It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when my attitude about Pittsburgh changed. But I’d guess sometime within the last five years did the perception shift from those terrible towels at Ravens-Steelers games and toward one of a legitimately interesting metropolis.

Maybe it stemmed from the number of young adults I know who went off to school or took jobs in the Steel City and came back with positive reviews. Or maybe it came from learning Baltimore officials and developers have been studying Pittsburgh’s productive use of industrial land for examples they can bring home. Late last year, the business community even poached the leader of Pittsburgh’s economic development alliance to take over the Greater Baltimore Committee, the region’s pro-business advocacy group.

In any event, the Pittsburgh-curious in me — against the advice of certain purple-blooded relatives — eventually felt compelled to visit the place once famously derided as “Hell With the Lid Taken Off.”

A friend and I embarked on a weekend trip to see the source of all the buzz. And, after three days’ time, we considered much of the praise hard won and much deserved.

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It didn't take long at all for us to stumble upon Baltimore-themed merchandise during our trip to Pittsburgh. (Hallie Miller)

Where we stayed

A friend recommended my travel companion and I lodge in Lawrenceville, one of the city’s largest neighborhoods with a post-industrial edge and plenty to do within walking distance. Upon arrival, we quickly took note of the hip-looking young people traveling mostly by foot and by bike, many of them coupled off or attached by leash to dogs.

We stayed in an Airbnb on the top floor of what appeared to be a redeveloped office building. The only way in was up two steep flights of stairs that felt unsteady. The apartment more than suited our needs, though — the kitchen included a full set of silverware, a coffeemaker and refrigerated water pitcher.

Day 1

What we did

I thought I would be underwhelmed at Fallingwater, but the experience proved to be the perfect break in the middle of a long drive. (Hallie Miller)

We left Baltimore around 10:30 a.m. on a Friday and traveled by car so we could stop on the way at Fallingwater, the Frank Lloyd Wright architectural wonder located about 90 minutes’ drive from our destination. Pittsburgh also is reachable by train and plane, though neither would have accommodated our Fallingwater plans as well.

Much has been written about Wright’s seminal achievement, designed as a country home for Pittsburgh’s elite Kaufmann family in 1935. Even afterconducting my own research ahead of time, the experience there moved me in a way I didn’t expect. Our self-guided tour of the grounds and home terraces ($27 per person) with a warm cup of coffee in hand felt like a massage to the senses after four long hours in the car.

We left there around 4:30 p.m., and soon enough the largely barren landscape we had traveled through most of the day gradually began to give way to cityscape.

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We were determined to make our reservations for The Andy Warhol museum, with tickets purchased ahead of time for the Friday night half-off deal ($12.50 per person).

The Andy Warhol Museum, a Pittsburgh highlight, was so engrossing that two hours weren't enough for me and my friend to make our way through it entirely. (Hallie Miller)

We parked at a nearby lot that only accepted cash, and, having none, my travel companion asked the attendant where we could find an ATM to pay the $8 fee. The kind gentleman told us not to worry and disappeared before we could even offer a tip. Enchanting!

The museum, located in a massive, five-story commercial building in Pittsburgh’s downtown, purports being the country’s largest museum devoted to a single artist. After more than two hours there, I could’ve easily stayed even longer, but staff let us know it was time for them to close.

What we ate

Here’s the part of the column where I expect to raise some eyebrows: This is when I tell you it’s OK to skip Primanti Bros., even in spite of the staff’s hospitality to us after an order mixup on my end.

Though the Pittsburgh sandwich staple is present in nearly every must-try list written about the city, we found it … fine?

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The restaurant’s casual, comfortable vibe reminded me of Baltimore’s HomeSlyce chain, and I was impressed to find a sizable crowd sipping beers and munching away as I picked up the order (one “Pitts-burger,” one pastrami sandwich and a side of french fries).

But both sandwiches ($9.99 each) were held together by two large pieces of white, fluffy Italian bread, which to me tasted bland. Atop and beneath the two or three juicy pastrami strips on my sandwich were a hearty serving of lightly dressed, peppery coleslaw, a fresh tomato slice, grilled onions and fries (the key ingredient present in all Primantis sandwiches: floppy, rust-brown and heavily seasoned, $4.79 for a side). My companion’s burger — slightly overcooked — had all the markings of solid fast food, but he remarked that the experience didn’t light his fire. I felt warmer toward the fries-in-sandwich combo than he did.

