Memorial Day in Pittsburgh, PA
If you’re ever looking for an awesome weekend getaway, might I suggest Pittsburgh and the surrounding area? I’m not gonna lie – I had kind of expected Pittsburgh to be a bit of a dive as a result of its blighted economy, but it’s actually a really neat city set in the most gorgeous part of western Pennsylvania. The city is nestled in beautiful green hills, and the downtown area is located in what’s known as the Golden Triangle - the area where three separate rivers (the Allegheny, the Monongahela, and the Ohio) all converge. Intricate steel bridges span the rivers to connect the city, making it a perfect combination of city and nature. Additionally, the people are friendly and nice, the food is delicious and terribly unhealthy, and there are hidden gems all over the place that are waiting to be explored.
Here’s the short itinerary for our weekend in Pittsburgh:
- Drove to Boswell, PA
- Stayed in the cutest Airbnb in Boswell
- Ran the Path of the Flood race in Johnstown, PA
- Flight 93 Memorial
- Drove to Pittsburgh
- Pirates baseball game at PNC Park
- Pamela’s Diner for brunch
- Cathedral of Learning at University of Pittsburgh
- Home plate of Forbes Field at University of Pittsburg
- Lunch at Primanti Bros.
- City of Asylum
- Duquesne Incline
- Breakfast at Bruegger’s Bagels
- Lunch and afternoon in Ohiopyle, PA
- Drove home
Here are the details, listed in chronological order:
Johnstown and the Path of the Flood Race
Johnstown is a small town in western Pennsylvania, about an hour and a half east of Pittsburgh. In 1889, a dam broke loose, flooding the entire town and killing 2209 people in the process. A few years ago, the Johnstown Historical Society started the Path of the Flood race – a half marathon, 12K or 5K that, as the name implies, follows the path of the flood down to its end point in the town.
I ran the 12K; the others ran the half marathon. You would think that the entire race would be downhill, since it follows the path of a flood, but it’s actually mostly flat with a brief uphill and some downhill. The 12K starts out on the rail trail and finished on the road, so it’s about 50/50 trail/pavement running. Near mile 9 (for the half, so about mile 3 for the 12K) you enter a tunnel, which is completely dark except for the dim lanterns lining the tunnel like exit lights on an airplane, and the light at the end of the tunnel. It’s kind of trippy running in near complete blackness when you can’t tell what or who is in front of you. It was also lightly raining throughout most of the race, which actually felt quite nice. Note – if you ever run a race in the rain, wear a baseball hat! It keeps the rain from mixing with the sweat on your face and running into your eyes. Also check out these helpful hints for running in the rain.
Boswell and the Flight 93 Memorial
We chose to stay in Boswell because it was close to the race and the Airbnb we found was just adorable. It was located on a cute little farm in rural PA, which meant we got to partake in fresh herbs, raw milk, homemade bread, and farm fresh eggs. We also had a fun conversation with our hosts who told us all about their efforts to grow and cultivate their own food in response to the food allergies of their autistic son. But other than the Airbnb, Boswell is a small town and there’s not much to do, except visit the 9/11 Flight 93 Memorial.
Visiting the Flight 93 Memorial was – surprisingly – a very emotional experience for me. I have been to the 9/11 memorials in New York and in DC, but the Flight 93 Memorial really hit home. As most of us know, Flight 93 was one of the hijacked planes on September 11, 2001. It took off from Boston and was hijacked over PA, where it altered course heading back towards DC, presumably to crash into either the White House or the Capitol building. The passengers on board, knowing about the other attacks and realizing what was happening, decided to overtake the hijackers and crashed the plane in a field in rural PA, killing all on board. The National Park Service has since turned the site into a memorial dedicated to the very brave men and women who gave their lives to save others. As a result, this Memorial feels very personal, even more so than the others, although I can’t explain why. Maybe because there is absolutely nothing in this area but the memorial, and there’s something powerful about knowing that these people collectively made the decision to crash this plane, knowing that it would end their lives. It makes you ask yourself, “Would I be so brave if faced with the same decision?” Speaking for myself, I hope I would be, but I don’t know.
The memorial has a visitor’s center which overlooks the site where the plane actually crashed. You can also walk out to the site on a designated path, where they have a boulder marking the crash site, as well as stone panels with the names of each of the crew members and passengers on board. The visitor’s center tells the details of the 9/11 attacks in general, as well as the details surrounding the investigation into the PA crash. It also includes an area where you can listen to some of the phone calls made by the passengers prior to their taking over the plane. I couldn’t listen to those calls. Just being there and realizing the magnitude of the decision they made, and then thinking about what they would have said to loved ones when they knew there was no going home – emotionally I wasn’t strong enough to absorb that.
