Yeah, I know. “36 hours in…” is the NY Times format. But we really did have just 36 hours in Pittsburgh, so let’s just call it an homage, shall we?
This trip came about when we decided to spend my 35th birthday at a Steelers preseason game. We took off from Chicago on Friday after work and headed east, across Indiana and Ohio and into the hills of Pennsylvania, arriving late.
Saturday, we started early to beat the hungry masses to Pamela’s Diner, famous for their crepe-style hotcakes: crispy, buttery edges, soft in the middle, and filled with your choice of fruit and whipped cream.
The Strip isn’t really what it sounds like. Rather, it’s a congested strip along Penn Ave packed with old Pittsburgh character in the form of eclectic shopping, cafes, grocers, farm stands, and bootleg Steelers fan gear.
I bought a Terrible Towel for $8, after checking to make sure “Terrible” was spelled correctly. (Once I got to the stadium I found they sold way nicer ones for $10, but mine has… character.)
Highlights of the Strip were the Pennsylvania Macaroni Company, a true Italian grocer, a stop at Enrico’s for some biscotti, and Mon Aimee Chocolat, which had the largest variety of chocolate brands I’ve ever seen in once place.
We moved on to Lawrenceville, an “up-and-coming” area that’s undergone a “revival.” Now it’s a “hot” destination and a good place to invest in real estate. It’s always interesting to see a neighborhood in transition, with old dive bars and pizza joints next to craft beer shops and trendy restaurants. Having seen our share of hipster boutiques and restaurants, we found ourselves more interested in the hilly residential streets, as the home styles are different than anything we have in Chicago.
Next we headed into downtown and grabbed lunch at Winghart’s in Market Square. Winghart’s… looks like a dive bar, sounds like a dive bar (think: old Metallica blasting), tastes pretty great. We had their popular Shipwrecked Burger and the Pau’a (Hawaii’an) Pizza, and I would order them both again if we went back. If you want to avoid the loud music, try for a seat on the upstairs balcony overlooking the square.
We walked off our lunch by heading on foot to Pointe State Park, where you can observe the confluence of the three rivers (the Ohio, the Allegheny, and the Monongahela), the sports stadiums, Mt. Washington, and the cityscape.
We continued on foot to the Duquesne Incline, an old cable car that takes riders to the top of Mt. Washington, high above the city, where you get to look down on the sky scrapers. It’s a short, 0.75-mile walk to the Monongahela Incline, which we took back down. While waiting in line, we noticed that you can request a free transfer for the T, the city’s rapid transit train. So we gave our feet a rest and hopped on the T at Station Square and rode it back downtown.
After getting what we needed for the game, we headed on foot across another bridge, this time to Heinz Field, home of the Steelers. Fans lucky enough to have a boat (or a friend with a boat) can dock right along the river walk and tailgate. The great thing about preseason is you can get pretty good seats!
Sunday morning we headed to Squirrel Hill, a nice little neighborhood with a to-die-for little place called Waffallonia. Gooey inside, crispy outside, topped with a giant scoop of speculoos ice cream. Nom. If we had one here in Chicago, I’d eat there all the time until I needed a motorized chair to get around. That place has ruined me for waffles.
We drove though Oakland, where the universities and museums live, but it was move-in day for the students, so it was a little hectic.
We moved on instead to the Mexican War Streets, which was a highlight. The man who developed this real estate in the mid 1800s was a big proponent of the Mexican-American War, hence the name of the neighborhood. The streets are named after battles. It’s a little visited area, despite its proximity to the National Aviary, the zoo, and the Andy Warhol museum.
It was noon, now, and time to head home. On our way back to Chicago we stopped at Cuyahoga Valley National Park, an hour and a half from Pittsburgh, which has a very nice waterfall (Brandywine Falls) and some nice trails we didn’t have time for, like the Ledges Trail. But I’m glad we got to stop at the closest national park to Chicago.
You can research the heck out of a place, but once you get there, it still holds a bit of surprise and delight when you see it in real life. The delights for me in Pittsburgh were the dramatic hills and cliffs and the buildings tucked into every nook and cranny. The expansiveness of the rivers was another surprise; they were easily 5 times as wide as our little Chicago River and were a dominating feature of the city’s geography.
It was a short weekend, but we really crammed in a lot, and I’m so glad I got to visit!
Art for sale in the NuLu neighborhood.
Before venturing into Kentucky’s belly at Mammoth Cave National Park, we spent a day hoofing it (pun totally intended) around Louisville, the home of the Kentucky Derby. If you want to judge a city by the quality of its cat art, then I’m sure you can already tell that there’s more to Louisville than southern charm and bourbon. So here are five things you may not know about Louisville, a very worthy weekend destination.
