Pittsburgh, PA: Nature, Culture, Rivers, Arts–No Steel Mills

By Max Hartshorne
GoNOMAD Editor

The Pittsburgh skyline, from the Duquesne Incline. photo: Visit Pittsburgh.
The Duquesne Incline takes neighbors and tourist up the steep bank of the Ohio River. Photo Visit Pittsburgh.

Pittsburgh, You’ve Got Spunk. I Love Spunk

I knew I’d like this city, from the moment I stepped into the town car that whisked me the 22 minutes from the airport to the Marriot downtown.

Entering Pittsburgh from its airport, you drive past rolling hills and countryside, to a gradual descent into the Fort Pitt tunnel, which was bored through Mount Washington, a wall of rock and foliage.

You exit the 3,000-foot tunnel to a panorama of the city right in front of you. A dramatic entrance like no other major US city, all of a sudden you see the bridges, buildings and arenas of Pittsburgh.

“I wouldn’t live anywhere else!” said my driver Patrick McArdle. He runs his own art salon in the city, and used to be an ironworker. “It’s big enough, with everything, but it’s friendly.”

Famous Capitalists

The city’s geography includes many famous names of great capitalists of the nineteenth century — Andrew Carnegie, Andrew Mellon, and Henry Clay Frick. Each of these men who made gobs of money in railroads, steel and industry later became famous for their philanthropy. Today in Pittsburgh, parks, museums, and monuments abound with these names on them.

Patrick ticked off some of the famous people who once called Pittsburgh home. Gene Kelley, Martha Graham, Andy Warhol, Gertrude Stein, Earl “Fatha” Hines, George Ferris (of the wheel) and five big-time NFL quarterbacks: Dan Marino, Joe Montana, Johnny Unitas and Jim Kelly.

The skyline was pierced by a tall skyscraper with a color spire — it changes color to tell you what weather is expected. Another skyscraper was once the home of US Steel; today it’s capped by the letters of the city’s largest employer: UPMC, University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

The Duquesne Incline
The Duquesne Incline

Clearly, this is no longer a steel town, but an economy based on medicine and science and fed by fourteen colleges and universities nearby.

“It’s hard for us to shake that ‘steel town’ reputation,” said McArdle. “The US Steel coke works are 16 miles downriver.”

Riding by the River

We took a ride by the big, swift-flowing Allegheny river, a line of us on clownish cruiser bikes with just three gears and pedal brakes. The ride leader told us about an island called Washington’s Landing, where posh condos have been built.

“When they were building the tennis courts, they kept finding that they couldn’t keep them level. Then they dug them all up and found a mysterious black goo. It turned out that decades ago, this island was a burial ground for zoo animals. So it was old rhinoceros, elephant and zebra bones that were causing all of the bumps.”

But as I said, I knew I’d like this city because it’s got spunk. I don’t hate spunk, I love it, and more than a few people have told me today that they’d live nowhere else.

Last night we got a chance to see Pittsburgh from the Allegheny River aboard the Gateway Clipper. This huge party boat has four levels and is plenty big for hundreds of PR pros and tourism board people to mix with a handful of journalists while chugging up the river.

So Pretty

Roberto Clemente statue, outside PNC Park, home of the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Roberto Clemente statue, outside PNC Park, home of the Pittsburgh Pirates.

I heard more than a few people comment on this city. “The surprising thing for me is how nice it is here,” said a woman from California. “I just never knew Pittsburgh was so pretty and had so much. ”

Indeed, this meeting was a coup for the one-time steel city, where nobody has heated steel for more than 20 years. Still, it’s hard to shake that reputation of dirty, noisy, old city.

The river was indeed pretty as the sunlight glinted off the water, and we passed the Duquesne Incline, a famous attraction, that I would call a funicular. It rises up from the river level high up into a hillside neighborhood. People have ridden this for decades, and everyone here loves it.

After the cruise, we all fanned out throughout the city for a ‘dine around’ and I ended up at Elevens, a high-end place that was recommended by about five locals. It was the first place anybody mentioned when I asked about fine dining. The chicken was excellent, and our waiter had a very strong French accent, which was fun.

Cruising on the Ohio river in downtown Pittsburgh. Photo by Max Hartshorne.
Cruising on the Ohio River in downtown Pittsburgh. Photo by Max Hartshorne.

Advice for the Solo Traveler: Take a Seat at the Bar

Pittsburgh Point, at night. Mark Ludwig photo.
Pittsburgh Point, at night. Mark Ludwig photo.

I have some advice for solo travelers. Visit a restaurant with a long bar and sit near a corner.

Last night I took this advice and walked many blocks of the center city to find The Sonoma Grille, a large, airy place on Penn Avenue in the city’s Golden Triangle and theater district.

As is my custom, I found a seat at the bar and then after a while left to wash my hands. This place is owned by a chef named Yves who was born in Lyon. Sounds good.

When I returned, sitting right next to me was a young lady studying a menu. Like me, it was dinner for one. I began reading the local free newsweekly, The City Paper, as she looked over the long wine list.

The stories people tell are what fascinate me. I am glad I ventured out to the Sonoma Grille and learned her story, plus the tuna and chicken combo was really good with all of those sauces.

Pittsburgh is famous for the Golden Triangle, where the intersection of the Monongahela, Ohio and Allegheny rivers meet. At the tip is Point State Park, the district is compact due to the rivers that meet in a triangle. Mellon Square is the geographic center of the Triangle, a cavern of tall buildings like the Omni William Penn Hotel and the Union Arcade.

Pittsburgh may get little respect from people who’ve never been there—but I daresay after one visit you’ll agree it’s a fine city worthy of much better press.

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