Travel review: Why Pittsburgh is vying for British travellers’ attentions

The bright lights of Pittsburgh.
The bright lights of Pittsburgh.
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With new direct flights from the UK, Richard Sutcliffe heads to Pittsburgh, and discovers there’s much to love.

A question we grew accustomed to fielding during a recent stay in Pittsburgh was ‘But why here?’ It’s an industrial city rarely on anyone’s ‘bucket list’ and is usually overlooked as a tourist destination.

Kayaking in Pittsburgh.

Kayaking in Pittsburgh.

Even the locals seemed genuinely mystified as to why we had chosen their corner of Pennsylvania over any number of alternative destinations in the United States on first hearing an English accent. Hence the oft-repeated enquiry as to why we had flown almost 4,000 miles to their home city.

But Pittsburgh, now much easier to get to from the UK thanks to Icelandic airline Wow adding the route last June, really is a fine place to while away a few days. From the appealing ten-block ‘Golden Triangle’ of downtown through to the sports nirvana that is ‘North Side’ and then on to the gritty but quite wonderful ‘Strip District’, Pittsburgh has a little bit of everything.

Throw in the Andy Warhol Museum that documents the life and work of the city’s most celebrated son, together with a cultural scene that rivals many much larger cities, and it soon became clear our biggest problem in this city of rivers and bridges was going to be finding enough time to cram everything in.

Our base was the recently opened Hotel Indigo, in the East Liberty district that is also home to Google. In many ways, East Liberty’s fortunes mirror that of the wider city with the decline of blue-collar industries, Pittsburgh was once the world’s leading producer of steel,leaving behind a blighted landscape.

Heinz History Center.

Heinz History Center.

However, the demolition of abandoned steel mills has helped create the modern and sleek waterfront that has turned Pittsburgh into one of America’s top ten most liveable cities. East Liberty is enjoying its own resurgence.

Hip new restaurants and bars abound in an area that can be reached by a free shuttle bus service, including pick-ups, offered by the Indigo.

Having arrived early on Friday evening as dusk was starting to fall, our first glimpse of the downtown skyline came when emerging from the mile-long tunnel that leads to Fort Pitt Bridge from the airport.

The sight of skyscrapers reaching ever upwards while also staring out across the water at the two giant sporting cathedrals of America football (Steelers) and baseball (Pirates) truly is one to behold. It is no wonder the New York Times once described Pittsburgh as “the only city with an entrance”.

Pittsburgh from Mt. Washington with Duquesne Incline Station.

Pittsburgh from Mt. Washington with Duquesne Incline Station.

Easily negotiated on foot, downtown is a charming mix of old and new as the shop fronts of Liberty Avenue, many unchanged since the Forties, jostle for space with their more contemporary, and almost exclusively glass, neighbours.

The quaint Market Square, lined with restaurants and bars catering for most tastes, is a ‘must see’, as is the architectural gem that is Union Station.

Bequests from Pittsburgh’s wealthy forefathers, including Andrew Carnegie and John Heinz (the founder of the food company), dot the area with the latter’s History Centre offering an interesting take on the city’s history, with a special nod to Pittsburgh’s rich sporting pedigree.

Also well worth a weekend visit is the ‘Strip District’, famous for its fresh produce stalls, bustling market and a cracking night out.

One personal favourite was a tasting outlet for ‘Courtyard Winery’ just off Penn Avenue on 19th Street, where a good hour or so was whiled away sampling a host of excellent wines.

Perhaps the biggest surprise about Pittsburgh is how individual each district feels. For instance, Station Square, once the hub of the railway but now a riverside complex featuring more than 20 restaurants and bars, could not be more contrasting to the edgier Strip District and yet both are teeming with the party crowd at night.

Station Square can be found across the Monongahela River from downtown at the foot of the Mount Washington, once the home to Pittsburgh’s coal mines.

No less than 17 furniculars once served the site, carrying both passengers and freight to the main railway below. Now only two survive.

The Duquesne Incline, saved by a local fundraising campaign when closed in the sixties, retains a historic aura with little having changed since those first travellers made the 400ft trip up the hillside in 1877.

A viewing platform at the top, complete with exhibits and photos charting the ups and downs of life in Pittsburgh over the years,

That view of downtown’s Golden Triangle was where we had come in a few days earlier, albeit from street level rather than atop Mount Washington.

And where better then to sign off our visit to Pittsburgh than just a couple of hundred yards away from Duquesne at the fabulous Monterey Bay Fish Grotto?

Offering diners an uninterrupted view through the floor to ceiling windows, this was the perfect way to end what had already been an enjoyable trip.

It was also, thanks to that same awe-inspiring vista, the only place in Pittsburgh where the locals didn’t wonder as to why we had chosen their city over any other.