Summer Road Trip: 36 Hours in Pittsburgh

Three rivers, plenty of bridges.
Three rivers, plenty of bridges. Photo by Brian Donovan Flickr CC

Regarded as the "city of champions," Pittsburgh, as we know all too well, is home to some great sports franchises. You can and should hate the Steelers, but there are plenty of reasons to love their city.

A mere two-hour drive southeast from Cleveland, the hilly city is located at the convergence of three rivers and offers great museums, plenty of touristy attractions, and a fine collection of terrific breweries and restaurants. The sporting facilities are all very modern and worth checking out (the baseball park, in particular, features great river views and ranks as one of MLB's finest venues; do try to plan your visit around a Pirates' homestand if at all possible).

As far as accommodations go, we recommend staying downtown. There are several great options. Located in a renovated 1903 building across from Mellon Square Park (which offers affordable self-parking), the Kimpton Monaco features a beautiful open-air rooftop biergarten. The hotel's Commoner restaurant, which delivers a twist on American tavern staples, attracts locals and tourists alike.

If you're looking for something old school, you might want to try the historic William Penn. Located just down the street from the Monaco, the William Penn opened way back in 1916. Over the decades, the place has hosted movie stars, politicians and other celebs. A series of vintage photos in the hotel's lobby area chronicles the place's illustrious history.

Newer additions include the Drury Plaza Hotel and Ace Hotel Pittsburgh, which is located in East Liberty.

The city's four Carnegie museums (Carnegie Museum of Art, Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Carnegie Science Center, the Andy Warhol Museum) rightly receive most of the attention. They all have plenty going for them, but we recommend seeking out some of the lesser known museums and galleries.

Well before Yayoi Kusama's infinity rooms were the sensations that they've become, the Mattress Factory featured a Yayoi Kusama infinity dots mirrored room. Within three old brick warehouse buildings on the "Mexican War" streets found on a residential part of the city's north side, the gallery regularly brings in forward-thinking art shows, and the unique space is worth exploring no matter what's currently on view.

While the ToonSeum, one of the country's only comic and cartoon museums, recently lost its lease on its small downtown space in the cultural arts district, the place will reportedly continue to be a presence on the local arts scene as its board of directors searches for a new home. It plans to host pop-up exhibits and lectures that will champion comics as a force for social good.

In Schenley Park, near the University of Pittsburgh campus, the Phipps Conservatory is one of the city's most venerable institutions. Its goal is "to inspire and educate all with the beauty and importance of plants," and it regularly goes above and beyond the call of duty. Currently celebrating its 125th anniversary, the place features an enormous 14-room glasshouse filled with exotic plants. The 15-acre campus includes 23 gardens, and the Phipps hosts seasonal shows and commissioned exhibits.

Much like Cleveland, Pittsburgh boasts a thriving craft brewery scene. Staples include Penn Brewing and Church Brew Works. Penn Brewing started brewing back in 1986, well before the craft brewing trend took off. Housed in a historic complex that's been restored, the brewery also features a restaurant that serves up ethnic Pittsburgh fare (think wurst, schnitzel, pierogi and goulash).

Another staple on the craft brewery scene, Church Brew Works also includes a terrific restaurant with an extensive menu. The conversion from a church to a brewery is really impressive and is worth a visit for the interior architecture alone. The pews have become dining tables, and one confessional now functions as a gift shop. Steel-and-gold brew tanks now sit on the altar.

Recent notable additions to the craft brewery scene include a satellite for New York-based Southern Tier on the North Shore, and Bethel Park's Spoonwood Brewing Co., in an airplane hangar-like building that features an enormous outdoor patio. Lawrenceville's Roundabout Brewing just sold growlers when it opened five years ago, but it now features a tasting room where you can buy beers by the glass. In Homestead, inside an old firehouse that's been only partially restored, Voodoo Brewery has a great atmosphere, and there's always an extensive draft list that includes a few beers on nitro.

