Yes, Pittsburgh. Tell people you’re going to Steeler Nation—other than for a football game—and you get one of two reactions: “Why?!” Or, “I love Pittsburgh!”
I fall into the second of those camps, having first discovered this lovable city almost 20 years ago when visiting a friend who lived there. I’ve made several trips back, and every time, I find more to like about it. So, come along on my most recent weekend visit, and share some of the highlights.
My first two stops weren’t technically in Pittsburgh but are noteworthy—and close—enough to warrant being included in your visit. As an architecture buff, I’ve always wanted to visit the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed homes of Fallingwater and Kentuck Knob, and this proved to be just the weekend to do so with no other pressing engagements.
Actually located in Pennsylvania’s Laurel Highlands—well worth a visit on their own for their magnificent scenery and wealth of outdoor activities—these Wright-designed homes draw millions of visitors every year from around the world. Fallingwater was built as a weekend home for the Kaufmann family, owner of Kaufmann”s, the family’s upscale Pittsburgh department store. Designed in 1935, construction began in 1936, and now in its 75th year, the house is considered “one of the 12 landmarks that will change the way you see the world,” according to Travel+Leisure magazine.
As the name might suggest, Fallingwater is set over a waterfall, which was the focal point of the Kaufmann family’s weekend activities from 1937 until 1963, when Edgar Kaufmann, Jr., the son of the original owner, gave the house, its contents, and grounds to the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy.
Informative guides take visitors on a tour of the house and the grounds, with plenty of time for exterior photos (no photos allowed inside the house). On a crystalline summer day, there couldn’t have been a more ideal time to visit this iconic landmark—except perhaps, as the guide pointed out, in the autumn when the house sits in stark contrast to the blazing leaves around it.
While Fallingwater was used as a weekend retreat—and was designed and furnished in such a way as to draw the family and its guests outdoors, rather than to have them cocoon inside the home—down the road is another Wright-designed house that was intended—and used—as a full-time family home. Kentuck Knob was the residence of Bernardine and I.N. Hagan, friends of the Kaufmanns who had fallen in love with Fallingwater. They got in touch with Wright and asked if he would design a house for them as well. Then 86 and at work on the Guggenheim Museum in New York, Wright told the Hagans that he could “shake it out of his sleeve at will.” He never set foot on the 80-acre mountainside site except for a brief visit during the construction. Kentuck Knob was one of the last homes completed by Wright and isrepresentative of Wright’s Usonian style of architecture.
Usonian homes like Kentuck Knob were typically small, one-story houses that didn’t have garages (interesting note: Wright coined the word carport to describe an overhang for a vehicle to park under) or, indeed, much storage (even then, Wright thought we all had too much stuff!). The homes are usually L-shaped, and incorporate native materials, flat roofs, large cantilevered overhangs for passive solar heating and natural cooling, natural lighting with clerestory windows, and radiant-floor heating. As with Fallingwater, Wright maintained a strong visual connection between the interior and exterior spaces.
My mission to finally see these landmark homes completed, it was on to Pittsburgh itself. First I checked into the new Cambria Suites hotel, located in downtown Pittsburgh, next to the CONSOL Energy Center. This business-friendly suite hotel is well-suited to families and individual travelers as well; hang out in the comfortable lobby long enough and you may see visiting athletes or performers (the troupe of Cirque du Soleil was staying at the hotel at the same time … unfortunately, no trapeze acts in the lobby). The rooms and public spaces are comfortable and Euro-contemporary, with sleek, but inviting, lines. There are meeting rooms if you are there for business, a pool and workout room to help you relax, and a lobby restaurant as well as a grab-and-go case where you can pick up a yogurt, a sandwich, or something to drink as you head out the door. A shuttle bus is available to take you to many of Pittsburgh’s sites, but during busy times, there may be a wait. Parking is free, though, so if you have your car, you can pull in and out as you like, and if you’re up for walking, there’s plenty to get to within a short walk.
The shuttle was indeed tied up so I walked to my dinner destination, Habitat, in the new Fairmont Pittsburgh. I’ve always liked Fairmont Hotels so when I heard that there was a new restaurant there, I thought it would be worth a try. Such an understatement! This meal was the culinary highlight of the trip. Executive Chef Andrew Morrison focuses not only on locally sourced ingredients such as eggs from local heritage chickens and grass-fed beef from Burns Angus Farm, but he makes his operation as sustainable as possible. Every piece of the meat, for example, is utilized including the bones, which are used to make stock. The hotel even recently unveiled its signature house-made soap, made using tallow, or rendered beef fat, left over from the side of beef, along with coconut oil, lye and natural scents.
