April 2019 saw the launch of British Airways’ new route to Pittsburgh. It’s the first direct link between the UK and Steel City – a name which dates back to its industrial heyday. Today, Pittsburgh is famous for its colourful neighbourhoods and fantastic museums (many of which were founded by Scottish-American industrialist Andrew Carnegie).
It’s also known for its contributions to the film industry – the brilliantly diverse architecture is the reason it’s been the backdrop for countless blockbusters, including Silence of the Lambs and The Dark Knight Rises. Oh, and Heinz was founded here 150 years ago, so don’t forget to check out the Senator John Heinz History Centre, where you can learn all about the brand behind the nation’s favourite ketchup.
What to do
Admire the architecture
Pittsburgh is an architecture buff’s dream. It’s got everything from high-tech skyscrapers (including the PPG Place buildings, made with 20,000 pieces of glass) and ancient churches to military forts and buildings designed by Frank Lloyd Wright (his most famous work, Fallingwater, is an hour’s drive away). The city’s varied architecture can also be seen as the backdrop to countless films which were shot here – watch out for Soldiers and Sailors Hall, which doubled as Hannibal’s temporary jail in Silence of the Lambs.
The Frick art and historical centre is a tribute to late Pittsburgh industrialist Henry Clay Frick. The sprawling site includes the Car and Carriage Museum and the Frick Art Museum, and you can also tour Clayton, Frick’s family home in the late 19th century. This tour provides a fantastic insight into life during the steel boom – the decor screams Victorian bling, with walls lined with silver, priceless artworks (including a Monet) and the family’s monogrammed dinner plates, laid out on the table where Roosevelt once dined.
The Senator John Heinz History Centre, named after the businessman and heir to the HJ Heinz Company, includes a collection of rare Heinz products, such as a bright green limited-edition ketchup and a pickle carrying case used by Heinz’s salesmen.
Equally worth a visit are the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh, founded by Andrew Carnegie. If you’ve only got time for one, make it the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, which has one of the world’s largest collections of dinosaur remains.
Check out the neighbourhoods
Pittsburgh’s city centre is dominated by skyscrapers – with the city’s best bits in the various neighbourhoods which fan out from the downtown core, often across the water. East Liberty, to the northeast, is known for its independent boutiques (locals proudly boast that the only branded presence is a McDonald’s) and historic buildings.
Lawrenceville, with its cafés, vintage stores and enormous murals painted onto the side of former steel workers’ houses, is the city’s most up-and-coming area. One of the best coffee shops is Espresso a Mano, with its artfully exposed brickwork and canvases painted by local artists.
Shadyside is known for its historic homes and speciality stores, including many antique dealers. Its main artery is Walnut Street, with a dappling of quirky shops, including Scribe, which sells beautiful stationery. Afterwards, wander past the elegant brick houses towards Highland Avenue and Millie’s Homemade Ice Cream. At this colourful, diner-style ice cream parlour the speciality is the homemade, marshmallow-filled PGH Pothole – a Pittsburgh version of rocky road.
Where to stay
The Kimpton Hotel Monaco Pittsburgh is a dog-friendly design hotel – even the elevators are jam-packed with art. Bedrooms are an explosion of colour, and corridors feature super-size murals and day-glo armchairs. Doubles from $229 (£173), room only.
Recent hotel openings include the Even Hotel Pittsburgh, with its wellness-inspired rooms (there are in-room exercise videos and bed linen is made from eucalyptus) and The Oaklander, with its industrial decor and dark, brooding bar. Spring also saw the opening of TRYP Hotels, based in achingly cool Lawrenceville.
Where to eat
Waffles Incaffeinated is a Pittsburgh-based waffle-house brand with five restaurants, including one in the downtown area. Do as the locals do and order the Breakfast Magic, which comes topped with bacon, cheddar cheese and green onion.
Make like Obama and order one of the famous burgers at Pamela’s Diner, one of the former Potus’s favourite restaurants. There are branches throughout the city but we recommend the one in the Strip District (don’t worry, it earned its name because of its connection with strip steel mills, rather than dubious night spots).
Head to Union Standard for delicious dishes served by legendary Pittsburgh chef Derek Stevens. His menu is inspired by the mid-Atlantic and Appalachian regions, so expect everything from steak with buttermilk mashed potatoes to sea scallops with beet and squash molasses.
Where to drink
Pittsburgh’s coolest bar is The Speakeasy at the Omni William Penn Hotel. Talk nicely to the barmen at this beautiful prohibition-era bar and they will show you the secret tunnel used by patrons during prohibition times.
If caffeine’s your weakness, it’s got to be Lawrenceville’s Abbey on Butler Street, a stylish coffee shop (complete with a nitro brewing system) housed in a former funeral home.
Where to shop
Pittsburgh’s a spread-out kind of place, with its best shops dotted throughout its neighbourhoods. You won’t find much retail therapy in the city centre (although Smithfield Street’s Steel City store is great for souvenirs).
Shadyside’s Walnut Street has some fantastic independent stores, along with Roslyn Place – the only street in the US to use wood as a paving material.
The Ross Park Mall, a 15-minute drive from the city centre, has 150 brands and Grove City Premium Outlets is a 50-minute drive away.
Hard to choose, but it’s a tie between the Regional Enterprise Tower, the world’s first skyscraper with an all-aluminium facade, and the US Steel Tower, with its strangely beautiful, rust-hued external girders. The architects wanted the latter to be a showcase for Cor-ten – a corrosion-resistant material invented by US Steel. The extensive use of steel was only allowed because of the antifreeze-filled pipes inside the girders – steel bends at high temperatures, but in the event of a fire, this antifreeze would give those inside enough time to evacuate.
Nuts and bolts
What currency do I need?
US dollars (USD).
What language do they speak?
Should I tip?
Tipping is the norm in the US. As a guide, tip 18-20 per cent in restaurants and around 20 per cent per drink in bars.
What’s the time difference?
Five hours behind the UK.
What’s the average flight time from the UK?
The downtown area is easy to explore on foot, although you can also use the Pittsburgh Light Rail service and the city’s buses – their route network includes a fare-free zone in the city centre. But some of Pittsburgh’s biggest attractions are in the neighbourhoods just outside the city centre, so Uber or Lyft are your best options for these areas.
From the top of the Duquesne Incline – cruise to the top in a century-old funicular for gorgeous views of the city centre and its steel bridge-straddled rivers.
Take time to wander the city’s alleyways. When the powers that be decided to spruce up the city, these often litter-strewn cut-throughs were seen as a great place to start, and street artists were enlisted to liven them up. Some have colourful murals painted on the ground, while others have ribbons of fairy lights strung from buildings on either side.