Getaways: Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh Bridges, photo by Tom Bridge

Updated on 12/29/10 with links, seasonal recommendations, and Pittsburghese section.

I thought about not posting this pending the outcome of last night’s Caps/Penguins game. But then they won, so I figured it would be okay.

Most of our Getaways features have been about smallish towns where you might go to unplug for a few days when you need a break. But what if you don’t want to unplug? What if you still want city amenities but not, you know, THESE ones? Maybe you want to spend a weekend seeing movies at multiplexes and taking photos of architecture and going to sporting events without feeling like you should really be at home doing laundry.

Pittsburgh is a 4 hour drive from DC- 2 hours up I-70 to Breezewood, and then 2 more across Pennsylvania on the Turnpike. Staying there is nice and easy unless it’s a holiday or the G-20 is in town- there are 3 4-star hotels in the city, so it’s easy to Priceline a fantastic room for cheap and still find yourself centrally located.

And what will you find when you get there? One of my favorite things about walking around the city is the “sense of place” you get. You know how when you’re walking around Capitol Hill and it’s like the very air around you is saturated with DC-ness? Pittsburgh has a lot of the same thing, only the look is what I would call “steel baron chic.” A lot of the city’s rapid development happened in the era of Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick, leading to lots of downtown buildings with interesting architectural details like talismans and outdoor molding. It’s reflected in the decor of the hotels as well- lots of lush draperies and tin ceilings- if you manage to get your room upgraded you feel like Carnegie himself when staying at the Omni William Penn or the Renaissance.

But what should you DO there, I hear you ask?  

Baseball: Yes, Pittsburgh is a City of Champions, with the Steelers and Penguins both having recent championships, but I actually recommend that spring/summer visitors with no particular allegiance to Pittsburgh sports teams skip over both of the teams with a chance and catch a Pirates game. The Buccos haven’t had a winning season since 1992, and yet the city built them a gorgeous new ballpark about 10 years ago. The team has been so bad for so long that the main reason to go out to the game is to enjoy the ballpark. The atmosphere in the stands has more of a “family picnic where a baseball game breaks out” kind of vibe, so it’s relaxing to sit in the sunshine, enjoy the view of the city through the open side of the park, eat pierogies, and listen to the thick Pittsburgh accents all around you. The team is as bad as the Nats, but in my opinion, PNC Park is a nicer place to watch a game. Park downtown and walk across the Clemente Bridge to get there. You won’t be sorry. Go early and check out the Andy Warhol Museum. You didn’t know he was from Pittsburgh? Well, now you do.

The Strip District: So named because it’s a long, narrow area along Penn Avenue and Smallman Street, not because of the nature of the businesses there, I call it “The Pittsburghiest Place in Pittsburgh.” This is the part of town where all the produce warehouses used to be, and it’s still where a lot of Pittsburghers do their shopping for the week, especially for specialty ethnic items. Go on a Saturday morning. It’ll be crowded, but the shop owners will be at their most cheerful and you’ll get to experience the city as a local. Check out Mike Feinberg’s, the party supply store with every black-and-gold tchotchke you could possibly want, including the famous Terrible Towel; Pennsylvania Macaroni Company (warning: site plays music) & Jimmy & Nino’s, both owned by the Sunseri family and what the Arlington Italian Store wants to be when it grows up; and choose between the original Primanti Bros. location (home of the famous sandwich with the coleslaw and fries on it) and DeLuca’s (best diner breakfast in town) for a meal. Yes, you have to choose. You can’t do both in one day and live to tell the tale. Sit at the bar in either place and watch the cooks- it’s a meal and a show.  As you leave, walk through the Heinz Regional History Center, named for the late Senator John Heinz (yes, from the ketchup family). It’s in association with the Smithsonian, but don’t let that fool you- admission is $10.

The South Side: East Carson Street is where you’ll find tattoo parlors, coffee shops, art galleries, thrift/consignment stores, live music, and whatever else you want to occupy yourself with. One end of East Carson has kind of the mixture of establishments catering to former steelworkers and current art students, and the other end has the “New Pittsburgh” waterfront development- shiny mixed-use developments with dining, bookstores, and some anchor chains. Take your pick.

Oakland/Shadyside/Squirrel Hill: This is the part of town where the steel barons poured out their philanthropic largesse. Carnegie and Frick believed strongly in the obligation of the wealthy to acts of philanthropy, which is why it seems every other building in these areas is named after them or one of their descendants. This is also where all the universities and major museums are. I especially recommend checking out the Cathedral of Learning and Heinz Chapel on the University of Pittsburgh campus. They’re both ornate and beautiful, and if the Nationality Classrooms are open at the Cathedral, you’re in for a treat. And while you’re at it, baseball fans can find a portion of the Forbes Field outfield wall still standing in Oakland. One of the Pitt buildings has the home plate from the last game at Forbes Field encased in glass and embedded in the floor at its last location.