Like I said earlier, my emotional response to the memorial surprised me. I have been in several emotionally taxing museums or memorials and never had a reaction quite that strong. I think that the setting of it – a random field in the middle of Nowhere, PA, somehow made it that much more real to me, and my soul was overwhelmed at the sorrow and grief of the events that occurred that day and the unnecessary loss of innocent lives. If you are ever in the Pittsburgh area, I strongly recommend taking the detour to stop here.
Like I said earlier, I loved Pittsburgh. It’s got that blend of small town/big city charm to it, much like my hometown of Salt Lake City, which might be why I liked it. We stayed in another Airbnb a little outside the city, which wasn’t a problem because we had a car, but might be a little more challenging without one. But it was really comfortable and had plenty of space and I would definitely stay there again.
We were only in Pittsburgh for about a day and a half, but here’s what we fit into our time there:
On Saturday night we went to PNC Park to watch the Pittsburgh Pirates play the New York Mets. PNC Park is really awesome. It’s right on the river and right next to Heinz Field, home of the Steelers. If you go to a game, be sure to get tickets along the third base line, because then you get an awesome view of the river and the city, in addition to a good view of the game. We parked in one of the garages near the stadium. Garage parking is about $15, which isn’t bad if you’re from DC, and we didn’t have a lot of time to look for cheaper parking, even though it does exist. Some people park across the river and then walk across the Clemente bridge, named for famed Pirates player Roberto Clemente, one of the greatest players of his time and a pioneer against racial justice and discrimination, who went on to win over the hearts and souls of Pittsburgh citizens, even to this day. You can also visit the Clemente museum nearby, if you have the time.
If I had known that this building existed when I was deciding where to go to school, I might have chosen the University of Pittsburgh just so I could attend classes in this building. The cathedral looks like someone took a Gothic cathedral and stretched it into a skyscraper. Except it’s not a cathedral – it’s a building full of classrooms and other administrative offices. The interior lobby is a bit of a head trip when you first walk in, because it really does look like you’ve stepped into a church, but then you look around and see students studying, eating, and hanging out, just like in any other campus building.
The reason we went to the cathedral was to visit the Nationality Rooms, a collection of 30 rooms that are each designed to represent a particular culture or nationality. The general public can tour the rooms, but note that hours are limited because they do actually use these rooms as classrooms during the academic year. Each room is filled with native motifs, decorations, and designs carefully crafted by native artisans and made with native materials. The cultures selected represent the various ethnic cultures in Allegheny County and are funded by those respective groups.
The rooms are split between the third and first floor of the building. Note – the rooms on the third floor are free, but the rooms on the first floor require a $4 per person admission fee, which gets you a key to unlock the doors as well as an audio guide for each room. (Not gonna lie – the key was tapping into my Secret Garden fantasies as a child.) The hours for the first floor are shorter than for the third floor, and availability is limited depending on how many people are there, so check the website for hours and details before going.
Near the Cathedral is the original home plate for Forbes Field, the original home of the Pirates. Forbes Field is where some of the great ballplayers played, including Babe Ruth, Roberto Clemente, Willie Mays, and the like. The plate is located inside U Pitt’s Posvar Hall, under a glass plate in the lobby of the building. If you’re a baseball nut, it’s cool to check out.
After lunch we headed off to Pittsburgh’s Northside neighborhood to see the City of Asylum, an area of town that provides sanctuary to endangered or refugee literary writers and artists. The “City” is basically four houses located near Pittsburgh’s Mattress Factory museum on Sampsonia Way. Note – this street is more like an alley than a street, so park somewhere near the Mattress Factory and then use your GPS to walk to Sampsonia Way. Once you’re on the street, it won’t be hard to spot the houses. Originally purchased by Henry Reese and Diane Samuels, each house has become a house publication, starting with House Poem by Chinese poet Huang Xiang and later expanding to Jazz House, Winged House, and Pittsburgh-Burma House. It’s a neat way to get connected to a part of the city, so if you have time stop by and check it out! You can’t enter the houses, so it only takes about an hour tops and is an excellent stop to pair with a tour of the Mattress Factory museum.
