A WEEKEND IN THE STEEL CITY
Over the weekend, Ashley and I drove to Pittsburgh, PA for a couple days away from home. We only made the plans two weekends earlier after realizing we'd be without our pup (she went to my parents' for the weekend) and we had nothing on our agenda already. Cincinnati is only 4.5 hours from Pittsburgh, making it easily drivable in an afternoon. Friends of ours live in DC, which is also about 4 hours from Pittsburgh, so we invited them to meet us.
We left on a Friday afternoon and arrived around 6:30 PM. After seeing the amazing city reveal from the mouth of the Fort Pitt Tunnel (no photo because I was driving), we checked into our hotel on Penn Avenue and headed out to explore downtown.
THREE SISTERS BRIDGES
We walked along Fort Duquesne Boulevard, checking out the Three Sisters Bridges along the way.
The three bridges are named for Roberto Clemente (baseball player), Andy Warhol (artist), and Rachael Carson (marine biologist). All three were built between 1926 and 1928. The Roberto Clemente bridge, otherwise known as the 6th Street bridge, replaced an existing John Roebling-designed suspension bridge.
POINT STATE PARK
We then made our way to Point State Park—the tip of which intersects where the Allegheny, Ohio, and Monongahela Rivers come together. Many people were there to enjoy the sunset and riverfront. Riverboats drifted around the area, while motorboats idled just off shore.
From the park, you could see the Duquesne Incline, Heinz Field, Fort Pitt Tunnel, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette building, and several hotels/condo buildings.
After enjoying the scenery (it was really quite a nice park), we walked back into the central business district to see what was downtown. Our first impression was courtesy of this combo in front of the Wyndham Grand hotel: an elaborately designed crosswalk and a novelty sign that made us smile.
Pittsburgh is often compared to Cincinnati for myriad reasons. While I agree it bears similarities, it’s also different in as many small ways. It’s alleys feel deeper and grungier—more like something you’d find in NYC. It has fast food we don’t have in Downtown Cincinnati, like McDonald’s and Arby’s. Bike lanes, both protected and unprotected, line the sides of several streets. There are noticeably less murals. Train tracks run through the northern part of the city, connecting to an inner-city Amtrak station.
All in all, Downtown Pittsburgh felt good to walk through. It felt larger than Downtown Cincinnati, but not totally alien. The following photos were taken over two days.
THE STRIP DISTRICT
On our second day, we had breakfast at Kelly O’s (which had a funny, aggressive list of rules above the doorway to the dining room) and walked the city’s Strip District. It felt like if Findlay Market was elongated and had 1000% more traffic. Candy shops, fresh produce, sports apparel, sandwich shops, and more lined either side of the street. I could’ve spent all day going through each shop.
After the Strip, we hiked Riverwalk Park where we could see all of the 16th Street Bridge. Built in 1922, the bridge features three “humps” flanked on either shore by tall, stone pillars bedecked with ornate tops. It was my favorite bridge we’d seen up to that point. What looked to be the former Heinz factory, which after a quick Google revealed is now possibly apartments, was directly behind it. Its double smokestacks instantly drew my eye.
Riverwalk Park is great because it’s as bike-friendly as it is pedestrian-friendly. We saw substantially more cyclists on the path than we did walkers. It was a lovely day for a ride. Without cars sharing the path, I imagine bicycling along the river’s edge is a lot of fun. It was certainly nice for a walk.
From there, we cabbed up to the Duquesne Incline. As a fan of Cincinnati’s long-lost inclines, this particular bit of the trip was my most anticipated part. The incline originally opened in 1877 and, according to it’s hilariously Comic Sans-laden website, was restored in 1963. Exact change (re: cash) was required, and the car didn’t have air conditioning. It took about 3-4 minutes to get from the bottom to the top.
At the top of the incline is a museum all about its history, as well as a wall of photos of other inclines around the world. Of course, I spotted a framed photo of Cincinnati’s Bellevue Incline (fourth photo). As I scanned the wall, I also noticed a picture of the very first incline I ever rode in Bridgnorth, England back in 2013 (fifth photo). Remembering that ride and seeing it represented on this wall in Pittsburgh made me happy.