A Guide to Pittsburghese

Aside from the architecture and the fact that every surface in town is draped in black and gold during the winter sports seasons, one of the most distinct features creating the “sense of place” I mentioned is Pittsburgh English, colloquially referred to as Pittsburghese. The accent is so distinct and tricky that actors in films set in Pittsburgh pretty much do not bother trying to use it, so you’ve probably only heard it before if you’re a sports fan and have listened to Bill Cowher or Dan Marino provide football commentary. So, a quick primer of things you’re likely to hear on a visit:

yinz: The single most recognizable feature of Pittsburghese. It’s a second person plural, like “y’all.” It’s also where the term “yinzer” comes from, a slang term for Pittsburgher, especially one with a strong accent. Like many slang terms for cultural groups, it’s best not to use it unless you are a yinzer yourself.

Primanti’s: It’s pronounced more like “Permanny’s.” If you pronounce it “Prih-mahn-ti’s,” Pittsburghers will look at you funny, probably because they’ve never heard anyone say it like that before. At least, that was my reaction the first time I heard Tom say it. I quickly corrected him.

kolbassy: Kielbasa. Don’t question it. It’s just how we say it.

Warshington: The city you are visiting from.

hahs: The structure you live in.

jagoff: An epithet. Like “wanker,” and approximately equivalent in meaning.

And that’s what you need to know to visit Pittsburgh. It’s a city still steeped in its own history, but trying to shake off the dirty mill town image that comes with it. Don’t worry, guys. The steel mills closed in the 70′s; they’ve had time to clean up.

All photos in this post by Tom and Tiffany Bridge.

Tiffany Baxendell Bridge is an Internet enthusiast and an incurable smartass. When not heckling the neighborhood political scene on Twitter, she can be found goofing off with her ukulele, Bollywood dancing, or obsessing about cult TV. She is That Woman With the Baby In the Bar.

Tiffany lives in Brookland with her husband Tom, son Charlie, and two high-maintenance cats. Read why Tiffany loves DC.

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14 thoughts on “Getaways: Pittsburgh

  1. I visited Pittsburgh for the first time last summer and absolutely loved it. They’ve got some great art galleries and museums and the overall vibe is so different than DC. Would I want to live there? Probably not.

    PS – Be sure to visit Fallingwater on your way to/fro Pittsburgh.

  2. Seriously Tiff, what happened to responsible disclosure… dang yinzer!

    You left out the best 4th of July fireworks there at The Point. Three Rivers… fireworks overhead… and I’ve seen a lot of fireworks demos…

    Also, Pittsburgh is a good place to get soused… a brewing culture, even if they have a dumb drink and beverage tax.

    I think they also hold the record now for youngest major of a major US city…and the tie in to the G-20 meeting, the first offensive use of a sonic “weapon” on live crowds (courtesy of the DoD).

  3. Don’t forget the other nearby FLW house, Kentuck Knob (http://www.kentuckknob.com/). Not as dramatic a setting as Fallingwater, but a more comfortable house to live in. It’s still in private hands (a Brit) and the owner has a nice outdoor art collection.

    Also, the Laurel Highlands area that you pass through on the way to Pitt is very scenic has lots of outdoor activities (http://www.laurelhighlands.org/)

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  5. I grew up in the ‘burbs of DC (Vienna) during the 70s, fell in love with a Pittsburgh girl and now make this old steel town my home. Quaint? provincial? Backwaters? None of these stereo typical words describe this town that has completely and almost unbelievably reinvented its self.
    We play and shop on sites that 10 years ago were brown fields.
    I guess the most powerful thing I can say about the people of this town is that they truly don’t realize how far they have come. Or how far they have to go in order to become a world class city. First- I know im gonna get hate mail. The Steelers are not the center of the universe! They are just a sports team.
    Second – Tear down all the vacant houses in the city. 2009 is the first time in 20 years that there has NOT been a loss of population in the region. There are too many houses in Pittsburgh.
    Third – Quit giving all these tax breaks to people. If you give a break to one person it just makes the next persons taxes higher.
    Fourth – Privatize the city water. PWSA is the worst run organization in the city. I all give it two points, the service is bad but the rates are high . WTF? Pittsburgh deserves better. There are too many people getting free water, yes lots of people do not pay. If you are old and poor too bad, go live with your relatives or better yet plan for your future but not cripple the water system because you can not afford it.