Our final stop in Pittsburgh was the Duquesne Incline, a passenger incline opened in 1877 as a way to transport people back and forth between Mount Washington and downtown Pittsburgh. The view of the city from the top is amazing, particularly if you go right before sunset (of course, this is when everyone else goes too). The fare is $5 round trip or $2.50 one way and as of right now they only take cash (there is an ATM inside in case you forget). There are restaurants and other neighborhoods at the top, or you can just hang out, enjoy the view, and head back down, which is ultimately what we did. Definitely a fun way to view the city.
We visited two staples in Pittsburgh fare while we were there – Pamela’s Diner and Primanti Bros. Pamela’s is a super cute diner (cash only!) with several locations in Pittsburgh. They are famous for their brunch, and let me tell you the hype is real. I had heard they boasted the best breakfast in Pittsburgh, so I had pretty high hopes, but it certainly met its expectations. Pamela’s is famous for their crepe-style hotcakes and their Lyonnaise potatoes (basically hash browns cooked in a ton of butter). The hotcakes are light and fluffy pancakes folded like a crepe and filled with a variety of delectable treats. My roommate and I split the Strawberry Hotcakes and the Western omelet (for protein and to try to Lyonnaise potatoes). One of the things that makes Pamela’s so good is that the food is light, which means you don’t walk away feeling like you gained 12 pounds before the day has even begun. I’m not sure how they do it, especially with the amount of butter they use, but I was in heaven.
Primanti Bros., on the other hand, is not light. A local Pittsburgh chain, they have decided that side dishes are a waste of space, so they just combine everything into one very large sandwich. This means that every sandwich comes with fries and coleslaw on top – no exceptions. But they use local bread and other ingredients and boy fries never tasted so good. If you ask a local where you should eat, this will always be one of their first picks.
After the Duquesne Incline, we were hungry and looking for something to eat, so we ended up at a cute little place called Waffallonia. It’s basically a Belgian waffle station where they serve Liege waffles piled with your choice of toppings, including ice cream, fresh fruit, and homemade whipped cream. Naturally we all paid the $6 to get our choice of unlimited toppings, but whether or not you feel so inclined is up to you.
Fallingwater and Ohiopyle
On Monday (Memorial Day), we woke up, ate at Bruegger’s Bagels (a fast-casual chain, like Einstein Bros.), and headed out to see Fallingwater, Frank Lloyd Wright’s most famous home. Located about an hour and a half from Pittsburgh, Fallingwater is also located in the middle of Nowhere, PA. It was the summer home of the Kauffman family (the family who owned what later became Macy’s department store). The house is built on top of a waterfall and is famous because it was the first (or among the first) to use the organic style of architecture – to make the house and nature blend as much as possible. That style has become incorporated into a lot of modern architecture, but at the time it was a really new idea that monumentally changed the architecture landscape.
Fallingwater can get busy, so I recommend buying your tickets in advance. It’s about $30 per person to tour the house. Photos are not allowed inside the house, but after the tour you can walk around and take photos to your heart’s content, including the famous view looking up at the house and falls.
Fallingwater is a National Historic Landmark and was nominated for the eighth Wonder of the World. It is very cool to see how Frank Lloyd Wright designed the house, but it is definitely a piece of art, not necessarily a house I would be particularly interested in living in. The house was donated to the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy by Kauffman, Jr., who dictated that it must be kept in the same condition as it was when they lived in it, which means it still very much feels and looks like a home. You cannot pass this up if you’re in the area.
On our way back from Fallingwater, we happened upon a little town in western PA called Ohiopyle (Ohio-pile). The main road into town runs right by the Youghiogheny (YAW-ki-gee-nee) River and several small store fronts. Since it was Memorial Day, everyone was outside at the park by the river and having lunch at the local restaurants. The town looked so cute that we had to stop and check it out. We ended up eating pizza and salad at Paddler’s Pizza, and then grabbing a waffle ice cream cone at Falls Market before taking a walk across the bridge and scoping for snakes sunbathing on the rocks (this last part was accidental). Every so often, it’s nice to escape to the city and visit Small Town, USA, particularly on a holiday like Memorial Day. We didn’t have the time, but Ohiopyle State Park also looks like a great place for some outdoor summer recreation, like rafting, hiking, biking, and ziplining. If you’re driving through the area, particularly in the summer, take a quick break in Ohiopyle. You won’t be disappointed.
So that’s it! I know there are a bunch of other things we didn’t have time to see, so I’d love to hear your recommendations of things to do in Pittsburgh and the surrounding areas in the comments below!