When the young man in the baseball cap heard that my husband and I were visiting from out of town, his first question was: “Did you fly here?”
I assumed he wanted our opinion on the vast shopping options at Pittsburgh International Airport, which are so legendary that an airline ticket agent once urged me to select a three-hour layover there— on purpose. But when we told him we’d driven from Baltimore, he shook his head.
“Oh, you missed out,” he said. “Coming out of the Fort Pitt tunnel from the airport, the city skyline just smacks you in the face. It’s amazing.” Then he grabbed his girlfriend, a young lass visiting from Connecticut, and they embraced as our vintage wooden gondola slowly scaled the last hundred feet of the 635-foot Monongahela Incline.
Maybe the young man was right about us missing out, but as we left the incline station and stepped out into the night air atop Mount Washington, we didn’t feel cheated. Below, the Monongahela River was laid out like a wide black ribbon spanned by a half-dozen arched bridges. On the opposite shore, the lights of the downtown skyscrapers— most notably the 40-story Pittsburgh Plate Glass (PPG) tower— glittered. And downriver, in the darkness, lay the fabled point at which the “Mon” and the Allegheny come together to form the Ohio River.
Back in the mid-1800s, the German immigrants of Mount Washington, a sheer bluff once known as “Coal Hill” in honor of its vast mineral deposits, proposed the construction of inclines as a way to ease their vertical commute between the factories and mills on the river flats and their homes atop the hill (evidently they didn’t like to climb stairs any more than we moderns do). The Monongahela Incline opened on May 28, 1870, and was so successful that eventually 15 additional inclines were built throughout the city. But by the 1920s, with the advent of electric streetcars, tunnels and bridges, ridership on the inclines had plunged. Luckily, the city stepped in to acquire the Monongahela Incline (the nearby Duquesne Incline was saved by a nonprofit group that continues to operate it), thus preserving a 19th-century way of commuting for the city’s 21st-century office workers— and allowing tourists like us to take a steep ride into history. For $3.50 round trip, it’s the best launch to a visit in the ‘burgh.
Back down below, we strolled into the Pittsburgh and Lake Erie Railroad terminal, a 1901 building whose Beaux Arts interior is one of the most beautiful we’ve ever seen. The Grand Concourse (One Station Square, 412-261-1717) restaurant, legendary for fresh seafood and a sumptuous Sunday buffet brunch, now occupies the station’s waiting room, seating diners under the soaring tunnel vault ceiling with its stained-glass coffering (a much better view even than that offered at the restaurant’s riverside tables). Since we were saving ourselves for dinner at Café Allegro, a family-owned Italian restaurant on the South Side, we had a pint of Penn Pilsner, the “other” local brew (Iron City being the more ubiquitous) and a plate of raw oysters at the bar (once part of the station’s baggage area) and lamented the fact that Baltimore boasts nothing so grand as the P & LE station.
Later, at Café Allegro (51 S. 12th St., 412-481-7788), the owner took our coats and sighed when we asked about the crowd at the music venue across the street, Club Cafe. “My brother owns the place,” she said. “I wish I could get you in for Leon Redbone tonight, but I can’t even get myself in.”
Again, we weren’t disappointed. Like nearly every restaurant we visited in Pittsburgh, Café Allegro prides itself on fresh seafood— which I found a little odd, since Pittsburgh is pretty far from either ocean, and state-issued advisories caution against making more than a few meals per year of anything caught in the three rivers (though apparently they’re replete enough with bass that the 2005 Citgo Bassmaster Classic will be held in the city this summer). But our grilled calamari appetizer, bouillabaisse and grilled tuna in a red wine and peppercorn sauce were spectacular, as was the bread, baked in the restaurant’s bakery. When we pushed back from the table at 11 p.m. for a quick stroll along East Carson Street, the bars and coffee shops were jammed. But since our gracious quarters at the Omni William Penn Hotel awaited, we crossed the Smithfield Street Bridge (one of the oldest steel trusses in the country and considered one of Pittsburgh’s prettiest bridges) and headed downtown.
