I’ve been asked several times for ideas of things to see and do in Pittsburgh, and the person asking always ends up with the same thing – a number of lengthy text messages with lists of my favorite places. The solution to this time-consuming problem was obvious – put together a list of my favorite suggestions in a blog, and just send a link instead!
As you may have seen, I posted a similar blog of things I love to do in Squirrel Hill, my favorite neighborhood in the city. This post is going to be formatted similarly, and will even include a couple overlapping items, but will include places in the entire city and the surrounding area.
Without further ado, here are a few of my suggestions on places to visit if you find yourself in Pittsburgh:
Vista Points to view the city:
Mount Washington is the best and most obvious place to go when you want a sweeping panorama of the city. There are several excellent overlooks along Grandview Avenue from which you can get varied perspectives on downtown, and are excellent spots to visit both day and night. As an added bonus, park down in Station Square (loaded with restaurants and places to visit) and ride the Duquesne Incline up to Grandview Ave.
The North Shore Trail (locally known as the River Walk) is my personal favorite spot for viewing the city. As with Mt Washington, the view from the Trail varies dramatically as you walk its length, and is excellent for viewing the city during the day and at night. The Trail is also a great way to navigate the North Shore itself, meandering from the Steelers’ and Pirates’ stadiums among multiple restaurants, clubs, and museums.
Things to Do
This is not intended to be a comprehensive list of activities you could enjoy in Pittsburgh – these are just a few of my favorites.
I’ll start off with one of the most dynamic – the Heinz History Center. A highly-entertaining and informative branch of the Smithsonian Museums, the HHC encompasses multiple permanent exhibits which elaborate key periods and aspects of Pittsburgh’s history. In addition to its breathtaking design and layout, the museum also offers fascinating temporary exhibits that change several times over the course of the year. And the map room upstairs is fantastic, if you’re into that kind of thing.
As my friends will tell you, I’m not one who often endorses the Pittsburgh Pirates, what with all of the various difficult trade deals they constantly expect fans to swallow. But for someone visiting from out of town, attending a game – ensuring that you get seats on the third base line – offers a great form of Pittsburgh-based entertainment with a fantastic view of downtown. If you’re here in the winter instead of summer and have the funds to do it, I strongly recommend catching a Penguins game.
For something a bit on the quirky side, you’ll definitely want to check out the Mattress Factory. A massive contemporary art museum that was once a Stearns & Foster warehouse, the Mattress Factory has six floors in the main building, with two additional buildings nearby! The exhibits are often unique and occasionally quite unusual, incorporating various means and mediums – one recent exhibit included a hole cut through the floor and out the side of the building! Add in the fact that the startlingly colorful Randyland is just a couple blocks away, and you’ll find all the modern art you could hope for on Pittsburgh’s Northside.
NOTE: I am not including activities like the Pittsburgh Zoo, Kennywood / Sandcastle, or the Rivers Casino because, while I find all three to be highly enjoyable, I am choosing activities that are either unique to Pittsburgh or highlight some aspect of Pittsburgh’s history or culture.
Pittsburgh is famous for its incredibly hilly terrain and three rivers, which very subtly allows the city to also boast about having a great deal of green space in an urban area. Many of Pittsburgh’s hills are essentially uninhabitable and/or unusable, so they are left wild and natural – one of our underappreciated features that makes it so pleasant to live here!
In addition to all of the “forced” green space, there are quite a few local and state parks in the area that are worth a visit:
Schenley Park – a rather sizeable park located right in the heart of Pittsburgh’s collegiate Oakland neighborhood, Schenley is home to a diverse array of things to see and do: a swimming pool, a Frisbee golf course, two rustic log cabins, an actual golf course, an ice skating rink, tennis courts, a full size track, a beautiful stone arch bridge, a massive hill with a beautiful view of the city, and the magnificent Phipps Conservatory.
West-End Elliott Overlook Park – on the opposite end of the size spectrum is this park, commonly called the West End Overlook. Though small in stature, the park boasts massive views of the “Golden Triangle” … Pittsburgh’s downtown, surrounded by its forked three rivers … including a great perspective of the city framed by a pair of massive oak trees. One of my personal favorite aspects of the park is the wisteria-blanketed tunnel that snakes up from the parking area to the park. When the wisteria are in bloom, it’s a beautifully fragrant way to make an entrance!
Point State Park – it feels rather cliché to include Point Park on this list, but it truly is one of my favorite parks in the city. In addition to the obvious characteristics you would expect from a park sandwiched into the triangle created by the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers and the downtown skyline, the park also plays host to the Fort Pitt Museum (a part of the aforementioned Heinz History Center), the granite outline of the old Fort Duquesne, and a broad array of festivals, events, and concerts. Oh, and the iconic Point Park Fountain.
