, too….
Head Over Another River to End the Day
To finish the day, walk over to any T station (the Gateway T is near Market Square, but there’s probably one close to wherever your wanderings have taken you) and buy a ticket to Station Square, which will take you over the Monongahela River on the other side of the Golden Triangle.
The Station Square complex is built in a former train shed. It has a lot of chain restaurants and such, so it didn’t do that much for me, except for one beautiful restaurant that is housed in the former Pittsburgh and Lake Erie railway station built in 1901.
The Beaux-Arts style Grand Concourse is full of marble and stained glass and elegance. If you had a light lunch and are ready to splurge, have dinner there. The menu is mostly what some call “standard country club,” with a lot of steak and seafood dishes, but they do have a prix fixe menu 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. daily.
If, however, you’re kind of grungy after a day of walking all over the city, the more informal Gandy Dancer Saloon is adjacent to all of those white tablecloth-covered dining tables.
What you want to do next is to catch some city views from atop a high hill, and time it close to sunset.
You’re going to let a machine get you up the hill, though.
There are two inclines (sometimes called funiculars) in Pittsburgh, about one mile apart – the Monongahela and the Duquesne. The advantage of the Monongahela is that it is right next to the Station Square T station and across the street from Station Square and The Grand Concourse.
The Duquesne, however, has the better view of the city because you are looking straight back up through Pittsburgh with Point State Park and its pretty fountain right in front. The Flickr photo above by Steve Elgersma was almost certainly taken from the Duquesne’s observation area. You can drive there, or catch a cab/Uber/Lyft.
Since we’re walking, though, let’s stick with the Monongahela, built in 1870 and the oldest continuously operating funicular railway in the United States. If you buy a Pittsburgh transportation day pass (about US$7) it will cover incline rides, too.
Locals who live up atop the hills in the Mount Washington area use the inclines every day; they are not simply a tourist attraction.
They were originally built because Pittsburgh factories and industrial facilities were built on the flatter sections of town near the river, but there was no easy way for the many people who lived in communities atop the river bluff to get to work, other than by steep paths.
You line up at the doors based on whether you want to sit in the top, middle, or bottom level of each incline car.
The car will creep out of the station, and you’ll think, “Wow, this is really slow,” but once clear of the station house it moves right along….6 miles per hour, to be exact.
Here is what you’ll see at the top:
I liked the sense of history at the incline, and that, similar to San Francisco‘s cable cars, I was riding in something functional that locals have used for decades.
Nightcap at Butcher and the Rye
Catch the T back over to downtown, riding across to the Wood Street stop, and head to Butcher and the Rye.
If you still need to eat dinner, have it here, but if you already ate, chat up the nice bartenders at their Whiskey Wall bar and drink whatever they recommend, to toast your fine day in Pittsburgh.
I had a Manhattan made with Pennsylvania bourbon, just to keep it local. Pricey, but delicious.
A lot of hard work, vision, passion, and years of overcoming naysayers has turned Pittsburgh into a visitor’s delight.
If you decide to order a second drink at the Whiskey Wall to celebrate that, I won’t judge.
Update: coming in with my Lyft driver from the airport, I shot a quick video of the sudden view you get when arriving via the Fort Pitt Tunnel….
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