Last Updated on January 26, 2022 by Jeremy
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As a travel writer by trade, I have seen many tourism campaigns from cities all over the world trying to highlight the main reasons outsiders should visit.
Some highlight geographical features like beaches and mountains, others promote the libations scene in the form of winery or brewery trails. Some push sports, others promote their architecture and history as a draw. Some push that the city is a popular tourist destination, others promote that they're under the radar.
For Pittsburgh, however, I don't think we can push just one narrative. In fact, we have all of the categories mentioned above, and it is only when you take a step back to appreciate how it all works together that you truly get a feel for what makes Pittsburgh the city that it is.
So if you have no idea what Pittsburgh is all about and need to learn more before deciding if you should visit, this one is for you!
Pittsburgh's History is an Important One
If you know anything of Pittsburgh's history, odds are good that your first thought will be that it is a steel town. This is true- or rather, was true.
After being settled by colonists in the 1700s, Pittsburgh became an industrial hub for two reasons. The first is that the hills around the city were rich in raw materials, like coal, which were used as a precursor for iron production. As technology advanced, iron production turned to steel production, and Pittsburgh was known to produce a significant chunk of the country's steel in its prime (you can tour the Carrie Furnaces, seasonal, and the Frick House to learn more about this side of our history).
The second is that Pittsburgh's three rivers made it easy to transport coal, iron, and steel to other cities and to ports for export. In fact, our rivers are one of the main reasons why the region was colonized to begin with as the confluence of the three rivers had a strategic advantage to it which the French and British battled fiercely to control.
One of the first battles of the French and Indian War started in the nearby Laurel Highlands (known as the Battle of Fort Necessity) where a young George Washington led a small number of British troops who inadvertently killed the leader of a French contingent in the area. This escalated the battles from there, with the British ultimately claiming what is now Pittsburgh in the Forbes Campaign a bit later, but that shot set the stage for the Seven Years' War and the subsequent American Revolution as well.
As the city grew, the confluence of the three rivers also was considered the Gateway to the West and was the point where Meriwether Lewis began the famed Lewis and Clark expedition in 1803 as their boat was said to be commissioned here. This area was used primarily for many industrial purposes until it was finally commissioned as Point State Park in 1974.
Pittsburgh's modern renaissance can be traced back in only the last few decades. As steel and other manufacturing moved elsewhere, new industries moved in including medicine, tech, and of course, tourism. Couple this with the city's industrial spirit and you shouldn't be surprised that there are a number of famous Pittsburgh inventions that have come out over the years- all beyond just steel. You can learn even more about all of these at the Heinz History Center in the Strip District which is a must-see attraction for anyone wanting to learn more about our local history.
- Did you know that Pittsburgh is home to a site showing evidence of human habitation dating back 19,000 years? While we often speak of colonists as the starting point of the region's history, you can learn even more when visiting Meadowcroft Rockshelter (seasonal).
Our Drinking and Dining Scene is Hard to Beat
We know that most major cities like to claim that they are having a food and libations resurgence, and this is indeed true. But the Pittsburgh restaurant and libations scene is hard to beat for one specific reason- our farms are located just a short drive outside of the city.
This means that many restaurants have access to local meats and dairy, local grains for beer, and local fruits when in season to name a few- we can truly grow a lot in this area!
Whereas other cities may have a small handful of so-called farm-to-table restaurants, Pittsburgh has dozens upon dozens, and you are never lacking for seeing farm names heralded on local menus. As for our brewery scene, well, Pittsburgh is home to over 80 breweries within an hour of downtown and puts other cities of similar size to shame purely on volume alone. Throw in that many use local grain and, well, you can see why we think we have a superior product there as well.
And if you're looking for even more reasons to drink, well, our local spirits scene is booming (again, thanks to our grains) and many local distilleries like Wigle Whiskey are bringing back historical spirits like Monongahela Rye- one of the first American whiskeys to gain popularity. In fact, western Pennsylvania made a pretty forceful stand in the early days of Washington's presidency when farmers protested a new whiskey tax in an event that later became known as the Whiskey Rebellion.
To say we've been taking libations seriously for hundreds of years is an understatement and that trend continues to this very day.
- Looking for Pittsburgh foods to try when you visit? Check the previous link to see some items that are truly “Pittsburgh”. Or check out classic Pittsburgh food institutions that serve popular meals that have a die-hard following. Or if you simply want a good cocktail likely made with local spirits, we've got some great cocktail bars for you too. You can't go wrong with any of these!
The City is an Urban Oasis in the Middle of Appalachia
We've alluded to this fact a few times in this article so far, but one of Pittsburgh's many nicknames is the Paris of Appalachia. The city is an oasis in the heart of nature, and you do not have to travel very far to get out of town for some quick hiking, biking, or more.
The Laurel Highlands is perhaps one of the best-known nature areas just outside of Pittsburgh (with some of our favorites about an hour to the southeast) as it is home to many parks, historical sites like those mentioned above, has activities for all four seasons including skiing in the winter, and is home to many houses from Frank Lloyd Wright (including one of his most famous houses- Fallingwater). Many visitors are enamored with Ohiopyle State Park and its gorgeous waterfall at Cucumber Falls, but those in the know check out other parks, like Laurel Hill State Park, for its unparalleled beauty as well.
