PITTSBURGH IS A HAPPENING PLACE. Buzzwords like sustainability, innovation and affordability have been standard operating procedure for years, which may come as a surprise to those who still conjure images of smokestacks and steel when they think of Pittsburgh. The walkable downtown is an accessible hub of culture and business, surrounded by three rivers and a patchwork of 90 charmingly distinct neighborhoods.
On a Burgh’ Bits & Bites food tour, expect to fill up on homemade treats and hometown history on a two-hour walk through your choice of one of five vibrant neighborhoods just outside of downtown: Lawrenceville, Bloomfield, Brookline, Dormont or the bustling Strip District, where produce stands, butcher shops, fish markets and specialty shops have lined the streets since the early 1900s. Sylvia McCoy and her passionate tour guides love to share the hidden treasures of each neighborhood, like Polish pierogi, hand-filled raviolis and Croatian delicacies-along with the legacies of the diverse immigrants who defined Pittsburgh. "Every neighborhood has these unique little places and pieces of history that people are always amazed by and excited to learn about," says McCoy.
Innovation abounds at the East End’s colorful Bakery Square development, where techie giants like Google operate in what was once a Nabisco manufacturing plant. At TechShop Pittsburgh, anyone can get their hands on more than $1 million worth of cutting-edge tools of the trade. The 16,000-square-foot, community-based workshop aims to democratize access to high-priced and ever-evolving programs and machinery, and is home to tinkerers and hot new startups alike. After an interactive tour, groups of all technical prowess can participate in a customized, hands-on activity, like constructing new office signage in the metal shop, building and programming a SumoBot from scratch for a fight to the death or enjoying a High-Tech Happy Hour. "Something special happens when people come together to create and build," says senior accounts manager Les Gies.
Andy Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame are still going strong in the pop art pioneer’s hometown. The North Shore is home to the seven-floor Andy Warhol Museum, where groups can schedule a private, customized tour with one of the museum’s artist educators-Andy’s nephew Donald Warhola is available by special request. "People always think it’s just soup cans and celebrity portraits," says Ryan Boyle, manager of special events. "They’re always surprised by what they find here." The museum also offers private event space after hours, including the platinum-painted lobby that recreates Warhol’s famed Silver Factory.
Bucco Fever is at an all-time high in Pittsburgh after the Pirate’s first post-season appearance in years in 2013, but even those who don’t identify as sports fans will enjoy an outing at the North Shore’s PNC Park, which ESPN named the best ballpark in America. Creative cuisine like tatchos (tater tots + nachos), a majestic view of the city skyline and a Pirates Pierogies race after the fifth inning promise an electric atmosphere. A wide range of group seating and suites are available. If you’re not in town during baseball season, don’t forget about Steelers football and Penguins hockey.
WHERE TO STAY/MEET
Guests want for nothing at Fairmont Pittsburgh, a contemporary 185- room luxury hotel encapsulated in the first three and top 10 floors of a 23-story new build, which opened in 2010 with Gold LEED certification in the heart of downtown’s thriving Cultural District. Natural light pours into the white marble lobby, spotlighting paintings and sculptures by local artists. Guests enjoy breathtaking views of the rivers, bridges and architecture through floor-to-ceiling windows in each guest room and suite. Four breakouts and a grand ballroom with a 19-foot ceiling are centrally located on one floor. After the meeting, groups can don aprons at a cooking class in Habitat restaurant, indulge at the newly expanded spa or energize with a fitness class in the 6,000-square-foot health club. The hotel’s focus on personalized service earned it the 2013 Hotel of the Year award among the Fairmont brand worldwide.
As the Omni William Penn Hotel approaches its centennial anniversary in 2016, the city’s 597-room grande dame has plenty of stories to share. Every U.S. President since Theodore Roosevelt has entered its stunning lobby, which shines with lavish chandeliers, rows of regal archways and a soaring ceiling. The ornate details extend to more than 52,000 square feet of function space, which include a two-tiered ballroom, three self-contained meeting centers and a tucked away speakeasy restored to its Prohibition-era glory. "We’ve done everything we can to maintain the ambiance and historic charm of this hotel, while also modernizing it to offer everything guests need and expect," says Bob Page, director of sales and marketing.
The Priory Hotel now caters to corporate and leisure visitors rather than the priests and monks it housed in 1888, but a loving restoration of the elegant former Benedictine monastery has maintained the charm and history of this 42-room hotel tucked away in the Deutschtown section of the North Side-an easy walk to downtown. Groups of five to 350 can gather in the Refectory, the Chapter House room and the adjacent Grand Hall at the Priory, which opened in 1854 as St. Mary’s German Catholic Church.
Stepping into the Mansions on Fifth Hotel takes guests back to the early 1900s, when financial and industrial titans lined Millionaires’ Row in Shadyside with towering, opulent homes. Comprised of two beautifully restored mansions, each brimming with hand-carved woodwork, period furniture and rich stained glass, Mansions on Fifth is a 22-room luxury hotel that brings both grandeur and intimacy to any meeting or event. In addition to a wine cellar, groups can meet in the larger mansion’s library, parlour, dining room, Oak Room and Grand Hall. "We can do ordinary things in extraordinary ways," says general manager Mary Del Brady.
WHERE TO DINE
One of the trendy restaurants that inspired Bon Appétit’s Foodist column to name Pittsburgh 2014’s Next Big Food Town, Bar Marco features bold food and cocktails in a beautifully repurposed former firehouse in the Strip District. Above the main dining room is The Union Hall, a bright space for up to 80 with white walls, hardwood floors and a bay window. A wood-paneled wine cellar downstairs seats 10 around a single slab marble counter for wine tastings and private dinners.
The farm-to-table movement is well embraced in Pittsburgh, but dinner at Churchview Farm, 20 minutes south of the city, is likely the shortest distance between the two. A whimsical outdoor pergola hosts a regular schedule of farm dinners for 35 through early October, and is also available for private events with an event barn nearby in case of rain. Chefs from the city’s top foodie destinations like E2, Root 174 and Crested Duck Charcuterie prepare delicious meals using the farm’s produce, herbs and eggs, along with meats and other ingredients from local purveyors. When they’re not watching their dinner being prepared at the outdoor kitchen, guests can explore the 8-acre, third-generation farm. "You can sit with a friend over by the raspberry patch, or take a walk to the chicken coop," says Kim Fox, special event manager. "You’re welcome to take it all in."
Copper brew tanks preside over The Church Brew Works’ altar. Fitting, since the company’s handcrafted beers are something of gospel in Pittsburgh; just try a pint of Pious Monk Dunkel and you’ll know why. Housed in a cavernous former church in Lawrenceville, The Church Brew Works features several group dining areas including an outdoor Hop Garden. Enjoy an eclectic American menu, which always features nontraditional pierogies with fillings like rattlesnake, alligator and roasted root vegetables.