A Pennsylvania Native Spends His First Day in Pittsburgh After 36 Years

When I meet someone who’s not from my home state, I tell them “I’m from Pennsylvania.” The east coast people tend to ask how close to “Philly” I am, while everyone else asks if I live near Pittsburgh. Until recently, my answer was that I’d never been there, as it’s on the other end of the state. I’ve always been curious, so for the first weekend of the New Year, I finally explored Pittsburgh.

When I meet someone who’s not from my home state, I tell them “I’m from Pennsylvania.” The east coast people tend to ask how close to “Philly” I am, while everyone else asks if I live near Pittsburgh. Until recently, my answer was that I’d never been there, as it’s on the other end of the state. I grew up in Luzerne County (eastern Pennsylvania) and can drive from there to the George Washington Bridge and back before I can get to Pittsburgh. I’ve always been curious, so for the first weekend of the New Year, I finally explored Pittsburgh. Lonely Planet served as a guide for what I would do there and there were enough sights and activities to easily fill a day.

I started off at the Duquesne Incline with the idea that I would ride one incline in the light and the other in the dark. The Duquesne is not operated by Port Authority and rides must be paid for in cash. When you get to the top, there are some exhibits as well as an observation deck with excellent views.

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My next destination was the Heinz History Center, which is on the southwestern border of the strip district. With seven floors (five open to visitors), you can easily spend a day there. Admission for an adult is $16. AAA will get you $1 off, but student admission is only $6.50.

The Clash of Empires: The British, French & Indian War 1754-1763, From Slavery to Freedom, Pittsburgh: A Tradition of Innovation and We Can Do It: WWII were my personal favorites. I went through the museum in two hours, but you can easily turn that into three or four, depending on how fast you read and how varied your interests are.

From the museum, I walked to Penn Ave and through the strip district. There’s plenty of shopping there and different restaurants as well. Pittsburgh Popcorn Co is located on the corner of 21st Street and Spring Way. They have new flavors every week and offer samples. I bought a bag of cinnamon toast, which nobody else that was in front of me seemed interested in. Oh well, their loss, because it was delicious!

For lunch, I went to Stone Neapolitan Pizzeria, near the Gateway subway stop and then visited Fort Pitt Museum. Although the Heinz History Center is much more extensive, the area around Fort Pitt is great for walking and photo ops. At Fort Pitt, you can learn about the natives of Pittsburgh as well as how the 2nd largest city in Pennsylvania got its name. It was not named after Brad!

Pittsburgh skyline from Fort Pitt

I don’t believe that a visit to any city is complete without using some form or public transportation. I finally used the underground in Philadelphia last summer and since Fort Pitt is near the Gateway station, I boarded the train there and took it across the Monongahela River to the Station Square stop. The stops between Gateway and First Avenue are part of a Free Zone, but I had to pay since I was crossing the river to Station Square. Like the Los Angeles Metro, you buy a card, add value and “tap” when you enter the train. Before arriving at the First Avenue station, the train ascends above ground, so you get to see the river as it crosses.

From Station Square, it’s a short walk to the Monongahela Incline. It was dark by this time and the ride ($2.50 one-way, but only $1 extra if you make the return trip within three hours) only took a minute or two, just like the Duquesne. There’s an observation deck outside the upper station, where I took some excellent photos of the city at night.

After collecting my car, I headed to I Tea Café (Taiwanese) for dinner. They have one of my recent favorites (salt and pepper chicken) with different flavor options. I chose seaweed and also got French fries (something I don’t associate with Taiwan) of the same flavor as well as bubble tea. Everything was excellent and I had room for dessert, so I ordered glass jelly and homemade coconut toast. They are separate on the menu but go very well together. Try it!

Most decent sized cities have at least a bakery or two that sells French macarons. I found Gaby et Jules on Yelp and stopped there to get a box of six. They have the standard flavors as well as ones I’d either rarely or never seen before. I got nutella and salted caramel, which most places sell, but also tried Bailey’s Irish Cream and white chocolate basil.

Heinz Field

After spending my first full day in Pennsylvania’s second city, I can understand why it’s been voted the most livable city in America multiple times. It has professional sports teams, world class museums, a great food scene, more than ten colleges and universities yet does not feel overwhelming. Furthermore, my favorite bands usually stopped in Pittsburgh when they went on tour! Like most major cities, parking is a issue in the center, but unlike other cities with subways, you can ride theirs for free in the most congested areas. Pittsburgh has some great architecture along their ample waterfront, but it’s the inclines that really allow the visitor to fully appreciate it.