If you are fortunate enough to visit the city in the spring (late April, to be specific), a visit to Raccoon Creek State Park's wildflower reserve is another gem as it is home to one of the largest collections of native plants in the state.
If biking is more your thing, Pittsburgh is home to many rail trails on former train lines that explore some of the region's most beautiful spots. The most notable of which is the Great Allegheny Passage which travels from Pittsburgh to Cumberland, MD, and then continues on the C&O Canal Path to Washington DC- a solid week's ride if you want to go the whole way.
- A good number of breweries are open along bike trails as well- allowing you to hit two highlights at once!
We Have Some Good Sports Teams, Too
If you know anything else about Pittsburgh beyond it being the Steel City, you may have heard of it as the City of Champions. This is because our sports scene is among the most vibrant in the country thanks to being home to the likes of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Pirates, and Penguins (not to mention the Riverhounds soccer team and an array of college teams, too). Together the three major teams have sixteen championships between them!
This means our city is crazy about sports, and thanks to the scheduling of games odds are good there will be at least one going on every single week of the year either live or streamed across TVs in bars and restaurants all over the city.
Perhaps even more impressive is that all of our arenas are in the heart of the city. The Pirates and Steelers play right along the river in the North Side, the Penguins have an arena just outside of the business district in downtown Pittsburgh, and the Riverhounds play in Station Square along the water as well. It really is just a short walk between all of the arenas.
Finally, if you are not big on sports but love the ambiance, all of our arenas for outdoor sports have stellar views of Pittsburgh. Many visit the arenas for the views just as much as the game itself!
Pittsburgh Isn't a Touristy City
Finally, we come to the true highlight of Pittsburgh that ties all the previous points together- we are not really on the tourism scene (although, we probably should be). While the city receives over 10,000,000 visitors per year, it doesn't feel that way for a few very specific reasons:
First, many visitors to the city are displaced Pittsburghers who are returning to see family. The mass exodus after the collapse of the steel industry is still felt to this day as Pittsburgh's population decreased by 50% in the decades that followed (we are only now just bottoming out). This is one reason why “Steeler Nation” is such a popular slogan- fans spread out all over the country and took their love of the team with them.
Second, many visit the city purely for sports (naturally). Our major arenas range in capacity from 19,000 to 68,000 and a lot of attendees are not local. Visit PNC Park when the Phillies are visiting, and you'll know exactly what we mean by this.
Third, our cultural scene is just as big as our sports scene. Between the symphony, opera, ballet, many performing arts troupes, and nationally touring shows, odds are good there are multiple performances going on all over the city every night of the week!
Finally, of course, there is business travel. As the city has diversified greatly after the collapse of steel, we're now becoming a hub for tech, medicine, and many other industries that bring in business travel, conventions, and more.
But there are other reasons that make it seem like Pittsburgh's tourism scene isn't booming and that is the city is a collection of 90 neighborhoods. Each of these has its own unique vibe, culture, restaurants, bars and breweries, and attractions. Sure, almost everyone will take a ride on our historic Duquesne Incline, ride the Gateway Clipper, and shop the Strip District (as you should), but as you expand out and explore other neighborhoods based on your interests, tourist volume plummets accordingly and residents take their place.
As such, it is rather easy to see the city the way Pittsburghers see it as opposed to seeing a facade with forced (and often cringey) narratives constructed by the tourist office. Pittsburgh doesn't need it, and that's the way we like it.
Things to Consider Before You Visit Pittsburgh
When it comes down to it, Pittsburgh is what we would consider the definition of a hidden gem. The city is established and ready to welcome visitors but isn't overly built upon its tourism scene that things feel forced simply for the sake of tourism.
There are, of course, some things you may wish to know before you visit.
The biggest issue visitors to Pittsburgh face is that our city is lacking in public transportation. We have buses, but you'll likely require a transfer to get to a lot of places in the city. We have a metro, but it only goes south (it is free in downtown proper and the North Side, but you can also walk that that in just about the same amount of time). Throw in copious amounts of hills and 446 bridges (some, quite literally, built overtop one another) and navigating the city can be challenging.
When you're in any given neighborhood, they are inherently walkable, but getting between each can be troublesome at times. This cannot be overstated.
As such, we recommend all visitors to the city bring a car and plan your hotel stay accordingly (as parking fees are not equal). We personally always recommend the Hampton Inn in the Strip District as it is one of the only hotels in the city with free parking and has a prime location just at the border between the Strip and downtown proper- so you can walk to attractions in both of those neighborhoods all without having to drive!
From there, our recommendations are in line with those with other major cities. Book restaurants well in advance (some of the most popular book up weeks or months ahead of time), pack clothes for all weather scenarios as weather changes fast (we have all four seasons- sometimes in a single day), and take whatever amount of time you plan on visiting here and add a day or two on for good measure.
You won't regret it!
Now that we've hopefully helped convince you to visit Pittsburgh, we've got more for you! Hop on over to our Pittsburgh weekend guide for first-timers to see more spots we recommend hitting on your very first visit! Or, if you're looking for where to stay in Pittsburgh, we've got you covered with that too!