Pittsburgh, PA: So Much to Discover!

The center of Pittsburgh, photos by Frances J.Folsom
The center of Pittsburgh, photos by Frances J. Folsom

Pittsburgh: From Rivers of Steel to the Warhol Museum

By Frances Folsom

Pittsburgh's skyline from West End Overlook.Twenty years ago if you mentioned to anyone that you were going to Pittsburgh their response would’ve been “Why? Everything is covered with coal dust from the steel mill?”

Inside the Carnegie Museum's dinosaur exhibit in Pittsburgh, PA.
Inside the Carnegie Museum's dinosaur exhibit in Pittsburgh, PA.

That was true then; today Pittsburgh has come a long way from its steel mill city days to being known for healthcare, robotics, and high tech companies-- think Google, Apple, Uber and Intel.

In 1980 almost all the steel mills closed, mainly because the owners didn’t want to adhere to new regulations put on them by the Environmental Protection Agency. This put thousands of people out of work. With no steel mills, people moved away diminishing Pittsburgh’s population.

Strip District in Pittsburgh.
Strip District in Pittsburgh.

The upside of this is it forced the Pittsburgh city council members to clean up the city and develop a new economic plan channeling money and efforts into making it “green” and to arts and culture.

Today the Allegheny, Monongahela and the Ohio rivers sparkle and Pittsburgh is the 5th greenest city in America.

Conde Nast Traveler has named Pittsburgh as one of the best places in the world to visit. The NY Times and other publications frequently rave about the excitement and vibe of the city. It's truly seen a renaissance!

This is a city that I have come back to time after time always finding something to pique my interest. I have only seen five of its ninety neighborhoods. I guess that means I’ll have to go back to see the rest.

Rivers of Steel

The history of the steel factories is kept alive by the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area. At three sites, the historic Bost Building, the Pump House, site of the Homestead Steel Strike of 1892 and the Carrie Blast Furnace, guides tell you how Andrew Carnegie started his steel empire here in the 19th century. Carnegie and his business partner Henry Clay Frick made Pittsburgh the world’s largest producer of steel. Frick controlled the coal that Carnegie needed to make steel.

Rivers of Steel has developed self-guided driving tours. Their Routes to Roots covers five counties taking you to mill towns where you get a deeper sense of the history of steelmaking in the area.

History and Landmarks

Pittsburgh’s downtown has incredibly beautiful architecture. The Romanesque style Allegheny Courthouse and County Jail was designed in 1884 by Henry Hobson Richardson famous for his Trinity Church in Boston. Philip Johnson’s Pittsburgh Plate Glass building is a gleaming tower over Market Square. The Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation offers guided tours of the downtown and several of the city’s ninety neighborhoods.

The fourteen block Cultural District between Liberty Avenue and Fort Duquesne Boulevard is home to galleries, public parks boasting outdoor art installations, and theaters offering plays, symphony, opera and ballet performances.

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The Strip

Within walking distance of downtown is The Strip. This half-mile swath of land is lined with 19th-century factory buildings that are now filled with fish markets, spice shops, ethnic food markets, cafes and restaurants. On weekends street vendors selling handmade arts and crafts line the sidewalks.

Stoke up on a hearty breakfast at Pamela’s or Kelly O’s. If you want biscotti Enrico’s has the best, for fresh pasta stop by the Pennsylvania Macaroni Company or get homemade sausages at Parma Sausage. The pierogis and stuffed cabbage at S&D Deli have even been featured on the Travel Channel’s Bizarre Foods.

Primanti Brothers is an institution here. Since 1933 Primanti’s has made gigantic sandwiches with everything between the bread even French fries. This place is always busy so be prepared to stand in line. Trust me, never ask for the fries on the side. A hush will come over the restaurant because you deemed to ask the unimaginable.

Contemporary Craft and The History Center

The Society for Contemporary Craft, on the fringe of the Strip, is filled with artworks by local artisans.

Some of the must sees at the Senator John Heinz History Center are; Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood with a reproduction of the set used on the popular PBS television show and a life-size statue of Fred Rogers, a Pittsburgh native, wearing his trademark red sweater.

The Heinz Exhibit pays tribute to the company’s history, founded here in 1879, with interactive displays. The Sports Museum of Western Pennsylvania holds everything you will ever want to know about the Steelers (football), the Pirates (baseball) and the Penguins (hockey).

It's amazing that a city with less than 750,000 boasts THREE major league professional sports teams....and that they're all pretty good too! Sports is a big part of Pittsburgh culture--you'll see more Steelers and Penguins gear on the streets than in any other fan-filled city.

Art and History

Henry Clay Frick and his wife Adelaide were collectors of fine art. Their home, Clayton ca. late 1870’s, is an Italianate mansion filled with art by Monet, Childs Hassan, John Beatty and George Hetzel. The Frick Art & Historical Center houses a vast collection of fine and decorative arts.

At the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens you can admire hundreds of different varieties of plants. The conservatory is all about leaving no footprints on the earth. Since 2006 it has been the “greenest” conservatory in the world.

Their welcome center is built underground with a grass roof to conserve energy. The Center for Sustainable Landscapes is a LEED Platinum building recycling the conservatory’s water and producing its own energy.

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Pittsburgh has the only museum in the country with the largest collection of works by one artist – Andy Warhol. Why? Because he was born and raised in Pittsburgh and is buried here. A camera at his grave records images onto a screen in the museum’s lobby.

Warhol Museum

The North Shore River Walk in Pittsburgh.
The North Shore River Walk in Pittsburgh.

Inside the Warhol Museum are pictures of a young blonde-haired Andy before he became “Warhol”. The art consists of his iconic pop-art; the Campbell’s SoupThe North Shore River Walk in Pittsburgh. Can that he painted as a nod to the Heinz family, and his portraits of Elizabeth Taylor, Jackie Kennedy, and Marilyn Monroe to name a few.

Steel magnate Andrew Carnegie’s dream was to bring the world to Pittsburgh. In this effort, he established the Carnegie Library, the Carnegie Museum of Art, the Museum of Natural History and the Carnegie Technical Schools, now Carnegie-Mellon University. This complex is one-stop shopping for culture.

Natural History

After ogling the dinosaurs at the Natural History Museum you can walk over to the art museum to get your fill of art by Jasper Cropsy, John F. Kensett, John Singer Sargent, Monet and Degas.

Getting Around
Threading around the city are miles of trails for biking or walking. Schenley Park has 400 acres of trails and woods. Great views of downtown surround you while biking or walking Point State Park. The Pump House at the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area is a trailhead for seven trails that go along riverfronts and re-purposed railroad tracks.

The Great Allegheny Passage stretches from Point State Park 335 miles through small towns in Pennsylvania and Maryland to Washington DC. Costing $80 million to complete the Passage blends with the 185 mile long C&O Canal Towpath in Cumberland Maryland. This is perhaps the ultimate bike and walking path!

This is just the tip of the iceberg in what Pittsburgh has to offer. In the many times I have come here I have never left without planning my next visit. To learn more about Pittsburgh check out Visit Pittsburgh.

When Fran Folsom isn't on the road she resides in Cambridge MA.


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