Travel: 48-hours in Pittsburgh, the rejuvenated and surprisingly picturesque former 'Steel City'
David Roy spends a whirlwind 48-hours eating, drinking and sight-seeing in Pittsburgh, a one-time industrial powerhouse undergoing a tech and foodie revolution that's now more accessible than ever thanks to direct flights from Heathrow
UNLIKE its near neighbours New York, Washington DC and Philadelphia, Pittsburgh has yet to register on most Irish holidaymakers' radar – and that's why your first visit there is guaranteed to be a pleasant surprise.
First off, you'll be struck by how green Pennsylvania's former industrial giant really is: there are dense forests and verdant hillsides on display for miles around Pittsburgh, which sits at the base of Mount Washington on the intersection of three major rivers.
Indeed, the city is serviced by a Venice-shaming 446 bridges – including one named for one of its world-famous exports, pop art pioneer Andy Warhol, whose iconic work is preserved and celebrated in style at the Andy Warhol Museum, an impressive 'must-visit' attraction.
In recent years, the one-time 'Steel City' has been busy reinventing itself as a tech innovator thanks to the arrival of various big names (Uber, Duolingo, Google etc) and new start-ups. Nervous pedestrians should note that Pittsburgh's 90-neighbourhood sprawl serves as a test track for driverless cars, including those developed by the city's own tech-savvy learning centre Carnegie Mellon University.
An abundance of interesting new food and drink experiences is also helping Pittsburgh to remodel itself as a 'foodie' destination – you won't go hungry, that's for sure.
One thing which definitely hasn't changed is the city's love affair with its major sports teams: you'll see the black/gold livery of the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Pittsburgh Pirates proudly displayed everywhere – the latter's impressive home at PNC Park is a city landmark in itself, a pride-of-place affair commanding superlative riverside views of downtown from behind home plate.
The Steelers play at Heinz Field, named for the city's world-famous baked bean peddling family: the Smithsonian-affiliated Senator John Heinz History Center (Heinzhistorycenter.org) in the Cultural District offers visitors insight into Pittsburgh's 250-year history. You can't miss the building, thanks to the giant neon ketchup bottle adorning its frontage.
:: HOW TO GET THERE
British Airways are now flying direct to Pittsburgh from London Heathrow. If you have the means, I highly recommend travelling in Club World with BA, a choice 'business class' standard premium flight package including access to the luxurious Club World lounge prior to your long-haul flights, plus the comfort of BA's pod-like fully reclining 'skybed' seating and the convenience of its famous in-flight service, where no request for an extra pillow or top-up of your complimentary beverage is too much trouble.
To arrive in the States feeling relatively refreshed, it really is the only way to travel: experiencing the civility of Club World makes budget airlines feel like Con Air by comparison.
:: WHERE TO STAY
The (deep breath) AC Hotel by Marriott Pittsburgh Downtown – try saying that after eight hours of complimentary BA beverages – is a stylish and comfortable spot where you can enjoy views across the Allegheny River from the bar's open air terrace.
:: WHAT TO DO
Get some perspective on Pittsburgh by visiting the descriptively named Grandview Avenue on the slopes of Mount Washington, which offers Insta-worthy panoramic views across the city.
Ascend and descend in style via the 142-year-old (and, thankfully, regularly serviced) Duquesne Incline funicular ($5 return) – if you visit during the day, it's worth returning after dark to see the cityscape in all its illuminated splendour.
Back at ground level, take a stroll around the pleasant Point State Park with its impressive fountain located at the intersection of the Allegheny, Monogahela and Ohio rivers to see locals relaxing on dry land and on the water, then hop aboard one of Molly's Trolleys (Mollystrolleyspghtours.com, $27) for a flavour of the Pittsburgh streets beyond: they offer an historically informative 90-minute guided city tour aboard a motorised 1920s-style trolley car.
The Andy Warhol Museum (Warhol.org, $20) – known locally as simply 'The Warhol' – is one of Pittsburgh's star attractions, a former factory (appropriately enough) now housing the world's largest collection of Warhol's iconic works across its seven floors and below.
Many exhibits are interactive, so if you've ever fancied filming your own Screen Test, now's the chance, but the best interactive experience available is a regular tour led by Andy's supremely knowledgeable nephew Donald Warhola (Andy dropped the 'a'), who will be only too happy to answer any burning questions about his famous 'Uncle Andy'.
If art is your thing, don't miss The Mattress Factory Museum of Contemporary Art (Mattress.org) in the city's Northside neighbourhood with its playfully disorientating interactive installations by James Turrell, Yayoi Kusama and Dennis Maher, while there's supremely kitchy 'folk art' galore at nearby Randyland (Randy.land, free admission), a spot best explained in person by eccentric curator/creator Randy Gilson, whose suburban home has been transformed into a monument to his hyperactive psychedelic muse.
:: EATING & DRINKING
North Oakland's Pie For Breakfast (Pieforbreakfastpittsburgh.com) offers exactly what it advertises and more: try a slice of tooth-dissolvingly sweet speciality Vinegar Pie (think apple cider vinegar, not Sarson's) and/or load up with a big eggs 'n' bacon combo at this diner-style neighbourhood spot.
Gastronomes keen on exploring as much of the city as possible should sign up for a Burgh Bits and Bites walking tour (Burghfoodtour.com), which will take you into the heart of various neighbourhoods to meet the people who feed the locals and sample their tasty wares: our exploration of south Pittsburgh's Brookline Boulevard included stops for freshly baked pittas at Lebanese-owned Pittaland, succulent sizzling Mexican tacos grilled to-go at Las Palmas Carniceria, delicious cookies from Party Cake Bakery and mouth-watering meatball sandwiches at Parker's PGH cafe.
Fine diners are also well catered for in Pittsburgh: both the uber-cool Superior Motors (Superiormotors15104.com), based in a former Chevrolet dealership in Braddock, and the reclaimed warehouse urban-chic setting of Eleven (Elevenck.com) in Downtown are guaranteed to serve you memorable meals.
Craft beer enthusiasts should make a point of visiting Ciderlands Warehouse (Cinderlands.com) in the Strip District to try their incredible Major Tom Collins 'tartshake', a delicious and deceptively fruity cocktail-inspired beer weighing in at a potent 9.7 per cent ABV. It's also well worth making a bee-line to Brew Gentlemen (Brewgentlemen.com, closed Monday/Tuesday) over in Braddock, where you can sample this fast growing Pittsburgh-founded independent's entire range (try the General Braddock's IPA) and mix with local hopheads in their newly improved and very cool BG Open Air beer garden.
Located just round the corner from Pittsburgh's only remaining active steel mill, this young and ambitious business offers visitors the chance to toast this revitalised city's exciting future prospects while also raising a glass to its fast-vanishing industrial past.
:: David Roy travelled with British Airways, the only airline offering a direct flight from the UK to Pittsburgh, with regular connections from Belfast and Dublin. Flights run four times a week from Heathrow Terminal 5 on Tuesdays, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. BA0171 departs from London Heathrow at 16:10, landing at 19:25 and BA0170 leaves Pittsburgh at 21:50, arriving into London at 10:25(+1). Return fares from Belfast start from £461 in World Traveller and £1,552 in Club World. Britishairways.com
:: AC Hotel by Marriott Pittsburgh Downtown. Rooms from $180 per night. Marriott.co.uk
:: Visitor info: Visitpittsburgh.com