Pittsburgh offers more to do than one weekend can handle
"The city that always sleeps," one of us joked.
Yes, Pittsburgh. We went -- David and Nick, two teenagers with learner's permits, and their weary parents, Dan and Louise -- largely because the place is on the way to Chicago, our driving destination. But we stayed long enough to discover what a cool and affordable town it is. About six hours from Long Island by car, it offers every urban feature you can think of, except snobbery.
Ah, Pittsburgh. We could go on about the funiculars -- the cable cars that creep up and down the hills, offering terrific views. Or the 42-story Cathedral of Learning, a stirring Gothic wonder that carries the city's aspirations into the sky. Or the great Carnegie museums of art, science and natural history.
But we had only a couple of days, so we had to leave most of the mysteries of Pittsburgh unsolved. Instead, we focused on the National Aviary, the nation's largest bird zoo; the Andy Warhol Museum, which has thousands of works by the man who, after Andrew Carnegie, may be Pittsburgh's most famous son; and nearby Fallingwater, perhaps the most important American house of the 20th century. We loved all three.
A VISIT TO BIRDLAND
We started with the Aviary, strolling there from our Airbnb rental on the edge of the city's arty and historic Mexican War Streets, a district that derives street names from battles and leaders in that conflict. Our home away from home was a teenage boy's fantasy: a sprawling apartment occupied by a genial rock musician who'd outfitted the place with a foosball table, a hot tub, Wi-Fi, a giant TV and oodles of recording gear.
Why would any self-respecting kids leave such a place to visit a bird zoo? Parental compulsion notwithstanding, the National Aviary is hardly for the birds, as was clear from the first one we encountered: a menacing-looking Andean condor hunched greedily over some unlucky carcass. The blazing sun and nearly deserted streets -- Pittsburgh will seem strangely depopulated to a New Yorker -- made the scene feel like something out of a Western.
The scene inside was more inviting. We amble first into the Wetlands of the Americas section of the bright, airy building, where coral-colored American flamingos and brown pelicans stand amiably in the shallow water. This is a hands-on (and revenue-hungry) aviary, so you can buy fish to feed the birds, or, for $30 a person, stand among the flamingos and risk being groomed by one (fun, apparently).
The Aviary's rooftop "theater" is just some folding chairs, but the show is worthy of Broadway. After visitors receive an ominous warning not to stand up until the end, the birds arrive. A Lanner falcon, which can fly up to 160 miles an hour, makes blinding passes at some chicken that a trainer swings on a rope. Then comes a foul-smelling African hooded vulture, which is impervious to E. coli, botulism and similar food-borne illnesses. (David: "Must be handy in the high-school cafeteria.") But the main attractions are the black kites; the trainers release a few of these elite predators and then toss aloft bits of meat, which the circling kites snatch dramatically from the air. Afterward, a parrot, as revenue-hungry as the institution that employs it, collects donations of paper currency and stuffs them into a box. (412-323-7235, aviary.org)
THE PRINCE OF POP
A few minutes' walk from the aviary is the Andy Warhol Museum, a lively institution devoted to Pittsburgh's answer to Marcel Duchamp. There you can see Warhol's work -- including some winsome early sketches -- before he became a Pop Art conglomerate, churning out colorful silk screens, gnomic pronouncements and monotonous films. They also have some of the famous Brillo boxes, a wall of memorabilia documenting his early years, and a magnificent stuffed Great Dane he called Cecil. (412-237-8300, warhol.org)
HOUSE AS ART
After steamy Pittsburgh, Fallingwater was the perfect refreshment -- which is perhaps why department store magnate Edgar Kaufmann wanted a country house at his lush mountain property in Mill Run, Pa., 90 minutes from downtown Pittsburgh. Kaufmann's family was particularly taken with the waterfall -- the very one over which architect Frank Lloyd Wright would place their house.
And what a house. Entering the shipshape landmark, which hovers over the water with the serenity of a dreadnought and the lightness of a catamaran, is a revelation. Dating to 1939, it's a sublime ménage a trois of concrete, stone and wood, nestled blissfully in its wooded setting. The smallness of the bedrooms is as striking as the vastness of the public spaces, including the sprawling terraces that seem to go off in all directions. Wright was a masterful dramatist who made the passageways, for example, small and dim -- thereby leaving you all the more vulnerable to the grandeur of the large room you are about to enter.
When we finally hit the road for Chicago, all of us were surprised by how much fun we'd had. For a classic Rust Belt city, Pittsburgh is pretty darn limber. (724-329-8501, fallingwater.org)
If you go
Pittsburgh is a good place to reach by car; parking is easy, and having a car will help you get to Fallingwater (which can be visited only by pre-arranged tour).
The Inn on the Mexican War Streets (innonthemexicanwarstreets.com) is convenient, but the area is a work in progress; for more street life and less edge, consider Shadyside or Lawrenceville.
Near Fallingwater, stay at Polymath Park (polymathpark.com), a bucolic cluster of houses by Frank Lloyd Wright and his followers in Acme, Pa. Balter House, where we spent a single blissful night, is $199 plus $50 for an extra person.
In Pittsburgh, the James Street Gastropub and Speakeasy (jamesstreetgastropub.com) offers affordable pub fare. Only slightly further afield is the excellent Cafe du Jour (412-488-9695). Sit in the garden, weather permitting, and expect to pay Long Island fine-dining prices.