Speaking of alcohol, we're particularly fond of Wigel Whiskey Distillery and Maggie's Farm Rum Distillery, the city's two main distilleries. Located in the Strip District, Wigel features a tasting room where you can buy bottles to go and sample the various spirits. Tours are particularly popular (and include a free drink). While at Wigel, you can also order from a list of specialty cocktails.

Like many Midwestern and Rust Belt cities, Pittsburgh's dining scene has exploded in recent years. Apteka and B52 have received acclaim for offering region-specific vegan fare, and we really like Onion Maiden, a vegan place with a heavy metal theme. It's worth a trip just to check out the cool Onion Maiden hoodies and T-shirts.

A visit to the Strip District is always worthwhile. We recommend going on a Saturday morning when it's the busiest and all the stores are open. No matter the time of year, the Strip District attracts a big crowd on the weekends, and vendors set up shop along Smallman Street or Penn Avenue.

Restaurants, grocery stores and other assorted shops line the streets, and local farmers sell produce during the summer months. The original Primanti Brothers sandwich shop is here, and it's open 24 hours. You'll find a huge selection of imported candy at Mon Aimee Chocolat, a tiny store that's generally elbow-to-elbow with customers. Peace, Love and Little Donuts, the popular donut shop where you can pick from assorted toppings, also has a Strip District location. And you can find repurposed furniture and vintage items at Hot Haute Hot.

Though the Strip District has its share of nightclubs, Carson Street offers a bit more in that department. The stretch of clubs and bars is among the longest you'll find in the entire country. Fat Head's Saloon, the place that birthed the Cleveland brewery we cherish, is on Carson Street, as well as restaurants such as the Double Wide Grill, a converted gas station that features a menu with many veggie options. Music venues such as Club Cafe, Rex Theater and the Smiling Moose are all on Carson Street, too, if you want to add a show to your weekend. SouthSide Works, an open-air retail, office and residential complex, sits at the end of Carson Street. It's home to a Hofbrauhaus and SouthSide Works Cinemas, a multiplex operated by the folks from Cleveland Cinemas (if you got a Cleveland Cinemas gift card, be sure to bring it with you).

If the shopping and restaurant options at SouthSide Works are too conventional for you, you'll find a slew of funky, cool restaurants and shops in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood. Sitting just east of downtown, it's home to a large Jewish population and features Middle Eastern, Chinese and Jewish restaurants. Independent Brewing Company offers an extensive local draft list, and we particularly like Manor Theatre, an art house movie theater with a cocktail bar. Its history dates back more than 90 years.

Pittsburgh has an Improv Comedy Club at the Waterfront, an enormous open-air shopping center in Homestead. It's a fine choice, but we recommend the Arcade Comedy Club. The club, in the Cultural District, first opened five years ago in a space that had only 75 seats. Just last year, it moved into a bigger space that features two stages, a lounge and a classroom space. The shows tend to feature improv more than standup, but the regulars are so solid, they make the Arcade come off as Pittsburgh's answer to Second City. And we're particularly fond of the BYOB policy (though it comes with a ticket surcharge).

Pittsburgh is also home to two casinos. The Rivers Casino, which opened about 10 years ago, sits next to the Carnegie Science Center and features great river views and a terrific buffet. You can walk to it from downtown.

Pittsburgh does offer its share of tourist-y attractions, and since you're a tourist, you should hit at least one. Our top pick: Ride an inclined-plane railroad to the top of Mt. Washington and get great views of the city (during the day or night). You can also take a Three Rivers Sightseeing Cruise.

Pittsburgh has evolved into a destination city that hasn't lost its character, and it's so damn close it'd be a shame not to spend a summer weekend there. Just be prepared to put up with seeing Steelers' logos everywhere you go.

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About The Author

Jeff Niesel

Jeff has been covering the Cleveland music scene for more than 20 years now. And on a regular basis, he tries to talk to whatever big acts are coming through town, too. If you're in a band that he needs to hear, email him at [email protected].
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