Quick trips: New meets old in Pittsburgh

02/08/2014 12:00 AM

02/05/2014 2:38 PM

I’ve never been to a city that loves itself more than Pittsburgh.

This is not a criticism. After three days, I also loved Pittsburgh, a quaint, pretty city with interesting people doing interesting things, and a healthy dash of Old World, working-class charm.

But — and this is where Pittsburgh won me over — it is not a city impressed with itself.

New York, San Francisco and Portland, Ore., are wonderful cities that can’t resist preening when passing mirrors to remind themselves just how wonderful they are. Pittsburgh is a wonderful city that doesn’t even see the mirror. It just turns to its buddies and says, “Hey, yinz guys, let’s go have a beer.”

(“Yinz guys” is Pittsburgh speak for “you people” — a dialectical Northern equivalent to “y’all.”)

Steeped in spirit and flavor, Pittsburgh can lay claim to being one of our nation’s most underrated cities, with a beauty as breathtaking as it is obvious. The drive from Pittsburgh International Airport follows an unspectacular 20 miles of rolling-hills suburbia along Interstate Highway 376 and then, after a brief trip through the Fort Pitt Tunnel — bam! — there is Pittsburgh.

Situated on a peninsula jutting into an intersection of rivers, the city of 305,000 is gemlike, surrounded by bluffs and bright yellow bridges streaming into its heart. As you emerge from the tunnel, you feel you’ve never seen a more majestic little city: old but familiar, with swooping, curving lines, lushly green (in summer) and cut, as all great cities should be, by a river or two (or in this case, three).

Visiting is the only way to understand the sentiment famously expressed in The New Yorker in 1989, when it ranked Pittsburgh among the world’s most beautiful cities, alongside Paris and St. Petersburg, Russia.

“If Pittsburgh were situated somewhere in the heart of Europe, tourists would eagerly journey hundreds of miles out of their way to visit it,” the magazine said.

Though Pittsburgh is forever associated with steelmaking, its heavy industry days are largely gone; the air is cleaner, and the steel mills have become museums, bike trails and green space. The city has embraced food, drink and art while long-quiet neighborhoods have been infused with fresh bustle. The fascinating downtown — a strange but appealing mix of architecture built up through the decades — sports fresh touches of its own, like the dim, marble-barred gastropub Meat and Potatoes, which I checked out on a Thursday evening with a couple of natives.

“This is pretty classy for Pittsburgh,” said Lisa Sredzienski with a touch of gratitude and amusement as we sipped East Coast craft beer and munched mushroom-truffle flatbread.

But she wasn’t complaining.

A social and culinary invigoration is afoot in her city. On Butler Street, in the Lawrenceville neighborhood, there’s Franktuary, a gourmet hot dog place whose offerings include wild-caught salmon sausages and four kinds of poutine.

Continue heading up Butler and you’ll find a guitar shop where a gentleman makes repairs in the window for the passing world to see; La Gourmandine, a French bakery where I scored a macaroon sandwich stuffed with litchi mousse and raspberries; and 720 Music, a hip hodgepodge smelling of fresh coffee grounds with records and T-shirts for sale along the walls.

“How do you describe this?” I asked. “A record store meets coffee shop meets clothes store meets alternative bookstore?”

“Something that exists nowhere else,” said the barista.

After a day of walking through Lawrenceville, I felt the same way about that neighborhood.

Even while embracing a 21st century version of itself, Pittsburgh has firmly retained a proud, blue-collar sense of its history. It relishes the concept of the “yinzer” — based on the term “yinz guys” — which simply equates to someone from Pittsburgh. You’ll see plenty of yinzer bumper stickers, buttons and even baby onesies. Search for the Internet comedy “Pittsburgh Dad,” and, even if the humor might be debatable, the idea of the yinzer will be clear.

One distinct characteristic of yinzers is their love of sports. As one local who had previously lived in New York and Austin, Texas, observed, he had never resided anyplace where even the hipsters were sports fans. Being a Steelers fan in Pittsburgh goes without saying.

The civic dedication to sports makes a visit to PNC Park a must even for people with a fleeting (or nonexistent) interest in baseball. The park was incorporated so beautifully into the city — whose skyline looms over center field — that it feels as if it were dropped into Legoland.

Pittsburgh is full of must-dos, including the Duquesne Incline, an inclined-plane railroad that opened in 1877 and offers a creaky $2.50 wood-and-steel ride overlooking the city, and a Saturday stroll through the Strip District, a seven-block stretch of Penn Avenue that dazzles with ethnic food and local characters. Italian, Polish and Korean food purveyors are clustered with shops that seem to sell nothing but Steelers, Penguins and Pirates gear, and as you walk you pass one woman offering a dozen salsas and another with a dozen soaps. It’s the UN of shopping and food.

Pittsburgh boasts more neighborhoods (a whopping 90) and pockets worth visiting than can be detailed here. Yet strangely, the commonly held image of the city largely continues to be “washed-out casualty of the Rust Belt.” Pittsburgh knows it. And, just as when it passes the mirror, it doesn’t much care.

“People say, ‘You want to bad-mouth Pittsburgh? Go ahead,’ ” said Jeff Gordon, owner of Who New? Retro Mod Decor, a shop of ’50s couches and ’70s telephones in Lawrenceville. “It’s a well-kept secret — we have a good thing going on here.”

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