Pittsburgh? Why Pittsburgh?
That was the question I heard most often when I told people I was heading to Smoke City for a solo senior trip.
But why not Pittsburgh? Granted, as a major industrial hub, it was once one of the dirtiest places on the planet. Long cleaned up, the soot removed from most of its old buildings, what’s left is packed with history, architectural and geographic grandeur, and some of the nicest, almost laughably helpful people I’ve ever encountered.
Upon arrival in the city, I quickly checked into my hotel, a bit dismayed by its slightly seedy-appearing surroundings (more about that later). A free shuttle, as advertised, sat out front, and I was able to jump in immediately and head downtown.
I had the driver leave me at Station Square, the origination venue for various tours.
I decided to take the first one available, a duck tour, which gave me some grasp of the layout of Pittsburgh, downtown, the South Side, the North Side, the many yellow bridges, the riverfront baseball and football stadiums and, of course, what I came for, the spot where the Monongahela River meets the Allegheny River to create the mighty Ohio River.
The tour guides were funny, with that gritty, old city ability to put their hometown down, while making it clear that no one else ought to.
Once off the duck, I rode up one of Pittsburgh’s many “inclines” (sort of small, vertical cable cars), for my first real look at the city — impressive, yes, but a little vague in the heat and haze.
I then wandered back over the Smithfield Bridge (most of the bridges are walkable) and through the central business district, which, at its densest, has the cavernous appearance of New York.
I had dinner in Market Square, excellent for people watching, and gazed at one of the most unusual structures I’ve ever seen, the all-glass PPG Place, which looks eerily like the British Houses of Parliament.
I returned to the hotel exhausted, but with the odd feeling that I hadn’t quite gotten the “feel” of Pittsburgh yet.
The next morning, armed with a more serious map, a good night’s sleep and a satisfying complimentary breakfast, I did much better.
I went directly to Point State Park for a longer look at the famed three rivers, ambled slowly through the Fort Pitt Museum, with its concentration on the French and Indian War, and then, my mind steeped in both experiences, I rose to the top of the Duquesne Incline.
When I stepped out into the morning sunshine and saw that majestic view, I felt I was taking in the real Pittsburgh. Here, great nations clashed in what became the first world war, and in this place, the Ohio opened up the frontier to the first Western settlers. Much of our early American history lay before me in a huge expanse.
And, then, like everyone around me, I went vista crazy. Astounding how many pictures you can take of one spot.
I spent much of the rest of my trip visiting Pittsburgh’s other wonderful museums, the informative Senator John Heinz History Center, the quirky Andy Warhol Museum and the magnificent, and dauntingly large, Carnegie.
I walked the streets and neighborhoods, especially the Strip, where almost anything imaginable to eat or wear can be obtained.
Back to my hotel’s North Side locale — and the people of Pittsburgh. I have never visited a place in which, without exception, folks stepped out from behind counters, pored over my map with me and answered every question at length with as much genuine concern as the citizens of Pittsburgh.
On my last night, I decided to venture out to a restaurant near the hotel, a stroll that involved traversing some rather rough-looking areas.
I realized as I went along, however, that this was, in fact, a vibrant, friendly place that was in the process of transition. Many of its grand old buildings were being beautifully refurbished.
I stopped to ask a man for directions, and, sure enough, he came down off his stoop and walked me to my destination.
As we parted he said, “Charleston? You from Charleston? Heck, my dad’s from Charleston.”
And that’s Pittsburgh all over, a city whose evolving beauty and interest is only eclipsed by the great warmth of its people.