Like most kids of the 1980s, I had an obsession for all things American. Pop-Tarts, OshKosh, Sweet Valley High, MTV... I was fascinated by it all. When I eventually started travelling in the US (kicking off with a J-1 summer visa as a student), I had a curious over-familiarity with so much of what I came across, and still do. It’s as if I’m in a constant deja vu.
Arriving in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania was no different. It's not a city I thought I knew much about, yet I nodded along as our guide pointed out locations familiar to me from Flashdance, Silence of The Lambs and The Dark Knight Rises. I recognised it as the city backdrop to The Perks of Being a Wallflower and This Is Us. Pittsburgh, it turns out, is a popular choice for filming when you need a city setting without the big-city price tag.
And that translates to tourism too. Pittsburgh has that smart, cool American city vibe with lots of great architecture, cute neighbourhoods and good food, without the eye-watering cost of a holiday to the likes of New York or San Francisco.
In a city that has fed industrial workers for so long, large portions are a source of pride, especially when it comes to the famous Pittsburgh sandwich
Food is always the best introduction to a new city for me, and thankfully the gang I was with felt the same. Breakfast on our first morning was at Pamela’s, which felt like walking into a real-life Pinterest board for a “1980s diner” – pastel colours, retro jukebox, walls covered in black-and-white photos, padded seats.
The huge menu offered all the diner classics, but our guide steered us towards their famous crepe-hotcakes, which Barack Obama ordered when he visited. Wide, crepe-style pancakes arrived piled high, with sides of hash and filter coffee served in those sturdy curve-sided diner mugs. We went out into The City of Steel well fed.
Pittsburgh has a long history of steelmaking, attested to by the impressive span of its many steel bridges and skyscrapers. In a city that has fed industrial workers for so long, large portions are a source of pride, especially when it comes to the famous Pittsburgh sandwich. French fries and coleslaw are piled inside the bread along with the fillings, so steel pit workers could have their whole meal at once, sides and all. Primanti Brothers is the place to try it; there are branches all over town.
The Heinz History Centre, our first museum stop, gives a fascinating insight not only into the story of Heinz tomato sauce, which was developed here, but also other Pittsburgh inventions including movie theatres, commercial radio, and even emojis – the first smiley emoticon was sent by computer scientist Scott Fahlman, a research professor at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Mellon University, in 1982. The first Big Mac was created in the Pittsburgh suburbs.
Not far from here is the Andy Warhol Museum, the largest museum in North America dedicated to a single artist, with an extensive permanent collection of art and archives from the Pittsburgh-born pop art icon. The stunning Carnegie Museum of Natural History holds around 22 million specimens, of which about 10,000 are on view at any given time. It's also home to the world's largest collection of Jurassic dinosaurs.
I'm blown away by the number of compelling museums across the city and I have only scratched the surface (I don't make it to the other "must see" for art lovers, the Mattress Museum). It's no accident the offering is so strong; Andrew Carnegie, a great American industrialist turned philanthropist, grew up here in Pittsburgh. When he had made his fortune he wanted to give back through education, hence the incredible museum legacy he left behind.
In a city with a booming tech industry, it's no surprise that a more contemporary food scene is emerging too
For an insight into how immigrants have shaped the various Pittsburgh neighbourhoods, we joined the Burgh Bits & Bites food tour of The Strip, a city centre area home to only two chain outlets, a fairly unique claim in any city these days. The walking tour brought us to a cluster of food spots dotted among discount shops selling sports gear.
We visited Parma Sausage, where four generations of an Italian family work, and a Syrian place called Labads, where we were served hummus and warned about the perils of buying bad tahini. There was a Polish stop-off for some pierogi, a Greek deli, local roasted coffee, some pillowy cinnamon bread, and Jimmy & Nino’s Italian joint for a hero sandwich, where Jimmy the owner chewed on a cigar and regaled us with old tales of The Strip, which he claims used to be “like “Wild West, all guns and all cash”.
In a city with a booming tech industry, it’s no surprise that a more contemporary food scene is emerging too. Superior Motors, Butcher and the Rye and Driftwood Oven are known for their focus on local and farm-to-fork cooking.
On our last night we visited PNC Park, home of the Pittsburgh Pirates, for some baseball, hot dogs and beer. The steel-built stadium itself is wonderful, considered one of the top baseball parks in the US. There wasn’t that much action on the field that night, but with a pretzel in one hand and a foam finger on the other, I was living my (1980s) American dream.
Ali Dunworth was a guest of British Airways and Visit Pittsburgh
British Airways fly to Pittsburgh via London Heathrow. Return fares from London start from €592.
Where to stay:
The Distrikt Hotel Pittsburgh has rooms from $189 (€161) distrikthotelpittsburgh.com
What to do:
Visitor attractions are listed at visitpittsburgh.com