Where else can you rub elbows with football stars in the lobby of your luxury hotel; visit an arm of the Smithsonian; enjoy a blue-plate special slapped between two slices of bread; and share a glass of wine with a Zombie-movie director at the best little coffee-cigar shop on the East Coast?
Dropping our daughter off at her western Pennsylvania university gave us an opportunity do something we haven’t had a chance to do for the past 24 years – take a weekend trip by ourselves. Since we were in the area and had never done it before, we spent time in our hometown – Pittsburgh – as tourists. We learned the city is a great get-away for military travelers.
If you’re staying in the ‘burgh, put yourself in the heart of downtown at the historic Omni William Penn Hotel. The Omni Corporation has done a wonderful job of refurbishing this iconic city landmark. Say you are military and ask for the government rate when reserving your room (412-281-7100) and you’ll save more than half off the regular room rate. The hotel has a great pub – The Tap Room – for tasting local brews and cuisine, while watching a game. And you might just be seated next to a rookie Pittsburgh Steeler, since the hotel serves as their temporary home.
The nice thing about this river-bracketed town is that you can walk easily to all the major tourist attractions from the William Penn. Military history buffs can head a few blocks west to Point State Park and the Fort Pitt Museum to learn the city’s strategic importance. Film fans can stroll the streets and spot landmarks – like the old Allegheny County Prison - seen in movies such as the newest Batman, Flashdance, Wonder Boys to Inspector Gadget. Sports fanatics can cross the Roberto Clemente Bridge to tour PNC Ball Park and Heinz Field (the only stadium where you’ll see six Lombardi trophies!) The same bridge will lead you to the new Rivers Casino for some nightlife.
But if you really want a taste of Pittsburgh, head east, as we did, from the hotel to the Strip District, which has been the hub of the city’s wholesale produce and merchandise markets from the early 1900’s. Today you’ll find the area filled with ethnic restaurants and food shops where ‘yunz’ can try pierogis an ‘at.
Your first stop should be the Senator John Heinz History Center, which we finally got to tour for the first time ourselves. The museum is an arm of the Smithsonian Institution and its six floors of exhibit space in an old ice warehouse tell the story of the area’s remarkable history. Active duty and retired military enjoy half-price entry fees - Yeah! Military historians will be fascinated with the exhibits on the French and Indian War, the story of the Allegheny Arsenal and the city’s role in the Lewis and Clark expedition. The sports history exhibits were fun – seeing Bill Mazeroski hitting his famous 1960 World Series home run – but I loved the vintage H. J. Heinz company displays. Who knew ketchup was so important - a bottle graces the top of the town’s football stadium and history center - but you’ll learn why it was the secret to a man’s heart and required on every dinner table.
All that talk of ketchup and pickles works up an appetite, so we headed further into the Strip to the original Primanti Brothers restaurant for their one-of-a-kind sandwich. People may find it hard to believe, but though I lived and worked in Pittsburgh for many years before embarking on our Army adventure, I’d never had this unusual meal. We ordered the Pitts-burgher cheese steak which comes with sides of coleslaw and fries – served on the sandwich! It’s listed as the #2 best seller in the place – Iron City Beer being the 1st.
What better way to end a day of touring and dining than with a nice cup of coffee, which we found in the Strip at the Leaf and Bean, at 22nd St. and Penn Avenue. (http://www.leafandbean.com/) This eclectic coffee and cigar shop is run by Jim Robinson and will have you thinking you're in Key West. Wind your way through the creative décor to the walk-in humidor and choose a cigar from the huge selection, order a cup of the Bean’s special blend and take a seat outside with the regulars. You’ll quickly see why Pittsburgh is one of the country’s friendliest cities, as you strike up conversations.
We shared a table with film-maker Jake Mulliken, who introduced us to the Leaf and Bean’s BYOBS policy – bring your own bottle and share. A transplanted Californian, he shared some of his Napa vintage with us while showing us stills from his recently completed Zombie-movie, “Meltdown.” Shows you how much the city has changed from its industrial beginnings; becoming a center of finance, health care and …movie production. If you are planning a visit, the Bean features live music on Saturday afternoons – “Songwriter Saturday’s.” Sit back, relax, put the rest of your touring off until Sunday and bring one of Virginia’s fine wines or brews to share with some new friends.
We are already planning our next Empty Nest adventure which I’ll share in future episodes, hoping to let you in on great destinations for kid-free travel. If you have a travel suggestion, or a place you’ve always wanted to visit, share it in the comment section.
By the way, Pittsburgh is a great place for families too. With the Carnegie Science Center, the Children’s Museum, incline rides, Kennywood Amusement Park, to cruising on the Gateway Clipper, there’s lots to do. The ‘burgh is an easy 4-1/2 hour drive on 70 then west on the Pennsylvania Turnpike.