How Pittsburgh Became America's Most Unlikely Cultural Capital

Photo by: Sean Pavone/ iStock / Getty Images Plus/ Getty Images

by Adam Sommers, The Daily Telegraph, September 21, 2016

When Pittsburgh was ranked the best US city for foodies by the muchrespected Zagat restaurant guide last year, many were surprised.

Not so in the USA, where the city in the heart of Pennsylvania once known as Steel City has become not just a culinary and microbrewery hub but a centre for the arts as well.

Home to its very own version of New York’s Brooklyn – Lawrenceville – quirky restaurants, galleries in converted warehouses and some stylish hotels are rising from the molten remains of this former industrial city.

A lush and hilly metropolis that sprouts from the junction of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers, which join to form the Ohio, it is a city of close-knit neighbourhoods tied together by more than 440 bridges. With such beautiful surroundings it is perhaps no surprise that the accolades keep coming, with The Economist consistently ranking Pittsbugh as one of the most liveable cities in America.

As it reinvents itself, a host of new exciting businesses are moving into its historic buildings. The newly opened Ace Hotel is housed in an old YMCA building and the archway over the top still bears the stone inscription Young Men’s Catholic Association.

It is a cosy and luxurious space, with just 63 rooms in the East Liberty neighbourhood, and offers topquality amenities, including exhibits by local artists, a three-storey gym and the Whitfield restaurant – a meat-focused eatery set up by one of Brooklyn’s best butchers, Brent Young. Focusing on locally sourced meats as well as Eastern European-inspired pierogi dumplings and serving daily brunch and a late-night bar menu, it has already become a favourite hangout for foodies.

Another fine-dining experience awaits at Meat & Potatoes, where you’ll find a regular selection of steaks, chops, ribs and wings to sink your teeth into for brunch, lunch or dinner. The difference here is in the unusual options, including a bone marrow appetiser, duck wrapped in pastrami and an amazing pickled chicken and truffle fries dish.

These selections point to the sometimes quirky character of the city. It shows up in interesting places, most notably the Mattress Factory, a contemporary art museum where the interactive exhibits offer strange and wonderful experiences.

Visitors actually enter the roomsized pieces and can walk around and experience them in 3D.

One fascinating example is the justopened installation called A Second Home by Dennis Maher. It looks a bit like someone took a regular house, a log cabin and some Roman columns, jumbled them up and flung them at a wall where they all stuck in odd positions.

A flight of stairs starts in mid-air and leads nowhere. Marble columns dangle upsidedown in what looks like a rustic frame house that is still under construction.

The city’s long-time blockbuster has been the Andy Warhol Museum, dedicated to the Pittsburgh native and leading figure in the pop art movement. It fills seven floors of a converted warehouse and includes thousands of drawings, paintings and sculptures along with source material such as taped interviews that provide wonderful insights into one of America’s most creative minds.

While you’re in a museum frame of mind, the Carnegie Museum of Art has permanent exhibits from a range of renowned artists, but with the American presidential election closing in quickly, it has also just opened an amazing gallery of photos by Charles (Teenie) Harris. The famed lensman for The Pittsburgh Courier captured candidates and politicians in the city’s more industrialised years.

For a little history alongside your art education, don’t miss the Heinz History Center – the ketchup-maker was founded here in 1869 – Pennsylvania’s largest history museum and an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC.

All that growth can make a person thirsty and has given rise to a burgeoning café and craft brewery scene. Among the best are the Carson Street Deli and the Grist House Craft Brewery. Both places are low-key and unpretentious, like just about all of Pittsburgh. At the Carson Street Deli on the South Side, sample the Helltown Purgatory (a West Coast-style IPA) or maybe the Springhouse Big Gruesome (a chocolate peanut butter imperial stout). And don’t ignore the food. The Donnie Brasco is a strange sandwich that combines buffalo chicken and egg salad. They’re perfect together. At the Grist House Craft Brewery, try the Bee-utiful Blonde, a Belgian ale fermented with honey, or sip Smoke on the River, Polish grätzer to wash down your German sausage.

Although the city’s heritage does not exactly lean toward vegetarians, there are a couple of good options. Head over to the Square Café, where the staff took great care to meet our needs and the menu is full of interesting choices such as butternnut squash soup and gluten-free pancakes that were (for once) fluffy and flavourful. If you’re not looking for a big bite but want to get a flavour of the city’s culinary creativity, one option is to explore some of the niche cafés that seem to be sprouting up everywhere.

Shops such as Espresso a Mano feature a stunning variety of pastries and coffees, all set within decor that has a decidedly industrial feel . It is not all art and food, though. Pittsburgh does green space well too. A perfect option is the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens in the Oakland neighbourhood. The gardens were founded by steel and realestate tycoon Henry Phipps as a gift to the city he called home. Wander through the palm trees, the bonsai garden and the butterfly forest.

Don’t miss The Point, the park that sits right at the tip of where the city’s three rivers merge. It offers wonderful views and is a green retreat right in the heart of the downtown area, known as the Golden Triangle. 

For even better views, hop on one of the two cable cars up to Mt Washington. The ornate wooden cars date back to the 19th century and whisk you up the 367ft-high peak where you can snap photos from the observation decks. Back at river level, head for a stroll in the Strip District, a former industrial area along the banks of the Allegheny river, which was once a madhouse of piers, shipping and railroads that sent goods throughout the country. Now it is home to nightclubs and bars, as well as some of the city’s most exciting eateries and food carts plus speciality shops selling everything from food to furniture.

Try a burger from Caribbean-inspired Kaya, stop off for Edgar’s Tacos and don’t forget the drinks – R Wine Cellar serves vintages from around the world – and Wigle Whiskey, which has won a host of national awards for its trademark tipple. In keeping with the city’s quirky streak, one last stop worth mentioning is Bicycle Heaven, a destination that bills itself as the world’s largest bicycle museum and is a fascinating tour through history. It may even make you want to rent a twowheeler yourself and explore the ’Burgh by bike.

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This article was written by Adam Sommers from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.