It goes without saying that the view from the top of the Dusquesne Incline is tremendous. I’ve seen it before in photos, but it was even better seeing it in person. I walked up and down the street trying to find the best angle; the platform by the incline seemed to be the best vantage point for photos.
Our cab driver on the way to the Duquesne Incline mentioned visiting the other incline (Monongahela Incline) at night for “the best view of the city.” Figuring I wouldn’t be able to get to work that into our loaded weekend schedule, I took full advantage of the Duquesne view I did get to see while there.
It was hot, so we ducked into the Grandview Saloon for a pint and a bite. Our buffalo chicken dip was $16 and our beers were a staggering $9.50 a piece. Paying that much for bar food wasn’t ideal, but at least the view from the table was excellent. At least, that’s what we told ourselves to justify the bill.
From there, we cabbed to Randyland—a public art “museum” full of colorful, upcycled craziness on the north side of Pittsburgh. Mannequins, plastic fruit, old TVs, flamingos and dinosaurs, rotary phones, and many other odds and ends strategically litter the property in an artistic, fun fashion. Though it looks chaotic at first glance, it’s clearly well-curated. Randy Gilson, the man for whom the property is named, spent the last +20 years creating the iconic space that’s since become one of Pittsburgh’s biggest cultural attractions. We read about Randyland on almost every “essential Pittsburgh” lists we found, and it didn’t disappoint. It was by far the most photogenic block we found the whole weekend.
Once we’d satisfied our eyeballs with enough Randyland sweetness, we cabbed over to Pittsburgh’s Oakland neighborhood to the Phipps Conservatory. Oakland is on the eastern side of the city, so it was the longest cab we’d hailed yet.
While we didn’t actually pay to go inside Phipps, we briefly admired it from the outside and stepped foot inside the lobby to see its hanging Chihuly sculpture.
While the exterior of Phipps was nice, I couldn’t help but notice something in the distance: a skyscraper that looked…different. A quick Google revealed it was the Cathedral of Learning, and it was only a half mile away. I had to go see it.
While we walked toward the skyscraper, we stopped off at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. Andrew Carnegie, the unbelievably rich Pittsburgh steel magnate, used his enormous wealth to fund its construction in 1895. Of course, this wasn’t the only Carnegie Library; more than 2,500 others would be built all over the globe. Even the Cincinnati region has its own group of Carnegie Libraries.
Upon entering, a security guard asked me not to take photos with my DSLR, so I used my iPhone to get what I could. The interior, while updated, still bears many original architectural features. The first floor staircase, as you’ll see in the gallery below, was the crown jewel.
An old water fountain and diplodocus with a Terrible Towel wrapped around its neck outside the library were also notable additions to this stop.
CATHEDRAL OF LEARNING
We proceeded toward the Cathedral of Learning after leaving the library. As we approached from the back, we passed Heinz Memorial Chapel. A wedding party was unsurprisingly taking photos outside.
I wandered around the Cathedral of Learning, taking photos of its exterior from every conceivable angle. Building the Late Gothic Revival skyscraper was apparently a slow affair. Construction started in 1926 and didn’t finish until 1934. It was formally dedicated in 1937.
The Cathedral is also apparently the tallest educational building in the Western Hemisphere, and the second-tallest Gothic structure in the world. It stands 42 stories tall in total. Below are photos of its exterior.
But I wasn’t prepared for its interior. As I entered, my head was immediately thrown backward to gaze up at the four-story, vaulted ceiling overhead. My jaw dropped to the floor. It was magnificent.
I wandered around the hall and up some stairs to the second level for a few different perspectives. I could’ve spent the rest of the day in there and still not seen enough of it. I hope the photos below do it justice.
We took the elevator to the 36th floor where the Honors College is, but for whatever reason, I didn’t take any photos aside from the view from the top. Unfortunately, the two sides we wanted to see were behind locked doors.
CHURCH BREW WORKS
Keeping with the non-secular theme, we got a cab from the Cathedral of Learning to Church Brew Works, a brew pub in Lower Lawrenceville. We ate pierogies and I enjoyed my favorite type of beer—a coconut stout. The brew pub is located in a converted church, similar to Taft’s Ale House in Over-the-Rhine. Large brewing containers occupy the altar today.
