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A European perspective of Pittsburgh

I've traveled a lot all over Europe, a couple of times in New York and regularly to San Francisco due to my work (6 or 7 times already), but there is no place like Pittsburgh, writes Christina Kapaun to Pop City by email. We asked her to share her impressions of her second and recent visit here in this special article. To read more, see her blog linked at the end.

After a week in Pittsburgh for my photographer and architect friend Gabrijela (see her photos here) and me, I am now back in Munich, Germany trying to choose the things that meant most to us on this trip. It's difficult because every day was like a jewel and we are very grateful for the time we could spent in town. We desperately miss Pittsburgh already.

Before I guide you through the highlights of our activities, I have to put the spotlight on the most important treasure this city has to offer to a visitor: Its amazing people. Along our way we met so many lovely, open minded and hearted, smart, energetic, well educated and traveled people, who are passionate about their city and were absolutely willing to welcome us with open arms and share all their knowledge. Although most of these people met us for the very first time or chatted with us before only virtually on social media platforms like Twitter or Facebook, they treated us like friends. We could not have felt more welcome to Pittsburgh.

My first suggestion: When you plan a trip to Pittsburgh, leave enough time. This city has so much to offer and one week was not enough. My favorite travel book for a Pittsburgh visit? The Moon Handbook Pittsburgh by Dan Eldridge.

The Sights
Pittsburgh is beautiful. Have your camera ready for all the great sights. My all time favorite is the view from the Fort Pitt Tunnel when you drive in from the airport: there is Pittsburgh with its spectacular skyline, three rivers and famous yellow steel bridges. It is stunning by day and by night. I could spend a day just driving through the tunnel for this view.

Equally famous and beautiful is the view from Grandview (the place has the name for a reason) on Mount Washington. The best way to get there is on the Duquesne or the Monongahela Incline from West Carson Street/Station Square. It is so much fun to sit and slowly sneak up the Mount Washington and have the skyline rise in front of you.

Another personal favorite is the view from the Northside. The Roberto Clemente and the Andy Warhol Bridge are excellent places for taking great pictures of Pittsburgh so if you get baseball tickets, bring your camera. The view from PNC Park on the city is amazing.

The Neighborhoods
This city has a thousand faces. Every neighborhood has a unique appearance and atmosphere and it is so much fun to explore them all. We both lost our hearts to The Strip District. I just love the gritty prettiness of the old brick buildings, the festive mix of excellent food vendors and Pittsburgh sports wear dealers, the lovely Public Market and the lively atmosphere, especially on a Friday or Saturday morning.

For architectural photographer Gabrijela, the Strip offered dozens of fantasic motifs and she could spend hours there with her camera. We also loved all the little shops and cafés in Lawrenceville where we were staying in an apartment, the charming Little Italy aka Bloomfield, the excitement of quickly changing East Liberty, the beauty of the Mexican War Streets on the Northside and the love for the detail the citizens of Millvale put in rebuilding their river community.

We also liked to walk around downtown where Pittsburgh does its New York thing very well, looking big and very modern.

One of the best ways to explore Pittsburgh neighborhoods is a food tasting tour with Burgh Bits & Bites.The guides know their city very well and will share lots of insights and introduce you to local food vendors, many of whom have run their businesses for three or more generations. Last year I toured The Strip District and this year we did the Bloomfield tour and learned a lot about the the neighborhood and how to make a good pasta. There is always plenty of delicious food to try. Make sure you come hungry!

The Bridges
The Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio River form the Golden Triangle right at the tip of downtown Pittsburgh and crossing the yellow steel bridges is an essential part of getting around town. Our favorites were the Three Sisters and the Smithfield Street Bridge. Near the end of our trip when we were stuck in ballpark traffic, we took the 16th Street Bridge as a detour for the closed down 31st Street Bridge and fell in love. This bridge is absolutely beautiful. If you have a chance, walk across and enjoy the view.

The Art
If you are an art fan, Pittsburgh is the right city for you. Especially in relation to the moderate size of the city, the number of galleries, art collection and art projects is impressive. We had limited time so we focused on the Warhol Museum and The Mattress Factory.

The Warhol Museum is dedicated to the work and life to one of the city's most famous sons, Andy Warhol,and covers the spectrum of his work that goes far beyond the well known pop art prints. The most moving pieces are the floating silver clouds. We were also fascinated by the time capsules and the huge project to archive all the items such as snapshots of 20th century American history.

The Mattress Factory on the Northside is Pittsburgh's Museum of Contemporary Art and it is simply awesome. Just days before we visited the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York which was featuring installation art, but we liked the one in Pittsburgh much better. The art is presented in a way that allows you to explore it. It's been a while since an art museum impressed me that much. Since some of the exhibitions change every couple of months, we can return next time and see new things and revisit our favorites in the permanent exhibition which were pieces by James Turrell and Yayoi Kusama.

The Vanka Murals in Millvale
Gabrijela is born in Germany but from Croatian decent and I am very interested in Croatia and Croatian history as well.So for us the murals of Croatian artist Maxo Vanka at the St. Nicholas Croatian Church in Millvale were very high on our list. Public tours are available on Saturdays but also weekday tours can be arranged and that is what we did.

