Elsewhere in Pittsburgh

A Pittsburgh Primer-Part 1

On a slightly different note, I decided to write about somewhere I intimately knew. This story is not like the others I have written as it is more of a “how to” for visiting Pittsburgh, my adopted city and home for the last seven years (although don’t worry Philly, you’re always number one in my eyes). Since it’s rather long, I’ve broken it up into two sections. Enjoy!
-the red headed traveler

Pittsburgh doesn’t receive the same number of visitors as other big players like New York or San Francisco. Nor is it located on the whole tourist radar map. And in the seven years I’ve lived here, I’ve yet to find someone who traveled to Pittsburgh just for the sake of vacationing here, as in no family lived nearby or no business commitments warranted a trip in which you brought along the family. When I studied abroad and told people where my college was located, I was often met with blank stares upon mentioning Pittsburgh, that is until I added an addendum, “the other big city in Pennsylvania.” People would then respond with “ahh.” Prior to coming to Pittsburgh for college, I knew nothing about the city save for the two things the city is most well known for-steel and the Steelers. When I became engaged, my fiancé and I decided to have the wedding in Pittsburgh since it was, after all, where we had met and gotten to know each other, not to mention that prices for anything wedding related were considerably less expensive than in my native city of Philadelphia. What this meant was that my entire guest side would be traveling to Pittsburgh for the wedding, the majority never having been here before. Not wanting Pittsburgh to remain forever known as simply the Steel City, but rather show the many attributes that define it today, I was determined to show my family and friends why I feel Pittsburgh is such a hidden gem.
            Unlike in other major cities, Pittsburgh’s downtown is more of a Monday to Friday, nine to five kind of environment. Although the number of new restaurants and other businesses has been creeping up in recent years, many of the city’s bigger and better attractions (at least in my opinion) are outside the downtown’s limits, in neighborhoods that are distinctly different from one another, not to mention, distinctly Pittsburgh. One such neighborhood is the Strip District, located less than a mile from the downtown central business district.

            The Strip, as locals refer to it, was once the center of the wholesale produce industry in the city. Its origins date back to 1814 and by the 1830s the area was home to iron mills, foundries and glass factories, as well as ever increasing populations of German, Irish, and Polish immigrants. At one time its name could have been the Lower East Side of Pittsburgh since by the turn of the last century, 80% of the residents there were foreign born. Although the mills and factories have long since closed, it offers a vast array of restaurants, shops, and attractions for the first time visitor.

            A good base for exploring the Strip (as well as the city) is the Hampton Inn and Suites located in the 1200 block of Smallman Street. My dad and I decided to book our block of hotel rooms for our out of town guests there since the hotel offers free hot breakfast every morning and free parking, an absolute rarity in any metropolitan area. Located directly across the street from the hotel is the Senator John Heinz History Center, which is known by its iconic red and white neon Heinz 57 sign on the façade of the building that “refills” the Heinz keystone (Pennsylvania of course being the Keystone state) with ketchup every thirty seconds. An affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution, it is also the largest history museum in Pennsylvania. It’s marketed as a museum of American history with a Western Pennsylvania connection. Among its permanent exhibits is the Heinz 57 collection which covers the history of the HJ Heinz Company (yes that’s right, your Heinz 57 condiment products are Pittsburgh made! Another  celebrates 250 years of Western Pennsylvania’s significant contributions to the world, including Dr. Jonas Salk’s discovery of the polio vaccine at the University of Pittsburgh in the 1950s. Located within the walls of the Heinz History Center is the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum, hence its designation as a museum within a museum. Ask any native Pittsburgher and they’ll tell you just how important their sports teams have always been to them. It features a variety of artifacts, interactive exhibits, and audio visual programs.

