Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

I recently had the chance to visit Pittsburgh as part of a business trip and tacked on an extra weekend in order to get to see more of the city as a tourist. I arrived on a Friday afternoon and, during my drive from the airport to my hotel, realized that Pittsburgh is extremely close to the West Virginia and Ohio borders – and is a beautifully mountainous town.

I quickly met up with a good friend who is a Pittsburgh native and thoughtfully offered to share local favorites with me. On our drive downtown, he shared the first of what I would learn are many quirks about Pittsburgh: stairs that seemingly lead to nowhere on the side of the road, as though someone forgot to put in sidewalks. We started our Pittsburgh tour with a quick walk around the downtown area, beginning with the PPG (“Pittsburgh Plate Glass”) company building, which is an incredible glass structure that has little spires like a castle.

Then, we walked down towards the riverfront area, which is the site of the “point” – essentially where two rivers converge to be one. The point is also great for scenic viewing up Mt. Washington and across the rivers to the Steelers and Pirates sports stadiums.

This site is also the site of some French and Indian War history, and a building remains from Fort Pitt today.

From there, we crossed to the other side of the river, and made our way towards one of the first of the true highlights of Pittsburgh I’ve experienced so far: the Andy Warhol museum. From Pittsburgh originally, Andy Warhol great up in an artistic household and began illustrating. From there, he expanded his works to cover nearly every media available – painting, silk screens, multimedia (there was a super fascinating exhibit of a set he designed for a play, which included inflatable silver balloons floating throughout the space, which you could walk between / play with), many short films which were never published, graphic art collaborations, sculpture.

Most of the pieces exhibited in the museum are truly one-of-a-kind pieces from his collected life work – and, they’re complemented by the fact that the museum also includes a lot of artifacts from Warhol’s life as well. After the Warhol museum, we wandered back over the river and caught a lovely sunset view.

From there, my friend suggested that we grab dinner in the trendy neighborhood of Lawrenceville, a short drive to the northwest of the downtown Pittsburgh area. We wandered among the small shops until we found a cute French bistro, where we treated ourselves to an extremely good meal.

For my second day in Pittsburgh, I chose to wander a couple neighborhoods on the suggestion of my friend, and to visit a couple more museums. First, I headed from my hotel in the East Liberty neighborhood over to a neighborhood called Shady Side, which has some cute shops and restaurants. One thing I love is that many buildings in Pittsburgh seem to have incredible, old stained glass – I’ve seen it on everything from random shops (like the one pictured below), to homes, to churches.

In Shady Side, I saw a cute little installation called Captured :: Pittsburgh, which is essentially an open-air gallery featuring photos by Pittsburgh locals.

From there, I decided to walk up to the Squirrel Hill historic district, which is an area with beautiful cobblestone streets and old, historic homes.

Although beautiful, there isn’t a true “destination” in that neighborhood, so I opted to take an Uber to another museum on my list – the Carnegie Art and Natural History Museum(s), housed together in the same building. On the way to the museum, my Uber driver informed me of another Pittsburgh quirk – every year, they hold a Pittsburgh “grand prix” (essentially a street race) where drivers of vintage cars come together to drive a closed course within the city roads.

I wasn’t able to get a great picture of the truly vintage vehicles, but there were many amazing vintage sports cars lined up, as well as about ~10 Mini Coopers in a row. I asked around, but it seems that may have just been a very, very strange coincidence rather than a part of the race.

The Museums were wonderful – I was able to make my way through the entirety of the arts (everything from ~14th century up until modern day) and through the Arctic Peoples and American Indian exhibits of the Natural History collection.

The art was really compelling – I was also impressed with their collection of impressionists, including several beautiful Monets.

After the museum, I checked out the surrounding area while waiting for my Uber (who was stuck in traffic due to the grand prix). It turns out I was basically on the University of Pittsburgh campus, which has a variety of interesting sights. I started with the log cabin, which is a sweet little building that feels out of place along a very busy street.

Then, I walked over to a relatively imposing building that turned out to be a series of classrooms – the Cathedral of Learning (so called because architecturally, it does truly look like a cathedral).

