Travel Notes–Pittsburgh

06/06/2013 — Leave a comment

Many years ago I lived in Pittsburgh but since then I’ve visited countless times to check-in on old friends and see how things have changed. Recently, I was back in Iron City for a whirlwind visit and thought it was about time to put together another travel guide. This is by no means an exhaustive guide— every time I return a new business seems to have bloomed while others retire. Instead I have focused on a handful of accessible neighborhoods with diverse offerings.

Additionally, I’ve put together a Pinterest map board that includes these recommendations (and more that I didn’t have the energy to write about here) on an helpful map.

South Side

  • Beehive Coffee House— THE Bohemian coffee shop to visit in Pittsburgh. Their pizza bagels are always good, in the winter their hot chocolate is a lifesaver and these days they serve liquor as well.
  • Jack’s— Perhaps not the most impressive looking place from the street, but a friendly watering hole with cheap drinks, dependable munchies and friendly bartenders.
  • Mario’s— In the last few years they’ve almost doubled in size. Over the years, the menu has changed a little but their wings remain dependable and if you’re in the mood to watch a sporting event without actually attending, Mario’s is a great place to catch the game.
  • Mike & Tony’s— Their old tagline says it all—”The Greek answer to McDonalds.” If you’ve never had a gyro, this is a good place to start and if you’re well acquainted with this sandwich alternative, Mike & Tony’s won’t let you down.
  • Page’s Dairy Mart— Tucked away in a bit of an odd spot, this old-fashioned ice cream stand is worth the trip!
  • Zenith— A nice little vegetarian cafe, known for its Sunday brunch.

Oakland

Home to University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon and Carlow University, Oakland features quite a few cafes and eateries as well as a number of noteworthy museums.

  • Carnegie Museums (of Natural History & Art)— To be honest, this is one of my favorite destinations in Pittsburgh. The art museum has a very nice permanent collection and generally has inspiring exhibits. The natural history museum renovated its dinosaur hall in the last few years and houses one of the best dino collections in the US; its hall of architecture is similarly impressive. You could spend hours here and still not see it all.
  • Fuel & Fuddle— Another popular destination among college kids because like Mad Mex food is (or at least used to be) half off after 11pm. Even so, they offer above average bar food and a few of their own house brewed beers.
  • Kiva Han— Sadly, this spot closed recently and has transitioned to web based wholesaling instead.
  • LuLu’s Noodles— A staple of local students, and not just because of the low prices, the portions are generous and the ingredients fresh. A tasty and affordable spot for a quick meal day or night.
  • Mad Mex— Now with several locations, Mad Mex’s late night happy hour that discounts much of the menu after 11pm, makes it a great late night dinner option. Dependable Mexican food and tasty cocktails. Be forewarned though, it’s close to several colleges, so late at night the students descend and the music gets cranked up.
  • The Original Hot Dog Shop— (aka ‘The O’) A Pittsburgh institution for over fifty years, the O cooks up some of the best french fries you will ever try (be forewarned—the sizes are a little crazy so a small is generally plenty for two or three people). And in case the promise of low priced comfort food wasn’t enough to draw you in, they’re open ’til 3:30 a.m. seven days a week!
  • Phipps Conservatory— A glittering gem on the edge of Schenley park, the Phipps is a little slice of heaven. Regardless of the season, the conservatory presents an abundance of beautiful things to see and offers a peaceful break from the norm.
  • Spice Island— Another favorite among college kids and their professors, Spice Island is a real deal. Don’t be put off by the humble exterior, their menu of southeast Asian food and selection of tea is impressive and the prices modest.

Shadyside

A quiet neighborhood more or less between Oakland and Squirrel Hill, Shadyside is home to a mix of locals, college kids and quiet a few charming local boutiques and eateries.

  • Crepes Parisiennes— This little cafe started as a food cart ages ago and bloomed into this current embodiment. A nice spot for a quiet lunch or casual dinner.
  • Kards Unlimited— Always jam packed with clever cards and diverse gifts, Kards Unlimited has a special something for pretty much anyone you could think of.
  • Norman Child’s— Beautiful handmade frames for glasses wearers who want to stand out from the crowd.
  • Pamela’s— These days there are several locations including ones in Shadyside, Squirrel Hill and Oakland. When I was a resident, Shadyside was my favorite. Regardless of which venue you try, you may face a wait for their tasty breakfast treats and familiar comfort food.
  • Prantl’s Bakery— I still miss living close to this bakery and am sure to visit whenever I return. I have yet to find something that isn’t delicious here. A crowd can be expected on the weekends, but is worth the wait. And if you know what you would like in advance, you can place your order ahead of time online for pick up later! Not sure what to order? Try the popular cinnamon bread or, for a richer chocolatey treat, consider the hermits.
  • Toadflax— Fragrant florals, unique home accessories and an assortment of high-end beauty products greet you in this gorgeous shop. There is always something beautiful to see or smell year-round here and is a good bet for finding an unusual gift for that special someone.

