6 cool spots to visit in Pittsburgh as a first-timer

I drove 5.5 hours to Pittsburgh on a whim a couple of months ago. It was my reaction to receiving bad news. I don’t even know how Pittsburgh came to mind other than that I realized I had lived in or near the other side of the state for most of my life and had never ventured across.

It turned out to be an easy drive straight across on the Turnpike, and it definitely opened the door to future visits. So here’s a few spots from my 3-day visit that I’d recommend to first timers. Please note that all content here was adapted from my reviews originally posted on Yelp.

(1) Point State Park

Point State Park is a can’t miss oasis of lush greens and historical importance in downtown Pittsburgh. It’s home to a massive central fountain, Fort Pitt Blockhouse, plenty of clean benches, and other attractions. I visited in April but it felt like August. Despite the heat, I spent a considerable amount of time in the park, taking photos of flowers, trees, and the fountain from every possible direction.

It’s also cool to check out the convergence of three rivers — the Allegheny, Monongahela, and the start of the Ohio River. I don’t think I’ve ever seen something like that before.

Because of its proximity, it’s easy to walk to shops downtown (I did not), or across one of the bridges to another part of the city. That’s what I did, since I was limited on time and wanted to see the Mexican War Streets, Southern Tier Brewing, and the Andy Warhol Museum (which were all a short walk away).

I’d say this park is a good starting point to get ahold of your surroundings or to just relax.

(2) Duquesne Incline

Saying my road anxiety en-route to the Duquesne Incline was severe is an understatement. As a first-time visitor to Pittsburgh, I didn’t realize the roads/drivers would be so, um, confusing/terrifying. I merged in to one highway over a bridge from the left but needed to immediately be all the way to the right for the exit, but no one would let me in so I ended up in a tunnel. Screamed in frustration to myself, then re-routed my GPS and it took me back through the same tunnel. Whew.

Eventually I made it to West Carson Road and noted signs for the incline. But nope. Not there yet! No parking is available on Carson Road itself. You actually need to make a left then another left until you’re down a level onto the road below. You can park there (pay for it), then walk up, across the pedestrian bridge, and into the lower level of the incline.

So I guess you can understand the state of mind I was in by the time I actually made it to the incline. I’m glad I had read up ahead of time to know exact change was required for admission. I put my $5 bill in the little box for a round-trip ticket and was given a slip. It wasn’t a busy day so it was only me, plus a dad and his son, in the lift.

The views from the top were pretty enough. It was cloudy so none of my pictures are woo-hoo yay, but it did help me gain a full-view of the city and get my bearings. I’d bet it’s gorgeous at sunset or at night.

Inside, they have a little museum with an interesting history of the incline. I didn’t stay too long; time in the city was limited. So I took my ticket, re-boarded the lift, showed my ticket at the bottom, and headed out.

My next stop was straight back to the hotel. Uber got lots of business the next two days.

(3) Church Brew Works

By some twist of fate, my Uber driver en-route here happened to be openly religious — of the “witness to all potential non-believers” camp. He didn’t seem pleased by my destination all too much. And I’ll admit — it did feel kind of sacrilegious to imbibe in an old [decommissioned] church, but also kind of neat…and certainly abnormal.

I’d say come here more for the photo ops and atmosphere itself rather than beer. It seems like a cool place to hang out. I met an old friend for happy hour and it served as an ideal, chill location to spend some time catching up. Happy hour specials = half-off prices. Our server recommended ordering drafts over tasters or a flight. I chose their mango wheat beer, which was…what you’d expect from a wheat beer.

I think it was a nice place to experience, especially as a first-time visitor to Pittsburgh.

(4)  La Gourmandine Bakery & Pastry Shop

A local friend insisted that I *must* visit La Gourmandine Bakery & Pastry Shop before heading home to South Jersey. Of course, I had never heard of it, so I checked Yelp, saw the outstanding overall rating, and made the stop a priority.

It’s situated in a long street of cute stores and shops in Lawrenceville. I parked on a side street and walked down. Upon arrival, I noticed it was a busy, busy place. Small, too. Even so, I was greeted quickly and ordered several items, including:

– Ham, cheese, and butter baguette: Huge, filling, delicious, top quality. Would buy again.
– Lemon tart: For my mother. She liked it.
– Clafoutis: For my mother. She adored it.
– Chocolate cake: Delicious!
– Large macaron: I honestly forgot to eat this. And just realized as much. Darn!

I understand the allure of this spot and would absolutely return in the future. They do sweet and savory well!

