Last Updated on December 2, 2020 by Jeremy
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Downtown Pittsburgh has come a long way over the years, and aside from being the economic center of the city (and truly, of southwestern Pennsylvania), the neighborhood that we would call downtown proper features a number of restaurants, activities, and attractions suitable for visitors of all ages and interests.
To share some of our own personal favorites, this guide to things to do in downtown Pittsburgh was born!
As with all our guides, it is worth noting that the following is not a collection of every business in downtown Pittsburgh. This one only features businesses we personally visit, enjoy, or are planning to visit in the near future. As such, it should only be taken as a starting point. If you see something interesting while walking around downtown Pittsburgh, do yourself a favor and check it out!
Downtown Pittsburgh History and Map
When it comes down to it, downtown Pittsburgh's history is so vast it would be hard to recap in one article. (If you want to learn it all, we recommend Pittsburgh: The Story of an American City).
Pittsburgh was inhabited by Native Americans for thousands of years and was settled by European explorers in the early 1700s. The region began to grow in the mid-1700s for its strategic advantage of the three rivers. Many battles ensued over the years (between the natives, French, and English) and the area now considered to be downtown was home to as many as four forts as control over the region flipped hands (a fifth could was also constructed a bit further away, too).
Many historic moments occurred in downtown Pittsburgh beyond the battles, including visits from George Washington (although this is up for debate), the departure of Lewis and Clark, the start of Pittsburgh's ship-making, glass, iron, and so many other industries that helped shape modern America as we know it today.
Pittsburgh continued to grow and was incorporated as a city in 1816. The neighborhood we know as downtown Pittsburgh proper has been the economic hub until this very day. Downtown has also grown into a cultural hub and is also enjoying a modern revival of its dining scene!
Map pins used via Creative Commons by Maps Icons Collection
What we consider downtown Pittsburgh encompasses just one of Pittsburgh's 90 neighborhoods– the Central Business District. This makes downtown Pittsburgh's boundaries (for the purpose of this guide) as follows: the point to the west, Allegheny River to the north, Monongahela River to the south, and an off-set boundary to the east that follows 579 from the south and cuts along 11th Street to the north.
For the purposes of our neighborhood guides, the Bluff/Uptown will be included in our Hill District guide even though it is often considered to be within the downtown region.
Point State Park
The region around the confluence of the three rivers is Point State Park– a 36-acre park that is a National Historic Landmark and is also known locally as the Golden Triangle.
The park was established in the 1970s as a gathering spot for locals and features a footprint of the forts that once resided there, a fountain that draws from an aquifer (often considered to be Pittsburgh's de facto fourth river), the city's oldest building (the blockhouse- constructed in 1764), and the small Fort Pitt Museum that focuses on the early days of the city's history (take your ticket to the Heinz History Center in the Strip District later in the same day to receive 50% off admission!).
Point State Park is also home to many events throughout the year including the Three Rivers Arts Festival, the Three Rivers Regatta, the Fourth of July, many activities around Light Up Night, Christmas in Pittsburgh, and more.
The park is also the starting point for the 150-mile Great Allegheny Passage– a continuous biking and hiking route that connects Pittsburgh to Cumberland, MD (and onward to Washington DC).
Want to make a day of it? Check out our five-mile walking tour of Pittsburgh that includes downtown, Station Square, Mount Washington, and the North Side!
The Pittsburgh Cultural District
One of the jewels of downtown Pittsburgh is the Cultural District (promoted by the Cultural Trust), found between 6th Street and 10th Street with the Allegheny River bounding it on the north and Liberty Avenue bounding it on the south. This district has been entertaining visitors since its founding in the early 1900s by H. J. Heinz II and other notable Pittsburgh citizens.
This district features nearly all of the performing arts venues in downtown Pittsburgh including Heinz Hall, the Byham, the Benedum, the Cabaret at Theater Square, the Pittsburgh Public Theater, and the O'Reilly Theater. It is even home to a venue dedicated exclusively to magic- Liberty Magic! The August Wilson Center is also located just outside of the Cultural District on the opposite side of Liberty Avenue (close enough for us!).
Performing groups like the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Pittsburgh Opera, the Pittsburgh Public Theater, Pittsburgh Ballet, Pittsburgh CLO, touring Broadway shows, and independent artists perform in these theaters on an almost nightly basis throughout the year. It is not uncommon to see shows at multiple venues going on at any given time as more than 1,000 performances take place each year in this district alone!
In addition, many galleries call the Cultural District home and are best seen during the quarterly downtown Pittsburgh gallery crawls where most all public and private galleries are open for a few hours for guests. We personally like to visit Wood Street Galleries out of all of these as it is unique for three reasons. First, it is located in the upper floors of a subway station building. Second, the gallery displays rotate periodically and often rival what you'd see at major Pittsburgh museums. And finally, it is free! Do yourself a favor and stop at this one next time you find yourself in the Cultural District!
