Pittsburgh is not generally perceived as a tourist destination. It does not show up on Forbes’ list of the 30 most visited cities in the United States. It doesn’t have the nice weather of southern cities, the stunning landscape of destinations out west or the cultural appeal of the big cities on the east coast. It is, to many Americans, an old steel town whose best days died forty years ago with the industry for which it’s known.
And yet, when planning our vacation this summer, I suggested to my wife that we spend a few days in Pittsburgh. I had been to the city many times for Steelers games, but those had been in-and-out affairs. I had never truly visited. I wanted to attend training camp, but just as much, I wanted to get to know Pittsburgh. As a Steelers fan for 45 years, it was a city I had invested so much in, yet knew so little about.
I sold the idea to my wife by sharing articles with her that raved about the city’s renaissance. Specifically, about its restaurants, its rivers and its architecture. We have one cardinal rule when traveling — never visit anywhere with bad food or bad scenery — so once she knew that box was checked, she was all-in. We planned the trip, loaded up the Durango and hit the road.
We spent a few days in Charlottesville first, where we hiked the beautiful Shenandoah mountains, visited Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, walked the campus at the University of Virginia and ate like royalty at a couple of wonderful restaurants (The Local being the best of the bunch, for anyone reading this in the Charlottesville area).
Then it was off to Pittsburgh. The drive was spectacular. We have our own natural attractions in my hometown at the Jersey shore — namely, an ocean that sprawls to the horizon and some beautiful back bays into which the sun appears to plunge slowly on summer nights. But the shore is a coastal plain, which means it’s flat as a pancake. Heading from Charlottesville to Pittsburgh took us along Skyline Drive, into West Virginia and then through the Alleghenys. The mountain vistas were spectacular, and we made like proper tourists by pulling over at every “Scenic Overlook” to gawk at the view. My wife has traveled all over the world, but she had never been through this stretch of the country. “I had no idea it was so beautiful,” she said. To which I concurred.
My favorite moment, however, was our first glimpse of the steel arch bridges that crisscross the Monongahela River as you bend towards the city along I-376. For me, those bridges are as quintessentially Pittsburgh as seeing the Statue of Liberty outside New York City or the Rocky statue atop the steps of the art museum in Philadelphia. Years earlier, when I used to road trip with friends to Pittsburgh for Steelers’ games, those bridges marked a stretch of debauchery that seems like punishment in retrospect: bar hopping on Saturday night, a Sunday morning tailgate, cheering and screaming at the game, then a six-hour drive home where I would get to bed around 1 a.m. and drag myself through a miserable day at work on Monday. Now, with my family in tow, the bridges represented something else: a quieter, more subtle welcome to a city I had longed to explore.
We stayed at the Drury Plaza Hotel in the downtown area. The hotel is housed in a building that, from 1931-2012, was home to a Federal Reserve bank. The gigantic vaults, which stored millions of dollars in paper currency and coins, remain in place in the building’s basement, with their massive doors, twenty-four inches thick, swung open for effect. The eighth floor originally contained a firing range for the security teams that guarded the building. Now, it houses a gym, a swimming pool and a beautiful outdoor deck that provides a view of PNC Park across the Allegheny River. It was a wonderful place to stay, with its nod to the city’s early history as a center of wealth juxtaposed against its rebirth after a period of decline.
Our first task once we settled in was to walk across the 7th Street bridge to the North Side, where we made an immediate pilgrimage to Heinz, er, Acrisure Stadium. We counted dozens of signs directing us to Heinz Field that will have to be adjusted to reflect the change. I joked to my wife that the magnitude of that job should provide a boost to the local economy. She responded by asking what Acrisure did. Honestly, I didn’t know. Even if someone explained it to me, the banality of the name “Acrisure” would cause me to forget immediately. Heinz makes ketchup. Acrisure makes...nobody cares.
We passed PNC Park on our walk, which is surely among the most magnificent settings for a baseball stadium in America. Further down we stopped at the statue of lifelong Pittsburgh resident Fred Rogers and the pavilion along the river dedicated to him. A quick Fred Rogers anecdote I’ve always remembered: on each episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Fred told his audience out loud when he was feeding his fish. That was because a blind viewer once wrote and asked if he would do so because she wanted to know the fish were okay. Fred knew of this request because he answered every piece of fan mail he ever received — usually somewhere between 50 to 100 letters per day. That sort of humility struck me as particularly meaningful in an age where we often forget how powerful gestures of kindness and respect can be.
After bidding Mr. Rogers adieu, we walked across the street to the stadium, where I spoke to The Chief. Mr. Rooney assured me the Steelers would surprise people this season. “The defense will be great,” he said. “And those QB’s are plucky. I like our chances.”
Mr. Rooney always was an optimist.
We had dinner that night at a restaurant on Market Square. Our waiter’s name was Kenny, so naturally I asked him a stupid question. “Which Kenny do you like best?” I said. “Kenny Pickett or Kennywood?” He told us he’d just moved to Pittsburgh two months ago, had never been to Kennywood and didn’t know much about Kenny Pickett. “I guess I’m partial to Kenny from South Park,” he answered.
I asked how he liked Pittsburgh. His response was telling. “I moved here from D.C,” he said. “That’s where I went to college. I couldn’t wait to get away. It’s so negative there. Everyone is arrogant, and they’re mean. My friend had lived in Pittsburgh and said it was a chill town. So far, he’s right. People are cool. They don’t treat you like you’re beneath them.”
