Pittsburgh is a city forging a new identity. Once clouded in the smoke of its mighty steel mills, it’s now enjoying an economic and cultural renaissance.
Situated at the confluence of three rivers in Western Pennsylvania, it was one of the industrial powerhouses of the 20th century.
But while other cities in the so-called Rust Belt have struggled with the decline of the steel industry, hilly Pittsburgh has bounced back and is now ranked as one of the most liveable cities in the US.
Amused locals still fondly reminisce about the time factory executives had to take a spare white shirt into the office because the first one would be dirty by lunchtime due to the soot.
Nowadays the biggest hardship is keeping up with modern technology as the city has become a hi-tech hub for robotics, with driverless cars seen on the roads.
Indeed, confidence is so high that British Airways recently launched a year-round, four-times-a-week service direct to the city from Heathrow. So here’s my pick of Pittsburgh.
The city’s forefathers had an eye for the future and left an enviable cultural legacy.
Even while English writer James Parton was describing the industrial landscape of the city in 1868 as like ‘‘looking over into hell with the lid taken off’’, the foundations were already being laid.
This is in no small part down to the visionary genius of people such as steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie who was once the richest man in the world. Born in Scotland, he made his fortune in Pittsburgh after he emigrated aged 12 in 1848.
Alongside the likes of banking magnate Andrew Mellon and food giant Henry John Heinz, they endowed the city with world-class museums, theatres and universities.
Chief among these is the imposing Carnegie Museum of Art and Natural History (carnegiemnh.org, $19.95). The two connected museums boast fabulous collections, not least the world’s first and most complete skeletons of a Tyrannosaurus rex and Diplodocus dinosaurs.
The Senator John Heinz History Center is also a fascinating place to visit and shows the huge impact the world-famous food manufacturer had on the city and beyond (heinzhistorycenter.org, $18).
And the more recent past shines too, with a museum dedicated to a famous Pittsburgh son, the artist Andy Warhol, in the heart of downtown.
A world-class exhibition in its own right, it not only houses his most famous artworks but also offers a terrific insight into his life and times with a vast collection of personal items (warhol.org, $20).
FOOD AND DRINK
It may come as a surprise to some, but Pittsburgh has a thriving culinary scene which stands up very well to those in many other major US cities.
As befits a hard-working blue collar town, the best cuisine is a rich mixture of hardy ethnic staples brought by immigrants over the last two centuries.
Of course fine dining is available, but spending time in the gritty Strip District and roaming its delis, bakeries and cafes is a much more rewarding experience. A local delicacy is the savoury pierogi dumplings which can be bought at S&D Polish Deli.
Another Pittsburgh classic is the belly-bursting pepperoni roll at nearby Sunseri’s, an institution in the city run by larger-than-life Italian-American Jimmy Sunseri.
If you’re lucky, you might run into the man himself – he’s unmistakeable with his walking stick and ever-present cigar.
Other places to try are the fab Pamela’s Diner for breakfast and any of the excellent Primanti Brothers outlets dotted about town.
Pamela’s is a classic American diner known for crepe-like pancakes which are a favourite of President Obama. Primanti Brothers are famous for their mouthwatering sandwiches, such as meaty Reuben and cheesy melts, all served on thick hunks of delicious Italian bread.
If you’re a fan of American action, the city is heaven with the Pittsburgh Steelers football team in the NFL, the Pirates baseball team slugging it out in MLB and the Pittsburgh Penguins ice hockey outfit in the NHL.
In a country where sports teams can change name and move city on a whim, there is a pleasing heritage and continuity here, right down to the colours of their kits.
Pittsburgh is the only city in the US where all professional sporting teams share the same colours. The distinctive black and gold can be seen everywhere, and is based on the coat of arms of British statesman William Pitt, who gave rise to the name of the city itself.
Tickets for baseball, hockey and football are available in advance online and prices are better value than in the UK (steelers.com, mlb.com/pirates, nhl.com/penguins).
Set in the rolling hills and forests of Western Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh has a lot of options if you want to get out into the great wide open.
To the north lies historic Butler County, which offers a cosy glimpse into Mom and Pop smalltown America. Many of the towns have a German history, such as Harmony, which still maintains the architectural charm of a quaint hamlet.
To the south-east lie the Laurel Highlands which offer spectacular scenery, white water rafting and, above all, designer Frank Lloyd Wright. You don’t have to be a fan of architecture to appreciate his masterpiece, Fallingwater.
It was built in the 1930s above a waterfall and was home to the Kaufmann family who bequeathed it to the nation in 1963.
The Smithsonian Institution listed it as one of their ‘‘28 places to visit before you die’’ and I won’t argue (fallingwater.org, from $30).
Pittsburgh has become a hub of modern robotics research – so much so it is sometimes nicknamed Roboburgh. Not that you will run into a robot doing the shopping just yet, but you will often see a car driving itself.
The confidence in the cutting-edge work undertaken by the likes of the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University has seen tech giants arrive in their droves.
Both Google and Apple have a Pittsburgh office and the city is ground zero for the testing of autonomous vehicles by Uber and Argo AI.
All this investment has attracted a new wave of young residents, drawn by seriously big tech-bucks – think $200,000 a year, quite enough for all the pepperoni rolls you could ever want…
- British Airways from Heathrow to Pittsburgh from £536 return. ba.com
- Rooms at the Distrikt Hotel Pittsburgh start from $189 a night. curiocollection3.hilton.com
- Tourist info: visitpittsburgh.com
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