When it comes to iconic cities in the USA, Pittsburgh may not spring immediately to mind. However, after visiting Pittsburgh, I can tell you that it’s a place packed with surprises. A mix of quirky districts, fascinating museums, great people and delicious food, Pittsburgh offers something for everyone.
It would not only make a great stopover as part of a round the world holiday, but, with transport links to ten other states, as well as Washington DC and Canada, Pittsburgh makes a great starting point to a North American itinerary. It’s far more than just another city and it’s definitely worth a visit.
Pittsburgh, known as the ‘Steel City’ or ‘City of Bridges’, is in the west of Pennsylvania at a junction of three rivers (Ohio River, Allegheny River & Monongahela River). The city has 90 unique districts including the Central Business District (downtown area including theatres), South Side (restaurants and clubs), North Shore (sports stadiums), Strip District (shopping), Shadyside (upscale boutique shopping) and Oakland (university and museums), all connected by 446 bridges. This creates a truly unique skyline.
In June 2022, British Airways resumed the only direct flight between London and Pittsburgh, operating 4 times a week, with a flight time of approx. 8 hours. Pittsburgh International Airport is located 30 minutes outside the city and has plenty of public transport options.
We cleared customs, retrieved our luggage, and arrived at the hotel an hour and a half after landing. This is unheard of in many US cities! The arrival process is a breeze, and the main road into the downtown area, via the Fort Pitt Bridge, is a spectacular sight! This bridge is why many people call Pittsburgh ‘the only city in America with an entrance’.
We visited Pittsburgh for 4 nights and our packed itinerary included many highlights such as the Duquesne Incline, shopping in the Strip District, cycling part of the GAP (Great Allegheny Passage) Trail, and sampling many local beers at the Three Rivers First Pour Beer Festival. My ultimate highlight was watching the Pittsburgh Steelers (NFL) in a home match.
No trip to a US city is complete without trying the amazing food on offer. Some standout meals for me included the House Made Sausage at The Commoner (inside the Kimpton Hotel), the unusual but tasty Chicken & Waffle at Floor 2 (inside the Fairmont Hotel), dinner at the Grand Concourse (a must-do, reservations recommended), dinner at Di Anoia’s (named in the top 100 places to eat in the US in 2021).
You absolutely cannot visit Pittsburgh without trying the ‘almost’ famous Primanti Bros Sandwich. The over-stuffed Primanti Bros sandwich includes your choice of grilled meat, french fries, coleslaw, and tomato, all served between two thick slices of Italian bread. This sandwich was invented for truckers passing through the city, who needed a meal on the go. It’s a legendary local dish and it will keep you going for hours!
Pittsburgh is home to over 40 museums within the city. Amongst the world-class mainstream museums that Pittsburgh has to offer, you'll find the Carnegie Museums (Art, Science, History & The Warhol Museum), The Science Centre, and The Children's Museum. However, it's the unusual and unique museums located throughout the city that really make Pittsburgh stand out from the crowd. Here are a few of my favourites.
The History Centre is located in the Strip District and I would recommend visiting this Museum on your first day as it gives a great insight into the city’s history. The museum shares inspiring stories of Western Pennsylvania’s people. Current exhibits include, From Slavery to Freedom, John Kane – The Life & Art of an American Workman and Pittsburgh – A Tradition of Innovation.
My favourite exhibit was Heinz. The Heinz exhibit takes you on the journey of H.J Heinz, from growing produce in his mother’s garden at eight years old, to becoming the leader of one of the world's most recognisable international brands. You will learn about the slogan “57 Varieties” and the different packaging styles from around the world.
Also, located inside the History Centre is the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum. Here you will learn all about the sporting success of local Pittsburghers and the city’s major league teams. Pittsburgh is a huge sporting city and is home to the Pirates (Baseball), Steelers (NFL) and the Penguins (Ice Hockey).
Pittsburgh is often known as the city with the worst dress sense, as many locals are always wearing sports clothing. Additionally, Pittsburgh is the only city where all major teams have the same colour jerseys of Black and Gold.
Pittsburgh isn’t widely known for its connections to the space industry, but it should be! The city is home to Astrobotic, an aerospace specialist in lunar logistics. It aims to make space missions more feasible and affordable for science, exploration, and commerce.
The Moonshot Museum is in the heart of Pittsburgh’s Northside, right next to the Astrobotic Headquarters and Mission Control Centre. This museum opened in October 2022 and brings you closer to the contemporary space industry than ever before.
