“Why are you so interested in that particular bourbon?” the bartender asked me.
“Because it’s local,” I answered.
“Okay, let me give you a taste of it first because it’s different than most bourbons,” she said as she poured me a shot of Wigle Whiskey Bourbon, distilled just a few blocks from where I was sitting in the historic William Penn Hotel. “I think it tastes different than most bourbons, reminds me of the old days.”
She was right. It did taste different. But it was good. “I think it’s best in a Manhattan,” Dawn told me. A few minutes later, I had in front of me one of the best Manhattans I’ve ever tasted. (Full disclosure – I’m a bit of a Manhattan snob and I often judge a bar and its bartenders by their Manhattan. Dawn gets six out of five stars from me.) As I sat there sipping on this delectable cocktail, the other folks sitting around the bar – all locals – engaged me in friendly conversation. This was something I was ready for after my day in Pittsburgh. I’m not always keen on engaging in conversation with locals – after all I have spent much of my time in New York – but I love to when the opportunity presents itself. And one of the main impressions I had gained during my time in Pittsburg is that the locals are friendly and easy going people. So I joined the conversation with joy. When I told them that Pittsburgh had never been on my radar of places to visit they were aghast and I was given the whole rundown of why Pittsburgh is special, from its sports history to its social history (the bus boy overheard our conversation and stopped his work to tell me about the movies scenes filmed locally). And they’re right – it is a city worth visiting.
My visit to the city had begun just 15 hours earlier when I stepped off a Megabus at 7:30 in the morning. A few months earlier I had read about an art exhibit featuring one of my favorite contemporary artists, Ai Weiwei, at the Andy Warhol Museum and had decided that if I had time during the summer that I would try to pop over to Pittsburgh to see it. Popping over was easy enough – I took an overnight bus for just $30 each way from NYC to get there and then took and overnight bus back to NYC (this only works if one is able to sleep on a bus and luckily, I am). Finding a day to go was harder as my summer was packed full and hadn’t have a single full day off from the time I read about the exhibit to the moment I boarded the 11pm bus.
As I looked into the city of Pittsburgh I was surprised to discover how much the city has to offer in art and architecture. I started to feel overwhelmed in choosing what to spend my day doing! In the end, I visited one historic home, three museums, took a boat tour, had two delicious locally-sourced gluten free meals, had one fantastic cocktail, got lost only about half a dozen times, was reminded of much of the history I’d forgotten since 11th grade American History class, and left inspired to visit the city again.
A little bit of what I learned about Pittsburgh during my day of adventuring: First off, don’t forget the ‘h’ at the end of the city’s name. I made this mistake a handful of times. While I am allowed the excuse of being dyslexic I try very hard to be respectful and not misspell the places I visit. However I did misspell the city’s name a handful of times on social media and was quickly corrected. I’ve since learned that the city is one of the few in the USA that ends the term “burg” with and ‘h’. As for the history of the city: The land has been popular for a long time. Three rivers converge where the current downtown district is situated, making it a viable resource. In the late 19th century it became the center of the steel industries by the infamous industrialists Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Flick. Because of these two and other entrepreneurs, the city was once at the forefront of invention. It was also the center of historical labor disputes that should never been forgotten (look up the Homestead Strike) . The 20th century saw the city thrive then fall into a depression as certain industries left and only recently has the city seen return to thrive as corporations have returned. As I wandered lost through the city I saw some of the once beautiful neighborhoods that have unfortunately fallen due to low incomes and also saw a freshly thriving downtown that has been able to keep and revive its historic buildings. And let’s not forget it’s athletic achievements through the decades (my new friends would not appreciate that). I am by no means a historian of the city and I recommend that anyone who visits the city to create their own history.
Here’s what I did (and I recommend everyone consider each of these stops when visiting the city yourself!):
- SQUARE CAFE for a gluten free breakfast!