Squirrel Hill

  • Aladdin’s— The huge salads and generous portions of Middle Eastern favorites make this a perfect lunch spot.
  • Avalon— Perhaps a local secret, this resale shop let’s patrons both trade in old duds and find fetching new looks.
  • Jerry’s Records— This might just be Pittsburgh’s mothership for vinyl.
  • 61C Cafe— A cozy coffee shop snoozing on Murray Avenue offers strong coffee, tasty baked treats and the freshest juice in town. Try the pear juice and ask for a little ginger with it. Yum!
  • Little’s Shoes— Find shoes for every member or generation of your family at this old-fashioned local shop that has been a Squirrel Hill staple for decades.
  • Pittsburgh Center for the Arts— Now home to both the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts and Pittsburgh Filmmakers, this community arts campus is a wonderful resource for anyone who wants to see, create or learn about contemporary visual arts.

Bloomfield

  • Bloomfield Bridge Tavern— Another spot lauded for their pierogies, the Bloomfield Bridge Tavern is a nice spot for casual comfort food in Bloomfield. Unlike a lot of favorite spots, free parking is available in their adjacent lot.
  • Church Brew Works— It’s not just a clever name, this award-winning microbrewery and restaurant offers a diverse menu in the impressive surroundings of a converted church.
  • Gooski’s— A favorite hangout among locals and college kids alike. Their wings and pierogies are big hits and a diverse jukebox keeps the atmosphere happy.
  • Sound Cat Records— Formerly Paul’s Compact Discs, this might just be the best music store in town. With a great selection of new, used and obscure music and a friendly, knowledgeable staff Sound Cat is slice of audio heaven.

The Strip District

  • 21st St. Coffee & Tea— A favorite spot among locals, this spot offers high-end espresso drinks and generous servings of unique teas.
  • Costume World— Sometimes you just need a costume or mask and Costume World has got you covered. With a massive inventory, this spot offers costumes and accessories for both purchase and rental.
  • Enrico Biscotti— Sometimes a crowd can overwhelm the shop on the weekends, but the heavenly biscotti, macaroons and artisanal breads from this tiny bakery are worth the fuss.
  • Fire House Lounge— Known for their burgers and cocktails, the Fire House lounge is a nice spot for a late dinner with friends.
  • Heinz History Center— The largest history museum in the state and an affiliate of the Smithsonian, the Heinz is nothing to sneeze at. Not just for history buffs, this six-story landmark paints the history of western Pennsylvania with a vivid brush.
  • Lidia’s— Featuring handmade pastas and the freshest available ingredients, Lidia’s is the perfect spot for a festive dinner.
  • Mon Aimee Chocolat— Satisfy your sweet tooth with a little something from this local gem. Offering an assortment of sweet treats from around the world and savory specialties, Mon Aimee is quite a treat.
  • Peace, Love & Little Donuts— Tucked around the corner form the Strip’s main drag on Smallman street this small chain offers fresh, glorious little donuts. With dozens of flavor combinations it’s hard to taste them all but fun to try.
  • Pennsylvania Macaroni Co.— With and incredible selection of herbs, meats and cheese from all over, a trip to the Penn Mac company can be a little overwhelming but mostly just delicious and hopefully a little inspiring. Pick up supplies for a weekend cook-athon or stock up for the winter. I hear they also do a great job with online shopping and shipping if you can’t make it to Pittsburgh to collect favorites and/or essentials.
  • Pittsburgh Popcorn Company— Established a few years ago in the Strip and now featuring four locations, the Pittsburgh Popcorn Company is a friendly pit stop with an addictive treat for all. Can’t get enough of their tasty treats and not enough room in your luggage to bring something home? Don’t worry, they ship nationwide!
  • Roxanne’s Dried Flowers— A treasure trove of interior and garden accessories and dried flowers, Roxanne’s is a great place to pickup gifts for your favorite someone.
  • Shop in the Kitchen— Find all sorts or kitchen gadgets and wares for your inner domestic god(dess) or your favorite chef.
If you haven’t seen it yet, Design Sponge has also put together a very nice guide to exploring Pittsburgh.
Think something’s miss­ing or want some thing more spe­cific not included on the list? Just leave a comment or email me and I will add it in. Happy Trails!

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