Steel City For A Steal

A revitalized Pittsburgh beckons to tourists and natives alike

$500 Getaway

August 12, 2007|By Susan Reimer | Susan Reimer,Sun Reporter

CLARIFICATION

An article in Sunday's Travel section gave the impression that Chiodo's Tavern in Pittsburgh was open for business. The bar closed in 2005.

THE SUN REGRETS THE ERROR

THOMAS WOLFE SAID YOU CAN'T GO HOME AGAIN, but if somebody offers you $500 to try, it can be worth the trip.

"Five-hundred bucks?" an old Pittsburgh friend asked. "They are giving you 500 bucks to do Pittsburgh? You could buy the whole town for two grand."

Not anymore, I said.

My hometown, once a gritty, grimy, blue-collar steel town, is now the darling of the travel writers. They have all discovered Pittsburgh's glittering reinvention as a banking and medical hub, with the shiny new skyscrapers to prove it.

Truth be told, I have been going home every year since I left Pittsburgh for Baltimore almost 30 years ago. But, like many of the natives, I had never taken the time to see the sights.

Even when I lived there, the quirky tourist must-sees of Pittsburgh, like the Duquesne Incline, might be something you only did to entertain out-of-town visitors.

This time, instead of bouncing between the homes of my sisters and my husband's family and sleeping in their guest rooms, I did Pittsburgh like a tourist.

And I wondered why I ever left.

Southwest Airlines is offering $39 one-way airfare to Pittsburgh from BWI Marshall Airport, and that makes the choice to drive the 250 miles each way seem a poor one, with gasoline prices being what they are.

And Pittsburgh's mass-transit system is so thoroughgoing, and the downtown so compact, that it is easy to do without a car.

But I wanted a chance to test my memory -- and my memories -- of the neighborhoods I used to haunt as a young professional -- Oakland, Shadyside, Southside and the North Shore, as it is now known -- so I drove. (We used to call it "Norside," Pittsburgh-ese for North Side.)

And there is nothing quite like the view of the Golden Triangle -- the skyscrapers that cluster at the junction of the Ohio, Allegheny and Monongahela rivers -- when you emerge from the Fort Pitt Tunnel. It is breathtaking no matter how many times you have seen it.

I made the trip on a Friday afternoon, timing the five-hour drive so that I could meet my three sisters for dinner at Mallorca, a Spanish restaurant on East Carson Street on the South Side, itself a revelation.

Carson Street was an essential part of the route I traveled for years, from my relatives in the northern suburbs to my relatives in the south of the city.

But a network of overpasses, bypasses and interstate highways, which were being argued over when I was in elementary school, has been complete long enough for me to miss the stunning transformation of the south side of the Monongahela River, where once the homes -- and bars -- of the mill workers lined Carson Street and the neighborhood around it.

Many of those limestone rowhouses are still there, along with bars like the legendary shot-and-a-beer Chiodo's, but they are now crowded by sleek or sophisticated shops, restaurants and night spots.

The Mon, as we locals call it, was once stinking with toxins and dead fish. Coal barges still traffic there, but now sculls and kayaks do, too. And both banks of the river, where once belching mills blotted the sun, are now lined with landscaped parks, condos, shopping centers, medical pavilions and the state-of-the-art practice facility of the beloved Steelers football team.

The South Side, the opening act in my weekend home, is a metaphor for all of Pittsburgh, I think.

My three sisters and I spent $120 on an alfresco dinner at Mallorca, which included a couple of pitchers of sangria, some hefty appetizers and a couple of shared desserts.

Though it was my birthday, I picked up the tab and my sisters left a generous tip for the delightful Spanish-speaking waiter who let us linger on the restaurant's patio long past our due, enjoying the beautiful evening and sidewalk traffic.

Things were just picking up on the South Side when my sisters and I adjourned, they to their homes and me to the Renaissance Hotel, a magnificently restored architectural landmark in the heart of Pittsburgh's cultural district, right on the edge of the Allegheny River.

From my bedroom window, I could see into the stands through the open end of PNC Park, the new stadium for the Pittsburgh Pirates that has received rave reviews since it opened in 2001.

The Renaissance is a five-star Marriott hotel, and it deserves every star. A room might go for $300 a night, but I bid $75 on priceline.com and got my wish. The bill was $180 for two nights, not counting what I spent tasting wines at its intimate wine bar in the lobby.

In any case, with a fancy dinner and fancy hotel, I'd have to watch my pennies to do the rest of Pittsburgh and keep it less than $500.

But when my Saturday morning Starbucks cost me 20 cents less than it costs in Baltimore, I relaxed. I knew my hometown wouldn't turn my pockets inside out.

A stop in the Strip

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