When the William Penn opened in 1916, it stunned locals and out-of-towners alike with its opulence, truly living up to industrialist Henry Clay Frick’s mission to bring “world class” to the sooty steel city. Then, as now, the Palm Court Lobby was a beautiful public gathering place, with its marble floors, walnut-pillared arcade inlaid with murals and three Czechoslovakian chandeliers, each weighing 500 pounds. The hotel, which cost $6 million to build, was one of the nation’s most modern for the day. Each room offered iced drinking water on tap, electric clocks (attached to a master timepiece that gave Western Union time) and private bathrooms— at a time when most homeowners used privies and hotel guests were content to share.
Today the William Penn’s lobby continues to bustle, frequented not only by hotel guests but also by folks who work in the neighboring office buildings. They bring in coffee from the adjoining Starbucks, lounge in the plush chairs and listen to the classical music piped through speakers— or take advantage of the hotel’s wireless network. On Friday evenings, a pianist plays a grand piano donated by famed conductor, composer and pianist Andre Previn, who led the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra from 1976 to 1984.
The next morning we struck out on foot to take a closer look at the PPG complex, marveling at the way Philip Johnson’s glass-meets-gothic structure echoes the many downtown churches. We counted five performing arts spaces in the 14-block Cultural District, including the Benedum Center for the Performing Arts, located in a restored early-20th-century movie palace, and the Michael Graves-designed O’Reilly Theater, whose 1999 opening was marked by the national premiere of native son August Wilson’s play “King Hedley II.” We also counted the downtown department stores (used to be four; now two) and the Starbucks outlets (at least 10— eat your heart out, Mayor O’Malley), before walking across the newly re-christened Andy Warhol Bridge to the city’s north side.
Born Andrew Warhola to two of Pittsburgh’s many Slovak immigrants, Andy Warhol studied commercial art at Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie-Mellon University) before moving to New York at age 21 to become one of the nation’s leading commercial artists— and eventually “The Prince of Pop.” The seven-story Andy Warhol museum (117 Sandusky St., 412-237-8300, http://www.warhol.org), lodged in a former warehouse, has an extensive collection of Warholia, from the massive “Camouflage,” to the Jackie and Mao series, to the Brillo boxes and Campbell’s Soup paintings. Almost as much attention is given to Warhol’s filmmaking, with displays of his Super-8 cameras, posters advertising his movies, a silver stool from The Factory (where Warhol had a camera running constantly from 1970 to 1976) and excerpts from his films.
The museum also exhibits the work of contemporary artists who influenced or were inspired by Warhol— “John Waters: Change of Life” will be there from May 21 to Sept. 4 — and makes intriguing comparisons between Warhol and figures like John Singer Sargent and Marcel Duchamp. And while the museum also does a good job of explaining (or, rather, illustrating) Pop Art and its mission to break down the barriers between fine and commercial art, it offers little insight into Warhol as a person beyond the workaholic artist. How did growing up in Pittsburgh, the son of immigrants, affect him? How did he reconcile his Catholicism with his more secular interests? Did he ever tire of the fame? The Warhol Museum is the largest devoted to a single artist in the nation, and yet it’s an impersonal place. Perhaps that is what Warhol would have preferred: it’s the art that matters, not the person who made it.
In our own effort to dissolve boundaries, that afternoon we took high tea in the gracious lobby of the William Penn, then headed to the Strip District, a flat 20-block-long “strip” of land on the banks of the Allegheny River, later that evening to sup at the original Primanti Bros. location (http://www.primantibros.com). We had heard about their sandwiches’ unique combination of meat, cheese, cole-slaw, tomato and french fries— and I harbored grave architectural doubts: how would one wedge such an ambitious pile of food into one’s mouth? Once I got my hands around my cappicola and cheese sandwich, I had my answer: the soft Italian bread both molds to and compresses the sandwich’s innards, allowing clean entry. And when you tire of the hand-to-mouth, you just remove the top slice of bread, request a fork and eat the fries and vinegary coleslaw as side dishes.
