Big City Tales

The Pride of Pittsburgh

January 11, 2018
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Even with one of its nicknames being “Steel City,” Pittsburgh is a city that has long intrigued me. True, some historical references conjure up images of thick black plumes of smoke hovering over dreary factory buildings in a landscape devoid of green spaces. But that was then and this is now. The industrial town of old has definitely made way for a new cosmopolitan vibe that is attracting curious visitors like me in droves. Indeed, in recent years the city has received notable accolades for its livability, culture, foodie scene and economic prosperity.

Yes, “The ‘Burgh” or “City of Bridges” as the city is also referred to today is chock-full of amazing architecture, museums, parks, educational institutions, restaurants, and sports & entertainment options on par with New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago and other major US cities. Whichever nickname you prefer, each truly represents the best of Pittsburgh’s past and present.

Here is a sampling of the Pride of Pittsburgh:

A “Top 10” City View

As the locals have long been aware, Pittsburgh has a lot of attractions to be proud of. The view of downtown from the Mt. Washington district at the top of the Duquesne Incline (pictured below) is one of the city’s shining gems. Indeed, this vantage point ranks in Fodor’s Travel “10 Most Incredible Views of America’s Cities” and shows off many of the city’s bridges, skyscrapers and the fountain at Point State Park, a national historic landmark.
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When dusk makes way to mid-evening and late night, the city lights begin to twinkle and reflect off of the river waters making for a glorious sight that photographers of all levels clamor to capture. Even my humble 35mm point and shoot digital camera produced a decent shot. Having enjoyed a lovely panoramic nighttime view of downtown, I was looking forward to getting a closer look in the daylight of Pittsburgh’s iconic buildings.

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Architecture

It may not be the tallest building in Pittsburgh, but PPG Place still towers above most of the city’s skyline and its series of buildings stretch over three city blocks. The complex certainly caught my eye and is noteworthy for its matching glass design consisting of six buildings, 231 spires, and 19,750 pieces of glass. At ground level, a large plaza paved in a mosaic of red, grey and black granite provides a gathering place for various seasonal activities such as an outdoor skating rink during the winter months and a fountain feature from spring until fall. For those who prefer an indoor refuge, the Wintergarden is a glass-enclosed garden oasis located in the main tower that is open year-round.

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PPG Place is also located next to the Market Square district where restaurants, cafes and retailers cater to tourists, as well as the regular Monday to Friday downtown business crowd. One of the popular casual dining haunts in Market Square is Primanti Brothers, known for their colossal “Almost Famous” sandwiches of grilled meat, an Italian dressing-based coleslaw, tomato slices, and french fries piled high between two pieces of thick Italian bread. Believe me, you won’t need to eat for the rest of the day, and you’ll probably want to head to one of the city’s nearby world-class museums to walk off some calories!

Museums

From history to art, to soldiers and sailors, or the celebration of the bicycle, Pittsburgh’s wide variety of museum options offers something for everyone’s taste and interests. 

Heinz History Center

Located in the Strip District, which is a one-half square mile shopping area northeast of downtown, the Heinz History Center is Pennsylvania’s largest history museum and is an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution. The center showcases Pittsburgh’s past and highlights its tradition of innovation, notably that Pittsburgh is known as a city of “firsts” such as the first Big Mac, the first retractable roof, the first drive-in gas station, the first ferris wheel, etc. As depicted in its many permanent and rotating exhibitions, the city is the headquarters of the Heinz food empire, is where famed explorers Lewis & Clark launched their epic trek from Pittsburgh to the Pacific from, and is where the beloved children’s show, “Mister Rogers Neighborhood” was filmed at the local public broadcasting station. A unique feature of touring the museum is that you can start in the stairwell and view highlights of the city’s 250-year history on the walls and steps as you wind your way to the top floor and then work your way down. I highly recommend this approach before taking in the full exhibits; the incline is not too steep and the museum is only six floors so you don’t have to be in tip-top shape.

Andy Warhol Museum

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Before he took New York City and the entire world by storm with his abstract art (most notably Campbell’s soup cans and images of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis), Andy Warhol was a fresh-faced kid from Pittsburgh. Located in the city’s North Shore district, the Andy Warhol Museum holds the largest collection of Warhol’s artworks and archival materials, and is the largest single artist museum in North America.

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I found it interesting to see Warhol’s development as an artist before and after his fixation with Campbell’s soup cans, and late in his career when he started using computer generated design and color techniques. It also surprised me to learn that he was a pack rat and amassed quite a collection of knickknacks.

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Carnegie Museum of Art and Natural History Museum 

Founded in 1895 by renowned businessman Andrew Carnegie, the Carnegie Museum of Art is considered to be the first museum of modern art in the United States. With paintings ranging from Monet to Whistler, the museum’s impressive collection also features one of the largest collection of plaster casts of architectural masterpieces in the world that are housed in the massive Hall of Architecture wing. The statues and building facades may be plaster, but they certainly looked authentic which speaks to the high quality of the replication process. The Porch of the Maidens installation captured my attention along with an elaborate burial shrine.

The Natural History Museum is noted for having one of the finest collections of dinosaur skeletons in the world, but has many other exhibits covering subject matter such as minerals and gems, Ancient Egypt, life in the Arctic, and geology. The museum’s high vaulted ceilings are the perfect construction to show off the towering heights of long extinct species.

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Educational Institutions

Situated in the heart of the University of Pittsburgh campus, the Cathedral of Learning stands 535 feet tall and contains 42 floors.

Aside from its magnificent Late Gothic Revival exterior, the interior features the infamous Nationality Rooms that are located on the first and third floors. The rooms are representative of various cultural and ethnic groups that have settled in the Pittsburgh area. When not in use, the public is free to explore the rooms; there are also great city views from the windows on the 35th and 36th floors.