            Walking further into the heart of the Strip, Chicken Latino is the perfect place for an inexpensive refueling for one’s stomach. Located on 21st Street between Smallman Street and Penn Avenue, its gregarious and charming owner Shelbin Santos has succeeded in bringing a little slice of her native Peru to Pittsburgh. The restaurant’s signature dish of rotisserie-style chicken, marinated overnight with Peruvian spices and peppers, cumin and paprika, and cooked in a traditional brick oven, as is done in Peru. Diners have a couple of options when ordering, but to get half a rotisserie chicken and two sides of either fries and coleslaw or the more traditional rice and beans for less than ten dollars, it’s quite the bargain. The menu at Chicken Latino also features a variety of American style burger and sandwich options, along with other standard Mexican fare. The one thing I’d say for diners to refrain from ordering at Chicken Latino is the Inka Kola soft drink. On our first trip there, my husband and I nearly gagged upon our first sip of it. Green in color and sickeningly sweet, my husband gallantly drank all of his whereas I was just annoyed over the fact of having wasted $1.85 Needless to say, on every return trip, we have never made the mistake of ordering the Inka Kola again. 

            Near to Chicken Latino is Primanti Brothers, now a chain of sandwich shops found throughout the city and suburbs, although its original location in the Strip continues there today. A Primanti’s sandwich, as locals refer to it, consists of grilled meat, vinegar based coleslaw, tomato slices, and French fries between two pieces of Italian bread. (Don’t be alarmed by the French fry part; Pittsburghers put French fries on their salads too.) Although the sandwich may seem a bit much, locals swear by it (including some who feel they’re the perfect touch after a night of drinking.) Visitors who have enjoyed them include President Obama and the Travel Channel’s Man Versus Food host, Adam Richman.

            Since you’re down in that area, it’s definitely worth checking out gorgeous St. Stanislaus Kostka, one of the city’s oldest churches located at 21st and Smallman Streets. Designed by Pittsburgh architect Frederick C. Sauer, it was constructed in 1891 and has been added to the United States National Register of Historic Places. It’s touted as a striking example of the ‘Polish Cathedral’ style of church in both its grandeur and Old World elegance. It was even visited in 1969 by then Cardinal Karol Wojtyla (who would become Pope John Paul II) who said it reminded him of churches in his native Poland and offered prayers as well.

            When you are finished with the Strip, a short drive will take you to the Oakland neighborhood, home to one of the city’s most recognizable landmarks, the University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning. Also featured on the National Register of Historic Places at 535 feet tall, the 42-story Late Gothic revival cathedral is the tallest educational building in the Western Hemisphere. (For being such an unknown city to tourists, Pittsburgh truly does have a lot of renowned edifices). Officially dedicated in 1937, the cathedral contains more than 2000 rooms and windows. (Although I didn’t attend the University of Pittsburgh for my undergraduate education, I was able to take a class that met in the Cathedral thanks to the awesomeness of cross-registering). While the architecture alone is enough to warrant a visit, the Nationality Rooms are another reason why you should take time to tour inside the Cathedral. There are a total of 27 different rooms, each designed to celebrate a different culture that has had an impact on Pittsburgh’s growth, as well as showcasing an era prior to 1787, the year the university was founded.

            A stone’s throw away from the Cathedral is Heinz Memorial Chapel. A gift of German-American Henry John Heinz, founder of the H.J. Heinz Company, he wanted to honor his mother with a building at the university. Although he died more than a decade before ground was ever broken, his children continued on with his plans, honoring both their father and grandmother. Amazingly enough, construction of the chapel and its dedication all occurred during the years of the Great Depression. Featuring neo-gothic style architecture, the chapel is known for its highly impressive stonework and 23 windows which feature a slew of secular figures from history as the chapel is non-denominational. The chapel is also an extremely popular place for Pittsburgh couples to get married. Close to 200 weddings are held at Heinz each year although they are limited to University of Pittsburgh affiliates and Heinz Company employees. The first wedding at Heinz was held on January 11, 1946 and sixty four years later on August 21, my wedding was held there as well.