Back to the meal though. I started out with a refreshing English chilled pea soup. This isn’t something I usually order, but I”m glad I did. It hit just the right note, especially accented with a small swirl of minted cream and delicate pea tendrils. My entrée of pan-seared diver scallops, on a bed of ratatouille with Tagiasco olives and white anchovies, was faultless. And now that I have stopped swooning, I can talk about my dessert, lemon pudding pie, which was as delectable as eating a cloud. A delicate lemon pudding swirled on a shortbread tart and topped with an airy dome of whipped cream was complemented (as if it needed to be!) by a tres petite scoop of lemon sorbet and candied jasmine. Divine!
Not surprisingly, I wasn’t particularly hungry the next morning so after a light breakfast, it was out to explore Pittsburgh. First stop was the Strip District, a one-half square mile northeast of downtown Pittsburgh. Commonly called “The Strip,” this neighborhood of reclaimed warehouses and industrial spaces is now home to shops, restaurants, nightspots, and a weekend flea market. Two of my favorite shops in the district were Penzeys Spices—need a spice (or didn’t even know you needed a spice?)—then this is the place for you. On the other end of the taste bud spectrum is Mon Aimee Chocolate, a veritable worldwide tour of chocolates in one adorable shop. The fact that it was 90 degrees outside and I was nowhere near a refrigerator is the only thing that kept me from overindulging. I think a return visit in winter might be in order.
Not far from The Strip is the neighborhood of Lawrenceville, home to numerous antique shops and home design boutiques. It’s also home to Piccolo Forno, a casual Italian eatery that I stumbled upon, and gratefully so. I had a spring pea (again with the peas—and I don’t even like peas as a rule, but somehow I kept ordering them!) and grilled shrimp risotto which was out of this world. Unfortunately, I was too stuffed for what looked like equally delicious desserts.
A Pittsburgh local told me not to miss the Allegheny Cemetery so off I went for an hour of grave-viewing. Another thing not usually on my sightseeing list, but again, I wasn’t steered wrong. In the Lawrenceville neighborhood, Allegheny Cemetery is one of the city’s largest, oldest, and most picturesque cemeteries. More than 125,000 dead are interred on the grounds of the 300-acre rural garden cemetery; notables lying at rest here include composer Stephen Foster, actress Lillian Russell Moore, Civil War veteran General Alexander Hays, Thomas Mellon, and 22 Pittsburgh mayors.
From the cemetery, I did a whirlwind arts run, stopping at the Society for Contemporary Craft, an exhibition space and gallery, and the Mattress Factory, an installation space featuring artists from around the world (great gift shop and attractive snack bar as well). Then it was on to the Three Rivers Arts Festival at Point State Park. While the Festival is an annual event, the Park—which commemorates and preserves the historic heritage of the area during the French and Indian War (1754 – 1763)—is worth a visit on its own for its 36.4 acres with paved riverfront promenades, beautiful views, 150-foot fountain, and large grassy area ideal for a spot of relaxing in the middle of the city.
After a quick dinner on the run, it was off to the Duquesne Incline for a quintessentially Pittsburghian activity. Along the wooded slopes of Mt. Washington are restored cable cars that have transported commuters since 1877. Ascend the incline for a panoramic view of the city—as dusk turns into nightfall is the ideal time as the city skyline lights up—and take a few minutes before going back down to look at the pictorial history of Pittsburgh. There aren’t many inclines like this left in the country so take advantage when you can.
And for my final treat of the visit, a “nightcap” at The Milk Shake Factory, founded in 1914 and still family-run. With more than 50 flavors of ice cream and shakes to choose from, you can be there a while. Samples are encouraged and after a few (well, quite a few), the winner of the evening was a scoop of red velvet ice cream. Who knew?! Well, now I do!
There is a lot more, of course, to do in Pittsburgh—from the Andy Warhol Museum to the Carnegie Science Center to the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Garden, as well as neighborhood walking tours, boat rides, and of course, tickets to any of this sports-mad city’s professional teams. But those can wait for the next visit. This couldn’t have been a more perfect trip just the way it was.
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