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History’s alive in Pittsburgh

The Carnegie Museum of Natural History (pictured) and the Carrie Furnaces at the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area are among the cultural and historical attractions in Pittsburgh.Joshua Franzos

Pittsburgh puts its best foot forward. That was not always the case. Twenty years ago, if you mentioned to anyone that you were going to Pittsburgh, the response might have been, “Smog, dirt, dust, and polluted rivers from the steel mills. Why go there?” Pittsburgh has come a long way from its steel mill days to being known for healthcare, robotics, and high-tech companies. Think Google, Apple, Uber, and Intel.

Ninety percent of the steel factories closed in the 1980s, putting hundreds of thousands of people out of work. The one upside was that it forced the city to develop a new economic plan, channeling money into arts and culture and making the city green. Today the Allegheny, Monongahela, and Ohio rivers sparkle, and Pittsburgh is the fifth greenest city in America. Conde Nast Traveler has named Pittsburgh one of the best places in the world to visit.


This is a city that I come back to time and again, always finding something to pique my interest. I never leave without planning my next visit.

The steel factories’ history is kept alive by the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area. At three sites — the historic Bost Building, the Pump House (site of the Homestead Strike of 1892), and the Carrie Furnaces — guides tell you how Andrew Carnegie started his steel empire here in the 19th century. Carnegie and business partner Henry Clay Frick made Pittsburgh the world’s largest producer of steel. Frick controlled the coal that Carnegie needed to make steel.

Rivers of Steel has developed self-guided driving tours. Their Routes to Roots project covers five counties, taking you to mill towns where you get a deeper sense of the steel-making history in the area.

Pittsburgh’s downtown offers great architecture. The Allegheny County Courthouse and Jail was designed in 1884 by Henry Hobson Richardson, famous for Trinity Church in Boston. Philip Johnson’s Pittsburgh Plate Glass building is a gleaming tower over Market Square. The Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation offers guided tours of the downtown and several neighborhoods.


A walk down Penn Avenue brings you to the Strip, a half-mile swath of land lined with 19th-century mills and factories now filled with fish markets, spice shops, ethnic food markets, restaurants, a gourmet wine shop, and even a whiskey distillery. On weekends, street vendors selling handmade arts and crafts line the sidewalks.

Eat a hearty breakfast at Pamela’s or Kelly O’s. You want biscotti? Enrico’s has the best. For fresh pasta, stop by the Pennsylvania Macaroni Co.; get homemade sausages at Parma Sausage; and nosh on crepes any way you want them at the Pittsburgh Creperie stand. The pierogies and stuffed cabbage at S&D Polish Deli have been featured on the Travel Channel.

Primanti Bros. is an institution on the Strip. Since 1933, Primanti’s has made gigantic sandwiches with everything between the slices of bread, including French fries. It’s always busy, so be prepared to stand in line. Trust me: Never ask for the fries on the side. A hush will come over the restaurant because you deemed to ask the unimaginable.

The Society for Contemporary Craft, on the fringe of the Strip, is filled with beautiful exhibits and artworks by local artisans. A few blocks away is the Senator John Heinz History Center. Some of the must-sees there are Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, with a reproduction of the set and a life-size statue of Fred Rogers, a Pittsburgh native, wearing his red sweater. The H.J. Heinz Co. was founded here by Henry J. Heinz in 1870. The Heinz Exhibit pays tribute to the company’s history with interactive displays. Sports fans will like the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum, holding everything one could ever want to know about the Steelers, the Pirates, and the Penguins.


The 14 block Cultural District between Liberty Avenue and Fort Duquesne Boulevard is home to galleries, public parks boasting outdoor art installations, and theaters offering plays, symphony, opera, and ballet performances.

A few blocks from downtown is the Fort Pitt Museum, with exhibits detailing the founding of Pittsburgh in 1669. The Fort Pitt Block House dates to 1764. It was built to protect Fort Pitt, the western headquarters of the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. The block house is all that remains of the fort.

The Carrie Furnaces at the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area.

Henry Clay Frick and his wife, Adelaide, were collectors of fine art. Their home is an Italianate mansion filled with art by Monet, Childs Hassan, John Beatty, and George Hetzel. The Frick Art & Historical Center houses a vast collection of fine and decorative arts.

At the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, visitors can admire hundreds of varieties of plants. Sprinkled among the flora and fauna are colorful glass art objects by Dale Chihuly. Since 2006, it has been the “greenest” conservatory in the world. The welcome center was built underground and has a grass roof to conserve energy. The Center for Sustainable Landscapes is a LEED Platinum building, recycling the conservatory’s water and producing its own energy.


Pittsburgh’s museum has the largest collection of works by Andy Warhol. Why? Because he was born and raised in Pittsburgh and is buried here. The art consists of his iconic Campbell Soup can, painted as a nod to the Heinz family, and his portraits of Elizabeth Taylor, Jackie Kennedy, and Marilyn Monroe, to name a few.

Steel magnate Andrew Carnegie’s dream was to bring the world to Pittsburgh. In this effort, he established the Carnegie Library, the Carnegie Museum of Art, Carnegie Museum of Natural History, and the Carnegie Technical Schools, now Carnegie Mellon University. This complex is one-stop shopping for culture. After ogling the dinosaurs at the natural history museum, one can walk over to the art museum to see works by Jasper Cropsy, John F. Kensett, John Singer Sargent, Monet, and Degas.

Threading in and around the city are hundreds of miles of trails for biking or walking. Next to the Phipps Conservatory is Schenley Park, with 400 acres of trails and woods. Riverview Park, home to the Allegheny Observatory, is dotted with steep hills for hiking. Great views of downtown surround you while biking or walking Point State Park. The Pump House at the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area is a launching pad for seven trails that go along riverfronts and re-purposed railroad tracks.

The Great Allegheny Passage stretches from Point State Park 335 miles through small towns in Pennsylvania and Maryland to Washington, D.C. The Passage is one of Pittsburgh’s newest trails, costing $80 million to complete. It blends with the 185-mile long C&O Canal Towpath in Cumberland, Md.


Frances Folsom can be reached at