Why visit Pittsburgh? Why not?
There are lots of interesting things to do in Pittsburgh even though it may not be a leading vacation destination. If you’re going to Pittsburgh it’s probably to check out one of the 11 colleges or universities , go to a job interview, conference or convention or attend some sort of family get-together. So why not have some fun and learn a few things while you’re there?
We are from a small steel town about 20 miles outside of Pittsburgh and decided to go be tourists in today’s Pittsburgh. When we were little the city and the rivers were both dirty with steel industry emissions and chemical dumping practices. But much has changed and Pittsburgh has refashioned its economy to be more knowledge-based and less blue-collar. All of a sudden (meaning over the last 20 years..) there are young people living in the city and working for Google and other tech companies. Pittsburgh is ranked 6th in the country for tech startups funded by venture capital.
Pittsburgh is being called “the new Brooklyn” and generally is enjoying its best times in a very long time; think back to when Andrew Carnegie, Thomas Mellon, H.J. Heinz and many other philanthropists and inventors lived there.
The Senator John Heinz History Center
Senator Heinz was a Renaissance Republican (they used to exist) and the only child of the Heinz family who owned the food empire. He served as a senator for Pennsylvania from 1977 until his tragic, untimely death in an airplane crash in 1991. His wife was Teresa Heinz who has been married to Secretary of State John Kerry since 1995.
Teresa Heinz Kerry has remarried but she has retained strong ties to Pittsburgh and works to keep the memory of her late husband alive. She has been a donor and supporter of the Senator John Heinz History Center since its inception.
The History Center, an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution, focuses on regional history and presenting the American experience with a Western Pennsylvania connection. It turns out that a lot of the American Experience actually originated in Pennsylvania.
Although we weren’t around in 1803 when Lewis and Clark set off from Pittsburgh (only missed them by a few years) we have memories of one of the major scientific achievements to come out of Pittsburgh; the polio vaccine developed by Dr. Jonas Salk. Our mother (and most parents in the 1950s) was very worried about us contracting polio and signed us up to be in one of the earliest groups of schoolchildren to get the vaccine. The story of how quickly it was developed and the team assembled to do it is one of the most interesting exhibits in the center.
Pittsburgh has a long history of philanthropical families. The best quote we saw in the history center was Andrew Carnegie’s of “To die rich is to die disgraceful”. (Blonde will not be dying disgracefully – something of a surprise.)
The exhibit we enjoyed the most was one that plays a man speaking in “Pittsburghese” and spelling the words phonetically. Whoever they hired definitely has the right accent and is a master at saying “dahn tahn” instead of downtown.
The Senator John Heinz History Center has 6 floors with exhibits ranging from Mister Rogers, the story of the French and Indian War and its Pennsylvania roots, Pittsburgh’s history of innovation and a Sports Museum among others. (Apparently Pittsburgh has some sports teams but we plead guilty to not going to see any of them or their stadiums.)
Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens
As kids one of our favorite things to do in Pittsburgh was to go to the Phipps Conservatory. Brunette continued the tradition and took her 4 sons there to run off steam while terrorizing other visitors and developing the boys’ appreciation for nature (it worked).
Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens is housed in a steel and glass Victorian greenhouse donated by another one of Pittsburgh’s philanthropists – Henry W. Phipps. It’s in Schenley Park which is a lovely old park (now we’re supposed to call it a greenspace) bordered by The University of Pittsburgh (Blonde’s alma mater thank you very much) and Carnegie Mellon University. Phipps has become an advocate for advanced green-building practices, sustainable gardening and environmental awareness.
Phipps Conservatory has plenty to entertain you for at least a couple of hours. There are 8 separate gardens, 7 rooms which include an orchid room and the Stove Room which was full of hatching and flying butterflies when we were there, some classrooms and a tropical forest conservatory.
Phipps Conservatory also houses special events (a group with alarming hair colors was assembling for a wedding when we were there), free public demonstrations on everything from beekeeping to bonsai and orchid care, classes for adults and a variety of programs for children.
If you time your visit to coincides with lunch there is a super healthy cafe that features seasonal local and organic foods. We missed lunch but enjoyed healthy beverage concoctions. And then there’s the adorable gift shop that we found to be very enticing.
The Duquesne Incline
Pittsburgh is well-known for being the confluence of the Allegheny, Monongahela, and Ohio rivers. The best way to see this beautiful view of the rivers and the city is to go up the Duquesne Incline on one of Pittsburgh’s 5 sunny days a year.
The incline opened in May of 1877 and was restored in 1963. We got several giggles out of the old wooden cable cars that could use some cosmetic touch-ups (couldn’t we all?) and the system of payment which only accepts exact cash. If you don’t have exact cash a machine will give you dollar coins and quarters for your cash. The woman sitting there does not provide cash or do anything except hand you a stamped ticket. You put the money in a box in front of her. Then at the top of the incline you can turn in the dollar coins at the gift shop where they will give you actual paper money back. Very efficient.
The ride is not a long one – maybe 5 minutes at most – and the views of the rivers and the sports stadiums across the river are unique in their perspective.
When you reach the top of the hill there is a gift shop (duh) and a viewing station. That’s where if the weather is on your side you can get some great photos and enjoy the sights. You can stay up there for dinner but most of the local restaurants don’t seem to be open for lunch.
Going up the incline at night is another one of the popular things to do in Pittsburgh. Now that the city has an interesting skyline and the new(ish) stadiums it can be a beautiful sight on one of the 5 clear nights a year (yes, we have weather resentment issues).
The National Aviary
Whodda thunk the National Aviary would be in Pittsburgh? Well, it is. This is another place Brunette used to bring her sons but Blonde doesn’t have any memory of it (not unusual).
We were there on a weekend and so were many families with small children. It’s a great place to help kids develop an appreciation of nature and get to watch penguins and sloths be fed. From the squeals these are popular activities.
In Florida this past winter and spring we were scheduled a couple of times to go with the Audubon Society to see flamingoes. The trips were canceled because the flamingoes didn’t do their part which was just to show up. So we finally got to see some in Pittsburgh!
In addition to being an interesting thing to do in Pittsburgh for kids, the National Aviary has an avian hospital, a special program to fix broken beaks (holding off on the jokes here), conservation programs, a hummingbird tracking project (someone has to do it) and some live nest cams with various raptors. (Note to the Aviary – now that the Peregrines are gone from the nest you might want to turn that camera off.)
Other things to do in Pittsburgh
Depending on the time of year you are visiting you may want to see performances by The Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra or the Pittsburgh Opera. Of course there are always Penguins, Steelers or Pirates games or even a tour of PNC stadium (home of the Pirates) which we hear is a popular thing to do in Pittsburgh.
Near to (less than a mile away) the Duquesne incline is Station Square which is home to some good restaurants and where the Gateway Clipper sails from on its dinner and/or sightseeing cruises.
Sneak another mile up the river (or is it down?) and you will come to the very popular Strip District which is where all the groovy sorts go to eat. The Strip District was home to iron mills, foundries and glass factories in the early 1820s and 1830s. Today it’s a place with food stalls offering a wide range of specialized foodie delights and some of Pittsburgh’s best restaurants.
There are plenty of other interesting things to do in Pittsburgh but you should probably get back to your college tour, conference or whatever reason brought you to Pittsburgh in the first place.