The Cultural District also has a lot of outdoor art installations that you can enjoy when exploring the streets. One of our personal favorites is Cell Phone Disco on Tito Way (the alley behind the Benedum Center). This one is an interactive art display that tracks your cell phone as you walk by, so make a call when you're back there! Admittedly, this one does break often but there are other art displays to enjoy in the same alley as well.
Walk Around to Enjoy all of Downtown Pittsburgh
One of our favorite things to do when exploring downtown Pittsburgh is to simply walk around.
Up until this point we've only really covered the attractions at Point State Park and the Cultural District. Pittsburgh has a rich history beyond just these which is found throughout all corners of the neighborhood, however.
Spots we recommend visiting at any time of year include the City-County Building, the Pennsylvanian, the Mon Wharf (especially on the weekend when no one is parked there- steps at Wood and Ft. Pitt Blvd), the historic banking district on Fourth Avenue, the old Allegheny County Courthouse and Jail (the latter of which is open for tours for a few hours on Mondays), and PPG Place. These spots are great whether you're a history buff, a photographer, or simply enjoy historic architecture all around you (and most are covered on the great tour by our friends at Free Pittsburgh Walking Tours)!
If you're downtown at night, look to the top of the Gulf Tower as it tells the current weather, as well as the top of the Grant Building as the light at the top spells out Pittsburgh in morse code. These two may be harder to see at ground level, however.
- Many of the above buildings (and many more privately operated ones) are open during the annual Doors Open Pittsburgh event that we highly recommend!
Downtown Pittsburgh Restaurants
Ten years ago if you would've said downtown Pittsburgh was a destination for its dining, you probably would've been laughed at. But this part of the city has come a long way to be a destination in its own right, and wherever the people are, restaurants will follow.
There are two main areas where downtown Pittsburgh restaurants reside, and that is in the Cultural District as outlined above and near Market Square. Other restaurants are speckled about throughout downtown, of course, but for the biggest concentrations these two areas are always the most popular.
As noted at the start of this guide, the selection below is only a handful of our favorites, local favorites, and spots we are looking to visit in the near future. It is not a list of every restaurant in downtown Pittsburgh. As we discover more to feature, we will update this list accordingly.
In the Cultural District, restaurants include the following:
- Gaucho – An Argentinian barbecue making some of the best meat dishes in the city. Formerly in the Strip District.
- Braddock's Brasserie – Restaurant and whiskey bar found in the Renaissance Hotel- go for the Reuben and monster sandwiches!
- tako – A high end taco and tequila bar by local celebrity chef Richard DeShantz. The namesake tako (octopus) tacos is one of the best we've had in the city.
- Butcher and the Rye – A second high end restaurant by Richard DeShantz focusing on modern American fare and a stunning whiskey bar.
- Meat and Potatoes – A third higher end restaurant by Richard DeShantz (his first) focusing on modern American fare. Go for brunch if you can get in!
- Mike & Tony's Gyros – A gyro and souvlaki restaurant with cheap dishes.
- Bae Bae's Kitchen – A delicious build-your-own plate Korean restaurant (note- somewhat limited seating). Interested in just a drink or banh mi? Check out Bae Bae's Cafe a few doors down too!
- The Warren – A neighborhood cocktail bar featuring well priced craft drinks, bar fare, and sushi.
- Bridges & Bourbon – A high-end cocktail bar in the Cultural District featuring some novel creations.
- Proper Brick Oven – A woodfired pizza restaurant offering delicious pizzas and a good draft list.
- V3 Pizza – A fast build-your-own pizza shop that offers huge pizzas for under $10!
- Nicky's Thai Kitchen – One of the city's most popular Thai restaurants.
- Joe & Pie – A pizza joint with higher quality pizzas than most found downtown and delicious gyros as well
- Sienna Mercato – Three restaurants in one including Emporio (a Meatball Joint), Mezzo (Italian), and Il Tetto (a rooftop bar with a great view both in the summer and winter).
- Condado Tacos – A make-your-own taco chain that originated in Ohio. Cheaper tacos in downtown Pittsburgh but not as authentic as other options.
- Bill's Bar and Burger – A premium burger joint that originated in New York. Higher end burgers that are quite delicious!
Restaurants in the Cultural District are often quite popular, and a few restaurants by Richard Deshantz in particular (such as tako or Butcher and the Rye) are known to have reservation waits of over a month long for prime dining times- so call ahead early for most of the above if you want a table!
Market Square restaurants and bars include:
- The Yard – A local restaurant focusing on monster grilled cheese sandwiches and a decent draft beer list.
