All month long, I’ve been highlighting the awesomeness of my hometown, Pittsburgh, which National Geographic recently called one of the world’s 20 “Must-see places for 2012.”
I’ve already covered three Pittsburgh museums (Warhol, Fort Pitt and Heinz History), the South Side of Pittsburgh, and the unmatched sports culture of the city. But there’s so much to love about Pittsburgh that I couldn’t edit myself. So I’m wrapping up my coverage of the Steel City with 66 more things I love about the city, presented in no particular order.
Why 66? If you don’t know the answer to that, you’re definitely not from Pittsburgh! Keep reading…
1 Mr. Rogers
Everyone’s favorite sweater-wearing, shoe-changing kids’ television host was from Pittsburgh and shot his show here for 30 years. Fred Rogers is memorialized with a statue on the North Shore and another in the Heinz History Center. Random fact I just learned: His middle name was “McFeely,” which was the inspiration for the show’s delivery man, Mr. McFeely. Cool!
2 The bridges
Because of its rivers, Pittsburgh supposedly has 450 bridges, more than Venice, more than any other city in the world. That estimate seems a bit high to me, but it’s true you can’t go anywhere without running into one of them, most of which are painted yellow, one of the city’s official colors. And the bridges are named after some of the city’s coolest all-time residents, like Warhol and Clemente.
3 The Mattress Factory
Contrary to its title, this institution is not a manufacturer of bedding, but an innovative museum on the North Side. It always has a sweet collection of temporary and permanent exhibits, but the one you’re most likely to remember is the “Infinity Dots Mirrored Room.”
4 The view coming through the tunnel
They say Pittsburgh is the only city with a front door. Drive through the Fort Pitt tunnel, and when you come out the other side, a panoramic view of the city suddenly smacks you in the face, with the North Shore and the sports stadiums on the left, the downtown skyline straight ahead, and the South Side on the right.
Yinz guys goin’ dahntahn ‘n at? I was 25 years old before I learned that “slippy” isn’t a real word. Stillers, spicket, gumbands, jaggers, chipped ham, and nebby are all part of the unique Pittsburgh dialect.
6 Primanti Brothers
If you’re a foodie who likes to consume the local delicacy while traveling, Primanti’s is the place to go. Their sandwich is Pittsburgh’s most famous culinary delight. It comes with your choice of meat, tomato, French fries and cole slaw, all piled inside two slices of homemade bread. It’s ridiculous, but we like it.
7 The hip hop
Somehow, Pittsburgh is becoming a new epicenter of the hip hop world. Wiz Khalifa and Mac Miller have blown up in the past couple of years. It’s cool to see their love for the city in tracks like “Black and Yellow” and “Frick Park Market.”
8 The ice rink in Market Square
One of the coolest winter activities is skating around the Market Square ice rink around the giant Christmas tree, surrounded by all the shiny PPG buildings. Pittsburgh almost feels like Rockefeller Center during these winter months.
Ping pong, pool, pinball, jukebox, and pierogies at the ultimate Polish Hill hipster dive bar. And don’t leave without checking out the bathroom graffiti.
10 All the movies being filmed
It’s super-easy to get in a movie as an extra if you live in Pittsburgh, because they’re always shooting something, thanks to special tax incentives, and there’s a smaller population pool here. From my old office overlooking Market Square, I got to watch the filming of an entire season of the TV show “The Kill Point” starring John Leguizamo and Donnie Wahlberg (above). Staged gunfights would randomly erupt during the day. Cool stuff!
11 The term “Pittsburgher”
Best demonym in America! Aside possibly from residents of Cambridge, who call themselves “Cantabrigians.”
12 Art All Night
An annual event with live bands and room after room of locally-made artwork, on display all night and into the next day, so that night owls, insomniacs and the post-bar crowd have a chance to stop by. I once went at 4 am just for the novelty of going out in the wee hours of the morning.
13 Mount Washington
USA Weekend once called the nighttime view of downtown Pittsburgh and its rivers from Mt. Washington the second-most beautiful view in the nation, behind only the Grand Canyon. Ride one of the mountainside inclines to the top for just a couple bucks, and take in the amazing sights.
14 The small-town feel
You know the people in your neighborhood. You can even talk to strangers in bars, unlike L.A. or New York or Chicago. I used to think Pittsburgh was just like other cities when it comes to that sort of thing, but I’ve since discovered that Pittsburgh really is friendlier than other places. Don’t take that for granted!
One of the linchpin companies of Pittsburgh, Heinz is the only real ketchup around. The company has its name on the home of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Heinz Field. When the Steelers enter the red zone, giant ketchup bottles tilt over and pour virtual ketchup into the scoreboard.