I couldn’t find many gluten free breakfast places and I knew that I was going to need a hearty breakfast before the day’s adventures. Luckily my app – Find Me Gluten Free located this joint out in the Edgewood borough and near to one of the places I wanted to visit – the historic home & gardens of Henry Clay Frick. I got a little lost on the bus system finding my way out there but it was well worth it both for the breakfast and for the walk through some beautiful neighborhoods boasting unique and lovely architecture. My much needed endless cup of coffee came in a unique square mug (luckily the free to-go cup they offered me was round) and the breakfast – I chose the Square Protein Breakfast which boasts a ginormous GF chocolate chip pancake – was delicious and perfect for keeping me going trough the first half of my day. The cafe is open until 3pm every day and is a perfect spot to grab a bit for those
who are both GF and non-GF before or after visiting The Frick! square-cafe.com
- FRICK PARK. Next I got a little bit lost again looking for The Frick
. But that only meant that I got to take another lovely stroll – this one along a dirt trail through the densely forested Frick Park! At 644 acres the park is known for its woodland trails and is the perfect, peaceful escape from the hustle & bustle of the city. www.pittsburghparks.org/frick-park
- THE FRICK ART & HISTORICAL CENTER. Known
as one of the “Gilded Age Industrialists,” Henry Clay Frick made his fortune in steel at the turn of the 19th & 20th centuries first partnering with Andrew Carnegie and later partnering with J. P. Morgan. There is much more that can be said about the man and his legacy but for that, you will have to visit his Pittsburgh home. Early on in his career, Frick began buying pieces of artwork – later creating a home for them in his NYC house and leaving many of them in his Pittsburgh home which he left to his daughter. There is much to see here – from the extensive grounds to a guided tour of the refurbished house, telling the story of the Fricks’ lives, to the art museum, to the car & carriage museum. www.thefrickpittsburgh.org
- ONE HOUR BOAT TOUR.
As I was preparing for my trip I kept reading about the architecture and the bridges in Pittsburg. And so I wanted to find a quick-ish way to gain an overview of the architecture and bridges while also learning a bit about the city’s history. I first came across a walking tour and then I found a boat tour and this was perfect for me. Our guide shared bits of history with us while pointing out various sites along the waterfront. A perfect introduction to the city.
- THE ANDY WARHOL MUSEUM. This is what I came
for. For a special exhibit exploring the careers and social impact of Warhol and Ai Weiwei. The exhibit was wonderfully curated. This particular exhibit ends soon but I recommend the museum to anyone who is a fan of art! www.warhol.org
- THE CARNEGIE MUSEUMS OF ART & NATURAL HISTORY. Like Frick, Carnegie left a legacy of art in Pittsburgh. The two museums are next door to each other and it is easy to wander from one to the other. Wandering through the art museum, I wasn’t quite sure how to focus my experience but the museum is very well organized by time and artistic periods. www.cmoa.org
- SIX PENN KITCHEN for a gluten free dinner. Okay, it was a bit pricier than I usually spring for but worth it after a long day of adventuring during which I skipped lunch. I ended up with the Roasted Lamb Leg – honestly, a dish (well, lamb) that I’ve been avoiding since I visited Africa as at least every other meal there included lamb but I’m glad I didn’t skip out on this one! www.sixpennkitchen.com
- SPEAKEASY @ THE OMNI WILLIAM PENN HOTEL for a cocktail before saying goodnight to the “Steel City”. Looking up places for a good cocktail in Pittsburgh I cam ac
ross a number of highly recommended joints – including one hailed as “the best cocktail bar in America.” But I was drawn to the Speakeasy because I wanted to see the historic opulent William Penn Hotel. What I got was not only an impeccably crafted cocktail and delightful local company, I also got a history lesson. As Dawn explained to me, the bar was only recently discovered during an extensive renovation. Before that, the room on the first basement level had been walled off for decades. But before it was walled off, it was home to not only an authentic speakeasy, it was also an illegal Prohibition-era lounge complete with a hidden escape route for police raids. Dawn also had a gem of cocktail history to show me – bottles found in the bar during its recent discovery that are over a century old! (These are locked behind glass – you can look but don’t touch.) www.omnihotels.com/thespeakeasy
A few final notes:
- Transportation. After two disastrous attempts at public transportation I ended up taking Ubers for the rest of my transportation needs. Yes, I know, I’m all about traveling on a budget but sometimes it’s worth spending a few extra dollars. Downtown Pittsburgh is walkable but the museums were a bit further. In the end, I only paid a few dollars more for each Uber ride and I got to my destination in about a third of the time public transportation would have gotten me there (and had delightful conversations with my drivers about everything from the local accent to the social & economic changes of the city over the past few decades!).
- Gluten Free Sports Fans – PNC Park
is gluten free friendly!
Oh, and Pittsburgh is the home of Mister Roger’s Neighborhood. You can even visit it at the Heinz History Center. I’ll be going there on my next visit.