Growing up in a small town in West Virginia, my family spent many a day in Pittsburgh doing everything from back-to-school shopping to seeing concerts (U2, Janet Jackson, and Dave Matthews, to name a few) and plays (CATS, Peter Pan). It’s also home to our nearest major airport, so countless trips have started and ended there, despite the nearly three-hour drive. But it’s been many, many years since Pittsburgh was my actual destination, so when plans materialized for us all to spend a day there on a recent weeklong visit home, it felt like setting out for place that was totally new to me. With only a day to see the city, we made planning easy on ourselves by going the more obvious route. It was my husband, Nick’s, first visit to Pittsburgh, too, so hitting a few touristy spots felt especially forgivable. Here’s how we spent the day, and how you can have your own perfect first visit to Pittsburgh.
First on our agenda was lunch. We headed straight to Big Jim’s, which you might have seen on an episode of the Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives. The restaurant, in an area called The Run, was surprisingly empty when we arrived, so we were seated immediately and diving into football-sized eggplant parmesan sandwiches, mounds of hand-cut fries (skin on, malt vinegar), heaping bowls of gnocchi, and piles of fried zucchini strips before we knew it. Our server was as real as they come and treated us as if we were old friends. Lots of restaurants that get featured on TV shows become more about gimmicks than good food, but Big Jim’s seems to have stayed the course. Chances are, the spot wasn’t crowded because we arrived early—before noon—but my advice would be to call ahead if you’ll be eating during more normal hours to understand what kind of wait, if any, you’ll be up against. Whatever you order, ask for a side of their delicious marinara to go with it, and come hungry.
When seeing a place for the first time, I’m a big fan of taking tours, be it by bike, trolley, bus, or boat. It was a gloriously sunny day, so we hopped on an hour-long Gateway Clipper Fleet riverboat tour to get a good look at the city’s beautiful architecture, ball parks, and abundant bridges.
PPG Place, below, is the skyline’s most iconic building.
But the Renaissance Pittsburgh Hotel—the one with the giant arch—was my favorite.
The city’s convention center stretches along the waterfront. Its linear facade and swooping roof create a fun contrast to the more traditional skyscrapers and commercial buildings that surround it.
I especially loved cruising past Point State Park, where the Ohio, Allegheny, and Monongahela rivers meet. Its fountain rockets water 150 feet into the air, and boaters and kayakers float along idly, most likely enjoying the amazing panoramic views. (You can rent a kayak here.)
A rear view of PNC Park, in the final stages of preparation for game time.
Among Pittsburgh’s most charming features are its old, still-working inclines—the Monongahela and the Duquesne—which were built to provide transportation from the river valley to residential areas overlooking the city. Today, two of the city’s 15 inclines remain, and take passengers to Mt. Washington for spectacular views of the city from along the aptly named Grandview Avenue. (Mt. Washington is also home to Restaurant Row and popular spots like Shiloh Grill and Monterey Bay Fish Grotto. My parents recalled meals at LeMont and Tin Angel, too.) We made a last-minute decision to ride the Monongahela Incline up to Mt. Washington from Station Square in the evening, but the line was long and slow-moving, so we bailed. Aim to ride the incline at off hours, or, at the very least, don’t go when you’re hungry or tired.
Did you all know that Pittsburgh is the world record holder for bridges? It has 446, even beating out Venice, which exists largely on water. Pittsburgh’s bridges are, no doubt, bigger and grittier, but they’re also beautiful, many of them awash in pale-yellow paint and decorated with lamp posts and hanging baskets filled with fuchsia and purple flowers.
If you’re in town for baseball season, don’t miss a Pirates game at PNC Park. The Bucs were our adopted hometown team growing up, as West Virginia doesn’t have a single professional sports team to speak of. This being my dad’s birthday week and the first visit to Pittsburgh for my baseball-loving husband, the occasion practically demanded we go to a game. We grew up going to games at Three Rivers Stadium, and this was my first time seeing a game at PNC Park. For nostalgic reasons it felt a little strange, but the city and river views from our seats on the first base line more than made up for it. A walk-off homer for the Pirates in the bottom of the ninth didn’t hurt things, either. If you’re like me and baseball games are as much about the food as they are what’s happening on the field, take yourself to Primanti Brothers, a Pittsburgh sandwich shop with a stall in the stadium. When my brother’s in town for a game, he heads there during the Seventh Inning Stretch to refuel, a tradition he talked up a good bit before the game. I was too stuffed from Big Jim’s to partake, but his monster (meatless) sandwich looked good enough to make myself sick on.
Hands down, PNC offers the best views in baseball.
The post-game rush across the Roberto Clemente bridge brought us to the foot of the Renaissance hotel for a good, up-close look at the beautiful building before jumping in the car and heading home at the end of our perfect day in Pittsburgh.
What are your mustn’t-miss spots in Pittsburgh?