Friday Five: Food and Culture in the Steel City

Business travel has never been something I’ve known, but my dad recently had to travel to Pittsburgh for work and I tagged along. Similar to Jersey, if you mention Pittsburgh to somebody, the response is usually “Pittsburgh? Why do you want to go there?” Yet, I found it to be one of those “who knew?” places with a clean and pretty downtown, vibrant food scene, and plenty to do. Narrowing it down to my favorite five things for this post was tough as it means cutting out awesome things like running along the river and counting the city’s numerous yellow bridges.

1.) Museums–I spent a good amount of time during my day and a half in the city in museums, and Pittsburgh boasts a wide array of them. I started off with the Carnegie Museums of Art and Natural History. Admission here is pricy even with your student ID but it gets you into both so you can make it worth your while. Although I’m not usually a fan, I enjoyed the modern art collection here and then continued through to the architecture gallery which presented some architectural case studies but was geared more towards summer campers. The Natural History museum was fun, as those museums usually are, and shared some good information on the Arctic, Native Americans, and dinosaurs, but I found that it was, again, more geared towards children. Dioramas abound and children run free among the taxidermy animals of North America and Africa.

Another major museum I visited was the Andy Warhol Museum. They say it’s one of the biggest, most comprehensive single artist museums in the world, and I’d believe it. Visitors take the elevator up to the top floor and proceed down, learning about the different periods of his life and career on each floor. Different aspects of his work are incorporated well in an interactive way, like the Silver Clouds room in which fans blow around these shiny, rectangular, silver balloons. Admission here is also steep, but bring your student ID or AAA card for a discount (I saved my dad and I $12 this way).

Fun chairs in the Irish room
Fun chairs in the Irish room

2.) Cathedral of Learning and Nationality Rooms–In the Oakland neighborhood, the Cathedral of Learning stands out as a beacon, calling inside students at the University of Pittsburgh and visitors to the city to educate themselves. Though it’s a cop out to say so, the interior of the building is evocative of Hogwarts  with high ceilings, old and creaky wooden tables, and hidden stone staircases. The building also is home to a number of Nationality Rooms. Immigrant communities were called upon to design and create classrooms that embodied the spirit of their culture, and the result is impressive. Visitors pay the $4 admission fee and walk around from room to room with an audio guide and attached key. As the doors are all locked to protect the rooms, you have to go from room to room unlocking each door as if you’re the groundskeeper or sneaking around after hours. While the rooms all seem the same from the outside with the same wooden door, inside it’s as if you stepped through a portal to another time and place. My favorites were the Italian room, as each chair bore the name and founding date of an Italian university (shoutout to UniBo in the front left), the Norwegian room, and the Syria-Lebanon room, which is closed to visitors due to its delicate state. The third floor of the cathedral is home to more, newer rooms and there are some currently being planned as well. Classes are even held in this room, so if you’re a student you may find yourself sitting at the seminar table in the Irish room with dogs peaking out from the top of your chair.IMG_1232

3.) Phipps ConservatoryMy first real experience with botanical gardens was in Padua with the Orto Botanico, so when I heard about Phipps Conservatory in Pittsburgh I thought I’d give it a try. Once I arrived, my memory was jogged and I realized that I’d seen it before. Flashback to the Chihuly Museum in Seattle–Bailey and I watched a video in which glassblower Dale Chihuly talked about and prepared a number of pieces for a greenhouse, seamlessly incorporating them in the space. That greenhouse just so happened to be Phipps  IMG_1434IMG_1399Conservatory. Like the other sites in Pittsburgh (aside from the Nationality Rooms), admission here was steep, but the grounds are extensive. In the Stove Room, butterflies alight on guests’ arms and clothing. The Tropical Forest is home to a waterfall and koi pond. The world’s largest living building makes its home here, and the building’s friendly security guard is more than happy to tell you all about what that means. Works by Chihuly are hidden throughout the greenhouses as if they’re pretending to be plants. It’s an easy walk from the Carnegie Museums, and it means you get to pass by Pittsburgh’s Love Lock bridge with some gems like this one.


4.) Food–Though I walked all over the city, I also ate my way around it. Espresso a Mano in Lawrenceville whips up a smooth and bold iced coffee in a sleek, hip, and neighborhood-feeling environment. Sienna Mercato on Penn Ave is home to three different restaurants on each level. Emporio on the bottom floor specializes in meatballs, Mezzo is a more traditional, casual Italian restaurant serving delicious pizzas and Peroni, and the rooftop Il Tetto is a beer garden. Further down the road, Meat & Potatoes packs in the crowds every night of the week, and their food steals the show. Think flatbreads with salty meats or perfectly seasoned wings. Beforehand, grab a drink at Butcher & the Rye and make sure to try the pig candy. Rounding out the Pitt food tour is Primanti Bros–I’d first read about this sandwich joint in Patricia Schultz’s 1000 Places and was lulled into a spicy ham induced food coma upon leaving. Service is casual and friendly, so snag a spot at the counter and order a classic capicola and cheese. Sandwiches come piled high with french fries and cole slaw wedged between fluffy slices of fresh Italian bread.

IMG_15275.) Duquesne Incline–Before catching our flight back to Logan (and waiting for six hours in the Pittsburgh airport due to storms along the east coast), my dad and I stopped at the Duquesne Incline for a last minute view of the city. Fare is $5 round trip and you must pay in exact change, though there is a change machine next to the cashier. The funicular creaks and shakes its way up, but it affords you magnificent views of the city both along the way and from the top.

Until next time, Pittsburgh!

3 thoughts on “Friday Five: Food and Culture in the Steel City

  1. I used to go to Pittsburgh fairly often when I lived in NE Ohio, but I never knew about the Nationality Rooms! I’ll definitely have to check those out the next time I’m in the area! I mainly used to go there back in the day to go to punk shows and eat at Mad Mex; they have the best waffle fries ever! I’m also intrigued by the unfortunately named “Randyland,” though I’ve never been.


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