Sports & Entertainment

Pittsburgh has a stellar record of winning sports franchises and an impressive array of venues to show off their talents in. PPG Paints Arena is the home of the 5-time Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins of the National Hockey League; Heinz Field is where the 6-time Super Bowl Champion Pittsburgh Steelers of the National Football League play; and PNC Park is where the 5-time World Series Champion Pittsburgh Pirates of Major League Baseball hear the cry “Batter Up!” Even if ‘black and gold’ aren’t your colours, there’s plenty to cheer about and admire in this amazing “City of Champions!”

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Sizzlin’ San Antonio

December 3, 2012
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This statue of San Antonio stands outside of the Cathedral of San Fernando in the Main Plaza area.

San Antonio is a feast for the SENSES!

Scenic, Spanish-infused, and sprawling; yet simple, sombre, and sentimental – all good descriptors of this southern locale. The city has much to offer, appealing to history buffs, arts enthusiasts, and sports fans alike.

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The Alamo is small in stature, but mighty in its memories of the famed 13-day Battle of the Alamo, a loss that would eventually lead to Texas independence being established at San Jacinto in 1836.

The Alamo, one of the city’s (and state’s) most popular tourist attractions, is located in the heart of downtown in Alamo Plaza. Although small in size, the Alamo is large in its symbolism as the site where the fight for Texas independence was fueled. After suffering a devastating loss to Mexican forces, “Remember the Alamo!” became the famous battle cry of General Sam Houston as he led his troops to a follow-up victory at San Jacinto, ultimately paving the way for the creation of the Republic of Texas.

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The cenotaph in Alamo Plaza pays tribute to the fallen heroes who lost their lives defending their fortress at the famous Battle of the Alamo.

Not far from Alamo Plaza is the Cathedral of San Fernando, the oldest sanctuary of its type in America. Founded in 1731, for nearly three centuries the parish has served the spiritual and physical needs of San Antonians. It is also the mother church of the Archdiocese of San Antonio, is the seat of its archbishop, and houses the remains of some of the defenders of the Alamo.

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The Cathedral of San Fernando was completed in 1873 and is an interpretation of Gothic architectural style.

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The Cathedral of San Fernando is the final resting place of the remains of Davy Crockett and some of the other brave defenders of the Alamo.

Other Spanish-inspired buildings in and around downtown include the Governor’s Palace, El Mercado at Market Square, the Omni La Mansion Hotel, and La Villita, a quaint shopping/dining area.

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El Mercado at Market Square features festive restaurants and shops, and is the largest Mexican marketplace outside of the country of Mexico.

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An inner courtyard area at La Villita with the Tower Life building in the background.

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A colourful mosaic pattern at one of the entrance ways into the River Walk, near the Omni La Mansion Hotel.

A trip to San Antonio would not be complete without fully exploring the famous River Walk, a meandering network of walkways located along the banks of the San Antonio River in the city’s core. At one level below street traffic, River Walk pedestrians have no worries about being delayed by cars, and can leisurely stroll about enjoying many a unique shopping, dining, or entertainment experience. While it is visually appealing year-round, during the Christmas/New Year’s season the River Walk transforms into a stunning festival of lights. With trees, hotels and office buildings all decked out, a further level of charm is added to this very popular attraction.

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The County Line restaurant along the River Walk served up some good old-fashioned Texas-style BBQ, complete with all the yummy fixin’s!

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This stretch of colourful umbrellas along the River Walk have been featured in many ad campaigns to draw tourists to San Antonio. Guess what…it works!

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The Hilton Palacio del Rio features a large Christmas tree in lights above its main entrance.

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San Antonio`s famous `flat`building is located across the street from the Omni La Mansion Hotel.

For a city of over 1.3 million people, San Antonio’s downtown core is remarkably uncongested and seems to be dedicated to primarily tourist traffic. A quick drive out to the suburbs confirmed that this is where life in San Antonio happens for its residents. Be prepared for wall-to-wall cars on bustling freeways, complete with elaborate overpasses, and extensive frontage roads to get on and off the interstates running through the city. While it all appeared very confusing at first, getting around San Antonio was basically quite easy – another good reason to one day go back and explore more outside the downtown core.

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The iconic Torch of Friendship statue in downtown San Antonio with the Tower of the Americas looming in the background.

Speaking of outside the core, this is where the AT&T Center is located, home of the San Antonio Spurs basketball team. As San Antonio does not have a professional football team to cheer for, the number one team to support is the Spurs, who play in the National Basketball Association (NBA).

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Time for tip-off…let the game begin!

Now, I’ve attended a few NBA games in the past — including seeing the Lakers at the Staples Center in Los Angeles — but I must say that this was the loudest, most raucous, most in-to-it crowd of basketball fans that I have ever witnessed firsthand. And it wasn’t even a playoff game!  The razzing the referees received had me fearful for their post-game safety, particularly if the Spurs were to suffer a loss (and they were looking to be headed in that direction).

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The San Antonio Spurs have a great Fan Zone area within the AT&T Center.

Despite the boisterous fans, and a late scoring rally by the Spurs to close the points gap, the good guys came up just short of a win. Regardless, it was a game that I won’t soon forget!

Nor will I forget the city of San Antonio…

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The Tower of the Americas stands over 700 feet high, offering a panoramic view of San Antonio`s suburbs.

Two days in this southern city was all too short a stay, but Austin was our destination the next day and not even heavy traffic could keep us away!

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Night shot of the Tower Life building as seen from La Villita.

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Night shot of the Torch of Friendship statue with the Tower of the Americas lit up in the background.