For a quick nightcap later on, we stopped at Esquina Cantina, a lively Mexican bar and lounge we later discovered has been in continuous operation since 1864. The La Cantina cocktail (made with tequila, triple sec, lime, agave and a hint of orange juice) hit the spot, while my drinking companion savored a Michelada (about $10 each).

Day 2

What we did

The view from Mount Washington was stunning, but the Duquesne Incline ride wasn't for the faint of heart. (Hallie Miller)

Here’s another thing you can skip during your trip to PGH: the historic Duquesne Incline ($2.50 each way per person).

We arrived around 11:30 a.m. to the adjacent parking lot ($10) and made our way inside the mountain railway station. The line snaked down and around the building’s lower level, and on a humid, muggy day with holiday weekend crowds, it seemed pertinent to have a working air conditioning system. There wasn’t one.

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The line took about 20 minutes to get through. As we journeyed upward, a sign attached to the car’s interior alerted guests that the railway’s funds come entirely from fares, donations and souvenirs, and would we consider becoming paying members to offset the lack of government subsidies available?

Creaking up the mountain, I would’ve preferred not to think about the system’s potentially poor financial outlook.

Once atop, we marveled for a few minutes at the view of the city afforded by Mount Washington. Then we wondered what we should do next. There was no clear signage outlining possible hiking or walking trails, few open businesses operating around the station (the Coal Mill Steakhouse and the Steel Mill Saloon were the two dining options we saw on a short walk) and no signs of public restrooms. As the skies turned dark and stormy, we waited another 20 minutes in pure humidity to take the cable car down.

We returned to the Airbnb to freshen up and arrived just in time for our reservation at the Mattress Factory, the three-building campus of contemporary art exhibitions inside repurposed warehouses ($20 per adult). Only two of the buildings were open. We were less enamored with this museum than with Warhol’s, despite many of the exhibits offering “interactive” opportunities (I, for example, watched with bated breath as my travel companion affixed a heavy wooden plank by zip tie to what can only be described as a crowdsourced wooden fort).

With a few hours to spare before our dinner reservation and dark storm clouds looming, we drove to the University of Pittsburgh campus for a look at the Cathedral of Learning, the institution’s 42-floor totem that may as well have functioned as a Harry Potter set piece. We explored the Hogwarts-style grounds by elevator, choosing floors at random.

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The Cathedral of Learning at the University of Pittsburgh was giving off serious Hogwarts vibes, and I loved roaming around during a rainy afternoon. (Hallie Miller)

What we ate

We stopped for a cold brew at Caffè D’amore Coffeeshop, a cozy hole in the wall with fun eats and locally sourced products. The small dose of caffeine ($4.01) set me up for success the rest of the day.

Midday, we stopped in Squirrel Hill for Prantl’s Bakery, another repeat offender on all the must-try web lists. We filled a box with five treats ($20), including a standout burnt almond torte — its signature sweet — which I’m still thinking about.

In search of another beverage, I stumbled across the street into the busy Commonplace Coffee, which produced one of the best-flavored iced teas I’ve ever had (super fruit, $3.25).

For dinner that night, we made a reservation at Pusadee’s Garden, a classy Thai restaurant with a scenic outdoor patio and a menu so stacked we hardly knew where to begin. We split three small plates and two entrees: roti with yellow curry, mushroom laab and nam prik noom (spicy eggplant dip) to start; and pumpkin curry with chicken and crispy shrimp as mains (about $120 total, with tip). My dining companion couldn’t get enough of the pumpkin curry, and I especially liked the roti and curry appetizer.

Pusadee's Garden was our most expensive meal of the trip, but it was worth the price of admission. (Hallie Miller)

We also visited a number of bars and breweries at night. We started before dinner with Allegheny Wine Mixer, where I sipped a delicious “giggle water” (gin, lemon, pear, cardamom, Prosecco, $11) and my companion opted for a white wine ($10). Friends encouraged us to try Cinderlands Beer Co., where I enjoyed a sampler glass of the Lil’ Cinder Lime ($2.50), a light lager.

