When it comes to Pittsburgh, the city I like to call the well-known unknown, the skyline seems to be ever-evolving. That’s perhaps because Pittsburgh has been inventing and reinventing itself since the collapse of the steel industry in the 1980s, when it kind of fell off people’s mental radar.
But today it is regularly voted one of the most livable cities in the United States and was picked as one of the best places to visit in 2015 by Conde Nast Traveler.
After the 1980 collapse, massive numbers of Pittsburghers fled town for greener pastures. I found the resulting urban decay most noticeable when travelling by bike along the Monongahela River. Numerous abandoned chimneys stick out of nowhere (the accompanying factory being long gone), and bridges new and old fight for attention. Some of the bridges are a strange reddish-green colour due to being covered in rust mixed with Boston ivy.
Altogether, though, the city is surprisingly attractive-looking. The dozens of delightful Aztec yellow steel bridges are still as strikingly beautiful as when they were built in the 1920s.
Pittsburgh was always seen as a frontier town, one with many firsts—the first motion picture house, first gas station, first commercial radio station broadcast, first bingo game, and where the polio vaccine originated.
Located at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers, which form the Ohio River, Pittsburgh is known as the City of Bridges—it has 446 in all.
You won’t cross all of these fabulous bridges, of course, but are very likely to take the Andy Warhol and Roberto Clemente bridges, named after two famous Pittsburghers. The bridges, which connect the downtown to North Shore across the Allegheny River, are two links to Pittsburgh’s past.
Warhol’s career is captured at the Andy Warhol Museum, where an entire seven-story building is devoted to his works. His style became more and more and defined as his wildly different art projects and outrageous antics took off. It’s all there, from Brillo boxes to silk-screened photos of Marilyn Munroe.
Nearby in the Mexican War Street area you will find other unique avant-garde galleries like the Mattress Factory and Randyland.
Another highlight for visitors is the House Poem, where exiled Chinese poet and master calligrapher Huang Xiang covered his house with poetry. He came to Pittsburgh from China in 2004 as part of the City of Asylum program, which provides sanctuary to writers under threat in their native countries. He now lives in New York.
I stayed at two hotels during my trip, the first being the Wyndham Grand which is located on the Point, a 30-acre national park and the most historic area of Pittsburgh. This is where the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers meet to form the Ohio River, and the French and then the English built their forts.
Roberto Clemente, the Strip
After a baseball game at the PNC Park, I crossed the Roberto Clemente Bridge on my way back to my second hotel, The Renaissance. Given it was a baseball day the bridge was closed to car traffic, adding to the festive atmosphere. No one seemed to care that the home team had lost.
Roberto Clemente was easily the best baseball player to have ever played for the Pittsburgh Pirates. When he died unexpectedly in a plane crash in 1972, he was immediately elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. A hero of epic proportions in his native Puerto Rico, it took a Pittsburgh photographer to come up with the idea of collecting all his memorabilia into one museum.
The museum, located in an old Fire Hall north of the happening Strip District, has a huge selection of items relating to this baseball superstar. Also on display are signed baseballs from other Pittsburgh notables such as Mario Lemieux and Sidney Crosby.
If you can’t make it to this sports pilgrim site, then do visit the Strip to get a taste of Pittsburgh’s food universe. It’s where you’ll find a multicultural mixed plate, serving up some truly authentic fare from the city’s rich Slavic, Germanic, Arabic, and Italian past. Check out Sunseri Sunrise Bakery and meet the Strip’s unofficial mayor, Jimmy Sunseri.
Yes, Pittsburgh is proud of its gritty past. Although some made huge fortunes here—think Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, Thomas Mellon, and Henry John Heinz—most people worked tough jobs just to survive.
This point was touched on during an interview I had with Donald Warhola, one of Andy Warhol’s nephews. Warhola, who leads “gallery talks” at the Andy Warhol Museum, said that even at the height of his fame, his uncle was worried about making enough money to live on.
He also said that in spite of Warhol’s international renown, he remained a hometown boy at heart.
“My Uncle Andy would still call every week to inquire about the family and ask if we’d been to church,” he recalled.
Renaissance Hotel: www.renaissancepittsburghpa.com
Wyndham Grand Pittsburgh Hotel: www.wyndhamgrandpittsburgh.com
Bruce Sach is a veteran travel writer based in Ottawa.