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Downtown Reflections. Photograph by Brian Cohen.
Downtown Reflections. Photograph by Brian Cohen. | Show Photo

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Top 10 Unique Things to Pittsburgh


1) Topography

Most cities are flat, sensible, buildable. Think Chicago or Minneapolis. People in their right minds would never create a city on a series of sheer drops – not even San Francisco, where the hills are steeper but fewer, and winter never comes. By making our 88 neighborhoods separate Alpine villages, we prevented sprawl, insured diversity. Separated one from another, Pittsburgh's neighborhoods are small towns where families live for generations. Spring Hill, Troy Hill, Polish Hill, Herron Hill, Squirrel Hill -- these are distinct places where people know their neighbors. "In Pittsburgh," one urbanologist says, "topography is bedrock."

2) Mount Washington

There are in-town promontories elsewhere – Birmingham comes to mind, as does Cincinnati. But nowhere else can you stand in the city and look out on Downtown and miles beyond, as you can on Mount Washington. Ascending 400 feet, traversed by two funicular railways, it is a haven for strolling lovers, eager tourists, and, at its Duquesne Heights end, dining fit for a Gatsbyesque interlude or a posh power lunch. Not only does the Wall Street Journal consider Mount Washington romantic, but USA Today ranks it the nation's second most beautiful urban spot. "The aesthetic appeal," McPaper says, "is undeniable."

3) Parks

"The breadth and depth of Pittsburgh's city parks is incredible for an urban setting," offers Post-Gazette travel editor David Bear, who, unlike the rest of us, has been everywhere and seen everything. Frick, Highland, Riverview, Schenley -- any one would suffice for a major city. Frick's 600 acres are full of trails, red clay tennis courts, and a bowling green. Highland's reservoir and cycling track are standouts, as are Riverview's equestrian trails. Schenley's lake and ice rink are big draws, as is Point Park's landmark fountain and river access. Add river trails, ball fields, tot lots, playgrounds – it's a wonder we get any work done at all.

4) Bridges

Forget Venice. Kiss St. Petersburg goodbye. Finally, writer Bob Regan and photographer Tim Fabian have proven it: at 446, Pittsburgh has more bridges than any other city in the world. "Numbers alone don't account for the title of City of Bridges," Regan says. "Equally important is the variety. Pittsburgh has or has had pedestrian, automobile, railroad, bus, light rail, water, hot metal, and incline-carrying bridges." Offering a definite catalogue of all the city's bridges, The Bridges of Pittsburgh also features 10 user-friendly tours to experience the world's greatest number – and greatest diversity – of bridges. Enjoy!

5) Steps

While we're on Bob and Tim, they've also proven that Pittsburgh takes the title City of Steps. San Francisco? A mere 350 sets. Cincinnati? Just 400. In their Steps of Pittsburgh, the author-photographer team catalogues every one of Pittsburgh's pace-setting 712 sets of steps -- good for a knee-popping 24,108 vertical feet. From the Fineview Step-a-thon to Southside's Step Trek, folks around the city adopt them. Holding step parties, lining them with holiday carolers, raising fix-up funds, neighborhoods love what Post-Gazette columnist Brian O'Neill has called "our most healthy and nonpolluting form of transit."

6) National Aviary

OK, so some people think steps are for the birds. Apparently, so is Pittsburgh, home to the nation's National Aviary. "If you're into birds," David Bear says, "it's the place to be." Parrots to penguins, pink flamingos to snowy egrets, there are some 600 feathered friends packed onto Pittsburgh's North Side. Home to more than 200 species of exotic and endangered birds, the National Aviary brings 'em back alive from all over the world. The tiniest hummingbird to the towering red-crowned where the birds fly free. You'll make lots of new friends.

7) Warhol Museum

While we're on the North Side, let's look at one American artist and his era. Over the course of his career, Pittsburgh native Andy Warhol invented pop art and blurred the lines between high-brow and the street. It's all there in blinding color at The Andy Warhol Museum, a 12,000-work permanent collection of paintings, drawings, prints, photos, sculpture, film, and videotape. With an extensive archive of period material as well as the artist's life, it makes the Warhol the world's most comprehensive single-artist museum. "The Warhol is a world-class attraction," David Bear says flatly. "It is absolutely exceptional."

8) Nationality Rooms

Now that multi-culturalism is the norm, it seems that Pitt was the trendsetter – 70 years ago. In the nation's tallest education building, the University of Pittsburgh's Cathedral of Learning, the 27 Nationality Rooms are a treasure. Celebrating the traditional architecture of the donating countries, no political statements – or donor plaques – are allowed. Instead, it's all gorgeous, indigenous, authentic art. Hosting 30,000 visitors a year, you can find a bust of Dante, an Irish monk's cell, a portrait of Robert Burns, and much more. "I know of nothing like them anywhere," David Bear says. "They are exceptional in their spirit and design."

9) International Poetry Forum

"Who would think that Pittsburgh, of all places, would be home to the world's leading poetry series?" asks writer extraordinaire Alan Van Dine. Thanks to the efforts of Samuel Hazo, Duquesne professor emeritus, oft-published author, Pennsylvania's first poet laureate, since 1966 Pittsburgh has hosted the crème de la crème of the poetry and performance worlds -- Nobel laureates and Pulitzer winners, National Book and Oscar awardees. Chinua Achebe and W.H. Auden, Saul Bellow and Jorge Luis Borges, Robert Penn Warren and Yevgeny Yevtushenko, and hundreds more, have read here. Not a bad day's work.

10) Primanti Brothers

Necessity, we know, is the mother of invention. Back in 1934, Depression-era Pittsburgh, burly guys unloading Strip District trucks and trains at all hours stopped on 18th Street for a quick bite. Wanting something that would carb 'em up and move 'em out! they went for food they could eat with one hand and work with the other. It was the brainstorm of the Primantis to throw everything on Italian bread, including the fries. From that humble beginning, Primanti Brothers now boasts 13 local locations, plus two in Florida. "It's pure Pittsburgh," David Bear says. "We put French fries on a sandwich and made it an icon."


Award-winning writer Abby Mendelson is the author of numerous books, including The Pittsburgh Steelers Official History and Pittsburgh: A Place in Time, a collection of neighborhood profiles available from The Local History Company. His last Pop City piece was on Developers Changing the City.


Photos:

Smithfield Street Bridge

Mt. Washington

18th Street steps

Aviary

The Warhol

Nationality room at the Cathedral

Primanit's sandwich

All photographs copyright © Jonathan Greene

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