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Eating Along the L Train & Going for a Boat Ride

As enjoyable as a walk around the East Village always is, riding the East River Ferry at night was the highlight of the day. I hope to visit Williamsburg next year and go further into Brooklyn on the L train as well.

During my first visit to Williamsburg, I walked across the Williamsburg Bridge and had lunch at Motorino. It was January 2015 and the weather was so cold that both my iPad and iPhone shut off. I managed to get some nice pictures, but it was not the most comfortable experience. Like much of the travel I do, I had an urge and was not going to let cold weather get in the way.

For my second visit to Williamsburg, all I had to wear was a t-shirt and light jacket. It was around 50 degrees the day after Christmas. I remember it being warm like that in Cleveland around December 2006, but for a lifelong East Coast guy, that’s still a rarity.

I started by taking the L train from 6th Ave to Bedford Ave. Normally, when I take the L train, I get off at 1 Av to visit my favorite neighborhood (East Village). This time, I took it one more stop (into Brooklyn). As soon as I arrived in Williamsburg, I realized it warranted further exploration. The area looked “up and coming.”

I stopped for lunch at Fornino which had been on my list of pizzerias to try since earlier in the year. I was there for their pizza, but they had some interesting appetizers and I had a friend to share with.

We started with eggplant rustica, then had baked clams, followed by portabella mushrooms (with goat cheese) and finally, a margherita pizza. For dessert, we shared the lemon & olive oil cake with strawberry sorbet. Nothing went to waste and I would be interested in trying their Greenpoint location next time I’m in that area.

Walking east on North 7th Ave will lead you to Woops (on Driggs Ave). They have around a dozen French macaron flavors and the place gets pretty crowded. Konditori (Swedish Expresso) has a location on North 7th Ave as well.

Artists & Fleas Williamsburg Brooklyn 12-26-2015
Pin Your Home City

West of the Bedford Ave stop on North 7th Ave. is Artists & Fleas’ Williamsburg location (there’s another inside the Chelsea Market). Compared to the Cheslea Market, Williamsburg was much less crowded. I bought my favorite necklace (preserved dragonfruit) from Glitter Limes at the Chelsea location last year and it’s still my favorite.

East River from East River Park in Williamsburg Brooklyn 12-26-2015

East River Park is northwest of Artists & Fleas and provides some great photo ops. It’s not as impressive at Gantry Plaza State Park in Long Island City, but still worth a visit. Oddfellows Ice Cream is along Kent Ave, but they were closed for the holidays.

For a light snack, we stopped at Rosarito Fish Shack. The place looks very interesting from the outside and the same is true of the interior. We shared a salmon ceviche as well as the carne asada tacos (each order comes with two).

woman looking out at Manhattan from Williamsburg Brooklyn 12-26-2015
The East River Ferry Arrives

The East River Ferry Terminal is northwest of Oddfellows. I decided that this would be a good (first) time to take a boat across the East River. It was getting cold outside and neither my friend, nor I felt like walking back to Bedford Ave to catch the L train. While waiting for the ferry, we walked around the Northside Piers and took some pictures. While walking, we saw a man showing his friends around explaining how back in the 1990s, cab drivers often refused to take people to Williamsburg. I heard a similar story while walking around Gantry Plaza State Park a couple months earlier.

East River Ferry Terminal in Williamsburg Brooklyn 12-26-2015
Northside Pier

Most of the East River Ferry stops are in Brooklyn. There is one (Long Island City) in Queens and two in Manhattan. Our choices were to go to either East 34th Street or Wall Street. We chose the first boat that arrived (Wall Street). The ride is quick. In our case, it stopped in South Williamsburg, DUMBO, then Wall Street. Although a ferry ride is more than double the cost of a subway or bus ride, it’s much more scenic. We got to ride under the BMW (or WMB since we were going south) bridges. It was dark outside, so the city was well lit.

It’s easy to get the M15 bus north from Water Street, which is just two short blocks west of the ferry stop at Wall Street. Our destination was the East Village (my favorite neighborhood). The bus stops at East 8th Street (Saint Mark’s Place) and 1st Ave. We stopped at Macaron Parlour at ended up getting advice from Simon Tung on where to go for dim sum in Chinatown.

potato shrimp at Ramen Setagaya East Village 12-26-2015
Potato Shrimp at Ramen Setagaya

There are great places to eat all along 1st Avenue, but 2nd Ave has plenty as well. After you cross 2nd Ave, you can have gelato at DF Mavens, Belgian fries at Friterie, bubble tea at CoCo Fresh Tea & Juice and ramen at Ramen Setagaya without even making it halfway to 3rd Ave.

