Weekending: Pittsburgh Edition

Full confession: my husband and I are the reason marketers exist. We are THE target people marketers are trying to reach when they come up with new products or commercials because we believe all the claims and immediately make plans to procure that thing. In this way, we are American to the core. Somewhere in a marketing handbook is a picture of the two of us eating some new concoction from Taco Bell, smiling and high fiving; the caption says “These are your targets.”

This is how we came to plan a weekend trip to Pittsburgh. The very night we returned from our beach vacation we were lying in bed watching tv when a commercial came on, attempting to sell Pittsburgh. At first we thought “Pffffft, nice try, nobody’s going to Pittsburgh.” Then came all the fantastical images of green spaces, gorgeous buildings,fun activities, beautiful scenery. And by the end we thought, WE’VE GOT TO GO TO PITTSBURGH!!

I didn’t grow up in this part of the country; I had no idea what Pittsburgh was like but in my head, I associated Pittsburgh with giant industrial smoke stacks belching black smoke into the air, rusty railroad trestles, hard looking people worn down by years in the coal mine, millions of Steelers flags everywhere. I imagined a decaying and decrepit Rust Belt city, where it was gritty, ugly, and most likely cold almost all of the time. Never in my life had I ever considered Pittsburgh a “must see” destination based on this very flawed personal projection I had of the city.

Pittsburgh is, I am here to tell you, absolutely nothing like that. It is the most beautiful city you never knew was beautiful. I fell in love with it. It is now my goal to compel everyone I know (especially those who live in this area, just 250 miles away) to take a trip there and experience Pittsburgh. I am an enthusiastic Pittsburgh fan now. I want you ALL to go to Pittsburgh!

Here’s what you might not know about Pittsburgh:

-It’s just 250 miles away from Northern Virginia, which makes it a great destination for a weekend trip. The drive itself is scenic and pleasant. The bulk of your travel time will be spent in the state of Maryland, with short legs in Virginia, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania itself. This drive theoretically can take only 4-5 hours; it took our family over 6 but that’s because we ran into traffic each time and took longer stops so our youngest could better tolerate the car. Coming through Maryland on I-68 you’ll cut through Sideling Hill, where the mountain was cleaved in two to reveal the layers of earth inside. A pedestrian overpass connects the eastbound rest stop to the westbound so that everyone can access the overlook built into the side of the mountain. This was one of our stops coming home and it was well worth the 20 minutes it took to walk to the top of the overlook and to get a picture of a mountain chopped in half from a bridge straddling the interstate. You’re not going to do that every day.

-Pittsburgh is a city built on rivers. Three rivers run through Pittsburgh- the Allegheny, the Ohio, and the Monongahela. All of these rivers necessitate bridges- lots and lots of bridges.There are 446 bridges in Pittsburgh and each one is slightly differently designed. In a stroke of brilliance, Pittsburgh painted the largest bridges in the downtown area a buttery lemon yellow and they arc across the river like rays of sunshine. Yellow bridges. What a whimsical idea.

Entering the city of Pittsburgh via car means going through the Fort Pitt tunnel, bored into the mountain beneath Mount Washington. When you exit this tunnel you shoot out onto the top level of the double-decker yellow Fort Pitt Bridge, crossing the Monongehala river. In a simple way, it reminded me of when Dorothy walks out of her tornado-ravaged black-and-white Kansas house into the bright and colorful world of Oz. You’re in a dark tunnel one minute and the next you’re hurtling across the water on a yellow bridge, with other yellow bridges criss-crossing the water all around you. It is the most spectacular entrance into a city I have ever experienced. On a bright sunny day, the beauty of it will take your breath away.

-The city is full of richly detailed Gothic Revival architecture:

Here in the Virginia/DC area, we’re surrounded by a lot of Greek Revival and Federal style buildings, which are absolutely stunning in their own ways, but there’s something special about the Gothic architecture all over Pittsburgh. It lends the city a refined, authoritarian air. In addition to the impressive architecture, Pittsburgh is just clean. It’s the cleanest major city you’ll ever visit. There’s flowers everywhere! Planted in small plots, hanging in baskets from lampposts. Parking is plentiful, easily accessible, and inexpensive. Pittsburgh bears the nickname the “Paris of Appalachia,” which at first sounds pretty humorous and made- up but in all actuality bears believing. WELCOME TO THE PARIS OF APPALACHIA!

