For most people the very mention of Pittsburgh conjures up images of heavy industry and skies black with smoke. And while such vistas were true a century ago and are still coded in the name of the successful local NFL team, the Steelers, the contemporary reality is of an attractive and vibrant modern city, which is frequently voted one of America’s most liveable. There is also no shortage of cultural attractions for the visitor. So here are ten reasons to make a visit to Pittsburgh.
Not many cities can boast a grand entrance but if you approach Pittsburgh from the airport through the Fort Pitt tunnel, you are treated to the edifying vision of the gleaming glass and steel towers of the compact downtown area being suddenly thrust in front of you as you emerge. Make sure you also climb Mount Washington on one of the two funicular incline railways to admire the view at greater leisure.
Although the famous avant garde artist Andy Warhol himself disowned the city of his birth, perhaps Pittsburgh’s greatest draw is the museum built in his honour and housing a vast collection of his work. Indeed, the seven-storey building is a treasure trove of iconic Marilyn Monroes, Campbell’s soup cans and other pop art images. Show up on a Friday evening for frequent events and a lively bar in the foyer at Good Fridays.
Not just any old beans either. This is the home of the Heinz food empire and in true philanthropist tradition, the family donated the funds for the excellent Senator John Heinz Pittsburgh History Center, which recounts the story of the “Burgh’s” growth and emotively focuses on the immigrants of different epochs who have given the city its identity, such as the many Eastern Europeans, Italians and African Americans. Heinz Field is the name of the Steelers riverside stadium too.
Pittsburgh is where two rivers with the delightful tongue-twisting Native American names of the Allegheny and the Monongahela merge to form the Ohio before it winds its way west towards the mighty Mississippi. All sorts of fun activities can be enjoyed on various stretches of these waterways. A 2006 study also counted a staggering 446 bridges within the city limits, thus outstripping Venice to the tune of three as the city with the greatest number in the world.
Pittsburgh natives never tire of talking about their beloved sports teams and passionately flock in hordes to the stadia where they play. Pride of place goes to the Steelers, who have won the NFL’s prestigious Superbowl six times, more than any other team. Ice hockey outfit the Penguins have also been no slouches in the rink, lifting the Stanley Cup three times and invariably reaching the playoffs. Even the Pirates have been showing signs of life in baseball’s National League after years in the doldrums.
Pittsburgh has a strong tradition of wealthy philanthropists such as Andrew Carnegie, who funded a number of key institutions. These include the adjacent Museum of Art and Natural History Museum, housed together in a grand Neoclassical edifice in Oakland, the hi-tech riverfront Science Center and the aforementioned Warhol Museum. Together with the Mellon banking dynasty, the foundation also endowed the elite Carnegie Mellon University. Then there was Henry Clay Frick...
Most people associate the name Frick with the famous art gallery in New York but Carnegie’s steel associate or, more precisely, his daughter Helen Frick left the legacy of the Frick Art & Historical Center in a leafy corner of Point Breeze. The fine art collection focuses on nineteenth-century European masterpieces. All in all, the artistic heritage of the Carnegie, Frick and Warhol collections is furthered by frequent street art festivals and other happenings like Art All Night.
Although it has long since emerged from its post-industrial gloom, one of Pittsburgh’s most endearing features is its earthiness. It’s a bastion of Democrat-leaning blue collar neighbourhoods such as Polish Hill, full of quaint onion-shaped church domes, and Italian-influenced Bloomfield. Meanwhile Oakland is a buzzing student enclave and further east Squirrel Hill is home to many Orthodox Jews.
The city has a surprisingly cutting-edge scene when it comes to music and nightlife. There are numerous cool bars and venues such as Brillobox, Thunderbird Cafe, the Altar Bar and Club Cafe, which represent the hip neighbourhoods of Bloomfield, Lawrenceville, the Strip District and South Side respectively. Pittsburgh has also spawned some great bands in the shape of Anti-Flag, Black Moth Super Rainbow and The Cynics.
Last but not least, Pittsburgh has even been designated a spiritual nexus by indigenous peoples such as the Mayans, as well as New Age spiritual leaders. This is because the Point, in downtown where the three rivers meet beneath the skyscrapers, is also fed by a fourth underground stream, which makes it a place of global, not to mention cosmic, significance – what would be called a holy sangam in India. So do your karma some good and spend a weekend in Pittsburgh.