Pittsburgh tours offer history, trivia and all the best views
Whether you prefer to ride atop a double-decker bus, glide through town on a Segway, or sail the Three Rivers, there are plenty of tours for anyone looking to get to know Pittsburgh a little better. Each one incorporates sightseeing, photo ops and trivia tidbits to provide a unique take on town for locals and tourists alike. Climb aboard as we take a look at the array of options showcasing all the ‘Burgh has to offer.
Segway in Paradise
Have you ever seen a line of helmeted heads from a distance, moving smoothly forward as if on a conveyor belt around Downtown? That would be Segway riders taking a tour from Segway in Paradise, which launches daily tours from Station Square.
You'll ride standing atop one of those funky motorized scooters, after taking a brief lesson at the office and riding around an indoor Station Square practice course. Riders get the hang of it quickly, and soon are off on a tour.
Manager Sara Harper rode as our tour guide, and we could hear her voice through earpieces as she took us around Downtown, pointed out historic buildings and told stories about them. The company provides a bottle of water for riders, and you take a break more than halfway through the tour. You'll go over the Smithfield Street Bridge and two North Side bridges, checking out the water as you glide above it. The guides will offer to stop at Dream Cream, an ice cream parlor in Downtown, for a cold treat for those who want it. A staff member serves as a traffic cop and makes sure that cars don't run you over when you cross streets.
The main tour offered is the classic two-hour Downtown tour for $59; two-hour sunset (Saturday only) and North Side tours also are $59. A four-hour Adventure Tour, $97, stops at sites including Wood Street Art Gallery, the National Aviary, the Senator John Heinz History Center and a lunch stop. Participants for all tours must be at least 14.
Segway in Paradise, 125 W. Station Square Drive, South Side, offers tours on most days this time of year.
Details: 412-337-3941 or www.segwayinparadise.com
— Kellie B. Gormly
Lenzner Trolley Tours
The driver and tour guides make the Lenzner Trolley Tours a true taste of Pittsburgh. The city's current points of interest are presented alongside deftly chosen historical perspectives, including some juicy details of personalities, in an easygoing manner that sounds like a neighbor talking.
The company offers a Historic Neighborhood Tour, oriented more toward Mt. Washington and, on the North Side, Old Allegheny City and the Mexican War Streets, and a Heritage Neighborhood Tour, which also includes Downtown but swings east to stop at the Nationality Rooms at the University of Pittsburgh as well as other sites in Oakland and in the Strip District.
The tour vehicles are small clean buses with large windows and good air conditioning, not trolleys actually. Passengers are picked up at a dozen sites Downtown and at Station Sqaure.
Pick ups for the Historic Neighborhood Tour start at 9 a.m. and the tour itself at 9:45. Pick ups for the Heritage Neighborhood Tour start at 12:30 p.m. and the tour itself at 1:15. The fare for morning or afternoon tours is $25, $10 for children 3 to 11. The fare for the combined tour is $40; $16 for children.
Details: 412-761-7000 or www.coachride.com.
— Mark Kanny
Gateway Clipper Fleet
Pittsburgh has 446 bridges, the highest is the Liberty Bridge. It has 700 sets of public steps. And its oldest building is the Fort Pitt Blockhouse.
This is some of the information guests will learn about on a sightseeing tour with the Gateway Clipper Fleet. The company offers many choices to sail Pittsburgh's three rivers on one of its six boats while getting information about the city's history. There are chances for cruises year round.
“We really wanted a tour of Pittsburgh,” says Christopher Dean, who was on a one-hour tour aboard the Duchess while visiting with his family from Florida. “I grew up in this area and there are things I learned today about Pittsburgh that I didn't know before I got on this boat. When we come here we like to do Pittsburgh things.”
The tour went along Station Square and under the Smithfield Street Bridge. The narrator told riders the Allegheny County Jail cost more to build than the Taj Mahal and that more than 150,000 cars pass over the Fort Pitt Bridge daily.