16 Steep streets
Canton Avenue in Beechview is supposedly the world’s steepest street. Its 37% grade is more than the 35% grade of a New Zealand street that currently claims the Guinness World Record. I’ve always found Potomac Ave (above) at Banksville Road to be the most intimidating to drive up, but surprisingly that road only features a 22% grade.
Named after one of Warhol’s most famous works, the Brillobox in Lawrenceville has hosted local bands, national indie acts, trivia nights, starving artist potluck dinners, hipster karaoke and eclectic dance nights. They also have an extensive beer selection, if you’re into boozing it up.
18 There’s no NBA team
19 The parks
Schenley Park is my favorite, with its tennis courts, hiking and running trails and sweet frisbee golf course. Point State Park is a nice downtown environment. Others love Frick, Arsenal or Highland Parks. Sometimes the tiny, one-block parks make for the most fun, like where we used to play softball in a small 13th Street lot called Armstrong Field on the South Side.
20 The defensiveness
Yes, this is charming. Pittsburghers may slag off their city a bit too much, but when someone from out of town does it, there’s a shitstorm. Actress Sienna Miller found this out the hard way when she insulted the city while shooting a movie here a few years back and was forced to apologize. The local paper reported the story with the unforgettably awesome headline, “Semi-famous actress dumps on the Burgh.” Zing!
21 Roberto Clemente
Maybe the city’s all-time most-revered athlete, Clemente finished his Pirates career with exactly 3,000 hits. He died tragically in a plane crash during the 1972 offseason while delivering humanitarian aid to Nicaragua. The two-time World Series champion is remembered with a bridge and statue in his honor. He’s still beloved by Puerto Ricans everywhere – even my local school here in Chicago is called Roberto Clemente High School.
22 The TV anchors never leave
I’ve lived in Chicago for two years and still can’t name a single anchor on any of the channels. But Pittsburgh? I grew up with David and Peggy, Ken and Jen. And they’re still on the air! That sense of familiarity shouldn’t be underestimated. The anchors really do feel like our friends.
23 The universities
Oakland and Uptown have huge concentrations of college students, thanks to the University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon and Duquesne. And perhaps the biggest catalyst in the recent revitalization of downtown is the expansion of student housing by the Art Institute and Point Park University. Over the course of the five years I worked downtown, I noticed a huge difference in the amount of vibrant energy downtown on nights and weekends, mostly due to the presence of more college kids.
24 Just Ducky Tours
A number of cities have these amphibious tourist vehicles, which float across rivers and then ride up on land through the streets. It’s always amusing to see the passengers on the Ducky tours submit to forcible quacking, thanks to the tour guide, who insists that everyone onboard must quack as they take a tour through downtown.
25 Saving parking spaces with traffic cones
The old-school practice of putting a traffic cone or folding chair in the street to reserve your parking spot lives on in Pittsburgh. And not just in winter. Even in the middle of summer, some folks will try to claim a permanent space with a chair. I wasn’t a fan of the practice when I lived there, but the old-fashioned mentality is kind of endearing.
26 The National Aviary
In the ‘90s, Pittsburgh’s aviary was in danger of shutting down due to inadequate funding, so President Clinton and Congress declared it the “National Aviary” to bring it attention and money. Sneaky! It’s the largest aviary in the country, with lots of endangered birds and large penguin and flamingo populations.
27 The East End
Neighborhood evolution fascinates me. It’s cool to see a once-depressed area like East Liberty become a hotbed of activity these days. Garfield continues its slow but sure rebirth, while Friendship, Bloomfield and Lawrenceville already have a lot going on. The Lawrenceville cemetery is one of the best places in the city to go running (and spot deer), Belvedere’s hosts an awesome ’80s dance night, and the colorful new Children’s Hospital livens up the skyline on the East End.
28 Stable housing market
Pittsburgh was almost entirely unscathed by the housing bust that crippled so many other cities. Since 2000, housing prices are up 42% here, according to the Federal Housing Finance Agency. You should have bought your house in the Steel City!
29 The fountain
Right at the confluence of the three rivers is a fountain that runs during the warmer months and serves as one of the symbols of summer in Pittsburgh. It snatches water from an underground fourth river and shoots it 150 feet in the air. Sometimes, the water is dyed pink for breast cancer awareness or green for St. Patrick’s Day.
30 The progressive attitude is spreading
Pittsburgh is sometimes considered behind the times, but it’s ever-so-slowly becoming more progressive. It has already become a green-friendly city. Walking paths along the rivers have been expanded, and lots of new bike lanes are popping up on roads. Local politicians like Bill Peduto, Patrick Dowd, and Bruce Kraus have helped push the city in a more forward-thinking direction while reigning in the power of Mayor Ravenstahl.
Update, December 2013: Bill Peduto is now mayor-elect, and I can’t express how excited I am that my one-time MySpace friend, a man with so many terrific ideas for the city, is now in charge!