During your visit, you will learn about human space exploration and the future Mission to Mars. You can go on your own simulated space mission, discover your place in the future of space exploration and even watch real spacecraft being built by industry professionals.
While I was at the museum, I witnessed the final assembly of Peregrine, the craft that will take the first commercial mission to the moon. It’s also the first American spacecraft to soft-land on the moon since the Apollo Programme. If you’re a space geek like me, this is very cool!
Since my visit, the Peregrine spacecraft has been transported to NASA’s facilities in Florida, ready to launch later this year. However, the next spacecraft being built in Pittsburgh is known as Griffin. The Griffin lander will deliver NASA’s water-hunting rover VIPER to the moon in 2023.
The Mattress Factory is a contemporary art museum where you can immerse yourself in the creative vision of artists from around the world. The museum is housed in an old mattress factory and was one of the first to develop site-specific installations that push the boundaries of both artists and viewers.
Since the museum opened in 1977, it has presented work by over 750 local and international artists. Current exhibits include ‘Performance for Relatives’ by Syanda Yaptik, ‘A Second Home’ by Dennis Maher and ‘Instability, Scattering, Wandering, Success’ by Lera Lerner.
This museum is solely dedicated to the late Roberto Clemente, a Pittsburgh Pirate and humanitarian. After being drafted by the pirates in 1954, Clement became one of the greatest baseball players, receiving every award in Major League Baseball despite racial and social prejudices. After his baseball career, Clemente pursued his passion for helping children through sports and is equally known for his humanitarian work as he is for his baseball achievements.
Duane Rieder, the Executive director and curator of the museum, renovated Engine House 25 to showcase the world’s largest collection of exhibits dedicated to Roberto Clemente, his teammates, and his humanitarian causes. Exhibits include photographs taken by Duane, world series rings, signed baseball cards, clothing and even a part of the plane from Clemente’s fatal plane crash.
In addition to the Museum, Duane is also a wine vintner. Engine House 25 wine is made from full-cluster grapes sourced from Vineyards in California, Chile and South Africa. Each bottle is hand-crafted in the basement of Engine House 25, with the grapes being aged for 18-24 months in American, Hungarian and French Barrels.
This is a very exclusive wine and is popular within the baseball community. Many MLB baseball players have purchased barrels of wine and occasionally head over to the museum after a game in the city.
This museum offers a unique experience to enjoy a selection of Engine House 25 wine whilst having a tour of the museum exhibits. Due to the extensive collection and stories associated with each exhibit, each tour will be guided by Duane or a docent. This ensures that each tour is unique and tailored to the group.
When I visited the museum, we had a two-hour tour by Duane, and he explained his connection with the Clemente Family, how he started the museum as well as some inspiring stories.
Voted as one of the top 10 independent museums in Pittsburgh, Randyland is the home of local artist Randy Gilson. Located in the Mexican War Streets district on the North Side, Randy purchased the home in 1995 and started to display his art in the back garden.
Since then, the art installations have grown, and the house has become an outdoor art centre known around the world. If you are driving or strolling around the area, you can’t miss this impressive landmark which includes a 40ft mural of colourful ladybirds, butterflies and more.
Bicycle Heaven is the largest bike museum in the USA and is also located on the North Side. The museum was opened by Craig and Mindy Morrow in 2011 however, the collection started in 1991 with one bike found in the rubbish. Since then, they have collected over 6,000 vintage, unique, and collectable bicycles.
Notable bikes include 17 rare Bowden Spacelanders, the first fibreglass bike made (with only thirty to be found around the world), Pee-Wee Herman’s bike from the movie Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, and even the media replica of E. T’s bike! It also contains a collection of bikes from movies such as Super 8, A Beautiful Mind, Fathers and Daughters, and many more.
Bicycle Heaven has also been voted the best bike shop in Pittsburgh, which includes repairs and rentals. In order words, this is a great destination to explore by bike, so rent some wheels and saddle up! Pittsburgh is also the start of the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP), a 150-mile non-motorised path to Washington DC.
I highly recommend visiting Bicycle Heaven in the morning for inspiration and then renting a bike to explore downtown Pittsburgh, including Point State Park Fountain, the starting point for many GAP cyclists.
Before my visit, Pittsburgh wasn't really on my radar as a travel destination, but it's full of amazing surprises and it totally surpassed all of my expectations. I certainly can't think of another city that combines popular culture with art, science, sports AND space travel! If you get the chance to visit Pittsburgh, grab it with both hands. You won't be sorry.