Road trip to Steel City

Art was painted everywhere.

After more than a year of not traveling, we were ready to hit the road this spring after getting vaccinated. Not yet ready for a plane ride, my husband and 5-year-old son took our Chevy SS for a road trip to Pittsburgh the week before Memorial Day. Face masks and social distancing provided an extra buffer of personal safety.

Whenever I tell someone about our destination, they always ask, “Do you have family there?” as if they can’t imagine anyone would want to visit the midwest city most known for dirty steel industrialization. I’m about to tell you the many reasons why Pittsburgh should be on your list of cities to visit — especially as a family vacation spot.

Known as the “city of champions,” Pittsburgh is a great place for sports fans to visit. While the Penguins hockey team was in the playoffs during our visit, baseball is what brought us here. With the goal of going to every baseball stadium in the U.S., we followed the Chicago Cubs out to play the Pirates at PNC Park. I don’t like to brag, but the Cubs swept the series. As someone who sat in three different sections during our trip, I believe there is no bad seat at this ballpark. With convenient capacity limits still in place from the pandemic, we enjoyed the lack of crowds and full rows of seats to ourselves at each game we attended.

Mrs. T’s Pierogi Race was the best entertainment.

Two words describe the best part of the baseball games in Pittsburgh: Pierogi Race. Similar to the bratwurst races at the Brewers games, lucky folks get to dress in pierogi costumes sponsored by Mrs. T’s Pierogis and run the track along the outfield. Our 5-year-old was most entertained! I found the actual potato and cheese pierogis with sautéed onions much more satisfying, but who am I to judge quality entertainment. Word to the wise: save the hot dogs for when you’re at Wrigley Field, but pick up a cold Iron City Beer or IC Light to enjoy while singing “Take me out to the ball game” in the 7th inning stretch.

Our seats were along the third baseline the first game we attended. Coincidentally, the aisle we had all to ourselves was right where the pierogi’s lined up to race, so Leigh scored a personal meet and greet with a few high fives. The view was good, but not as nice as the scenic bridge and city landscape you take in while watching from the upper deck. This might be one park where the cheap seats actually come with a better view. Another game we attended had seats along the first baseline and we had a straight shot to the big electronic scoreboard where we could enjoy watching all the promo videos.

Leigh caught a baseball at each game. Our lucky duck always finds a friendly player, usher or security guard eager to give an inquisitive kid a ball.

Love this environmental artist, Kelsey Montague.

When we weren’t at the ballpark, we were out and about the city and its many neighborhoods.

There are nine floors of American history on display at the Heinz History Center, a Smithsonian institution. This high-caliber museum was so fun to explore on a rainy day. Learning about the history of America’s favorite ketchup producer was interesting, even if I don’t like it. Heinz played a leading role in industrializing food production and preservation, all based out of Pittsburgh.

Fred Rogers of the PBS show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood is also a point of pride for Steel City and one our young family really appreciated. My husband and I both watched the show as kids and our son now watches Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, a cartoon spinoff. My heart is happy thinking about people like Mr. Rogers who want to do good in the world. The original set pieces from the television show are on display at the museum. We also happened to be visiting on Pennsylvania’s 143 Day. Mr. Rogers regularly used 143 as his special code for “I Love You” – based on the number of letters in each word. The state recognizes the 143rd day of the year as 143 Day to encourage acts of kindness and good deeds people do for each other. Is there anything more kind than this? Oh yeah, this street sign!

Leigh at The Warhol art museum.

We also visited an art museum all about Andy Warhol, officially named The Warhol. It was just a few blocks from our hotel, we walked there and back along the Allegheny River, enjoying the endless view of yellow steel bridges. They had a great kid-friendly booklet with colored pencils so Leigh could engage with the art on each floor of the building. His favorite moment was keeping the balloons from touching the ground in the Silver Clouds installation.

The Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens near the campus of Pittsburgh University was a good place to get lost for a few hours. It wasn’t ideal to spend a 90+ degree day inside a giant greenhouse, but the hidden trolls adventure kept Leigh going. I love visiting botanical gardens while we travel. This 14-room glasshouse has been open since 1893.

Besides for the cultural excursions, boy, we ate. The first night we were in town, we sat on the patio at Mike’s Beer Bar and seared steaks and scallops on a sizzling lava stone. This was my favorite meal from the trip. We ate breakfast at a lot of diners in the Strip District, including Pamela’s Diner and Cafe Raymond. Pamela’s has an interesting take on a crepe-style pancake and Raymond’s has a beautiful second-floor patio above the strip. And if you like crepes, don’t skip Caffe Mona. Painted murals surround the outdoor dining area covered by rainbow umbrellas. We couldn’t resist eating sweet crepes for breakfast while on vacation.

Even more on the sweeter side, we had ice cream from an old drugstore soda fountain shop called Klavon’s Ice Cream Parlor. We drove out of our way to try the burnt almond torte cake from Prantl’s Bakery, which was acclaimed by the Huffington Post as “the best cake in America”.  And at the recommendation of a smart colleague, we sought out rich milkshakes from The Milkshake Factory. I was determined to get Turner iced tea and it turned out to be just like regular iced tea, but in a fun milk carton container.

Primanti’s sandwiches are legendary.

Leigh’s favorite part of the trip was staying in the hotel. I don’t know if he just likes sleeping soundly between his parents in a big bed, or if it’s the luxury of using an elevator. He was disappointed the pool was closed due to COVID-19 precautions, but we spent so much time out and about, we didn’t miss it. I highly recommend staying in a Hyatt Place if you’re traveling with littles. There’s extra seating space so you don’t feel on top of one another walking around a bed all the time. Our hotel was right next to PNC Park so we could conveniently walk to the games.

What are you waiting for? Yinz should visit the Steel City, aka Pittsburgh when you get the chance!

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