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Visiting Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Pittsburgh sits astride the major highways linking the Midwest to the Northeast. It can be a highly rewarding stopover point for those on long auto journeys through the region or a great destination in of itself.

Pittsburgh is blessed with an outstanding setting. Downtown ends in a triangular point, where the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers form the Ohio. Over the south side of town loom high bluffs, which are scaled by two funicular railways called "incline planes" or just "inclines." Driving into town from the south on the road from the airport rewards you with the most dramatic entrance to any U.S. city. Those bluffs hide the city until you pass through an elevated tunnel and find it there at your feet. The effect is especially striking at night.

The city is home to a number of excellent cultural institutions. Each is worth a visit and can turn a short trip into a reason to stay.

The Carnegie Museum of Natural History has a world-class dinosaur exhibit. Indeed, this museum was a pioneer in the fieldwork that has unearthed dinosaur remains across the globe. It also has a world-class collection of gems and minerals. Of particular note is the architectural hall, with casts of outstanding facades from Europe; the casts themselves are relics of a time when the Carnegie advanced the idea of having plaster copies of the best architecture rather than obtaining second-rate fragments. For Christmas time travelers, the Carnegie Museum of Art sets up a massive Christmas tree and Neapolitan nativity set. This rivals the famed display at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. The adjoining museum of art is excellent, if not of the first rank nationwide.

The Frick Museum of Art has fine rotating exhibits. It is the grounds of Henry Clay Frick's mansion, Clayton. Adjacent also is an auto and carriage museum.

The Carnegie Science Center, near Heinz Field (the new football stadium), features hands-on exhibits.

The Andy Warhol Museum focuses on contemporary art

The Senator John Heinz Regional History Center offers excellent exhibits on local history and culture.

The nationality rooms in the University of Pittsburgh's Cathedral of Learning are unique. They are decorated to represent the art, architecture, and history of the many ethnic groups that have settled in Pittsburgh.

The National Aviary in Pittsburgh is another worthwhile destination. Formerly municipally run, it was taken over by the Smithsonian Institution several years ago. They have several very interesting live bird demonstrations every day. An outstanding addition for the summer of 2004 was a show that features several very rare birds of prey from around the world that are released and fly over the audience in the aviary's garden.

The Pittsburgh zoo achieved the rare feat of having two African elephants born there in the last few years. African elephants in captivity have a notorious low breeding success rate. The youngsters, though growing, are still among the zoo's major attractions.

The Pittsburgh Symphony is a remarkably adept ensemble that deserves to be on the short list of the best orchestras in the nation. Music lovers should take in a concert while in town. The acoustics of its home, Heinz Hall, are superb. The cheap seats in the upper balcony are a tremendous bargain, given the quality of sound even that far from the stage.

The South Side, formerly a center of steel making, now is Pittsburgh's SoHo, with a mixture of avant-garde galleries and eateries spanning the world's cuisines.

The Strip District, just east of downtown on the southern bank of the Allegheny River, is a must-see experience in no-frills food shopping. Just beware that parking is an adventure.

For golfers, Schenley Park Golf Course is an oddity that must be tried. Set in an urban park with a street running through it, Schenley has the most unusual obstacles and ground rules. Expect to play over or around numerous fences, for example, or up mountainous hills. It is cheap, a lot of fun, generally uncrowded (especially on weekdays) and very welcoming to beginners or golfers of modest skills.

Besides the attractions in the city of Pittsburgh, travelers to the region also should consider these:

  • About a two hour drive southeast of Pittsburgh are two masterpieces of architect Frank Lloyd Wright: Fallingwater (recently restored) and Kentuck Knob (recently opened to the public by its new owner, British real estate magnate Lord Palumbo).
  • The Westmoreland County Museum of Art in Greensburg has a very attractive collection for a small museum. During the Christmas season, it also has an especially worthwhile exhibit on toys from decades gone by.
  • The Pennsylvania State University (Penn State) in State College began as an agricultural school. It still has its own dairy at which you can purchase some of the best ice cream available anywhere. They also take pains to pack your purchases in dry ice if you are traveling a distance.

Yinz tahkin Pittsburghese?
One of the more distinctive aspects of a trip to Pittsburgh is a chance to hear the utterly unique regional dialect and accent. It's akin to the speech patterns of Appalachia, but with a lot of its own twists.

You'll likely hear such things as:

  • yinz = you (plural)
  • dahntahn = downtown
  • Sahside = South Side (a section of the city)
  • slow dahn = slow down (standard warning on entering a tunnel)
  • ged aht = get out
  • gum band = rubber band
  • pahp (pop) = soda
  • Ahrn City = Iron City, local brand of beer
  • Jahnt Iggle = Giant Eagle, local supermarket chain
  • Stillers = Steelers, local football team
  • Pahrahts = Pirates, local baseball team

Buy a phrase book such as Sam McCool's New Pittsburghese, keep a keen ear, and you'll get around (er, urahnd) just fine.

For Railroad Buffs
Railroad enthusiasts should consider visiting:

  • The trolley museum in Washington, PA.
  • The horseshoe curve in Altoona, a dramatic engineering feat that brings the old Pennsylvania RR main line over the Allegheny Mountains.
  • The Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historic Site outside Altoona. Here canal boats were loaded on rail cars and move up or down a steep hill that bisected a major canal.
  • The incline planes in Pittsburgh and Johnstown. These are large funicular-type railways used to transport people up steep hillsides. The one in Johnstown is especially large, and carries cars as well as pedestrians.
  • Elaborate model railroad exhibits at Christmas in Pittsburgh and its environs. The best, probably, is in Greensburg. This region seems to lead the U.S. in dedicated model railroaders.
Where to Learn More

What to Budget
About $100/day can buy highly satisfactory lodging. You can eat very well for under $40/day per person.Plan on at least $20/day per person for admission to attractions.

Travel Guides and More

When to Go
Winters are cold and snowy. Summers are hot and humid. Spring and fall can be delightful..

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Travel Tips
  • Pittsburgh is remarkably uncrowded, even on business days. The main traffic choke point is I-676 westbound ("The Parkway") approaching the Squirrel Hill Tunnel during evening rush hour. Seek alternate routes at all costs.
  • The main challenge in navigating Pittsburgh is the hills. They cause streets to take crazy routes, and sometimes to halt abruptly at deep chasms.
  • The road less taken through Pennsylvania is I-80, which runs along the northern tier of the state. Most cross-state travelers use the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Generally, I-80 is less congested. However, in the winter months one must be mindful of the weather. The Turnpike generally can be expected to have faster snow clearance, salting, and sanding.
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