As London’s Tate Modern launches its major Andy Warhol retrospective, Karl Cushing visits the US city that shaped the artist and finds a city reborn.
“We like to say we’re the only U.S. city with a front door,” jokes my Uber driver as we exit the Mt Washington tunnel and I first clap eyes on Pittsburgh’s skyline.As opening gambits go it’s impressive, and the city continues to cast its spell throughout my week-long February trip, making use of British Airways’ recently launched service from Heathrow.
Once the poster boy for US industrial might, and then gritty, post-industrial decline, Pennsylvania’s ‘Steel City’ has blossomed into a cultural powerhouse and foodie hotspot, switching its focus to clean tech, robotics and sustainability while its monolithic industrial buildings now house microbreweries, galleries and start ups.
Locals are quick to remind me though that innovation and re-invention is in their blood. For Yinzers, as they’re known, have gifted the world everything from Heinz foods and the Big Mac to the first movie theatre, not to mention the city’s favourite artistic son, Andy Warhol.
Pittsburgh’s pride in Warhol manifests in the Andy Warhol Museum. Set on the North Side it’s a short stroll across the river from Downtown, across the Andy Warhol bridge, and I spend a fascinating morning with his nephew, Donald, as he regales me with insights and anecdotes about ‘Uncle Andy’.
Continuing on to the nearby Mattress Factory gallery, known for its installation art, I pass the decidedly quirky Randyland, outlier artist Randy having transformed his block and gardens into a technicolour, world welcoming attraction.
Having ticked off other notable Northside distractions such as the Children’s Museum and Carnegie Science Centre I backtrack to Downtown, passing the theatres and concert halls of the 14 block Cultural District, to visit Heinz History Centre. Here I’m served adigestible history of the city, from sports and steelto pickles — irreverently celebrated in July’s Picklesburgh festival.
Plumping for an architectural tour with Bike the Burgh I’m soon whizzing along bike lanes and crisscrossing rivers with my knowledgeable guide Paul as he narrates some of Pittsburgh’s grandest buildings and 446 bridges.I’m also introduced to Point State Park, where the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers converge into the Ohio, plied by all manner of kayak, SUP and boat tours come summer. It’s a photogenic spot but to snap it with justice I ascend nearby Mt. Washington via the Duquesne Incline, one of Pittsburgh’s last remaining funiculars, descending on the nearby Monongahela Incline ($2.50 single ticket).
Food, glorious food
Pittsburgh gets a big tick for walkability. From Downtown it’s an easy stroll to the Strip District, the blue collar neighbourhood turned food capital whose history of immigration — not least Polish, German and Italian — colours its diners, delis, cafes and bakeries, a spread of which can be sampled with Burgh Bits and Bites.
Popular options include the original branch of Primanti Bros, known for its calorific sandwiches, though I’m more enamoured with the local delis and diners, not least De Luca, with its mahusive, no nonsense plates, and S&D Polish Deli, with its cheap and cheerful pierogi dumplings. Other gems include the restored Klavon’s Ice Cream Parlor and Enrico’s dreamy biscotti and cannoli, while more modern innovators include the delectable pop ups of Smallman Galley.
Venturing beyond the Strip I reach Lawrenceville. Just as with Downtown, this revitalised area, akin to Dalston in London, is unrecognisable from 10 years ago (I’m told). Thronging with bars, restaurants and boutique businesses it makes a good place to grab a bite and amble around. Outlying areas angling to follow suit include Braddock, a nearby steel town on the turnaround, where I grab an Uber to the highly-praised Superior Motors where my fine dining four-course dinner doesn’t disappoint.
Pittsburgh has some great green spaces, not least Schenley Park. Hereabouts I spend a pleasant afternoon exploring the leafy, university neighbourhood with Tracy Myers of Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation, nosing around the Cathedral of Learning, ducking into the Phipps Conservatory and savouring the Carnegie Museum of Art. If you have the time though it really pays to explore the surrounding countryside.
For those not tackling the 335-mile GAP trail the obvious options are Laurel Highlands, known for its Frank Lloyd Wright architecture, and Butler County. I opt for the latter, a mere 20-minute drive north of Pittsburgh, exploring Moraine State Park and cute, historic towns such as Saxonburg and Harmony, with their proud German heritage. It makes a great mini road trip add on, and one day I even squeeze in a visit to Mars before breakfast. Now how often do you get to you say that?
Where to stay
Budget — TRYP Pittsburgh:
This recently opened, 108-room ‘art hotel’ inLawrenceville features a rooftop lounge and two notable restaurants. Rooms from $149.
Mid — AC Hotel Pittsburgh Downtown:
Within walking distance of Downtown and the Strip district this modern Marriott has rooms from $289.
High-end — Fairmont Pittsburgh:
An 185-room,five-star Downtown charmer offering effortless luxury at affordable prices. Splurge on a suite and its spatreatments.