We met our guide, native Millvale historian William Stout, at 10 am only to find out that we could not start the tour yet because of a funeral. William used the extra hour to give us a little tour through Millvale and share his deep knowledge about the history of the community as well as recent development and lovely childhood stories.

The Vanka Murals are one of the hidden treasures of Pittsburgh. In the 1930s and 40s, the Crotian born painter Maxo Vanka visited Millvale a couple of times at the invitation of Father Zagar, the priest of St. Nicholas, to paint the inside of the church. Vanka chose not only typical religious scenes from the bible as motifs but also painted the history of the Croatian immigrants, who left their rural homeland to work in the coal mines and Pittsburgh's steel mills. It's very impressive and definitely worth the visit even if you are not interested in the Croatian migration to the Greater Pittsburgh Area. The story the murals tell is very universal for all the working class people who came to the new world to start an allegedly better life.

Frank Lloyd Wright's iconic house is less than a two hour drive from Pittsburgh and you should allow a day. One of the most famous private homes worldwide, Fallingwater is an architectural and design legend. Of course Gabrijela was very excited to see it with her own eyes and lens. We booked a weekday extended tour that started at 8.30 am and had to get up very early to make it in time, but it was absolutely worth it.

Pittsburgh and sports are inseparable. The city bleeds black and gold. In Germany the arenas, especially the newer ones , are more in suburban areas, where is enough space. Heinz Field, PNC Park and Consol Energy Center are right in the heart of the city. We walked across the Roberto Clemente Bridge at the very moment when the Pirates started their season home opener and the atmosphere was absolutely electrifying.

Being a hockey girl, my personal sports highlight of the week was the Pens Rangers game. This year I had a seat right down at the ice and it was the first time I was so close to the action. My personal dream is to be in town for Stanley Cup finals one day. That is a bit difficult to plan ahead but I will make it happen sooner or later! LET'S GO PENS!

Eat Pittsburgh
Over the last couple of years the food scene in Pittsburgh changed significantly because of lots of young and engaged people who are passionate about food and Pittsburgh and started new businesses. I can only encourage every visitor of the city to choose local business over the nationwide chains and to try something new.

As Europeans we struggled with the traditional Pittsburgh breakfast, but we at least tried twice. We had a Sunday brunch at the Square Cafe--the place to go in Regent Square. The Square Cafe is very popular especially on weekends and people wait patiently in line for the fresh prepared breakfast made of local products. Our little group had a very nice table at the window front and we enjoyed our omelets, eggs and bacon (delicious!) and pancakes a lot. Later in the week we had another big breakfast at the Millvale location of the famous Pamela's Diner. The strawberry hotcakes and the omelet with bacon, cheese and potato was very, very good and the portions were huge.

We tried two lovely places with smaller food options:La Prima / Colangelo in The Strip District and Espresso A Mano in Lawrenceville. Forget all prejudices you might have about coffee in the USA. These two places carefully brewed high quality coffee that meets real Italian standards. A cappucino at either La Prima or Espresso A Mano combined with a nice little piece of pastry and your day has a perfect start.

Lunch and Dinner
There is so much good food in town and we managed to get at least some of it. We enjoyed fantastic quesadillas with pulled pork at Kaya in The Strip District and great enchiladas at Las Velas at Market Square the cheesecake with raspberry chipotle sauce for dessert!)

We also loved the high end burgers at BRGR at Penn Circle and Winghart's at Market Square and finally made it to James Beard award semi finalist Kevin Sousa's Salt of The Earth. We went with friends and shared the different starters and tasted each others main dishes.  Here you will find lots of familiar ingredients in new combinations.

For the sweet tooth
When we were craving sugar we went shopping in the Strip District.We loved pastries from Colangelo for breakfast and we are addicted to biscotti from The Enrico Biscotti Company--the biscotti are heaven in paper bags. My favorite is White Chocolate Macadamia.

Another highlight on 21st Street at The Strip is The Pittsburgh Popcorn Company. At the totally cute little shop you can watch how the popcorn is made, from Chocolate Peanut butter to Wisconsin Cheddar Cheese. Our favorite is the classic Crunchy Caramel.

And finally there is the Public Market on Smallman Street that offers lots of local products from craft to food. As a berry lover my favorite vendor there is The Berry Patch. I love the blueberry lemonade and their pastries.

That was our week in a nutshell. Back home I am missing Pittsburgh and its people from the bottom of my heart and Gabrijela can't wait to get her favorite photo model city in front of her lens again. Thank you Pittsburgh for your hospitality, your beauty, for being such an inspiration and, surprisingly enough, a full week of bright spring sunshine.

Christina Kapaun lives in Munich, works as an online marketing specialist and loves to write and to travel. This is her second visit to Pittsburgh. Gabrijela Obert also lives in Munich, works as an architect and photographer and loves to travel and to spend quality time with her husband and her dog.To see all the stories from their trip along with photos, click here: http://slopinginthesky.blogspot.de/

Photographs by Gabrijela Obert.

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