31 The Beehive
My favorite coffee shop of all-time. Funky colored walls, work from local artists on display, pinball machines, vegan delicacies, and a cool crowd from 16 to 60. Sadly, the last time I visited, two of the three rooms were shut down. I hope it’s not closing!
32 Light-Up Night
For 50 years, residents have celebrated the start of the holiday season with a downtown November event featuring concerts, fireworks, tree lightings and window display unveilings.
33 Soul music nights
My favorite was Soulcialism, which peaked during the mid-‘00s at the White Eagle on the South Side and regularly treated its guests to classic tunes like “Ooh Child,” “Band of Gold” and “Build Me Up Buttercup.” That event has lived on various incarnations, like Vipers Soul Club and Title Town, which now rocks the Shadow Lounge on a monthly basis.
34 Tram’s Kitchen
One of Pittsburgh’s best restaurants is this unassuming little Vietnamese place on Penn Avenue run by a guy with one arm. I once made the rookie mistake of ordering the Pho as an appetizer, thinking it was a just small cup of soup. Needless to say, I had to take home my full-size entrée for later enjoyment.
35 Kayaking on the rivers
On any sunny day, you’re likely to see kayakers on the Allegheny River. Kayak Pittsburgh rents out tandem kayaks beneath the Clemente Bridge for $20 an hour so you can paddle all around and see the town from the water level.
36 The South Side Works
On one hand, it sucked that suburbia invaded the South Side when the Works came along. On the other hand, it was nice to be able to walk over and catch a new movie or buy cheap clothes from H&M or get queso nachos from Qdoba. On balance, the Works have been a good thing for the neighborhood.
37 Carnegie Museums of Art & Natural History
The Natural History Museum is known for its giant dinosaur displays, but the facility also covers wildlife, botany, and rocks and minerals. The Carnegie Museum of Art features modern art and photography with a heavy emphasis on Pittsburgh-centric artists and works.
38 Hometown High Q
A KDKA game show! For high school students! Root for your alma mater as you watch the awkward kids with braces and bad hair participate in an obscure trivia duel.
Everyone has a favorite ride at Kennywood. Mine is the Exterminator, an indoor coaster that doesn’t get very high but whips you around fast. The spinny Cosmic Chaos is also way more fun than it looks. But they apparently just eliminated the Pit Fall, a cool drop ride. Tragedy!
40 The parades
People love the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, which turns the entire city into a frat party as everyone guzzles booze for hours. The gay pride parade has been growing rapidly, and of course there are frequent parades celebrating sports championships by the Steelers and Penguins. My favorite is the Celebrate the Seasons Parade, which brings B-list singers and entertainers from NBC sitcoms to town on the day after Black Friday.
41 The Highland Park sand volleyball courts
Many a sunny afternoon and cool evening have been spent here playing pickup volleyball games, sometimes while consuming adult beverages.
42 The T
Many people live in Pittsburgh for a few years (myself included) before even discovering there’s a subway/light rail system. It’s far from perfect – if it was, it would also serve the South Side and Oakland – but at least it cuts down congestion a bit by giving those in the south suburbs an easy way into downtown and the North Side.
43 Gateway Clipper
Believed to be the largest inland riverboat fleet in the U.S., the Gateway Clipper arsenal now consists of five vessels, the largest of which holds 1,000 passengers. The boats are used for dinner cruises, rock concert cruises, Santa cruises, sightseeing cruises, and basic transportation across the river during sporting events.
44 The bizarre obsession with fireworks
No city in America loves its fireworks more than Pittsburgh. It’s comical how fireworks are included at every holiday celebration, every annual event, even after every home run at baseball games. And people are still mesmerized by them!
45 Neville Island
What a strange place. If you want to know where in the U.S. to find the most preposterously low speed limit, head to Neville, a largely-industrial island on the Ohio River. Even though there’s a four-lane highway, the speed limit is 25 miles per hour – and it’s strictly enforced. The small amount of residential land doesn’t justify such an absurdly-low speed limit. Seriously, I’ve driven faster in bank parking lots. I like passing through there just to experience the ridiculousness.
46 Rick Sebak
As a documentary junkie, I worship Rick Sebak, whose down-home narratives (“scrapbook documentaries”) about western Pennsylvania neighborhoods and attractions are some of the most compelling films around.
Crazy cheap drinks and a friendly crowd of weirdos make Dee’s my go-to stop on E. Carson Street. On busier nights, you can head upstairs to another bar with ping pong and pool tables. Enjoy the red vinyl booths, but don’t even think about putting your feet on them, unless you want a verbal smackdown.
48 Giant Eagle Fuel Perks
Big-time discounts on gas merely for buying groceries? Yes, please!