- The Original Oyster House – The oldest restaurant in Pittsburgh, focusing on all things seafood. Cheap food but almost everything is fried.
- The Original Milkshake Factory – Pittsburgh's local milkshake joint.
- Millie's Ice Cream – One of Pittsburgh's best premium ice cream shops.
- The Wine Bar at Market Street Grocery – A small wine bar in the neighborhood market serving wines from a tasty Italian vineyard.
- Emerson's Bar – A second floor bar above Market Street Grocery with wine, beer, and cocktails- best suited as a space for great conversation over visiting for drinks on their own.
- Floor 2 – A fine dining and brunch restaurant in the Fairmont hotel.
- La Gourmandine – A popular French bakery with several locations around the city. Go for the breads, stay for the sweets.
- Las Velas – A hidden gem of a Mexican restaurant located on the 2nd floor of a commercial space in the square.
- Revel and Roost – Two restaurants in one at the Hilton Garden Inn focusing on modern American fare and fine dining. Reservations required.
- Pizzaiolo Primo – Producing Neapolitan style pizzas that are mouthwatering (but fairly expensive). Reservations required.
- Primanti Brothers – Downtown iteration of Pittsburgh's famous sandwich shop. While we would recommend the Strip District one as the original and best, we have to include this one here for completion.
- Ephesus Pizza – A local pizza place with Turkish inspired toppings and sides. A true gem.
- City Works – A modern gastropub with one of the largest draft beer lists downtown.
- Harris Grill – A modern gastropub just a few steps from PPG Place.
- Prantl's Bakery – A popular Pittsburgh bakery famous for their burnt almond torte.
- Nicholas Coffee Co. – A coffee shop located right in the heart of Market Square.
- Miracle Bar – A pop-up holiday bar around Christmas. Location tends to vary from year to year with 2020's being located on 6th Avenue.
Restaurants in Market Square can be a bit hit or miss at times, are generally downtown expansions of restaurants found in other neighborhoods, and often come with a premium due to their location. More often than not we'll visit other locations over the Market Square ones, but if you are looking for a meal while downtown, or want to visit a restaurant without a reservation, most of the above will do right by you.
Other restaurants and establishments of note in downtown Pittsburgh, outside of the two areas above, include the following:
- Peppi's Sandwiches – A local sub/hoagie shop that has a cult following. If you enjoy meat overloaded sandwiches, go for the Roethlisburger (#7).
- Chinatown Inn – One of downtown's most popular Chinese restaurants.
- Or, the Whale – A trendy seafood restaurant and chop house located in the Distrikt Hotel. One of the city's finest. Reservations required.
- The Boulevard Lounge – A high-end cocktail bar located at the Distrikt Hotel.
- Penn Brewery – A downtown taproom for the historic brewery in Pittsburgh.
- Sly Fox Brewing – A taproom from eastern PA based Sly Fox located just steps from Point State Park.
- Waffles INCaffeinated – A local breakfast and lunch chain serving sweet and savory waffles.
- Ollie's Gastropub – A gastropub at the Embassy Suites in the Oliver Building with some of the finest cocktails we've had downtown and a stellar view looking straight into PNC Park. Worth the detour, especially on game day!
- Wigle's Tasting Room at the Omni – A cocktail bar from Pittsburgh's local whiskey distillery, Wigle Whiskey located at the Omni William Penn Hotel. Go for the make your own Old Fashion.
- Speakeasy at the Omni – A “hidden” speakeasy located in the basement of the Omni William Penn Hotel. Expect inflated prices for what you get, however.
- Biergarten at Hotel Monaco – A rooftop beer garden at the Hotel Monaco. Decent skyline views and inflated prices for what you get.
- Pittsburgh Poke – A poke restaurant in downtown Pittsburgh.
- Yuzu Kitchen – Ramen, stir fry, and Asian grill in downtown Pittsburgh.
- The Commoner – Gastropub with a British twist and farm-to-table options located inside the Kimpton Hotel Monaco. Decent cocktail menu but quite overpriced. Reservations recommended.
- Bea Taco Town – Authentic Mexican tacos with two locations on Smithfield Street.
- Gasoline Street Coffee – A downtown coffee shop that is individually operated.
- Fort Pitt Coffee – A downtown coffee shop that is individually operated.
- 21st Street Coffee – A downtown coffee shop that is individually operated. Named after original location in the Strip District that is now closed.
Information for Visiting Downtown Pittsburgh
Visiting downtown Pittsburgh is a challenge for a number of reasons, especially if it is your first time to the city.