The one hour tour begins on the Monongahela River and continues on both the Allegheny and Ohio rivers while the captain and narrator relay interesting facts, tales and river lore about Pittsburgh. And you get to see an unbelievable view of the recently refurbished Point State Park fountain.
The one-hour cruises sail weekdays June through August. There are five sailing times, 11 a.m., 12:15 p.m., 1:30 p.m., 2:45 p.m. and 4 p.m. There are evening cruises at 6, 7 and 8 p.m. Mondays through Sundays. Tickets are $20 to $25 for adults, $10 to $12 for children
Details: 412-355-7980 or www.gatewayclipper.com
— JoAnne Klimovich Harrop
Haunted Pittsburgh Tours
Downtown Pittsburgh could use a few busier ghosts.
The Haunted Downtown trip of Haunted Pittsburgh Tours is lacking in shivers, but works out fairly well as a look at some elements of the city's history.
The tour group also offers trips in Oakland, on the incline to Mt. Washington, and even a virtual tour it will take to groups not interested in heading outside.
But Downtown, with a history that dates to the mid-1700s, provides few scary exploits. Papa J's restaurant on the Boulevard of the Allies stands out with its history of ghosts dating to its days as a brothel in the late 19th century.
Rivaling it are tales of Kate Soffel haunting the Allegheny County Jail after her liaison with the infamous Ed Biddle.
But on a recent tour, the tales told by the guide were sometimes not even ghost stories. He did a long take on the many near-deaths George Washington experienced in the area, suggesting some greater force was keeping him alive. He also went into great length about the attempted assassination of Henry Clay Frick, saying the industrialist believed the spirit of his daughter, Martha, foiled Alexander Berkman's efforts.
The guide also talked about the mysterious 1956 crash of a B-25 into the Monongahela River. With his good story-telling technique, he surrounded the incident with enough mystery to suggest a government coverup, but no hauntings.
The Downtown tours start at the Richard Caliguiri statue at the City-County Building and wander through the Golden Triangle for an hour and 45 minutes.
The tours could use earphone-transmitter devices to make the trips smoother. The tour guides could mention in passing stories about the 1936 flood or ghosts on one of the floors at Macy's, without having to gather the whole group together for a stop.
But the guide does a good job telling stories and acting as a crossing-guard for the tour-takers. He stood in middle of the street to stop traffic at times, running up later to lead the way.
Tours tend to be on weekend evenings, when the streets are not too busy, and cost $15 or $18. The virtual tour is arranged per session. Details: www.hauntedpittsburghtours.com or 412-302-5223,
— Bob Karlovits
Office of Public Art
Pittsburgh artists, curators and historians are among the people who lead monthly guided tours hosted by the Office of Public Art.
Hour-long walking tours are being planned for Downtown, Allegheny Cemetery, the Grant Street corridor and Oakland.
But a 90-minute bike tour planned for 6 p.m. Aug. 16 will take cyclists from the Langley Observatory Clock on Allegheny Avenue near the Carnegie Science Center on the North Side to the Maxo Vanka murals at St. Nicholas Church in Millvale. Tours will happen rain or shine. The cost is $10; $7 in advance.
Details: 412-391-2060 ext 237 or www.publicart pittsburgh.org
— Alice T. Carter
Double Decker Bus Tour
See the city of Pittsburgh from new heights aboard the Pittsburgh Tour Company's Double Decker Bus.
Four original, fire-red buses from London named Martha, Louise, Greta and Esther take guests from the “Home Base” in the South Side to 21 stops across the city and then back after about two-and-a-half hours. The company also offers a hop on/hop off option that allows people to pay at each stop and then yell “Stop that bus!” if they would like to hop off at another stop. Each guest is given a map and a schedule when they board to know when they can hop back on throughout the day.
Tour highlights include up close views of the city's bridges and skyscrapers, and major attractions like the Duquesne Incline, the Cultural and Strip Districts, Point Park and Phipps Conservatory.