As a resident of New Jersey, his comments about Washington D.C. resonated. The I-95 corridor from D.C. to Boston, which runs through Jersey and includes the metro areas of Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York, is a competitive environment. To categorize everyone as arrogant and mean is unfair. But it requires a certain personality to feel at home. Philadelphia, the city with which I’m most familiar, is big, and it’s loud, and people have few reservations about expressing themselves, no matter the sentiment. In Pittsburgh, the pace is slower, and the people a little more patient, and more willing to listen. All of which I found refreshing.
The next day, we journeyed to Kennywood, the iconic area amusement park. Ten minutes into our visit, my four-year-old daughter won a gigantic stuffed unicorn that I dutifully carted around for the next five hours. It was worth it just to experience the joy she felt in winning. The park was teeming with people in Steelers gear. Young, old, male, female, dressed in black and gold shirts, jerseys, hats and socks. As we were waiting in line to ride a roller coaster named Thunderbolt, a “Here We Go!” chant broke out. My wife said, “You must be in heaven.” I said, “Not quite,” but damn if that chant wasn’t music to my ears.
We rode some of the best attractions in the park — Thunderbolt, Jack Rabbit, Sky Rocket — but as the day grew long there was one ride I hadn’t yet mustered up the courage to attempt.
The Steel Curtain.
It was the park’s newest coaster, opened in 2019. It had a maximum height of 220 feet, topped out at 76 miles per hour and featured nine inversions, one of the which owned the world record for tallest inversion at 197 feet. There was no way I was riding that thing, until my son, who is 9, said, “Dad, it’s named after the Steelers. You can’t chicken out.”
That was it. My son had challenged my manhood. Conveniently, he was not tall enough to ride with me, and my wife had to stay with the kids. I would have to go alone, which was actually a good thing. That way, none of them could hear me whimpering.
In line, I asked a teenager in front of me if he’d ridden it before. “Oh yeah,” he said. “There’s like three straight loops where you’re going like 100 miles an hour and you feel like you’re gonna die. It’s rad.”
There was a time in my life where I thought near-death experiences, or the simulation thereof, were indeed rad. That ship sailed long ago, however. Now, I’m partial to sitting on my back deck watching the sprinkler water the lawn. But my son had challenged me. I caught his eye as I neared the front of the line and gave him a thumbs up. I said to myself, “If I survive this, I’m going to kill him.”
I did survive. But only because I crouched down as low in my seat as possible and shut my eyes the entire time. The ride lasts two full minutes, and I spent every second praying for it to be over. I’d rather carry a football into the teeth of the actual Steel Curtain than ride that thing again. My son high-fived me when I wobbled back to him. My wife kissed me and said, “Way to go, Daddy.” The things you do for family.
That night, we went to a Pirates game at PNC. Our seats were behind home plate, which affords an amazing view of the Pittsburgh skyline. The Pirates are bad, but they played with passion. They trailed 4-0, then fought back to take a 7-4 lead. Milwaukee tied the game at 7 and it went to the bottom of the 9th. Bryan Reynolds led off. “Watch this,” a man in the seats behind me said, “He’s gonna hit a bomb.” Sure enough, Reynolds did, a walk-off home run to right-center that sent the sparse but lively crowd into a frenzy. “What did I tell you!” the man exclaimed as Reynolds circled the bases. “I knew he would do it. ‘Atta boy, Reynolds!”
We returned to the hotel on the pedestrian walkway that runs along the river behind the stadium, crossing the 7th Street bridge, then up 6th Avenue to Grant Street. It was 11:00 at night, and I was with my wife and kids, and everything I’ve been conditioned to believe about that situation told me not to engage with anyone. But as we passed people along the street, they said hello. This struck me as odd at first, until I realized how odd it was not to say hello, and that I was the one whose conditioning was off.
The next morning, we packed up and headed for Latrobe, where I attended Steelers’ training camp and where, again, I was surprised by the kind nature of the fans and the camaraderie people shared. We drove home the following day, stopping first in Shanksville to visit the Flight 93 memorial. It was a somber but important ending to a trip that had brought us so much joy.
I know Pittsburgh has its problems. Its crime rate is 53% higher than the national average, while its household income rate is 23% lower. And the Tree of Life shooting in 2018 underscored problems that are endemic both to the region and the nation as a whole. My visit to the city painted Pittsburgh in rose-colored glasses, as is true for most tourists. It would be naïve to say I suddenly know the place,
I did, though, find a warmth among the people I encountered that hasn’t been common everywhere I’ve been. Pittsburgh’s roots are in labor, and labor breeds toughness. But that toughness isn’t without kindness, and that kindness creates a kinship. Maybe it was my attachment to the Steelers, or to the fact my previous trips to the city have always ended well (I’ve been to seven Steelers games in my life, and they’ve won all seven). But I felt comfortable in Pittsburgh in a way I haven’t felt in many other places, including some near my home.
I’ll finish with this: as we were leaving our hotel, I began talking with one of the valets while waiting for our car. He asked what we were doing that day, and I said we were heading to training camp. We then fell into conversation as though we were old friends. He told me he had a son who played football. I told him I was a coach. He said his son played the line and asked if I had any tips for him. I said, “Stay low, keep your hands inside, drive your legs.” He said, “That’s it?” I said, “That’s it. You do those three things, you’ll win a lot of blocks.” Our car arrived and he helped me load up. As I was getting in, he said, “Stay low, hands inside, drive your legs.” I said, “You got it.” Then we slapped five, and he said, “Go Steelers.”
It’s hard to say what constitutes a perfect ending. But that felt like an ideal way to bid farewell to a city whose rugged but easy nature helped deepen my love for the Steelers.