            The Carnegie name is a major deal in Pittsburgh. Although Andrew Carnegie’s philanthropy would transport his name to countries as far away as South Africa and New Zealand, it is here in Pittsburgh where his mark is most deeply felt and noticed. Pittsburgh was after all the adopted home of the native Scotsman who immigrated to the United States and settled in the area as a child. Directly across from Heinz Memorial Chapel is the Carnegie Institute, a building that houses the Carnegie Museum of Natural History and the Carnegie Museum of Art, as well as the main branch of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. All three institutions were founded by the great man himself. The natural history museum houses one of the most impressive dinosaur collections in the world and the art museum features many notable works including, Winslow Homer’s The Wreck, as well as the Marble Hall of Sculpture, which was designed to replicate the interior of the Parthenon. If you’re in need of another break, Crazy Mocha, a popular Pittsburgh-based coffee shop chain, is located inside the library. The complete opposite of Starbucks, it plays slightly blaring music and its employees don’t appear as if they’re been drinking double shots of espresso all day. It’s also my favorite place to get a chai tea latte, as they offer patrons the option of having it with a tea bag and honey.

            Assuming it’s now nightfall and you’ve had enough touring for the day, you’re now completely rested after that cat nap at your hotel and are ready to experience Pittsburgh at night. Another neighborhood worth checking out is Shadyside, adjacent to Oakland. I can still remember on one of my first explorations of the neighborhood (my college was located in Shadyside), I came across a spray painted message that read “Who put the shady in Shadyside?” As this was around the time the use of the word ‘shady’ was catching on, I found it quite funny.  Often called one of the city’s most hip and trendiest neighborhoods, it is home to an eclectic mix of both upscale and more down to earth offerings. One of the latter  is Bites and Brew and the offerings on the menu there are as simple as its name suggests. The restaurant offers 30 craft beers on tap, as well as fresh homemade pizza and sandwiches, although whenever we go, we always opt for just the pizza. They’re delicious especially when topped with artichokes and pepperonis. Another fun and extremely exotic place to try is Abay, the city’s first Ethiopian restaurant (as well as a BYOB spot, with numerous vegan options as well). Abay means Blue Nile in Amharic and offers customers a truly memorable experience. Meals are served on platters that are meant to be shared and utensils are deliberately MIA. The common denominator at Abay is injera, yeast-risen flat bread with a slightly spongy texture that diners use instead of the more traditional fork and knife, scooping up their meal. Although my grandfather, an extremely dyed-in-the-wool meat and potatoes kind of guy, made endless jokes about “eating with his hands,”  the rest of the family knew deep down that he had a great time when my family visited. Because it’s such a unique dining experience, something that most people probably never tried before, Abay is a surefire treat every time. For a decidedly more upscale meal, Casbah is the perfect spot. Part of the Big Burrito restaurant group which also manages Eleven, Kaya, Soba, Umi, and Mad Max, Casbah serves Mediterranean cuisine and has a lounge that offers 40 wines by the glass, as well as a vast array of wine flights. It’s definitely a grownups kind of place, so moms and dads, be sure to arrange a sitter for the night.

            Walnut Street, the main drag in the Shadyside commercial district, offers numerous watering holes that can be visited on an impromptu pub crawl. Doc’s, Cappy’s, the William Penn Tavern, and Shady Grove are just a small number of bars (many with extremely good food) in Shadyside where you can spend a nice and relaxing evening.

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  • Reply
    Mrs. Steinke
    November 17, 2010 at 2:28 am

    We actually took two family vacations in Pittsburgh, and had loads of fun, seeing the Science Center, the Point before it was re-done, and enjoying the rivers and other downtown sights. We always have had a blast there, and loved the Strip during the down time of the wedding. We tasted the most delicious lobster bisque soup in one of the markets, and were fascinated by the oriental market, occupied only by Asians. More comments aagain.

  • Reply
    November 17, 2010 at 3:54 pm

    This made me miss Pittsburgh so much! I’ve actually never been to Chicken Latino, I’m going to have to check it out next time I’m back.

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