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.