We felt right at home at Church Brew Works, which reminded us of Baltimore's Ministry of Brewing but with a more extensive menu and waitstaff. (Hallie Miller)
No trip to Pittsburgh is complete without sampling the pierogis, we were told, though we weren't in love with the ones at Church Brew Works. (Hallie Miller)

At Church Brew Works (think Ministry of Brewing), I tasted my first true “mocktail,” a spiced mule made with zero-proof rum and a bubbly ginger beer. We felt compelled, perhaps by some higher power, to try Church’s pierogis as that night’s “dessert” ($11), which my companion astutely described as a conduit for the better-tasting sour cream and chive. We finished the night with one last canned seltzer at Lolev Beer, a brewery next to the Airbnb (about $8 each).

Day 3

What we did

We had a light brunch at the Speckled Egg in Downtown Pittsburgh, housed inside a commercial high-rise building and shopping arcade. (Hallie Miller)

We took our time waking up Sunday after a busy night out and made it just in time for our brunch reservation at the Speckled Egg, a daytime eatery housed creatively inside the Union Trust high-rise building in Pittsburgh’s downtown district. My companion overheard a host tell a potential customer that their tables were booked solid until 2:30 p.m.

Parking took a few extra minutes to find, but, as we drove around, we took a liking to the area. I assume Pittsburgh’s downtown is undergoing similar real estate challenges to other cities, but it was encouraging to spot a Target housed in the ground level of a department store turned apartment building.

It called for on-and-off thunderstorms the entire day, so we scratched plans to go kayaking along the Allegheny River and went shopping in the popular Strip District. It was genuinely surprising to tally how many Pittsburgh sports merchandise stores were operating along the same strip. I counted at least four. (Pro-tip: Ravens fans can and should skip this).

There were several Pittsburgh sports merchandise stores open on the Strip. Here's the inside of one of them. (Hallie Miller)

Our favorite shops along the Strip included Grandpa Joe’s Candy Shop (where we picked out a handful of exotic-sounding sweets for $10, including espresso and fudge brownie M&Ms) and Penzeys Spices, which offered a two-for-one sale on half-cups ($8). Nearby, at the Strip District Terminal, we found a two-in-one bookstore and ice cream parlor and spent time browsing the selections. On our way back to the Airbnb, we also stopped at a stretch of vintage shops and antique stores about a mile down the road from where we stayed.

What we ate

After a full evening of eating and drinking the night before, neither I nor my friend had much of an appetite upon being seated at our brunch spot. This turned out fortuitous, as the Speckled Egg portions were small enough to finish, with him choosing the egg sandwich with added bacon ($13) and me the shakshuka ($14), which came in a palm-size skillet with spicy tomato sauce, two poached eggs and a slice of toasted sourdough.

We had brunch at the Speckled Egg in downtown Pittsburgh, housed inside a repurposed high-rise building originally meant to serve as a shopping arcade. (Hallie Miller)

We saved room for dinner at Kaya, a Caribbean-style restaurant recommended highly to us from a friend who called it one of her favorites. I liked the assured tone of the place, with its dim lighting, island-themed décor and thumping tropical music. Here, we split a tasty hot bean dip that came with sweet potato chips, jerk chicken wings and a vegetable paella for a total of about $50.

We ate dinner one night at Kaya, a Caribbean-themed restaurant, recommended highly to us from a friend who called it a local gem. (Hallie Miller)

With another storm coming, we drove back to the Airbnb after dinner and ducked into a sit-down bakery across the street operating through 11 p.m. — a rarity back home. The Butterwood Bake Consortium turned out to be a highlight of the trip, serving the most delectable cinnamon blondie ($4) and butterscotch pudding ($4), which I paired with a hot peppermint tea ($2.50). On our way out, we grabbed one more chocolate chip blondie for the road, to eat and savor upon our return to Baltimore.

hallie.miller@thebaltimorebanner.com

Hallie Miller covers housing for The Baltimore Banner. She's previously covered city and regional services, business and health at both The Banner and The Baltimore Sun.

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