Raising Richmond: Seeing other cities

I’m proud to call Richmond home, but occasionally I like to spend time in other cities. After my fourth visit to Pittsburgh, I think you and yours might like to spend time there, too.

As someone who has never lived anywhere else but the Richmond area (my three months in Farmville don’t count), I love visiting other places and getting an idea of what it’s like to live there. I especially like mid-size cities, much like ours. A place like New York City is too Big and Important, but a city like Pittsburgh is more my speed.

I knew nothing about Pittsburgh when my friend Nichole moved there to attend graduate school. My husband and I first visited her when I was pregnant in 2010, and we were immediately charmed by it. Nichole finished school and decided to stay put (or Stay Pitt–classic Pittsburgh pun that you can only appreciate if you’ve been there four times like I have, sorry!). We’ve been twice as a family to visit her and her adopted home, and then I took a trip there alone to visit her this month.1

Here is why I’ve decided that Pittsburgh is the next destination for you and your family: Pittsburgh is not so far away that you can’t drive there in a day, but it’s far enough that it’s only worth it if you have at least two days to spend there. Without traffic, the drive takes about six and a half hours with a few stops factored in.2

It’s hard for me to not compare everything to Richmond, like “This is like their Carytown,” or “This is their South Side.” Like Richmond, Pittsburgh has a mix of history and contemporary charm that livens up the shut-down steel town look. It’s easy enough to drive around, with many attractions within walking distance to each other. There are three rivers that flow through the city and under more than 400 bridges, which gives it one of its nicknames, The City of Bridges. Also Gene Kelly is from Pittsburgh. I should have led with that.

After four visits, there are still a number of things I want to do (like return to some museums and master the drive there by myself). Here are some highlights from my visits there, and I can’t wait to see your Instagrams of your family enjoying these same activities.

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Pittsburgh Pirates

I hadn’t been to a major league baseball game in at least 20 years when we saw a Pirates vs. Mets game at PNC Park in 2013. We had standing room tickets (meaning we stood where we could to watch the game), and I was chasing around an almost three-year-old at the time. In the times I could sit down for a minute to watch the game, I saw a couple of home runs and a between-inning pierogi race of people in pierogi suits running around the field. PNC Park is a beautiful stadium. It was a huge to-do to find parking on a Friday night and to walk to the stadium, but the walk to and from, crossing one of the rivers in the city, was really nice. Plus the food was a little bit better than what we’re used to at the Diamond with its hot-yet-still frozen onion rings and Dippin’ Dots.

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The Strip

The Strip district has year-round markets, and it’s lined with stores (mostly a United Nations of food shops) and market stalls. It’s a fun area to walk through, though it stands out to me because my daughter threw up sausage on the sidewalk in front of a Polish market, and I had to clean it up with tiny napkins. Fun times!

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The National Aviary

This mostly-indoor aviary has birds from all around the world, including a free-flight (loose birds!) tropical rainforest exhibit. Our visit there marked maybe the second time that our daughter has asked to have her photo taken, which was next to a giant fake penguin (the handful of times she’s ever asked to have her photo taken have all involved mannequins or fake animals, most recently a stuffed bear).

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Cathedral of Learning

This was one of the first places we went during our first visit. It’s a place of study for University of Pittsburgh students–a beautiful building with classrooms sponsored by (and decorated to represent) different countries. It’s hard to believe that anyone can come in with a can of Sprite and bag of Hot Fries in a building where you expect to hear Gregorian chanting in the background. We went on a Saturday and had fun exploring the rooms that are left unlocked.

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Dinomite Days Dinosaurs

You know how some cities have fundraisers during which different artists paint theme-based sculptures to auction off? We have fish (meh). Pittsburgh has dinosaurs! They are placed throughout the city and include a George Washington triceratops (George Washasaurus), and a Fred Rogers T-Rex (Fredosaurus Rex Friday XIII, pictured above). Mr. Rogers was from Pittsburgh. I should have led with that.

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Dusquesne Incline

These cable cars go up and down an incline of 400 feet. We took a cable car trip down the hill at night and walked around a little before going back up. It was mildly exciting and offered a great view of the city.

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Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh

Four museums are included in the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh: Carnegie Museum of Art, Carnegie Science Center, the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, and the Andy Warhol Museum (he was not a Carnegie). We went as a family to the Art and Natural History Museums, which are both in one building and both recommended visits, though they are not free.3 But you can get your dinosaur bones fix while the Natural History Museum in Washington, DC’s dino exhibit is under construction.