The tour guides are knowledgeable and enthusiastic, talking about famous Pittsburgh figures like Andy Warhol and Franco Harris, and sharing the history of city buildings and features at each stop. They engage guests in trivia, jokes and fun facts, like that the former Three Rivers Stadium was technically misnamed, as there is a fourth river (an aquifer) that flows underneath the city.
One of the silliest, but most useful takeaways is the lesson on “Pittsburghese” that is conducted during the Downtown stop. Guests unfamiliar with the area learn how to speak like a true Pittsburgher with commonly used words like “yinz,” “nebby,” “gum band,” and “n'at.”
Hours are 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. June through September; 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. October through December and April and May. Tours start at 9 a.m. The All Day Tour Pass costs $25; $15 for under 10; free for under 2. “Just The Tour” Pass costs $20; $10 for under 10; free for under 2.
Details: 412-381-8687 or www.pghtours.com
— Emma Deihle
As the vintage 1920s-style trolley wound its way up the climbing hill, its 30 passengers chitchatted leisurely, taking the occasional glance out the windows at the passing scenery. Then, as the trees cleared, they let out a collective gasp.
There, sprawled out before them, stood all of Pittsburgh. Tour guide Debra Mercier, in anticipation of this moment, had stayed silent for a few seconds. She broke her silence now.
“This is Mt. Washington,” she said, as the tourists clamored to capture the scene on iPads and cellphones.
Guests on Molly Trolley's “All About the Burgh, from Culture to Ketchup Tour,” get treated to this view, as well as many others the city has to offer, all sprinkled with tidbits of trivia about the ‘Burgh and its storied history. The two-hour trip departs from Station Square, then travels to just about every corner of the city before stopping at Mt. Washington, where riders disembark for a tour and ride on the Duquesne Incline.
The red and green trolleys with brass railings and wooden ceilings, previously only available for private rental, offer an air-conditioned, comfortable trip. Riders rest on padded wooden benches.
“It's good for people who don't want the water or maybe have mobility issues,” Mercier says.
Molly's Trolleys sightseeing tours run Sundays, Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Morning and afternoon tours are available. Cost is $25; $15 for ages 3 to 12; and $5 for children age 2 and under.
Details: 412-391-7433 or mollystrolleyspittsburgh.com
— Rachel Weaver
Just Ducky Tours
When Dad or Grandad were storming the beaches at Normandy or Okinawa, they probably weren't real excited about savoring the view. They definitely weren't marveling at the remarkable American engineering getting them there, which combined a truck and a boat into a “Duck”— the nickname for the DUKW six-wheel-drive amphibious truck.
But at a top speed of five to six miles per hour (on the water), the Ducks are just right for a leisurely tour around the confluence of the three rivers surrounding downtown Pittsburgh. Of the thousands of these landing craft built during World War II, there are only a few left, but Just Ducky Tours in Pittsburgh has six of them.
The novelty of riding around in a World War II-era landing craft is probably enough in itself for some people, but the tour guides seem to enjoy their jobs and are fairly knowledgeable about the city, too. Two guides packed the tour with interesting trivia, with a young woman handling the Downtown/land portion, and the older male “captain” of the boat handling the river section — with special attention paid to the history of the bridges.
Some of the information is quite good — the bit on the feud between Nikola Tesla (and George Westinghouse) versus Thomas Edison is fascinating, shows that Pittsburgh's industrial heritage goes way beyond steel.
A few assertions are a little hard to substantiate, like the claim that the South Side holds the Guinness World Record for most bars per block (though, knowing the South Side, it certainly sounds plausible.) Kids seem to have the most fun, particularly when allowed to pilot the Duck on the water, and when asked to “quack” at pedestrians. In fact, one “kid” well into his 50s seemed to get the biggest kick out of driving the old boat.
Boarding begins at the Bessemer Court section of Station Square, on the street. Tickets are $22, or $15 for ages 3 to 12, $5 for children 2 and under. Trips last about an hour. Reservations are strongly encouraged.
Details: 412-402-3825 or www.justduckytours.com
— Michael Machosky