  6. Thanks for your comment, Jamie. I think the thing with the Steelers is that it was pretty much the only good thing going when the mills started closing, so I’m willing to spot my ancestral homeland their love for the team.

    I read an interesting article a while back about some efforts in the city to start making vacant lots available to neighborhood residents to plant community gardens, the idea being that Pittsburgh should make its land-use plans with the assumption that the population isn’t going to rebound to where it was before the steel industry collapse. In other words, it should accept that it’s a smaller city now, and use its resources in a way befitting its smaller size.

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  8. I’ve been meaning to go to Pittsburgh to see the Nats play for five years now. People keep get married during those series though, that or something like a Disney trip comes up. I’ve heard PNC Park is beautiful and want to support my team on the road. I’m also going to incessantly talk a great how great my city is and how people have been coming here in droves for its modern economy and countless cultural offerings.

  9. THANK YOU for this fun piece on a truly great city. I was born and raised near Pgh, return there regularly, and was delighted to read this post. You hit all the major bases, and well. Love the way you framed it: a getaway, you can unwind, but with city fun. Few add’l thoughts:
    - Superb city for an architecture-related visit, and glad you referenced the eye candy in this regard. Optimum if you research one of the city’s house tours and attend; the homes offer a fascinating mix. Also, Henry C. Frick’s home, Clayton, is open for tours year ’round. His daughter resided there in her later stage, into modern times, kept everything intact.
    - You can tour the original Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood set at WQED studios in Oakland.
    - Good nightlife and live music scene.
    - Big indie arts town, esp glass.
    - World-class symphony at comparatively bargain ticket prices, in the elegant Heinz Hall, and lots of other very high-quality companies in impressive venues.
    - Very relaxed and friendly people, Midwestern vibe.
    - Amtrak has a line that goes directly to Pgh (it’s their line that goes from DC to Chicago). Pgh’s Amtrak station/depot is bleak, but a nice non-car option. Getting around, car still best.

  10. Nice job and nice photos. A couple of other suggestions:
    - Southwest flies there cheap from BWI. Not to discourage anyone from driving, but no city makes an entrance like Pittsburgh when you arrive from the airport. One minute, you are driving inbound on the Parkway West in a ravine, headed into a tunnel. Sixty seconds later, you emerge from the tunnel and the downtown and the Point (where the three rivers meet) is right in front of you. It’s an absolute jaw-dropper.
    - Southside rocks….Carson Street is the longest intact Victorian shopping and dining area in the nation…It begins at the Grand Concourse, which is the historic Pittsburgh and Lake Erie Railroad Terminal…That’s the perfect place for a Sunday brunch…elegant and amazingly affordable by DC standards…and, from there, you can take the boat across the river to the Stadium(s) for a Pirates or Steelers game. Food’s great and ambience is amazing at the Concourse.
    - Take the incline (fenicular railroad) across the street from the Grand Concourse. It’ll take you up Mount Washington, just as it has since 1874, for a view of the city that is absolutely worthwhile.
    - Head down Carson Street from the Concourse into the bar and nightlife district. The Southside works – a trendy area built on the ruins of the J&L Steel Corporation’s Southside Works – has a lot of chain places but there’s a lot of life there. And it’s just down the street from the Steelers’ southside training facility and headquarters, which sort of marks the end of life as we know it on the southside.
    - Eating like a Pittsburgher includes the Dirty O (real name: The Original Hot Dog Shoppe) in Oakland…Pittsburgh’s version of the World’s Best Hot Dog (all beef, natural casing, it snaps) and the world’s biggest (and maybe best) portions of french fries. It also includes dining at the ubiquitous Eat ‘n Park Restaurants, which feature honest meals for working families, including awesome pot roast sandwiches and damn good strawberry pies.
    - The largest ethnic group in the ‘burgh is actually Italians…and there are numerous good neighborhood Italian restaurants in Bloomfield, which is just ten minutes from ‘town. Food prices in Pittsburgh are cheap, cheap, cheap!
    - The absolute best place to watch the fireworks on the 4th of July is the Hilton Hotel at the Point. The hotel is a mid-century classic with perpetual management problems and has been under renovation for years, but if you get a room facing the rivers, you will get the best private fireworks show you have EVER seen in your life.
    - The biggest problem about asking a Pittsburgher for direction is they will probably want to take you there. They are the friendliest people you’ll ever hope to meet.