49 The staircases
The massive staircases on the South Side Slopes get all the attention, but there are others in Greenfield, the Hill District, and other parts of the city that are equally crazy. Walking up a few of them is a great way to sneak in exercise.
50 Pittsburgh Sports League
For those who would rather play sports than watch them, the PSL offers more than a dozen options. I mostly stuck to dodgeball and volleyball. It took at least 10 seasons of vball before I was finally on a championship team. Another great option is broomball, which is played on ice, just like hockey, except that you wear tennis shoes and have brooms instead of sticks. Lots of fun!
51 The Strip District
The place to be on Saturday and Sunday mornings is the Strip District, at the outdoor market where shops sell lots of seafood, fresh produce, and more Steelers apparel than you could ever imagine. It’s also a great place to find brunch, provided you’re willing to wait for a table at any of the diners.
52 Mr. Small’s
An old church in Millvale converted into an awesome concert venue. The huge ceilings make for great acoustics and atmosphere. Mr. Small’s is the best of a number of nice concert venues in the city, including Club Café and the Byham Theater.
53 The weather
Pittsburgh weather is cool because you get to fully experience all four seasons, since the temps can range from below zero in the winter to 100 in the summer. The occasional blizzards are fun, as long as you don’t have to drive.
54 The kissing crossing guard in Lawrenceville
The intersection of Butler & 44th Streets in Lawrenceville was homebase for the most pleasant, positive woman in the world, the crossing guard who blows kisses to passing motorists and pedestrians. I had the pleasure of living in a second-floor apartment right on that intersection and watching her work for months. These are the kinds of characters that make Pittsburgh special.
55 Terrible Towels
No gesture is more recognized in the sports world than the waving of a yellow cloth. Since the 1970s, Steeler fans have waved the Terrible Towel to support their team.
56 The Cathedral of Learning
The 42-story Cathedral of Learning at the University of Pittsburgh is the tallest educational building in the Western hemisphere. My earliest memory there was taking a field trip to see the Nationality Rooms, a set of 27 classrooms designed with the décor and style of various countries from around the world.
57 Girl Talk
The world’s most well-known mashup artist was working as a mild-mannered engineer when his music blew up and he began flying around the world to perform at parties. I once attended a Girl Talk concert where he revealed his address and invited everyone to come party with him at home after the show.
58 The Zombie Walk
As the home of the classic zombie film Dawn of the Dead, Pittsburgh has a number of zombie fans. More than 1,000 annually put on scary zombie attire and amble through the streets as part of the Zombie Walk.
59 Brighton Hot Dog Shoppe
Ok, this is more of a Beaver County tradition, but now that they have locations in Moon, Marshall and Greentree, I can call it a Pittsburgh thing. This small-town diner-ish restaurant brings communities together and serves the best chili fries anywhere.
60 Eat ‘N Park
Smiley cookies, Sunday brunch and the most memorable holiday commercial make the 75-location Eat ‘N Park chain a Pittsburgh institution.
61 Avalon Exchange
Pittsburgh doesn’t have a Buffalo Exchange, but Avalon is the next best thing. They’re a bit too expensive, but if you want sweet thrift store finds without going out to the suburbs, Avalon is your best bet. I’m still haunted by my decision to not buy the sweet purple hoodie I saw there like three years ago.
62 McKees Rocks
Because the neighborhood doesn’t get enough love. I spent a lot of time there as a kid visiting cousins. And I once stole a piece of gum from the Stop & Go. Don’t tell anyone!
63 The skyline
One of the most recognizable in the nation, because of the uniqueness of its buildings, from the four points of the glass PPG building to the hugeness of the U.S. Steel Tower to the Highmark building with the 180-foot tall mast.
64 Mexican War Streets
The tree-lined Mexican War Streets feature old row houses and massive Victorian mansions that reveal a lot of color and character in a part of the North Side that most outsiders don’t bother visiting.
65 PNC Bank
The bank has its name on the Pirates’ stadium, still the most beautiful ballpark in baseball after more than ten years. PNC recently built a new skyscraper downtown, the city’s first since the 1970s. And the bank has been very financially stable, conducting its business in such a way that it didn’t even need a bailout in 2008 when every other bank was floundering. Pittsburgh banks don’t need saving – take that, Wall Street.
66 Mario Lemieux
The greatest player in hockey history. (Don’t even mention that other guy’s name around these parts…) Not only did Lemieux guide the team to two Stanley Cups as a player, even while battling devastating injuries and a cancer diagnosis that sidelined him in the peak of his career, he bought the club when it was bankrupt, thereby saving the franchise from being moved out of town. As an executive, he’s made the team an annual contender once again, with Stanley Cup championship #3 in 2009 and hopefully more on the way. And he’s a down-to-earth guy who embodies what the city is all about, even if he didn’t grow up here.
As always, all pics are original photos, copyright Quirky Travel Guy.