You can still find mythical Pittsburgh among its hills and 90 neighbourhoods: steel and Steelers, Andy Warhol and beer, a struggling Rust Belt past its heyday.
But another, more modern, story is being written: Pittsburgh as the most livable city in the United States, according to both Forbes and The Economist in recent years.
Pittsburgh as a metropolis with one of the smartest populations as a result of a plethora of universities and colleges. Pittsburgh as a leader in sustainable architecture, a hub of Hollywood film production (see The Dark Knight Rises), a high-tech economy with outposts of Apple, Intel and Google, and a cultural destination with an ambitious restaurant and arts scene.
The formula for much of this success runs roughly like this: Do what you love, do it well, find a cool space, then build a community and nod to the past.
In the case of Wigle Whiskey, that past is hooch. Pittsburgh was known as the wettest city in the United States during Prohibition and was the site of the 1794 Whiskey Rebellion. Named after that event’s leader, this distillery in a Strip District warehouse produces organic white and aged whiskies, gin and, most recently, a line of bitters. My visit, what’s ostensibly a mixology class and tour, descends into a party among strangers. After three cocktails, I leave with a new appreciation for Dutch-style gin and a treasure map of recommendations of where to head next.
The restaurant Cure is on the list, and it tells yet another narrative: While Pittsburgh’s population growth is essentially stagnant, the city is growing younger with a median age below the national average. Recent grads are settling here, and locals such as chef Justin Severino are returning home. He went west to California to cook and prosper but, when it came time to open his own place, he returned to his roots. His restaurant is making an undeveloped stretch of Northern Lawrenceville, a 15-minute drive from downtown, a destination. The large salumi board may be the best on the continent, featuring 18 house-made delectables, from classics to experiments, such as a Negroni-flavoured dry sausage. The same creative ethos is also found at restaurants, such as Salt of the Earth, Legume, Spoon and Notion, leading The New York Times to recently profile this farm-to-table scene as one of the most ambitious in the country.
The arts scene is equally eclectic and rich. Beyond the century-old museums built by Carnegie and Frick, and the largest Andy Warhol collection in the world, a slew of October events points the way forward. One example: For a single day, the 20th-century corpses of the 13-storey Carrie Blast Furnaces are transformed into the Jazz Furnace (Oct. 12, thejazzfurnace.com), an epic event of improv dance, video and music.
If you need any more convincing of Pittsburgh’s credibility, the tastemaking Ace Hotel chose the city for its next creative hub in 2014. But why wait until then?
WHAT TO DO
VIA Festival Audiences experience multisensory trips at various venues with creative pairings of musicians and visual artists. Runs from Oct. 1 to 6. via-pgh.com
The International Festival of Firsts Making their American premieres are various foreign dance, puppetry, theatre and art shows. The most conspicuous event is the Rubber Duck Project, featuring a four-storey yellow ducky on the Allegheny River. On now through Oct. 26, pifof.org
WHAT TO SEE
Wigle Whiskey Tours include a cocktail, an entertaining history of the Whiskey Rebellion, an explanation of the distillation process and a straight tasting of the booze. 2401 Smallman St., wiglewhiskey.com
Mattress Factory Located in and around the beautiful Mexican War Streets ’hood, the Factory is celebrating its 35th anniversary as one of the world’s only museums dedicated to installation art with newly opened gallery space and an exhibition featuring rooms by eight Detroit artists. 500 Sampsonia Way, mattress.org
Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area Former steel workers lead tours of this old steel furnace, and their anecdotes offer visitors a glimpse into the hard, dangerous work. Guided tours run until Oct. 26. 623 E. Eighth Ave., Homestead, riversofsteel.com
WHERE TO EAT
Conflict Kitchen Part art project, part take-away spot, Conflict serves Cuban cuisine with a side of politics. Its oft-changing menu rotates through countries the United States is in conflict with. Recent events included lunch talks with Syrian and Cuban citizens. 221 Schenley Dr., conflictkitchen.org
Notion Chef Dave Racicot’s spot is for the adventurous eater. The tasting menu offers high artistry with molecular fireworks that will both surprise and delight your palate. Reservations a must. 128 S. Highland Ave., notionrestaurant.com
Salt of the Earth This is chef Kevin Sousa’s original outpost in a burgeoning empire that includes casual spots Union Pig & Chicken and Station Street Hot Dogs. The kitchen crafts complex, modern dishes that often swerve into Japanese preparations. 5523 Penn Ave., saltpgh.com
Cure Make the effort for this out-of-the-way spot. The Mediterranean nose-to-tail, farm-to-table cuisine may celebrate meat, but it’s Justin Severino’s way with vegetables and sauces that makes dishes sing. 5336 Butler St., Lawrenceville, curepittsburgh.com
WHERE TO DRINK
Acacia With stylishly boarded up windows, this South Side bar is a mature refuge amid the bluster of generic college bars. 2108 E. Carson St., acaciacocktails.com
Bar Marco Housed in an old fire station in the trendy Strip District, this casual spot is a good place to wile away the hours. Bites are available to 2 a.m. 2216 Penn Ave., barmarco.squarespace.com
WHERE TO STAY
The Priory Just across the river from downtown, this boutique hotel is housed in a former Benedictine priory built in 1888. The 42 guest rooms are appointed with Edwardian antiques. Queen rooms from $155 (U.S.). 614 Pressley St., thepriory.com
Fairmont Pittsburgh This downtown luxury hotel is a worthy splurge for its sleek modern style. The floor-to-ceiling windows offer great vistas of the city, and rooms come with binoculars. Queen rooms from $319 (U.S.). 510 Market St., fairmont.com/pittsburgh
WHERE TO SHOP
The Shop in East Liberty The focus here is on stylish yet affordable home goods, jewellery and everyday art by local and national makers. 214 N. Highland Ave., theshopinel.com
Caliban Books The sweet musk of old books hits you when you walk through the door of this well-loved shop that specializes in rare works. Desolation Row, a bonus store-within-a-store, specializes in LPs and CDs of indie, jazz, Americana and blues. 410 S. Craig St., calibanbooks.com
Editor's note: This article has been updated to remove an incorrect name of a bar owner.
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