-Pittsburgh is incredibly family friendly. With just two days at our disposal, we were in no way able to see and do everything there is Pittsburgh. The good news: that means we’re for sure going to take a trip back next summer. Pittsburgh is the perfect family-friendly destination because there’s so much to do that is enjoyable for kids AND adults.

Our five year old is deep in the throes of an obsession with birds this summer. When we were doing some research into what there was to do in Pittsburgh, we saw that the National Aviary is located there and this solidified our decision to visit. What better place could there to be to visit for a little girl who loves all things bird? The National Aviary was our first stop on Saturday morning and it was SUCH a great experience. The penguin exhibit alone is worth the visit- there’s different viewing areas all around the habitat- an outdoor area, and inside, a glass-walled view of the enclosure where you can see the penguins playing on rocks and jumping into the water to swim.

In addition to the penguin habitat (called Penguin Point) are different “environment” rooms which house the birds who live in those environments. There’s the Rain Forest, featuring all manner of parrots; the Wetlands, with flamingos, scarlet ibis, and spoonbills, and an outdoor habitat where two gigantic Condors live. We saw eagles, toucans, and even a two-toed sloth at the Aviary. Most of the birds roam free in these rooms, flying right beside you or walking up on the path alongside, giving you a close-up view you just can’t get at most zoos.

After a brief trip back to our hotel so the toddler could take a much-needed nap, we went back into the city Saturday afternoon for more Pittsburgh exploration. We ended up in an area known as Schenley Park, near the University of Pittsburgh campus, where we planned to visit Phipps Conservatory. Get ready:

That is real life. That is a building that exists. It’s just sitting there in Pittsburgh, waiting for you to come marvel at it.

Phipps Conservatory is the greatest botanical garden you will ever see in your life. Fact. (Opinion, but let’s call it fact. This is my website, I’ll do what I want.) Do you remember as a child watching in awe as the kids who found the Golden Tickets first entered the room in Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory where every single thing was edible candy? That’s Phipps Conservatory for adults. Your brain cannot properly process all the beauty your eyes are absorbing. ALL OF THESE THINGS are real, and they are all here in this one building? I don’t think I can hide my bias; this was my favorite thing we did in Pittsburgh. It is an achievement in design. There is an entire room dedicated to ferns. And another to palms, another to cacti, another to Japanese style gardening. There’s a Butterfly Forest and a jungle. Throughout the garden rooms are scattered pieces of Dale Chihuly’s famous glass sculptures, which at times camouflage themselves so effectually as plants and flowers that it takes you a moment to recognize them.

There is an orchid room, filled to brim with different species of orchids. It smells like heaven.

This would be Australia.

Upon entrance to the Conservatory, kids are given -you guessed it- a scavenger hunt, which keeps them engaged and alert throughout the tour, carefully studying the plants around them to make sure they don’t miss anything on the list.

Just behind the Conservatory grounds we discovered a great little playground called Anderson Playground where we let our girls run around for awhile.

Schenley Park borders the Carnegie Mellon campus complex and the University of Pittsburgh campus. Right in the middle of all this is Schenley Plaza, a large grassy field that lies in the shadow of the 535 foot tall Cathedral of Learning.

Schenley Plaza is filled with college students doing things like lying in the grass on a blanket reading a book- the sort of thing everyone imagines they’ll do as college students except nobody other than the Pitt kids actually do seem to do it. I could not relate to them. Later I saw some rundown row houses near the campus with red Solo cups and empty cartons of Miller Lite on the porch and I thought “Now that looks like college.”

We spent a good chunk of time at Schenley Plaza, visiting Dippy the Diplodocus outside of Carnegie Hall of Music, rolling around in the grass, and grabbing a pre-dinner “snack” of Liege waffles topped with delicious treats from Waffallonia. If you’re asking yourself what a Liege waffle is, let me break it down for you. It’s a thick, doughy batter that’s studded with special sugar crystals that caramelize and melt when placed on the heat of the waffle iron. It’s sugary and rich and maybe the most perfect waffle you’ll ever eat. This is no Eggo.

My waffle with Speculoos cookie butter and sliced bananas. My husband got his own waffle because I balked at sharing. I would do anything for love, but I won’t do that.

