Pittsburgh's new horizons

Swapping steel for space: exploring a reinvented US city


Pittsburgh is reaching for the stars — or the moon, at least. Once a city of belching chimneys, pollution and grime, it’s now going hi-tech. And there’s nowhere better to demonstrate this transformation than at the brand new Moonshot Museum.

Set in the headquarters of space robotics company Astrobotic Technology Inc, on the other side of a glass wall, scientists are busying themselves building lunar landers and rovers. Space is just one of the new places in this reinvented city.

It’s the latest new look for Pennsylvania’s second biggest city. Attractively situated at the confluence of the Monongahela, Allegheny and Ohio rivers, and surrounded by wooded hills, from the 1800s, it became a nightmare of belching chimneys, pollution and grime.

The world’s largest producer of steel until the 1960s, when industry started moving overseas, the mills and furnaces are quiet now, the factories demolished or transformed, and the banks of the rivers have attractive green spaces once more.

There was big money made here and the cultural legacy of Andrew Carnegie, the Mellon bankers, the Frick coal merchants and the Heinz family lives on. You’ll find impressive art galleries, including one devoted to Andy Warhol, the city’s most famous artist, whose parents came here from Slovakia in search of work.

They followed in the footsteps of countless other immigrants looking for a new life in the New World. A century earlier in 1838, the first Jews came here from Bavaria, with the first service held in 1844 and land for a cemetery purchased in 1847.

Pogroms in Russia led to a further influx in 1881 and by 1925 the community numbered 60,000, before another wave fled Europe as Hitler rose to power in Germany. These days the total is around 50,000 and continues to grow.

To discover some of their stories, head to the Heinz History Center, which houses the Rauh Jewish Archives. This tells the tale of the Jewish communities of Western Pennsylvania, using images, audio tapes, memoirs, and scrapbooks.

Meanwhile, the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh honours the survivors who settled in the city after the Second World War, as well as the local soldiers who liberated them. There’s also a Jewish Art Museum, in Squirrel Hill — founded in 1998, its exhibitions explores contemporary Jewish issues — and even a Jewish Theatre of Pittsburgh, which stages plays at the Rodef Shalom Temple.

An excellent way of getting to know the city is to take a bike along the traffic-free riverside paths of the Great Allegheny Passage, or GAP Trail.

As well as taking you through parks and past amazing murals, you’ll cross over some of the 446 bridges which give the city another of its many nicknames. If you were feeling particularly keen, you could cycle all 335 miles to Washington DC — otherwise, relax with a beer at the Sly Fox brewery, which has created the 3RT Ale in tribute to the Three Rivers Heritage Trail.

On the banks of the Allegheny, close to downtown, the warehouses of the Strip District have been repurposed to house a variety of ethnic food stores and cafes, and a ’Burgh Bits and Bites tour lets you taste the specialities of the city’s many immigrants.

Of course there’s an Italian deli but there’s also Middle Eastern hummus and pita, Greek specialities as well as empanadas and tamales from Reyna’s Latin American grocery. And kosher bakery Pigeon Bagels has the best bagels in the USA, according to 2021’s Food and Wine Magazine.

It’s not just the food that is unmissable. The Carnegie Museum of Art was probably the first to start collecting the “Old Masters of tomorrow” and is one of the leading institutions in America.

Its spacious halls with their high ceilings are ideal for displaying what was once called Modern Art, where Impressionists, Cubists and Surrealists rub shoulders with American landscape artists.

Meanwhile, the Andy Warhol Museum is the largest museum in the world dedicated to a single artist. Its spread over seven floors of a converted Victorian warehouse.

As well as iconic pop art and portraiture, it has archival collections of Warhol belongings, meticulously indexed by year, in a celebration of the city’s famous son.

The Mattress Factory takes alternative art forms to another level with installations, videos and performance art, now notorious for pushing the boundaries of both artist and viewer.

Exhibitions in 2022 have included “Shrine” — a celebration of Black motherhood — developed with a local Pittsburgh arts residency, as well as installations from international artist Doreen Chan.

There’s sport as well as culture too, including a museum devoted to Pittsburgh baseball legend Roberto Clemente.

Originally from Puerto Rico, he joined The Pirates in 1954 and rose to become one of the greatest players of his time. The museum, located in the historic Engine House 25 in Lawrenceville, houses the largest collection of Clemente memorabilia.

Surprisingly, in the basement, founder and curator Duane Rieder makes wine from the grapes of premium growers in California, Chile, and South Africa. It’s very good indeed.

NFL football is like a religion in Pittsburgh and the local team, the Steelers, achieved a remarkable run of four Super Bowl championships in six years during the 1970s.

Match days at the Acrisure Stadium attract fans from all over the USA, often arriving at the start of the weekend to kickstart the festivities. Inside the stadium the atmosphere is electric, although sadly my visit saw them lose to the New England Patriots.

The city makes a great base to explore more of Pennsylvania too. A one-hour trip takes you southeast of Pittsburgh to the Laurel Highlands where there are two iconic houses designed by famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright.

The first is Fallingwater, built in the late 1930s, into a cliff of waterfalls. This building put the architect on the map and contains all his original fittings and artwork to this day. Even now its situation still astonishes, the various levels cantilevered out over the water.

Another 20 minutes away is one of his last houses, again integrated into the middle of nature, but this time on the wooded hillside of Kentuck Knob.

It fits so well into the landscape, it’s almost impossible to spot, and has tremendous view across the Youghiogheny River Gorge.

If you continue further east to the outskirts of Philadelphia, you can also find Lloyd Wright’s Beth Shalom Synagogue, the only one he designed, and not completed until September 1959, five months after his death.

Back in the city, the focus is firmly on the modern world though. The Moonshot Museum opened its doors for the first time in October but far from being somewhere to view Apollo Mission-era artefacts stuck inside glass cases, it’s much more hands-on.

It challenges its visitors to take charge of a simulated space mission, for example, with the attraction aimed particularly at children.

In Pittsburgh’s grimy past, kids may well have been sent to work in the city’s dark satanic mills, made to climb up chimneys or countless other dirty, dangerous jobs.

While the younger generation won’t all take up the chance of a dazzling career in space exploration, there’s no question the Steel City is expanding its horizons — and its one makeover that’s enticing for all ages.

Getting There

There’s a new direct route from Heathrow to Pittsburgh from British Airways this year, with flights costing from £505.

Rooms at TRYP by Wyndham Pittsburgh/Lawrenceville cost from around £134.

For more information about the city, go to

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