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Andy Warhol Museum

On my solo trip, Nichole and I went to the Andy Warhol Museum (He’s also from there. So is Michael Keaton, but there’s no museum. Yet.). I didn’t know much about Warhol, but now I know everything about him. I enjoyed the museum, especially a featured exhibit on the social activist/printmaker Sister Corita Kent. The only time I wished we were on a family trip was when we visited a room filled with silver pillow-shaped balloons floating around, assisted by fans. A baby girl was hitting all the balloons and screaming, much to everyone’s delight. Get it, girl!

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The food we’ve had in Pittsburgh has been fine, but since our trips are both vacations and visits, about half of our meals there have been made by Nichole (who has zero Yelp reviews to link to). The food that I remember most is the breakfast buffet at a Holiday Inn Express that we stayed at once. To be able to have a full breakfast and sneak out a couple yogurts and pieces of fruit for the road was better than a great breakfast platter at a restaurant. Also, I’m really into the prepared omelets offered at HIE with the cheese-like substance sandwiched between the eggish material. And the biscuits at the buffet aren’t bad. #pittsburghdine.

We went to Primanti Brothers, which I don’t remember being that great, but it’s nationally known and was recommended to us. We also had a good pierogi lunch on the Strip (despite above sickness). There’s a large Polish community in Pittsburgh, which explains the pierogi souvenirs that abound.

Nichole and I went to Klavon’s for ice cream. It’s a pharmacy-turned-ice cream parlor that’s worth finding. You can build your own sundae, or choose from many options. I had a peanut butter sundae with M&Ms and have been thinking about if it makes sense to drive up there again next weekend, eat a sundae, and drive back home. I think it does?

Also, I purchased milk from a local dairy farm called Turner’s for my daughter on one of our visits, and it was the most delicious milk I’ve ever had.

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We’ve been to Lawrenceville to do some shopping (vintage clothes, music stores, coffee shops), and I really like a store called Wild Card (gifts, stationary) where I got these pierogi-themed clothes for my part-Ukrainian offspring.

Pre-child, I visited Jerry’s Records, a giant warehouse of vinyl where I bought a few records (“when I used to actively shop for music” and “motherhood” are the two phases of my adult life).

The Strip also has interesting food and tchotchke shopping.

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Kid stuff

Pittsburgh is Kidsburgh is one of the billboard ads you see on the drive there, along with an anti-Robert Redford billboard.4 Children would be into the museums (if they are into museums) and most things mentioned above. There are parks and river walks. We drove by lots of playgrounds, too. There is a zoo and a children’s museum. There is also a children’s hospital which is inconveniently located next to a giant cemetery. They look like they’re connected in a most unfortunate way, but Nichole assures me it is not a special children’s cemetery. Hopefully you’ll never need the hospital.

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I’m sure we’ll be up there again for another visit in the next couple of years (and maybe we’d go even if we didn’t have anyone to visit). It doesn’t cost any more than any other place we’ve traveled to, you can get there without driving on the Capital Beltway, and there is a lot to see and do. Plus you can learn what a wedgie is. Hint: you can eat it.

  1. My first and, prior to this trip, only time away from my husband and daughter was also with Nichole. During one of the walks we took in the park where we were staying, we ran into several freshly maimed deer carcasses. This year’s trip, while walking in a park in Pittsburgh, she remarked how she never sees deer there, and just then we passed a tree with a lone deer leg hanging from a branch. This is our thing now, apparently. 
  2. My solo drive there took eight hours, and I printed a Google Maps route that only a militia would use if trying to enter Pennsylvania for a surprise attack. It was supposed to take less than six hours, but I missed four turns in a row and then got on the wrong way of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, which didn’t have an exit for 35 miles. It was a strange drive without all the user errors I added. By the time I got to my friend’s neighborhood, I couldn’t find the street I was supposed to take, and I was driving in circles. I knew she was a five-minute walk away, and when I tried to call, my phone would only let me Facetime her, which she can’t do on her phone. I had to pull over and scream loudly before I was able to find her street. Trips alone are supposed to be good for self-esteem building, not for confirming why my husband still holds the printed directions even when he’s driving. 
  3. Let’s all take a minute to appreciate how the VMFA has free general admission. The Smithsonian museums, too. 
  4. I don’t care if Pennsylvania is coal country, and Redford is for clean energy. He is our living link to Paul Newman. This billboard should be removed immediately and we should place Redford in a bubble where he can safely tell stories about the pranks he and Newman used to play on each other. 
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Kelly Gerow

Kelly Gerow lives and writes in Richmond. She probably does other stuff in Richmond, too.

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