(5) Grist House Craft Brewery

Wow — This brewery is incredible.

I had never heard of it until a few days ago. When I arrived in Pittsburgh for a brief visit, I checked Yelp and saw a Pittsburgh Craft Beer Week event was connected to this brewery, so I bookmarked it. The next day at another brewery, the bartender recommended this spot wholeheartedly and I made stopping in a priority. Plus it’s a 5-minute walk to Draai Laag, a brewery I adore, so that made it all the more enticing!

I’m glad I visited with a local friend. When we arrived, the weather was balmy, the sun was going down, and the brewery was packed to the gills. The inside area, which cutely resembled a house, was rather crowded but we were quickly served. They stamped our hands so we wouldn’t get repeatedly carded. Be careful with the stamp — somehow it bled onto my shirt. I don’t even know how that happened, but I’m sure it’ll wash out.

After securing our beers — my friend got an IPA and I chose the Member Berries — we found an open standing table outside and gawked at all the pretty little happy dogs. Because, yes, they are dog-friendly and it’s awesome! Both beers were great (my friend walked back in and bought a 6-pack of the IPA!), and the atmosphere made the experience even better. We eventually headed out because storms were closing in, but it’s the type of place I’d absolutely return to with a group of friends. So chill, casual, and nice. A true gem.

(6) The Andy Warhol Museum

I’ll admit I didn’t know all too much about Andy Warhol, aside from the iconic Pop Art movement, ahead of my visit to his namesake museum. By the time I walked out about an hour and a half later, I felt like I learned so much about his hand in so many different mediums of art and entertainment. What an incredible man, he was!

The museum is seven stories high and costs about $20 to enter. You’ll receive a pin to wear as your ticket, and no backpacks are allowed inside. I had a drawstring bag on, so I had to wear it like a purse.

You can start at the top floor (via elevator) and work your way down…or start in the movie theatre on the ground level and watch a film about his life. I opted to end with the movie, which I preferred because it gave me some time to sit down before heading back out to sight-see some more.

Don’t miss the room with the floating silver pillows. Or the stuffed animals (a dog and a lion). Or really, don’t miss anything at all. Be sure to carve out plenty of time if you really want to experience the museum. There are tons to read but there’s also a huge curated collection of art, interactive exhibits, a guest rotating exhibit, and even a section filled with relics from his life.

I purchased a couple of magnets on my way out from the extensive, reasonably priced gift shop, and also took some time to sit in the entrance area where they have a small cafe with self-serve coffees and bottled water to go.

This was one of the most rewarding and intellectually fulfilling museum visits I’ve experienced. I’d highly recommend adding it in any itinerary to Pittsburgh.

Bonus Suggestion:

Mexican War Streets. I did not write a review but it’s so cool to wander this historically important neighborhood and check out the architecture. I took SO many photos.

Where to Stay: 

Courtyard Pittsburgh West Homestead/Waterfront

This is a solid Marriott in the Waterfront’s shopping center. My brief cross-state trip to Pittsburgh was taken on a whim. I received some not-so-hot news earlier this week, so I responded by immediately packing a bag and hopping on the turnpike to put some actual distance between myself and the meh situation.

When I was two hours away, I finally pulled into a rest stop and surveyed my Pittsburgh lodging options. I never book Airbnbs that late and I’m a terrible driver so I knew I wanted to be fairly close to the city but on the eastern side. Hence, West Homestead. It fits both criteria and has ample free parking. It’s not hard to find off 376, even in the dark.

Upon arrival, Patrick at the front desk could not have been more welcoming. He asked why I was traveling and, since the event was so fresh in my mind, I gave the long story. He was so empathetic and optimistic — it instantly made me feel a bit better!

My river-facing room was on the second floor next to an electrical closet. Fortunately in my haste I did pack ear plugs, but otherwise it could have been a bit noisy. My neighbors on the other side the second night were also rather loud but eventually settled down. Plus that’s a risk in any hotel so I’d never fault the accommodation for that. I’m just glad I got to wake up and see the river and hills! Very relaxing.

The hotel room was clean and stocked with fresh towels and toiletries. I didn’t find any evidence of bed bugs, and the mattress was comfy and on the softer side. The complimentary wi-fi worked well throughout my stay also.

I felt safe and happy for the duration of my short stay. It costs less than $15 to Uber downtown as well, which is awesome in a new, unfamiliar city. Squirrel Hill is across the bridge too, and is a really gorgeous part of the city. At a room rate of less than $100/night, I’d totally return if I find myself in Pittsburgh again one day.

Which spots would you add to this list?