As enjoyable as a walk around the East Village always is, riding the East River Ferry at night was the highlight of the day. I hope to visit Williamsburg next year and go further into Brooklyn on the L train as well.

 

The 16th best small town in the United States

I enjoyed my dining experience much more than during any trip to Harrisburg. Carlisle has things that people travel to the big city for, but is laid back and manageable like a small town.

With a population of under 20,000 the borough of Carlisle was ranked the 16th best small town in the United States by livability.com in 2015. It’s located in south-central Pennsylvania bordered to the north the PA Turnpike (I-76) and to the south and by Interstate 81. Known to many outsiders as the home to the United States Army War College and Dickinson College, Carlisle also has a variety of restaurants that rival nearby Harrisburg.

A good place to start your day in Carlisle is the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center. If you are driving south on Interstate 81, you will see the Army Heritage Trail’s cabins and tanks off to your right. The visitor center has ample parking and is located right off exit 49. They open at 10 and close at 4:30 except for Sundays, when they open at noon. You will likely spend most of your time in the visitor center since they have exhibits which date back from the Civil War to the present. The Army Heritage Trail (bordered to the west by Interstate 81) is open from dawn to dusk and covers the same period as the museum itself.

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U.S. Army Heritage Trail

From there you can head west to downtown Carlisle. The most interesting cafes and restaurants are west of the junction of Hanover and High Streets. Although you cannot get French macarons in nearby Harrisburg, you can get macarons, hand-made chocolates, gelato, crepes and other desserts at Helena’s Chocolate Café & Creperie (located next to the Carlisle Theater). They are open 7 days and they can have anywhere between 5 and 12 different macaron flavors depending on when you visit. The combination of all the foot traffic and no other places that sell French macarons nearby means the flavors can sell out fast. In fact, they have flavors that I rarely see in Manhattan such as cinnamon and oreo. They have various to-go boxes, which can hold anywhere from 2 to 10 macarons and their crepes, desserts and gelato are worth sitting down for.

If you make a left out of Helena’s and cross High Street at Pitt Street, you’ll arrive at the Cumberland County Historical Society (closed Sundays). Upstairs, they have exhibits which explain how Cumberland County got to where it is today. Of particular interest are the exhibits on the building of the Pennsylvania Turnpike as well as the Native Americans that occupied the area before European settlers arrived.

From the visitor center, you could walk to History on High (across from Helena’s), which houses the Cumberland Valley Visitors Center (closed Sundays & Mondays). Once inside, you can get info on other local attractions as well as purchase books and other souvenirs. It’s possible to arrange walking tours from the visitor center, but with a map, you can locate 13 of the 18 historical markers in Carlisle without going more than a couple blocks from the junction of Hanover and High Streets. At the corner of High and West Street you can see where George Washington stood in October of 1794. You can also explore the grounds of Dickinson College, which is the Alma mater of the only United States President from Pennsylvania (James Buchanan, who graduated in 1809).

There are several options for dinner. Café Bruges (Belgian), Andalusia (Spanish & Moroccan tapas) and Trattoria Piatto (Italian) are affiliates of Helena’s. There’s also Issei Noodle, which is an interesting combination of Japanese ramen and Vietnamese Pho and also the only place in Carlisle which serves bubble tea.

I chose White Elephant Thai Cuisine for dinner and I’m glad I did! In addition to a standard Thai menu of nearly 70 items, they have specials every weekend. It’s BYOB, but they have some very interesting non-alcoholic drinks. Like some of the other restaurants on High Street, there is parking in the back. I ordered the coconut soup for an appetizer and the garlic scallops (weekend only) for my entrée. For dessert, I had my eyes on the tapioca coco, but at the last minute, I decided on the sea salt caramel gelato. The owner is always experimenting with new options, so it’s a good idea to stop back frequently. When I do, I’ll save room for the tapioca coco.

Although I consider myself a city person, I enjoyed my day in Carlisle just as much as I enjoyed my last trip to Harrisburg, which is more than double the size and the state capitol. Although the Susquehanna River does not run through Carlisle and they don’t offer as many options for museums, I enjoyed my dining experience much more than during any trip to Harrisburg. In summary, Carlisle has things that people travel to the big city for, but is laid back and manageable like a small town.