From there, I still had more time to kill – and started wandering the rest of the street. I ran into some street art as well as a beautiful Greek Catholic church (a denomination I wasn’t familiar with before traveling to Pittsburgh, but have now seen referenced multiple times). The church has absolutely gorgeous stained glass windows inside, but out of respect for the congregants who were inside, I opted not to take photos.

After that, I finally was able to head back to my hotel and prep for the next activity: the Botanical Gardens!

On the way to the Botanical Gardens, I actually was able to see a small part of the Grand Prix track (and could certainly hear the cars racing!). Upon arrival at the Botanical Gardens, I was blown away. They have an incredibly varied array of flowers, herbs, cacti and also have several interactive exhibits focused on specific geographies (such as Cuba).

I absolutely loved the cacti exhibit – and felt that the sculptures complemented the scenery perfectly.

I wrapped up the day with a barbecue dinner at a place called Walter’s, which pairs food with a DJ and great open-air vibes.

On my final day of free exploration, I decided to do what I love doing when I travel solo abroad: have a great brunch, go to a history museum, and then spend the afternoon reading at a local cafe.

For brunch, I went to the Speckled Egg, which is located in the lobby of the Union Trust building. I’ve never seen a restaurant that truly just uses all the available lobby space, but it was a great way of filling a beautiful old lobby! I had one of the best Bloody Mary’s I’ve ever tried – they definitely hit the right balance of juice, seasoning, and vodka (and made it strong without making it taste like booze, which is a great combination!). After having a delicious breakfast sandwich and sufficiently relaxed and caffeinated from my morning beverages, I walked over to the Heinz Center, which is a Smithsonian-affiliated museum dedicated primarily to western Pennsylvania’s history (and, of course, in part to the Heinz brand).

In addition to the cute Heinz exhibit (they had a wall showcasing all sorts of creative flavors, including the EZ Squeez bottles with wild colors from my childhood), the museum has an excellent selection of both local and global history exhibits, including: an exhibit on life in western Pennsylvania over the years; an exhibit on Pittsburgh’s famous history as a glass producer; an exhibit on the French and Indian war (which took place locally); an exhibit on Lewis and Clark; an exhibit on the trans-Atlantic slave trade; an exhibit on Pittsburgh’s neighborhoods; and a huge sports museum (the latter two, I sadly didn’t have time to get to).

I truly had no idea that Pittsburgh and western Pennsylvania had contributed so much to American history, but it makes sense as a huge part of the rust belt! A couple interesting tidbits: PPG (Pittsburgh Plate Glass) created a TON of glassworks, for everything from cathedrals to subway tiles to the tiles that line the Lincoln and Holland tunnels in New York City! The town is also responsible for a number of innovations from everything including mine safety (after several devastating mine collapses), medical science (a lot of transplant science and CPR dolls originated there), mortuary science (apparently the first funeral home was in Pittsburgh!) and machinery / transportation (things like steel production, steamboats, etc.).

After about two and a half hours at the museum, I was ready for a break and to relax. I headed down to the “cultural district” about ten minutes away in downtown Pittsburgh, and found a cute little open-air bar that had soft music and attractive-looking drinks to take a break and sip some cocktails while reading (hey, when on vacation, right?).

After that, I headed back to the hotel before my first business-related event of the week (dinner at Cinderlands, which is a cool brewery / restaurant in the Strip district – I wish I’d had time to explore that area more, apparently it’s home to some old world ethnic markets due to Pittsburgh’s historic immigration from central and eastern Europe).

Throughout the work week, my days were primarily filled with business activities, but I did find time for a couple outings: as a company, we went to a Pittsburgh Pirates game, which offered beautiful views and the opportunity to taste Pittsburgh’s finest lite beer, IC Lite. We also accidentally made our way off the elevator onto the Press floor, and were able to get a peek into the press view, which was pretty cool.

A different weeknight, we were able to go view Pittsburgh from above on Mt. Washington, which offered nice views:

On the nights I didn’t have business dinners arranged, I enjoyed wandering to find good restaurants in East Liberty. A favorite was called Lorelei, based on the German concept of the siren-like mythical women who would lure sailors to crash on rivers. They offered an exceptional range of drinks (many themed with interesting German botanical spirits / liqueurs) as well as incredible pizza – it was so good that I even went back a second time.

Overall, it was a great visit to Pittsburgh!

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