Let’s say you’d like to get away for a few days of fun and frolic. You want a cheap, easy flight, you’d like to pack light, and you’re up for something different. Something you won’t find in Boston, or in any city but—wait for it—Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh? Yes, the Rust Belt city known for the Primanti Bros.’ french fry-stuffed sandwiches offers other attractions that are undeniably unique. Consider Conflict Kitchen, an art project/restaurant that serves food from countries in conflict with the U.S. government. Or take the Center for PostNatural History, an oddball outpost that brings together sea monkeys, alcoholic rats and genetically modified goats. Of course, there’s also the world-class Andy Warhol Museum, the largest building dedicated to one artist in the entire country.
Pittsburgh is more likely to be cloudy than sunny; winters can be gloomy. Fortunately, indoor activities are many and varied. Home to the renowned Carnegie Museums of Art and Natural History, the Oakland neighborhood is also where you’ll find Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, housed under the silvered domes of an enormous Victorian “glass house.” There are more than a dozen lush, light-filled rooms to explore, whether your taste runs to spectacular orchids or carnivorous plants. In the central Palm Court, spiky plants mingle with sinuous Chihuly glass sculptures, creating a stop-you-in-your-tracks tableau; on the rooftop, bonsai trees’ plaques boast of how many decades they’ve been “in training.”
If you’ve spent a morning at Phipps, lunch at Conflict Kitchen is a short walk away, across one of Pittsburgh’s many bridges. First, the bad news: Conflict Kitchen offers takeout only, so you’ll dine outdoors at one of the many tables under a huge nearby tent on the edge of Schenley Plaza. Now, the good news: The food is excellent, reasonably priced and authentically prepared, served with a side of culture and current events. A recent Cuban menu offered slow-roasted pork in mojo sauce, fried plantains and empanadas filled with guava and cheese, all wrapped in paper printed with interviews with Cubans living in the U.S. or their native country. Other featured countries have included Venezuela, Afghanistan and North Korea, and every iteration is accompanied by a total redesign of the restaurant’s storefront, as well as performances and discussions.
For a post-lunch nap, plus a place to stay overnight, try the oversized beds at the new Hotel Indigo. A beautifully restored boutique hotel in the rapidly gentrifying East Liberty neighborhood, it offers all the usual upscale amenities, from Wi-Fi to a 24-hour fitness studio. In the lobby, a sleek terrazzo marble floor mimics an aerial view of the three rivers that meet in Pittsburgh: the Ohio, the Allegheny and the Monongahela. The hotel’s restaurant, Wallace’s TapRoom, serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, with an emphasis on all things local; think pierogis, smoked kielbasa and short ribs braised in locally brewed stout. Best of all, the Indigo provides complimentary transportation within a 3-mile radius of the hotel, so you won’t have to depend on the somewhat unreliable Pittsburgh cabs. The Carnegie Museums and Conflict Kitchen are less than 3 miles away, as are Google’s offices, the University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon and East End Brewing, one of the city’s premier breweries.
Also within that range is the Highland Park neighborhood, home to the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium, where acres of steamy indoor rainforest help you forget the gray weather and remind you what fun it is to watch cotton-top tamarins and gorillas watching you right back. A few blocks’ walk from the zoo will take you to Bryant Street, the lively main drag of Highland Park, where funky shops and restaurants are proliferating and a sidewalk plaque marks the house where jazz great Billy Eckstine was born. On Bryant, neighborhood mainstay Park Bruges serves lunch, dinner and weekend brunch, most of it with a Belgian flair. Although the menu changes seasonally, PEI mussels are always available in at least four preparations, such as tomato saffron with fennel and orange zest, along with signature frites. For dessert, cross the street and hit Food Glorious Food, one of the city’ s best bakeries. Order anything from a slice of marjolaine to a napoleon and you’ll be happy. One caveat: The bakers can get a little crazy with the macarons. Exteriors are always delicate and crackly, the filling perfectly creamy, but bubblegum and candy apple aren’t optimum flavors.
Just past Highland Park, in the Garfield neighborhood, is the aforementioned Center for PostNatural History. From the outside, it looks like a run-of-the-mill storefront, but a visit is a life-changing experience, literally: Its exhibits explore living things that humans have altered using genetic engineering, tissue culture and selective breeding. There’s no judgment here, no Monsanto-bashing, just access to specimens such as a ribless mouse embryo and a transgenic mosquito. It’s a fascinating cabinet of curiosities and a resource that resonates with implications for our shared future. Hours are extremely limited, but like many of Pittsburgh’s quirkier treasures, it’s well worth seeking out.
-Do as the locals do and take the 28X bus from the airport to the Oakland neighborhood. It runs every 30 minutes and will cost you a mere $3.75—exact change, please.
-Pittsburgh’s dress code is so casual it might be called “style-unconscious.” A Steelers T-shirt and jeans will get you in just about anywhere.
The Center for PostNatural History postnatural.org
Conflict Kitchen conflictkitchen.org
Food Glorious Food facebook.com/foodgloriousfoodpgh
Hotel Indigo ihg.com
Park Bruges pointbrugge.com
Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens phipps.conservatory.org
Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium pittsburghzoo.org