PITTSBURGH is a big clunking American city that spans a long valley. The surprisingly verdant slopes twist and wind around the convergence of two rivers, which are spanned by a beautiful selection of old iron bridges. This is a city that is rightly proud of its industrial past and is now trying to carve a new path in a changing industrial environment. The bridges are an indication of the size of the steel building capacity that Pittsburgh’s old mills once had. Today, tech companies and research labs provide the employment. The Heinz History Centre is packed with odds and ends that tell the story of the city and of the wealthy families that pioneered building techniques that helped shape the U.S.A. and beyond.
Pittsburgh is long and made up of different neighbourhoods. Renting a car is probably advisable if you want to see it all. Most of the large hire companies have offices in the baggage claim area of the airport. You can use car apps if you prefer not to drive yourself and there are some public transport options, such as bus and the T system, which are both good value.
Downtown, like a lot of American cities, is having a resurgence, people and small business are moving back and injecting new life into the high glass corridors. The Strip is also an interesting neighbourhood to explore. My favourite area, however, is Lawrenceville. Grab an iced coffee in Espresso a Mano and take a stroll, exploring vintage shops, bakeries, and galleries that line the streets. There are great household bargains to be found, if you have room in your suitcase. This was a wealthy city at the turn of the century, with grand old houses whose castoffs are very beautiful. I picked up some vintage champagne glasses for $2 each and cradled them on the plane journey home.
Morcilla is the second restaurant by award-winning chef Justin Severino, both are in Lawrenceville. Morcilla is influenced by the tapas of Spain but with an attention to local ingredients well crafted. Severino has trained as a butcher and specialises in making his own charcuterie, which he matches beautifully with more delicate ingredients. You could stop by Church Brew Works before or after dinner. It is literally a brewery in a church. You can sit in the pews and sip a selection of their beers while bathe in the light from the huge stained glass windows.
Pittsburgh is film-set America where things are big, brash and bright, but the city has a soft side as well.
The residents of the city were horrified when Trump used their name when pulling out of the Paris Agreement and were vocal in saying so. Trump proclaimed ‘I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris’. The city’s Mayor announced, “I can assure you that we will follow the guidelines of the Paris Agreement for our people, our economy and future”.
Conflict Kitchen is an interesting food project that was located downtown, it serves a revolving menu of food from countries that the U.S. is at war with. The aim is to highlight the futility of the wars and also to build integration between the communities effected. Another fascinating place to visit are The Nationality Rooms in the building called The Cathedral of Learning on the university campus. It is a hulking Late Gothic Revival tower, which boasts the title of the tallest educational building in the Western hemisphere. You can book tours and get an insight into this very strange but interesting building.
Pittsburgh has been designated as a City of Asylum. The project was set up to welcome writers who have had to flee persecution in their home countries. Houses in the Mexican War Streets neighbourhood are provided to artists and writers for periods of time, and over the years these have been decorated with layers of texts and drawings creating a bright and beautiful palimpsest. The street that brings you to the art gallery called The Mattress Factory is a rainbow of eccentricity, with sanctuary houses lining the narrow alleyway and Randyland is on a corner close by. Randyland is a perfect example of the quirky eccentricity of outsider America, a house and garden with layers of memorabilia and paint collected by its colourful inhabitant, Randy.
The Mattress Factory is a vast set of spaces where international artists are invited on residencies. The residencies allow them the time and space to respond to their surroundings. The Mattress Factory is a good example of optimism that allows things to happen, that mixed with the huge fall in the cost of property in Pittsburgh in the 70s. The owners bought an old factory and created a hub for art, they have since renovated nine buildings in the area and are credited for being a huge catalyst in the revitalisation of the local community.
The ACE Hotel is on the other side of town in The East Liberty district, it feels like something from further south, an old time South Carolina hotel with its bar serving good old-fashioned bourbon cocktails, on the rocks. The bright airy room is a nice place to cool down in the afternoon heat and the food is really good. Do have a look at the old gymnasium in the back of the hotel, it is straight out of an 80s’ brat-pack film.
Dive Bars are quintessentially American, the most authentic dive bar I came across in Pittsburgh was Gooski’s, it is dark inside with a great selection of rock anthems on the jukebox and pitchers of local beers. For music Mr Smalls Funhouse is a good gig venue. For something completely different but equally as American, with bustling, waist-jacketed waiters whisking around trays laden with huge plates, Monterrey Bay Fish Bar has great views over the city. You can take the ancient cable car that cranks up and down the hill, it will leave you almost to the restaurant door. It is very beautiful at sun-down.
The Andy Warhol Museum is housed in an old building downtown, it is worth taking a few hours to explore and fully take in all of its elements. There is a huge variety of ephemera, old drawings and notes from Warhol’s life. I got beautifully lost wandering and watching films, absorbing the romance of a by-gone New York, which had Warhol at its epicenter. I found it fascinating, I do have a soft spot for the superstars of Warhol’s Factory, but even if you are coming to this material for the first time it is great to see it gathered in one, beautiful, place. The depth of colour in some of his prints was eye opening, I had only before seen them in books. They bounced off the walls with an intense, vibrant, neon saturation.
Baseball, ice-hockey and football are all ingrained in the local psyche. Tickets to local ice-hockey and football games can be hard to come by, but it is easy enough to get a ticket for a local baseball game. Although games are famous for dragging on for hours it is fun to view the spectacle (and you can leave before the end).
The Pirates stadium is within walking distance of downtown and the buzz is worth a few hours. The food in the stadium is as you would expect hot-dogs, massive cardboard trays of chill cheese fries and big glasses of beer.
Pittsburgh is an interesting city in itself but you can also use it as a base to visit the Fallingwater House, an hour and a half drive away. It is one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s most famous buildings. The cantilevered house is integrated into the waterfall it straddles. Completed in 1937 it is a beautiful example of when architecture works in harmony with its surroundings.
Where to eat
Where to stay
AirBnB — www.airbnb.ie;
Wow Air fly from Dublin to Pittsburgh with an hour and a half stop-over in Reykjavik airport. Wow Air are doing quite a clever thing; flying five planes in from various European cities at one time and an hour and a half later flying five other planes out, to five American cities. It means you can now get to places like Miami or Pittsburgh from Brussels or Dublin far easier than before — wowair.ie