- American Pickers’ Antique Archaeology (in Nashville), step aside. You’ve got nothing on Joe Ley Antiques, which lived in the East Market neighborhood long before it became the fun, foodie-oriented and arty NuLu. This place is freaking enormous. It should be featured on a TV show, if it hasn’t been already. It’s three stories—and a basement—packed with antiques and reclaimed pieces from some of the area’s old Victorian mansions (See #3.) If I lived in Louisville, I would set aside a couple hours each weekend to inspect one corner of Joe Ley. And in a few years time, I may have been able to cover the entire store.
- Colonel Sanders was a real guy, and he’s buried in Louisville.
- Old Louisville has the largest collection of Victorian homes in the country, with some blocks that are pedestrian-only courts still lit by gas lamps. It’s an area in transition, with some homes that look like this:And others that have been parsed out into low-cost rental units, with sports paraphernalia that double as drapes hanging in windows. These are a renovator’s dream. If you’ve got some spare cash and a good hammer, there are some serious investment deals to be had here.
- “Keep Louisville Weird” is a thing. Particularly along Bardstown Rd in the Highlands neighborhood, a multi-mile stretch of one-of-a-kind shops that seem more suited to Austin than to a city steeped in southern tradition.
- Being from Chicago, we’ve had our fair share of tasty burgers (I’m looking at you, Au Cheval.) But we found some serious competition in an unlikely place. In a very suburban, tree-lined strip mall on the outskirts of Louisville, you’ll find the reputed Mussel & Burger Bar. If you go, try the Breakfast Burger, with a thick piece of pork belly, a fried egg, maple syrup aioli, caramelized onions, and cheese. Can a burger alone make a weekend getaway worthwhile? It just might.
I’m straddled across a 3- or 4-foot wide canyon, 8 feet or so above the cave floor, and I’m stuck. My Siberian guardian angel, the exchange student who’s supposed to keep an eye out for the person behind her (me), is long gone, out of sight around a bend. The guides had told us to follow the footing of the person in front of us to navigate the canyon walk, so now I’m on my own for the next 20 feet or so, with a few others in the tour waiting patiently behind me while I hesitate. I have no choice but to plunge ahead and trust my experience and my footing.
This was just one example of the physical and mental challenges we faced during the Wild Cave Tour at Mammoth Caves National Park.
Mammoth Caves is in northwestern Kentucky, about an hour and a half south of Louisville. It’s the longest-known continuous cave system in the world, with 400 miles of connected passageways. Researchers believe there could be as many as 1,000 miles.
At most national parks, visitors are free to explore on their own. This is impossible at Mammoth Caves. To see them, you must take one of many guided tours. They range in length and difficulty, from easy strolls along wide paths, to the long and strenuous Wild Cave Tour, which is how I chose to spend a recent Sunday.
If you read the description of the Wild Cave Tour on the NPS website, you will likely react one of two ways—“I’ve GOT to do this!” or “I’d rather die.”
If small enclosed spaces, teetering on high ledges, or pushing your physical limits doesn’t appeal to you, maybe take a pass on this one.
Here’s how the tour goes: It’s 6 hours long and covers 5 miles about 300 feet underground. You are provided with helmets, headlamps, jumpsuits, gloves, and kneepads. You will wish you had elbow pads too.
Your guide will explain and then demonstrate moves you can’t believe you’ll have to emulate to get through passages that are smaller than you are around. And then, somehow, you do.
You crawl on hands and knees or army-style through long, narrow tunnels.
You wiggle and contort through tiny holes to emerge into enormous underground caverns that your headlamp can barely illuminate.
You hoist yourself through a hole in the ceiling well above your head that leads to another passageway. (If you’re short-legged, like I am, you’ll pretty much have to do the splits to achieve this move. I cannot do the splits. But I did them on Sunday.)
You pull yourself up by the arms onto ledges you can barely reach.
You hit your head. A lot.
You experience complete, utter darkness and the oppressive silence that can only be found deep within the Earth. No wind, no leaves rustling, no insects chirping. The silence is so thick it will feel heavy, like a weight on your chest.
You emerge dirty, sweaty, scratched, bruised, tired, and euphoric, in front more than 100 visitors on a different tour, who stare in admiration at your group. They’re a little jealous, and you like it that way.
The tour isn’t for everyone, but spots are in high demand. It runs only on the weekends and the group size is limited to 14, so book ahead if you want to go, especially in the summer months. The cave itself is between 55 and 60 degrees year round, though, so visit any time of year.
Near the tour’s end, the group inched, on our bellies, through one last 45-foot passage that was quite wide, but very, very low. “Decide now whether you want to look left, or look right, because you won’t be able to turn your head once you’re in there,” our guide advised.
The first 30 feet narrowed even more the further in we got, until a pinch point wedged my helmet between the rock above and the ground below. For the second time on the tour, I hesitated, wondering how I’d get out of this one.
Inching backwards, I freed my helmet and tried again. Defeating the pinch point, I swung my legs up and log rolled the last 15 feet, emerging dizzy, proud, and very, very happy.