Our final stop on Saturday was the famous Duquesne Incline. I’m going to be 100% honest with you and tell you that although the view is absolutely worth the ride, the Duquesne Incline operation is run pretty poorly and it might be a stressful endeavor. Here’s some handy tips to keep in mind if you’re attempting the Duquesne Incline:

-They do not accept cards. Not only do they not accept cards, they only accept EXACT CHANGE for your fare. This means you need to check out the pricing ahead of time, figure up exactly what your family’s total is going to be based on how many people you’ve got going, what their ages are, etc. and bring THAT amount of cash. There is a cash-changing machine in the building but it gives you back only $1 coins, no bills. There is not even a register; you dump your money into an iron and glass piggy bank of sorts and then are handed a ticket from a surly employee behind a glass window.

-The room in which you board the incline is cramped and tight and the employees are going to yell at you frequently about things they find completely obvious but that to first time visitors are not intuitive at all. They behave exactly like people who spend all day wrangling tourists. The Duquese Incline website is written in Comic Sans font and the whole enterprise runs precisely how you’d think a company who advertises themselves in Comic Sans would- old fashioned, inefficient, and not at all with the times. Duquesne Incline has been in operation since 1877 and let’s just say it’s still 1877 on the incline.

But the VIEW:

You will take every abuse and slight the Duquesne Incline throws at you just to glimpse this view of the city from the top of Mount Washington. From this vantage point you can see the glorious yellow bridges, PNC Park, Carnegie Science center, riverboats tooling up the Monongehala, the confluence of the Alleghany and Monongehala rivers, the imposing Gothic architecture of PPG Place, and Point State Park Fountain. Oh, Pittsburgh. What a gem.

There were so many things I would have loved to squeeze in on this trip, but faced with the necessity of prioritizing, we chose the Carnegie Museum of Natural History for our Sunday morning activity, with a quick detour to check out the inside of the Cathedral of Learning, right across the street.

Outside the museum is a funny looking structure called a Lozziwurm:

Lozziwurms are play structures that are frequently installed on Swiss playgrounds to encourage imagination and exploration in children, but this Lozziwurm is the first installed in the US. We arrived at the museum 10 minutes before its noon opening time and my kids (and husband…) spent those 10 minutes clambering around inside the Lozziwurm, climbing and sliding and poking their heads through the cutouts to say hi. The Lozziwurm was Lozzafun. SORRY, DON’T HATE ME FOR THAT.

Displays inside the Carnegie include an exhibit of Ancient Egypt, featuring a real sarcophagus, an exhibit on Polar inhabitants featuring a fake igloo, a hall of gems and minerals, a hall of impressive pieces of architecture, and DINOSAURS.

There was also a quiet third floor room called Animal Secrets which was full of interactive exhibits that children were invited to play in which showed the inner workings of animals and their homes. There was a hollow tree with holes for toy acorns, a bald eagle nest, and a cave. This was a great spot for kids to let loose and run free and play.

My one real regret from our trip is that we didn’t get to eat at any “real” Pittsburgh restaurants. I have a blanket policy that if we go somewhere new we don’t eat at chains or anywhere we can eat when we’re at home. However, I also have a blanket policy that if our toddler’s behavior is out of bounds, we’re not subjecting restaurants to her. She was completely unfit for public consumption Saturday evening, so instead of eating at some legit Pittsburgh place for dinner, we retreated to the safety of the hotel, put the toddler to bed and then my husband and I huddled over a sad takeout order from a sports bar and grill across the street from our hotel. It was pretty pathetic, but the reality is that parents who attempt outings with young children are subjected to pretty pathetic situations from time to time so I’m sure you can relate.

We were sad to leave Pittsburgh and are already looking forward to our next trip there. Next time we hope to hit the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, take in a Pirates game at PNC Park, ride on a Duck Tour, visit the Pittsburgh Zoo and Aquarium, and eat a sandwich stuffed with french fries at Primanti Bros. 

If you’re looking for a fun new weekend trip destination for your family, I can’t suggest Pittsburgh highly enough. With an easy, scenic drive, relatively close location, and a city jam-packed with beautiful sites and fun activities, Pittsburgh is somewhere every family should visit if they have the chance. It feels like a secret place that nobody ever tells you about and exploring it gives you the impression you’re discovering a hidden treasure. The city’s slogan is “Mighty. Beautiful.” It is that, indeed. You simply must go.