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As it undergoes a renaissance in the realms of food, tech and culture, the Steel City is showing off a more polished side to the US’s rust belt.
At the confluence of three rivers, just west of the Allegheny Mountains, Pittsburgh is dusting off its rust-belt reputation and undergoing a post-industrial revival. Local icons such as the Heinz History Center, The Carnegie Museums of Art and Natural History and The Frick Pittsburgh remain, but they’re now being joined by a generation of creatives who are pushing the boundaries of the city’s food, tech and cultural scenes.
Former warehouses and industrial spaces are being repurposed as shops, hotels, edgy galleries (continuing the legacy of Pittsburgh native Andy Warhol) and James-Beard nominated restaurants, while the likes of Google and Facebook have opened offices around the river valley – Uber tested its driverless cars here. Nevertheless, amid all this newness, the Steel City retains its small-town, blue-collar soul, which is perhaps why the city is regularly ranked among the US’s most liveable. Visit now before the tourist hordes arrive.
Pittsburgh’s charm is found in the diverse characters of its 90 neighbourhoods. Spend days hopping across bridges (the city has 446 river crossings) to get stuck in to some of the best, such as hip East Liberty and the gritty half-mile Strip teeming ethnic grocers and warehouses-turned-restaurants.
In Oakland, visit the vertiginous Cathedral of Learning – the US’s tallest educational building – or the otherworldly Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens. Downtown’s 14-block Cultural District draws creatives, while Mount Washington spoils visitors with beautiful views. Take in panoramas from the Monongahela Incline or head down to the shore, rent a bike and trace the riverfront trail. Secluded hiking trails make Point Breeze’s Frick Park a go-to in autumn, while those who prefer to paint the town red will enjoy South Side’s East Carson Street.
Who to take with you
Foodies. Make sure to pack loose clothing; Pittsburgh’s dining scene is as vast as it is eclectic. Spend a weekend brewery hopping (there are 20 within the surrounding Allegheny County), discover up-and-coming chefs in the Smallman Galley or head to Lawrenceville neighbourhood, in which headline restaurants include Umami, täkō, Cure and Morcilla. At the other end of the dining spectrum, no Pittsburgh trip would be complete without a Primanti Brothers’ sandwich or the hotcakes from Pamela’s Diner, which come with Obama’s seal of approval – “You don’t even need syrup,” the former president told reporters in 2008.
Lovers of art and design will also find plenty to do in Pittsburgh: the seven-storey Andy Warhol Museum houses the artist’s earliest drawings and commercial illustrations; the Carnegie Museum of Art features houses European relics; and the Mattress Factory is a must-see for progressive contemporary works. Alternatively, take a day trip to the Laurel Highlands, just a 60-minute drive away, where four Frank Lloyd Wright masterpieces – Fallingwater, Duncan House, Kentuck Knob and Mäntylä House – are open to the public.
For a long time, sports such as baseball, hockey and American football were among Pittsburgh’s main attractions, and continue to define the community here. Join crowds of locals for a game (and subsequent tailgating). Vintage-lovers will be in their element here too – Shadyside’s Hey Betty! boutique is a local favourite.
When to go
Pittsburgh’s winters are brutal and its springs often rainy; your best bet is to visit between May and October. In summer the mercury clocks in around 28°C, coaxing crowds to parks, rooftops and outdoor events. Come autumn, the changing leaves set the surrounding hills ablaze.
The city has a jam-packed cultural calendar that’s well worth consulting, too. Book a trip during June’s Three Rivers Arts Festival to enjoy free concerts and exhibits, watch Point State Park become awash with rainbows during Pittsburgh Pride in July, or visit in November, when cyclists brave Canton Hill (the US’s steepest) during the annual Dirty Dozen race.
Where to stay
Check in to Ace Hotel Pittsburgh, which opened in a former YMCA building in modish East Liberty in 2015. You’ll knock elbows with the ‘Burgh’s beau monde, who flock here for Stumptown coffee-fuelled brunches at the Whitfield, artisan cocktails at the Brooklyn-style bar and an events calendar that features yoga sessions and craft-beer festivals.
Most likely to bump into…
Fans of the Steelers (American football), Penguins (ice hockey) or Pirates (baseball). They’re easily recognised by their black-and-gold attire (in fact, Pittsburgh is the only US state in which all professional sporting teams wear the same colours). These people are true Yinzers, and likely to speak the regional “Pittsburghese”, for which The New York Times described the city as “the Galapagos Islands of American dialect”. We recommend acquainting yourself with a few phrases.
Essentials to bring with you
We’re taking a sartorial cue from Chancellor Humphrey, who documents the city’s eclectic street style on @keeppittsburghdope. Pack this hooded cotton-gabardine jacket by Basskie; it scores the hat-trick of being lightweight, practical (think pockets and a hood – Pittsburgh is prone to rain even in summer) and natty enough for thrifting or leaf-peeping.
How to get there
In 2019 British Airways began direct flights from London Heathrow to Pittsburgh International Airport, which take around eight and a half hours. Transfer to the city proper through Fort Pitt Tunnel – keep on guard for the first glimpse of Pittsburgh’s impressive skyline.
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