We returned to the Strip about 10:30 the next morning to find it transformed into a festival of sights— spring flowers, museum quality red peppers, Pittsburgh Steelers memorabilia— and smells— roasting peanuts, brewing espresso, fresh fish. Once a thriving industrial center in the early 19th century (the place where Andrew Carnegie got his start in iron and steel and Alcoa began production of aluminum), and later a center for wholesale produce, the Strip is now a jumble of produce stands, fish markets, ethnic stores, restaurants and street vendors hawking everything from Italian wedding cookies to Greek pastry to Polish sausage. In other words, it’s a terrific place to eat your way through a Saturday morning.
At Enrico’s Biscotti Co. (2022 Penn Ave., 412-281-2602), we chose a half-dozen fat handmade creations in flavors from pineapple to almond anise to ginger. Then we ducked into the café in back and shared a pizza cooked in their wood-burning oven, afterward joining the (Italian-speaking) throngs in La Prima Espresso Bar. Making our way across the street, we walked through Wholey’s Fish Market (much more than fish), checked out the mounds of fresh mozzarella at Sunseri’s and the rows of fresh pasta at the Pennsylvania Macaroni Co., and grabbed a hot pepperoni roll from Mancini’s bakery just in case we got hungry later. One writer described the Strip as “your grandmother’s kitchen crossed with the United Nations”— and that seems about right. Especially if your grandmother bakes macaroons like the nice lady we bought one from.
From the Strip, it’s an easy walk to the Senator John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Museum, the largest history museum in the state, or to a Pirates game at PNC Park. It’s also a short drive to the Carnegie museums of art and natural history in Oakland and the shops along Walnut Street in Shadyside.
Or you could drive out of the city, turn around and come through the Fort Pitt tunnel to get smacked in the face by the skyline.
Greater Pittsburgh Visitors and Convention Bureau, 1-877-LOVE-PGH, http://www.visitpittsburgh.com
The Omni William Penn Hotel is a classic grande dame with all the Old World charm and comforts— and the convenience of a great downtown location and amenities. The fitness room is located in the former gentlemen’s lounge, allowing you to collapse in front of the fireplace after an hour on the elliptical. Rates offered by various discount Web sites start at $113 (530 William Penn Place, 412-281-7100, http://www.omnihotels.com). A few blocks away is the almost-as-grande dame, the Renaissance Pittsburgh Hotel, built in 1906 by industrialist Henry Phipps, a partner of Andrew Carnegie’s. Rooms start at $164 (107 Sixth St., 412-562-1200, http://www.renaissancehotels.com/pitbr). Check out the hotel’s lobby, with its domed mosaic ceiling.
To dine on high (atop Mount Washington), try LeMont, where coat and tie are required and the view comes free with the five-star French and American cuisine (1114 Grandview Ave., 412-431-3100). For local “low food,” get a loaded dog and gravy fries at Weiner World downtown (626 Smithfield St.), where a sign proudly proclaims: “Jared does not eat here.” During a morning visit to the markets of The Strip district, stop at La Prima Espresso Bar (205 21st St., 412-281-1922) and Mancini’s bakery (1717 Penn Ave., 412-765-3545), where in addition to a half-pound pepperoni and cheese roll, they also sell fresh and frozen pierogies.
Lord & Taylor and Lazarus have, alas, gone the way of Baltimore’s downtown department stores, leaving just the 11-story Kaufmann’s (a Hecht’s lookalike) and the smaller Saks Fifth Avenue. East of downtown, in the Shadyside neighborhood, Walnut Street boasts every high-end chain you could want: Ann Taylor, L’Occitane— even a Mac store.
The Carnegie Museums of art and natural history, in Oakland across from the University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning, are definitely worth a visit (4400 Forbes Ave., 412-622-3131, http://www.carnegiemuseums.org), as is the Senator John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Museum (1212 Smallman St., 412-454-6000, http://www.pghhistory.org). Visit Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens (One Schenley Park, 412-622-6914, http://www.phipps.conservatory.org), to tour one of the nation’s largest and finest botanical conservatories. Clayton, the restored home of industrialist and art collector Henry Clay Frick, is part of the Frick Art and Historical Center, about 20 minutes from downtown (7227 Reynolds St., 412-371-0600, http://www.frickart.org).