Pop Art, Pierogis and Other Surprises in Pittsburgh

Here's what the city is all about: Taking the ordinary and turning it upside down and calling it art.

By Bill Wiatrak September 21, 2017

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In Pittsburgh, nothing like what you might think it seems at first glance.

The church looked awfully busy for a Wednesday afternoon. As I walked through the double doors, I immediately noticed there was something a little different about this house of worship. The pews had been replaced by tables and the altar was adorned with giant beer tanks. The stained glass windows and other church decor had been left intact when the building had been transformed into a pub. I soon discovered that The Church Brew Works is truly a one-of-a-kind “religious experience,” and like so many things in Pittsburgh is nothing like what you might think it seems at first glance. It’s an odd experience drinking libations in a former chapel, but the beers have clever biblical names and interesting recipes. The only surprise is the tip jar isn’t an offering plate.

Pittsburgh is full of surprises. Its crown jewel, The Andy Warhol Museum, is seven floors of “everything Andy” and his work sums up what the city is all about: Taking the ordinary and turning it upside down and calling it art. The Warhol Museum is a great place to start your visit. You’ll see the ubiquitous Campbell soup cans and Marilyn Monroe, but even more interesting is to see his progression from early drawings to his foray into film production and magazine publication. The museum is easily navigated. Take the elevator to the top floor and work your way down. The displays are in chronological order and cover a full spectrum of his work. Andy is also buried near Pittsburgh at St. John the Baptist Byzantine Catholic Cemetery. Why drive there, though, when his grave is being televised 24 hours a day on his museum’s website?

Randyland is at the northern part of the city. It is at the very least a collection of junk, painted bright colors and organized into random displays in artist Randy Gilson’s backyard. Let there be no mistake: Gilson has taken junk art to new levels. There’s no charge to visit Randyland and Gilson's infectious energy makes you want to round up cool weird stuff you have in your attic and toss it in the mix. His take on modern art has made his back yard one of the most popular spots to visit in Pittsburgh and you’ll undoubtedly see something interesting that you remember from your childhood.

Within a five-minute walk is The Mattress Factory. Another museum that begs to be renamed, TMF is a couple of buildings with modern art displays that defy description. One floor is pitch black dark and requires at least 15 minutes to get adjusted to the lack of light to see the display, which still might leave you just as confused as you were before you could see. A mirrored room full of mannequins with large red dots covering them is one of the most popular exhibits. Another space is full of barbed wire with passport pages skewered on the jagged points. The museum is vastly entertaining and makes great photo ops, but will undoubtedly make you feel like you need to take an art appreciation class to understand what the hell it all means.

Bicycle Heaven is a short drive away and similarly suffers from Pittsburgh “badnamia” disease. Bike heaven is a museum, maybe a store, maybe a repair shop… who knows? How it makes money is a mystery (like Randyland). What I can tell you is that you have never seen so many bicycles in one place. Every bicycle you can possibly imagine—tandems, unicycles, motorized, penny farthings. You’ll probably see a bicycle that looks exactly like the one you had when you were a kid, along with celebrity bikes. The Monkees four-person tandem is there, Pee Wee Herman’s bike is there. There are even bikes Russell Crowe used in movies, plus a dozen others I’ve never even heard of. The point is, even if you don’t like bicycles, you will still find bicycle heaven very interesting.

The Heinz History Center is a great way to spend a few hours with its eclectic collection of odds and ends that cover everything from the Heinz empire (in an interesting non-obtrusive way) to cool old vehicles like the first Jeep, a 1936 stainless steel automobile, a vintage trolley car, old films of Pittsburgh in the early 20th century, interactive exhibits and a lot of memorabilia specific to the area. One of the biggest highlights is a visit to Mister Roger’s Neighborhood. The show was filmed in Pittsburgh and his puppet castle theater is on display with its denizens and other props from the show. A realistic wax figure (or maybe it’s really him) is seated in the set and it’s tempting to slip under the rope and take a selfie. 

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Pierogis are a must-try in Pittsburgh. 

The city has a love affair with pierogis, the ubiquitous Polish dumplings that puts a smile on everyone’s face. Equally popular is Primanti Brothers. The original location is a 24-hour Pittsburgh institution with endless queues of patrons arriving to order the No. 2 on the menu—a hamburger (kind of) with french fries and coleslaw all slapped together between two slices of bread. You’ll no doubt want to order the No. 1 to wash it down, which is (yes, you guessed it) Iron City beer. Whether it’s the best thing you can eat in the city is the subject of endless debate, but like Cafe Du Monde in NOLA or Katz’s in New York, it’s a required experience.

Whiskey is a big part of Pennsylvania’s history (remember the Whiskey Rebellion? They’re still mad about it!) and the nearby Wigle distillery will be happy to show you the ins and outs of turning bags of grain into liquid gold. There are whiskey flights available as well as tastings of Wigle’s own absinthe brew and other experimental liquors they’ve concocted. A small distillery like Wigle can pretty much make anything they want without upsetting the nation’s economy or whiskey supply, so it’s a guaranteed good time and you might actually learn something. The nearby downtown Omni hotel has a Speakeasy  tucked between floors; it’s not exactly hidden or an exact replica of a prohibition drinkery, but it makes a nice detour and they serve Wigle if you can’t make the factory tour.

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Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens is a fantastic place to unwind after too much Warhol and whiskey.

Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens is a fantastic place (with another terribly boring name) to unwind after too much Warhol and whiskey. There’s seemingly endless greenhouse rooms full of plants from all kinds of climates and latitudes. Visit a rainforest, chase after butterflies, stop in a desert or photograph the carnivorous pitcher plant. There’s lots to see and some of the displays take advantage of world-renowned Chihuly’s glass by mixing in his colorful creations to compliment the already vibrant floral displays. 

How do you get around Pittsburgh? I was taking Uber everywhere until I noticed the rental bike stand outside my hotel, the ultra-nice and perfectly located Cambrian Suites. I downloaded the bike app, pushed a code on the keyboard of the bike that unlocked it, and rode my two-wheeler all over town. If it’s not cold or rainy and you’re in reasonable shape, you’ll love biking around the city. Nothing is very far, you’ll save a lot of money, and you can pretty much ditch your bike at any hub around town once you’re tired of peddling. Pittsburgh is a beautiful place to be in the moment, and seeing it on two wheels was an experience not to be missed. (Maybe Bicycle Heaven is onto something after all.)

Pittsburgh has come a long way in the last 30 years after reversing its reputation of steel factories and pollution, to one of the safest, greenest and most beautiful cities in the U.S. You can find out more information about other things to see from the Pittsburgh Tourism Board.

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