Outside of the city:
McConnell’s Mill State Park – I have a long history of loving McConnell’s Mill State Park, dating back to my freshman year at Grove City College. We would drive down on nice days to play Ultimate Frisbee, hike, and stomp around in the creek. A very long and occasionally narrow park, the Mill clocks in at a whopping 2500+ acres of beautiful and dynamic woodlands. Hiking, camping, rock climbing and kayaking are among the many ways you can lose a day hanging out here. I’ll even clue you in on one of my favorite places to go… as long as you promise to follow proper etiquette! Ignore the “road closed” sign by the parking lot (it’s not closed), and please don’t park in front of the road! There are a TON of different hiking trails, up top and down by the bridge, as well as an excellent waterfall with a crazy cliff overlook – NOT for the faint of heart – with no railings! Second added bonus – Breakneck Campground is one of my favorite places to camp – it’s peaceful, has a wide variety of sites to choose from, has nice bathrooms and showers, is adjacent to several hiking trails in the park, and is usually very quiet!
Presque Isle State Park – There are lots of different ways you could spend a day trip up to Erie from Pittsburgh, but exploring Presque Isle State Park is at the top of my list. In addition to its unique natural beauty, the park (it’s actually a peninsula, not an island) offers a ton of amenities, attractions, and has one of my all-time favorite diners located immediately adjacent to its entrance. Honestly, even if you see and do other things in Erie, make sure you have a burger at Sara’s and drive the loop around Presque Isle. You won’t regret it – I promise.
Side note – This wouldn’t be Take Back Roads if I didn’t urge you not to take I-79 the whole way from Pittsburgh to either park listed above. Take the highway north to exit 88 (Little Creek Rd), turn right at the light, and turn right onto US 19N.
For McConnell’s Mill, take the exit for 422W and then make the left into the park at the sign. Or if you’re going to Breakneck Campground, stay on 19N and make the left onto Cheeseman Rd and follow the signs. Link to Directions/Map
For Presque Isle, continue on 19N for about 50 miles (from where you first got on), until it intersects with 322 near Meadville (there’s a large Sheetz across the intersection). Rt19 turns right at this intersection – you want to continue straight onto PA 98N for just shy of 30 miles, and turn right onto PA 832. Follow 832 all the way to Presque Isle and Sara’s! Link to Directions/Map
These are both very leisurely back road drives surrounded by tranquil green space and active farmland.
Note – I do not generally advocate going to chain stores or shopping malls, so you will find neither of those options on this list. As I am not much of a shopper myself, this is going to be the shortest section on the list – I have a very limited number of favorite places to shop!
Pennsylvania Macaroni Company – As an avowed fat guy and lover of all food-related things, of course PennMac is first on the list – and please call it PennMac, as the locals do. If you ask someone where Pennsylvania Macaroni Company is, you’re going to get some strange looks. I digress. PennMac is THE place for a food lover to shop, and not simply for those who love Italian foods. The cheese and meat deli counters are an experience to behold, especially on the weekends. Make sure to get a number on the wall across from each counter – one for meats and one for cheeses. The plethora of options available is mind-boggling, but fear not! The men and women who work their counters are extremely knowledgeable, very friendly, and happy to give out samples to taste! There’s a large section for purchasing spices, followed by oils, pastas, breads, and fresh fruits and veggies (along with many, many other items!). I’ve spent many, many hours and far more money than I care to recall in PennMac. Side note – there are a LOT of other ethnic and specialty food stores in the Strip District, so if you love to cook and/or love to eat, plan to spend several hours here!
Prestogeorge Coffee and Tea – Another food-related store in the Strip District… no surprise there. Simply walking into Prestogeorge is heavenly, even if you don’t particularly like to drink coffee or tea. The aroma of freshly-roasted coffees and hundreds of varieties of tea waft throughout the store, enchanting and enticing shoppers to linger long after their selections are bagged and handed over.
Little’s Shoe Store – Wait… what? A shoe store from a guy who doesn’t like to shop? Yes, a shoe store made the list… and if you go there, you’ll understand why. It’s like stepping back in time, and not just because of the incredibly-retro sign outside. Incredibly knowledgeable and hands-on service from the sales staff makes shoe-buying a confident and enjoyable experience again.
Biketek and Kindred Cycles – Whether you are living in, moving to, or simply visiting Pittsburgh, if you are a cyclist of any sort, I cannot recommend these two shops strongly enough. Both are filled with incredibly helpful staff and a ton of bikes and gear to choose from. I’ve shopped at both, and have had consistently excellent experiences at each.
Jerry’s Records, The Attic, and Eide’s – Vinyl albums are a serious addiction of mine. I easily have over a thousand of them behind me on two different bookshelves while I sit here and type this. Similar to bike shops, Pittsburgh has a plethora of great options for vinyl junkies who are itching to build up their collection. These are three of my favorites, though I have to include a caveat – the iconic Jerry Weber, the world-record holding original owner of Jerry’s has sadly retired last year. His insights and advice helped me to build my massive (and frankly, superb) collection of vinyl. I haven’t been back since he retired, because it would be too bittersweet of an experience – I spent quite a few hours there, chatting with Jerry about music history, the blues, and albums to consider.
Restaurants and Bars
As it turns out, this blog is far too long already. Given the large volume of excellent places to eat and drink in Pittsburgh, and the generally contentious nature of publicly announcing your favorites, you’re just going to have to be satisfied with these few ideas in Squirrel Hill for now. I’ll be writing up a separate blog solely dedicated to my suggestions for places to eat and drink in the ‘Burgh.
Until then – enjoy the places I’ve outlined above, and if your own favorites didn’t make the list – please add them in the comment section!