The first is due to the region's geography as downtown is not square shaped, but rather shaped like a triangle thanks to its location at the confluence of our three rivers. As such, two-thirds of the roads are oriented on a grid facing north-east/south-west (and most are counted numerically ending in Avenue), while the remaining third of the roads (along the Allegheny River in the north) are oriented on their own grid featuring north/south street directions (and most are counted numerically ending in Street).
It doesn't seem like much, but it is enough to really screw up your orientation.
Throw in the fact that our road names do not make sense at times (Seventh Avenue empties out onto 9th Street, which is one major block away from 7th Street), rush hour, or game day / concert traffic at PPG Paints Arena and you can very easily get turned around if you follow conventional driving standards.
To put it bluntly, make sure you have a GPS handy when driving around downtown Pittsburgh- you'll need it.
The second difficulty is that parking in downtown Pittsburgh is not the easiest, and metered parking is also almost impossible to come by. Most visitors will opt to park in a garage and parking is either operated by the Pittsburgh Parking Authority (PPA) or by private owners.
Generally speaking, parking in downtown Pittsburgh is most expensive during the week (where public garages begin at $5 for one hour, $7 for two, up to $20+ for 24 hours) while the prices drop to flat rates on nights and weekends (roughly $6 from 4pm to 5:59am the following morning on weeknights and all day on weekends). Private lots tend to be more expensive by a few dollars an hour or day depending on when you visit, and often have extreme surge pricing during events that is not seen at the public garages.
No matter when you visit, we always recommend checking ParkPGH to see what the parking situation is like downtown before you arrive.
Our three favorite garages are located at Fort Duquesne Blvd and 6th Street (across from the Clemente Bridge- an exception to the parking rule as their flat rate is $8 on nights and weekends), The Smithfield and Liberty Garage (the end of 9th street), as well as the garage between Fourth and Third west of Wood Street (right next to PPG Place and Market Square). These have easy access in and out from the highways; however, it is worth noting that the parking spaces are quite narrow in both and we have dinged our cars on cement poles on more than one occasion.
Downtown Pittsburgh also has several T stops which are free throughout downtown proper and the North Shore (if you cross the Monongahela to the south a fare is charged). In the many years that we've been exploring Pittsburgh we've used the T for transit around downtown precisely once, and as such simply recommend walking around on foot unless a freak change in weather occurs or if you are coming into the city from the South Hills.
If the triangle shape of our city is a detriment to driving, it is definitely a blessing in disguise when walking as you often get to your destination much faster than you think you would!
Hotels in Downtown Pittsburgh
Hotels in Pittsburgh are plentiful, but start to creep up into the premium price range due to their location. A selection for different interests is outlined below:
- One of our favorites is the Embassy Suites Downtown Pittsburgh (click here to book) as it is located on the top floors of the Oliver Building and offers a bird's eye view of the city.
- The Hilton Garden Inn Pittsburgh (click here to book) is located in the heart of Market Square and many rooms have views of the square as well.
- The Wyndham Grand Pittsburgh (click here to book) is somewhat basic, but has great views of the Point and is budget friendly if there is a sale going on.
- If you are visiting for a conference, the Westin Pittsburgh Convention Center (click here to book) is the closest to the hall and offers comfortable rooms as well as one of the largest fitness centers in the country.
- If you are visiting for a Penguins game, the DoubleTree Downtown Pittsburgh (click here to book) is located just across the street from PPG Paints Arena.
- For those who like historic hotels, the Renaissance Hotel and William Penn Hotel are found in two of the most historic buildings in the city.
- Or if you're looking for something a bit more trendy or boutique, downtown is home to the Hotel Monaco or the Distrikt Hotel (click here to book) with some modern amenities thrown in!
Likewise, downtown proper has a few interesting Airbnbs as well!
If you're looking to stay close to downtown to cut down on cost, the Sheraton Station Square (click here to book) is located just across the Smithfield Street Bridge from downtown and is an easy walk (go for a river view upgraded room for a stellar view), the Hampton Inn and Suites Pittsburgh (click here to book) in the Strip District is just steps from downtown and has free parking, and there are also many North Shore hotels near PNC Park and Heinz Field that are a short walk from downtown as well. To search for more rooms in Pittsburgh, click here.
Have a favorite spot in downtown Pittsburgh we missed? Comment below to share it!
Read Our Latest Downtown Pittsburgh Posts
Check out our latest posts from downtown Pittsburgh at the following links:
- Chinatown Inn Review – Classic Chinese Takeaway Downtown
- Catching Views on the Doors Open Antique Skyscrapers Tour
- A 5-Mile Walking Tour of Pittsburgh to See 17 Unique Highlights
- Emerson's Bar Review – A Cozy Space for Drinks in Downtown Pittsburgh
- Kimpton Hotel Monaco Review – Modern Comforts and Dog Friendly Space