Not just for visitors, tours show off another side of Downtown Pittsburgh

John Conti
| Saturday, June 29, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

If Pittsburgh were situated somewhere in the heart of Europe, tourists would eagerly journey hundreds of miles out of their way to visit it.”

That oft-repeated quote from Brendan Gill, the late architecture critic of The New Yorker, dates to 1989, but it has never been truer than it is today, particularly with respect to our city's Downtown.

That's because Pittsburgh has developed in recent years one of the strongest downtowns of any major city in the country.

It has been turned into a walkable, beautiful and, yes, celebratory center for our city.

Downtown in summer is rich in visual treats. There are plenty of comfortable spaces for strolling or sitting; pleasant sidewalk cafes in Market Square, on Penn Avenue and elsewhere; and some fascinating public art.

Everywhere you turn these days, it seems there's a park, a parklet, or one of at least 10 appealing public fountains to be found in our compact Downtown. Add to all this great architecture, rebuilt streets and sidewalks, restored historic storefronts — and, well, you've got something that's truly special.

At this point, I'm sure there are still some readers out there scoffing or wondering what I am smoking. But if that's the case, I'll bet it's because you haven't been Downtown in a while on a nice summer day. So come Downtown and give it a try.

The best way to take it all in at first, and not miss anything important in the process, is through walking tours — either self-guided or with groups. Then you can spend some time later just wandering about, seeing for a second time whatever it is you enjoy most.

I was reminded of all of this last week, when I joined a new tour of Downtown being offered by the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation called “Downtown's Best.” It's only one of about a half-dozen Downtown tours that History & Landmarks offers periodically through the year, but this is the longest and, unlike most of the others, it's not free (cost is $15) and it requires a reservation.

But it will be offered every Friday morning through July. It takes about two hours, emphasizing architectural landmarks, spectacular interiors and significant urban spaces. The tour projects a sort of cultural history of Pittsburgh, showing how the city evolved over time from a military outpost, to an industrial and financial giant, and now to a city that seems to be preparing itself well for the 21st century.

I was joined on the tour by about a dozen mostly out-of-towners. Included were a city planner from Charlottesville, Va.; a tourist from Raleigh, N.C.; and an architect from San Francisco. Two visiting couples had come in for the day from Pulaski and Ellwood City, in Beaver and Lawrence counties, respectively.

All were awed by some of the interiors — like the Union Trust Rotunda — and pleasantly surprised to end up in Market Square and PPG Place, dense with lunchtime crowds. No stereotypes anyone had ever learned about Pittsburgh could possibly survive such a beautiful summer day.

Perhaps the most interesting comment came from Kathy Chirdon of Pulaski, who related that she and her husband first started coming to Pittsburgh regularly several years ago, taking tours “until we got used to the city.” They eventually became engrossed in the history of the region, and still find the tours a worthwhile summer adventure.

There really are too many of us from the region for whom Downtown is still just something you cross to get to the stadiums, or something you rush in and out of, without looking around, when you come to Heinz Hall or the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera. That really ought to change. This ought to be a tour not just for tourists, but for Pittsburghers and all other Western Pennsylvanians.

History & Landmarks is offering shorter free tours on Fridays of the Grant Street and Mellon Square areas in July, the Market Square area in August, and a Bridges and River Shores tour in September. In addition, there are regular free tours on Mondays of the spectacularly renovated old jail Downtown, now used as family courts.

Another Downtown tour that will surprise is offered by the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council. It has a newly updated edition of a booklet offering a self-guided tour of Downtown Pittsburgh's public art. This is one you definitely need a guidebook for, as you're unlikely to discover all the art on your own.

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation can be reached at 412-471-5808, or reservations requested at, and the Council for the Arts at 412-391-2060, or the tour guide can be downloaded from its website at

John Conti is a former news reporter who has written extensively over the years about architecture, planning and historic-preservation issues.

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