With satisfied stomachs, we cabbed back downtown to take a walk. Our friends called it a night, so Ashley and I wandered around the central business district as twilight approached. Having enjoyed the Duquesne Incline earlier that day, we looked toward the Monongahela Incline, which was lit with blue lights on the hill in the distance. We decided to walk over to it after asking a cop for directions.
We crossed the Smithfield Street Bridge (built 1883) over to South Shore. The light was growing weaker on the horizon while the city brightened across the river. I had to grab a couple photos to commemorate the picture-perfect scene. You can see the Mon Incline in the first photo (look for the blue strips of light).
Getting to the Mon Incline was pretty easy. It was just across the road and down a block from where the bridge lets off. The incline house was packed, so we bought our tickets at a machine inside and got into the hefty queue.
The Mon Incline was different from Duquesne. Instead of a single deck cabin full of people, it’s tiered, not unlike stadium-style seating at a modern movie theater. Each level fits eight people. An ornate grate at the top level is open to the elements, allowing airflow to travel into the cabin and out several fist-sized holes in the bottom level window. A gross, bulbous spider had made a web near one of those holes, but we only noticed it at the end of our trip up, thankfully. The photos below are of the house at the top of the incline. The fourth photo is of the top level of the incline cabin.
To no one’s surprise, the view was breathtaking. The cab driver who said it was the “best view of the city” was right. It was especially beautiful at night. Pittsburgh looked huge from that hill.
It was crowded and cars were racing up and down the street at obnoxious speeds. The homes across the street, which I imagine are worth ungodly amounts of money, must be used to traffic noise and constant pedestrians lurking just beyond their front yard.
After taking in the sights and walking up and down the aptly named Grandview Avenue, we wandered over to Shiloh Street for some ice cream at DiFiore’s Ice Cream Delite. It was about 10:00 PM at that point, and the ice cream shop was closing at 10:30. We quickly ordered treats and sat beneath the awning’s fluorescent lights. They cut the power to the sign and lights 30 seconds after I took these photos.
After an absolutely full day, we took the incline back down to South Shore, crossed the bridge, and walked back to the hotel on Penn Avenue. That end-of-the-day shower felt amazing.
UNION STATION & FIRST PRESBYTERIAN
The next day, we got coffee at Crazy Mocha and walked around downtown. While on our walk, we discovered two buildings that stood out. First, we came across The Pennsylvanian, an apartment building that was once home to Pittsburgh’s Union Station. Designed by famed architect Daniel Burnham, the building opened in 1903 and features a marvelous rotunda with circular skylight and ornate details. It’s a Beaux Arts masterpiece if I’ve ever seen one. Had I not seen the Cathedral of Learning the day before, I would’ve proclaimed this the most jaw-dropping bit of architecture I’d seen on the trip. The modern Amtrak station is still attached to the structure.
Then we found First Presbyterian Church several blocks away. The Gothic Revival church was built in 1905, but its congregation is said to date back to possibly 1773. For comparison, the settlers who founded Losantiville (and later Cincinnati) didn’t even arrive to the area until 15 years after that Pittsburgh congregation was formed.
Though we didn’t have time to go inside, something about that inner-city church really stuck with me. I particularly liked the built-in stone podium that faces the street for what I assume was for facilitating outdoor sermons. Also of note are the church’s service times that are literally carved into stone (third photo).
ANDY WARHOL MUSEUM
We checked out of the hotel and met up with our friends across the river at the Andy Warhol Museum. We did all seven floors and it was fine. Not a huge Warhol fan, but it was an interesting museum. I’m most fond of his early paintings. Count me out when it comes to his filmmaking.
The whole weekend, though, I’d been waiting to eat Primanti Brothers. I’d been told countless times that it’s Pittsburgh’s hometown cuisine; their “Skyline,” if you will. We settled on eating there for a last lunch before we parted ways with our friends, so we went back to the Strip District to eat at the original location.
I ordered the Capone. It was a lot of sandwich, and I enjoyed it. I won’t say it necessarily lived up to the hype, but I didn’t expect it would anyways.
Though I haven’t been craving it every day since I’ve left, I will certainly eat it again when I return. And I will return to Pittsburgh. We had a fantastic weekend in the Steel City, and I’ll remember it fondly.