Our Town: A Travel Editor’s Guide to Pittsburgh
When I moved to New York City, I was asked on a daily basis where I was from. Without fail, each time I answered, “Pittsburgh,” people raved about what an awesome place it is. One woman even grimaced and said, “What? Why would you leave Pittsburgh? Move back.” And though I’ve come to love it here too, I don’t blame her.
My hometown’s recent resurrection isn’t news to me, but it is news, which fills me with Pittsburgh pride. Contrary to common knowledge, it’s more than just pride for our beloved Steelers, Penguins, and Pirates—although the friendliness of strangers will reach peak level if you’re sporting black and gold. It’s a pride in the character of a city that honors its Rust Belt roots while embracing its reinvention.
This is a big year for the ’Burgh. It’s one of T+L’s Best Places to Travel in 2016; it’s celebrating a bicentennial anniversary this July; and newly opened boutique hotels like the Ace Hotel in East Liberty and the Hotel Monaco downtown have really solidified the city’s status as a destination. Even as “yinz” fades from my daily vernacular, visiting Pittsburgh will always feel like coming home.
Here are my favorite ways to spend, as hometown hero Mister Rogers would put it, a beautiful day in the neighborhood.
Where to Eat and Drink
You have not eaten hotcakes until you’ve had them at Pamela's Diner. These crêpe-style delicacies are a must-try for anyone who visits, including President Obama. Also noteworthy is Pamela’s lyonnaise potatoes and quirky wall decor.
If you’re a latte lover, check out Chateau Cafe & Cakery on the North Side. Their cookie monster latte and hearty breakfast sandwiches powered me through many a weekend adventure (more ideas for those below). Coffee purists will find Commonplace Coffee Co. in Squirrel Hill a great spot for rich roasts—and first dates. If you’re buying to brew back at home, Market Square’s Nicholas Coffee & Tea Co. has been meticulously selecting and blending quality beans into flavored masterpieces—the Toasted Nut Fudge is delightful—since 1919.
Other PGH-based tastes I can’t stop craving: margaritas from Mad Mex, the pad see ew at Nicky’s Thai Kitchen, the burnt almond torte cake from Prantl’s Bakery, and absolutely everything available for purchase at the Milkshake Factory.
Where to Shop
One of my favorite shopping stretches is Butler Street in Lawrenceville. Within a few blocks, you’ll find No. 14 Boutique, a mother-daughter-run shop with dressing room floor tiles that have compliments written on them; Mid-Atlantic Mercantile, a made-for-Instagram studio stocking small batch designs with a sustainable focus; Pavement, another must-stop for handpicked clothing and accessories mostly made in the U.S.; and Wildcard, the closest you will come to stepping foot into a real-life Etsy.
When I travel, I always seek out vintage and consignment shops. The prospect of a foreign forage excites me, because sifting through the racks lets you look at local culture through the sartorial personality of its past. In Pittsburgh, I recommend Highway Robbery Vintage on the South Side, where owner Kate Colussy is a master at curating and styling both eclectic and classic finds. A few other shops to hit are Three Rivers Vintage, Eons Vintage Antique, and Hey Betty!. The local vintage and antique community has been thriving in the past few years, especially after the launches of the Pittsburgh Vintage Mixer and the Neighborhood Flea, two large vendor fairs that are worth exploring during your visit.
Where to Stay Active
As someone who genuinely enjoys working out—you know, the rare breed of humans who actually use hotel gyms—I have to call out some really fun ways to get your sweat on the Steel City (and make room for more hotcakes!). To begin with, Pittsburgh’s parks are beautiful and best explored on foot. I highly recommend the secluded hiking trails in Frick Park, especially during peak autumn leaf season.
The panoramic view from Mt. Washington’s Monongahela Incline is famous for a reason, but I think the best way to see the three rivers is right on the shore. You can rent a bike to explore miles of riverfront trail or kayak at sunset with Venture Outdoors.
For the yogis, the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership and Fitt Pittsburgh offer a free Sunday morning yoga class in Market Square from June through September. For a workout that doesn’t feel like one until the next day, head to the Climbing Wall in Point Breeze for both top roping and bouldering. And finally, for those with Broadway dreams and 20-plus-year-old knee joints, the locally owned Millennium Dance Complex offers really fun, judgment-free adult drop-in classes ranging from hip-hop to ballet to burlesque.
Where to Go Out at Night
My advice for nightlife in Pittsburgh may not be the most popular: avoid East Carson Street. I’ll admit it: I am too lame for the notorious South Side and its ridiculously high number of bars. A few blocks back toward the Slopes is a BYOB arcade called Games ’N At—Pittsburghese at its finest—that stores your six-pack in the fridge and lets you run loose with unlimited air hockey play and a mini bowling alley.
You also can’t go wrong catching a concert at Stage AE, a convertible indoor-outdoor venue on the North Side, or a stand-up show at the Improv in the Waterfront. I’ve also left some of my life’s greatest dance moves on the floor at the Cultural District’s Howl at the Moon dueling piano bar. I also enjoy the Library (a bar, I swear) for a glass of pinot grigio on the patio, or stopping by one of the many watering holes on Walnut Street or Ellsworth Avenue in Shadyside.
Where to Visit
When I think of Pittsburgh culture, I think more of a collective spirit than a particular art gallery or museum—though the Mattress Factory is absolutely worth a visit. That spirit—or more definitively, the sense of community Pittsburghers share—is most tangible at the many events, festivals, and markets. And of the many, almost all include fireworks. There are annual classics like the Three Rivers Arts Festival and Regatta in Point State Park, the Vintage Grand Prix in Schenley Park, and Lawrenceville’s Art All Night. And there are promising newcomers, too, like the Thrival Innovation + Music Festival held at Carrie Furnaces and the Pierogi Festival, which had over 5,000 attendees last year.
When it comes down to it, Pittsburgh’s charm lies in the distinct personalities of each of its neighborhoods—up to 90 depending on how you slice it. So, try to check out as many as you can. Some not-to-be-missed cultural experiences can be found in the performance halls and exhibition spaces of downtown’s Cultural District, but also at Kennywood Park, in the iconic Strip District, and around various parking lots. Yep, ‘Burghers love tailgating. Games, concerts, and any and all events that require you to park in a large lot are likely to be accompanied by grills, coolers, and cornhole. I couldn’t make it through a guide to Pittsburgh without recommending a round of cornhole. If not, I wouldn’t be a true Pittsburgh native.
Richelle Szypulski is the editorial operations assistant at Travel + Leisure. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter @richelleski.