We Visited Pittsburgh, and You Should Too (Top 5 Things)

Janna and I always like to say that we like ‘2nd tier’ American cities. Not that we think these cities are actually inferior to their more prolifically-touristed neighbors; just that they’re not at the top of most peoples’ bucket lists. Philadelphia is no New York City; Pittsburgh is no Chicago; Salt Lake City is no San Francisco; and Asheville is no Nashville.

Pittsburgh will have a parade for almost anything

But in some ways, that’s what we like about them. Those cities all have great things to offer, lots of excitement, and are centers of cultural evolution and revolution. But the ‘2nd tier’ cities maintain a greater air of authenticity, building up an aura that is designed to make the locals happy, not the visitors on their one-vacation-a-year. The bands don’t play covers of the same 12 songs, the art is local and unique, the theater is less predictable, and the tickets to everything is cheaper.

When we tell people where we’re going, they often turn their noses up, saying ‘that city is ugly’ or ‘that city is dangerous,’ instead directing us to some smaller hamlet or suburb that is more ‘pristine’ in their minds. Almost to a person, when pressed, they admit that the places they eschew, they haven’t been to in years, or sometimes decades. The country is undergoing an urban revitalization, because our generation wants to live in cities, want to be closer to the action, want to walk more than drive, and want to be in the thick of diverse groups and experiences. That’s bringing money back to cities, and that’s bringing consumer businesses back to cities.

In that vein, we think you should visit Pittsburgh. Far from the days in everyone’s mind, something out of 19th-century noir London, this city is surrounded by lush hills, green rivers, incredible views, nature, world-class science and arts. Andy Warhol is from Pittsburgh, and is a perfect encapsulation of the meshing of pragmatism and fantasy that makes up this beautiful city.

After 2 months, here’s our top 5 things about this city. There’s so much more, but this was what we had time to digest.

Top 5 Things We Ate

  1. Pad Thai Noodle on Bloomfield. Cheap, and delicious, Pad Thai. I’m sure they had other things, but all we ate was the Pad Thai – about 12 times in 2 months.
  2. Baby Loves Tacos in Bloomfield. This place is like the best version of Chipotle that you’ve ever had. Vegan options too.
  3. DeLuca’s Diner on the Strip District is everything you’d expect from a Pittsburgh diner. Huge plates of eggs and bacon and potatoes, every variation and combination of breakfast food that you can think of. But it was the massive waffle and pancake sundaes that brought Man v. Food to the diner in 2009. They are to die for. Don’t plan on eating anything else this day.
  4. Wise County Biscuits @ the Bloomfield Farmer’s Market. This market, every Saturday in a parking lot in the Italian Village, was better than any biscuit sandwich I’ve ever had in the south. No permanent location, so you’ll have to find them at a market or coffee shop around town.
  5. Banh Mi & Ti Vietnamese in Lawrenceville. Coming from Houston, we know good Vietnamese food, and this proudly women-owned business in the Lawrenceville does it right. Get the Xa Xiu in any of its many variations – it’s fantastic, moist barbecue pork like you’ve never had before.

Top 5 Shows We Saw

  1. Charlie Parr & The Ghost of Paul Revere at Club Cafe on the South Side – The odds of you seeing Charlie Parr & The Ghost of Paul Revere at Club Cafe when you’re there? Slim-and-none. The odds of you finding your new favorite band and buying them a drink after the show? Very high.
  2. Pittsburgh Banjo Club Practice – This group plays shows, but practice is the real show. Every Wednesday night, from 8PM until the wee hours, the banjo club has a bona fied practice on stage at the Elks Lodge, admission is free, beer is cheap, and sloppy joes & french fries are only $5. The group’s founder, Frank Rossi, is in the National Banjo Hall of Fame. It’s the American Song Book at its finest. Get there on a Wednesday if for no other reason than to see this perfect slice of Americana.
  3. WordPlay at Bricolage – The best version of storytelling you can imagine. It was fun, it was heartwarming, it was a little raunchy but stopped short of full-on debauchery. It was set to music spun by a live DJ, which really perfected the evening. Short of a full-blown Moth (which we also saw in Pittsburgh), it’s 5 solid storytellers with about 15 minutes each, and it’s perfection.
  4. Comedy Royale at Arcade Improv – We went to Arcade Comedy Theater 4 times in our 2 months there. It’s super affordable entertainment that pushes the boundaries of Improv. The best show we saw was Comedy Royale – a sort of competitive improv show that focuses on short-form improv (our preferred form). Pittsburgh seems to have an inexhaustible supply of talented improvists.
  5. Pittsburgh Sports – We saw the Penguins play and we saw the top-ranked Pitt volleyball team play. Pittsburgh fans are passionate, and be it pro or collegiate, they put on a good show in great venues. We’ll be back for a Pirates game – PNC is supposed to be one of the best baseball stadiums in the league, but we were there at the wrong time of year.

Top 5 Things We Went to

  1. National Aviary – Already raved about this here, but if you like birds and you like zoos, you won’t find a better experience than this in the country.
  2. Randyland – Already raved about THIS here. It’s quite possibly the happiest place on earth.
  3. Hiking in Log Cabin Park – Haven’t raved about this one yet. About a 15-minute drive from downtown Pittsburgh, there’s a massive park that has every version of outdoors you could want, from wave pools and botanical gardens to secluded hiking and beautiful waterfalls. Surprised? Incredible hiking just a quick drive from the Steel City?
  4. Carnegie Science Center – Pittsburgh is the home of steel. But it’s so much more than that. Pittsburgh is a hub of science, with tons of huge universities. Remember, adopted Pittsburgher Andrew Carnegie built more than 1,500 libraries across the United States, and Pittsburgh is also a center of the self-driving car world, and every neighborhood seems to have its own robotics lab. The Carnegie Science Center is a beneficiary of all of these different science drivers with exhibits for every age and taste.
  5. Lawrenceville Art Walk – The art walk is only once a year, but the Lawrenceville art scene is bustling all year round. World-renowned wood printers, screen printers, glass blowers and painters all open up their doors and let you peak behind the curtains and ask all the questions you want. Along this same vein: Doors Open Pittsburgh, another once-a-year event, that lets you look inside (and underneath) some of the gorgeous old buildings of Pittsburgh. This city was once the center of the industrial world, and all of that money built lots of ornate skyscrapers.

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