STEEL CITY FOR A STEAL

THE BALTIMORE SUN

CLARIFICATION

An article in Sunday's Travel section gave the impression that Chiodo's Tavern in Pittsburgh was open for business. The bar closed in 2005.

THE SUN REGRETS THE ERROR

THOMAS WOLFE SAID YOU CAN'T GO HOME AGAIN, but if somebody offers you $500 to try, it can be worth the trip.

"Five-hundred bucks?" an old Pittsburgh friend asked. "They are giving you 500 bucks to do Pittsburgh? You could buy the whole town for two grand."

Not anymore, I said.

My hometown, once a gritty, grimy, blue-collar steel town, is now the darling of the travel writers. They have all discovered Pittsburgh's glittering reinvention as a banking and medical hub, with the shiny new skyscrapers to prove it.

Truth be told, I have been going home every year since I left Pittsburgh for Baltimore almost 30 years ago. But, like many of the natives, I had never taken the time to see the sights.

Even when I lived there, the quirky tourist must-sees of Pittsburgh, like the Duquesne Incline, might be something you only did to entertain out-of-town visitors.

This time, instead of bouncing between the homes of my sisters and my husband's family and sleeping in their guest rooms, I did Pittsburgh like a tourist.

And I wondered why I ever left.

Southwest Airlines is offering $39 one-way airfare to Pittsburgh from BWI Marshall Airport, and that makes the choice to drive the 250 miles each way seem a poor one, with gasoline prices being what they are.

And Pittsburgh's mass-transit system is so thoroughgoing, and the downtown so compact, that it is easy to do without a car.

But I wanted a chance to test my memory -- and my memories -- of the neighborhoods I used to haunt as a young professional -- Oakland, Shadyside, Southside and the North Shore, as it is now known -- so I drove. (We used to call it "Norside," Pittsburgh-ese for North Side.)

And there is nothing quite like the view of the Golden Triangle -- the skyscrapers that cluster at the junction of the Ohio, Allegheny and Monongahela rivers -- when you emerge from the Fort Pitt Tunnel. It is breathtaking no matter how many times you have seen it.

I made the trip on a Friday afternoon, timing the five-hour drive so that I could meet my three sisters for dinner at Mallorca, a Spanish restaurant on East Carson Street on the South Side, itself a revelation.

Carson Street was an essential part of the route I traveled for years, from my relatives in the northern suburbs to my relatives in the south of the city.

But a network of overpasses, bypasses and interstate highways, which were being argued over when I was in elementary school, has been complete long enough for me to miss the stunning transformation of the south side of the Monongahela River, where once the homes -- and bars -- of the mill workers lined Carson Street and the neighborhood around it.

Many of those limestone rowhouses are still there, along with bars like the legendary shot-and-a-beer Chiodo's, but they are now crowded by sleek or sophisticated shops, restaurants and night spots.

The Mon, as we locals call it, was once stinking with toxins and dead fish. Coal barges still traffic there, but now sculls and kayaks do, too. And both banks of the river, where once belching mills blotted the sun, are now lined with landscaped parks, condos, shopping centers, medical pavilions and the state-of-the-art practice facility of the beloved Steelers football team.

The South Side, the opening act in my weekend home, is a metaphor for all of Pittsburgh, I think.

My three sisters and I spent $120 on an alfresco dinner at Mallorca, which included a couple of pitchers of sangria, some hefty appetizers and a couple of shared desserts.

Though it was my birthday, I picked up the tab and my sisters left a generous tip for the delightful Spanish-speaking waiter who let us linger on the restaurant's patio long past our due, enjoying the beautiful evening and sidewalk traffic.

Things were just picking up on the South Side when my sisters and I adjourned, they to their homes and me to the Renaissance Hotel, a magnificently restored architectural landmark in the heart of Pittsburgh's cultural district, right on the edge of the Allegheny River.

From my bedroom window, I could see into the stands through the open end of PNC Park, the new stadium for the Pittsburgh Pirates that has received rave reviews since it opened in 2001.

The Renaissance is a five-star Marriott hotel, and it deserves every star. A room might go for $300 a night, but I bid $75 on priceline.com and got my wish. The bill was $180 for two nights, not counting what I spent tasting wines at its intimate wine bar in the lobby.

In any case, with a fancy dinner and fancy hotel, I'd have to watch my pennies to do the rest of Pittsburgh and keep it less than $500.

But when my Saturday morning Starbucks cost me 20 cents less than it costs in Baltimore, I relaxed. I knew my hometown wouldn't turn my pockets inside out.

A stop in the Strip

My first stop was the Strip District, made famous by the Primanti Brothers restaurant and its signature sandwich, on which both cole slaw and french fries are piled -- along with meat -- on the bun. (Primanti's even has its own concession stand in PNC Park.)

There is nothing like a Saturday morning in the Strip District, located on a "strip" of land between the hills and the river.

It is three stretched-out rows of loading docks, food stores, restaurants, night spots, open air markets, sidewalk vendors and musicians -- and the ancient St. Stanislaus Kostka Polish Catholic church -- where every craving, from the spiritual to the gastronomical, can be satisfied.

The Strip is heaven for foodies. You can find any ingredient for any recipe from any country in the world.

I am ashamed to say this was my first trip there, and my first breakfast at Pamela's, a retro diner where you are likely to be waited on by Pamela herself.

For $5.95, I feasted on her "semi-famous" lyonnaise potatoes, her namesake hotcakes (which are more like oversized crepes) and chorizo sausage that was hotter than the coffee.

I was again glad to have driven to Pittsburgh, because I shopped. And then I shopped some more. I wished I had thought to bring a cooler after returning often to the van with my purchases of olive oil and spices.

But the best things in the Strip are free. The leisure of a Saturday morning. The sidewalk musicians. The sidewalk chefs, who offer ribs and omelets and Chinese pancakes and Italian pastries.

And ducking into the cool interior of a shop, where the smell of cheese or deli meats or fresh breads or olives or pickles greet you before the shop owners can.

As the heat rose in the late morning, I returned to the entrance of the Strip District and the Senator John Heinz History Center, named in honor of the late senator who died at age 52 in a plane crash in 1991, and featuring the history of his family's ketchup company. It is housed in an old ice warehouse that was used by the company until 1952.

For $7.50, I took a two-hour trip down memory lane. The museum is filled with memorabilia only a Pittsburgher could love: signs for Isaly's skyscraper ice-cream cones and Reymer's Blend (no relation!), Klondike bars, Clark Bars, Iron City beer and Rolling Rock.

There were signs from the U.S. Steel building -- which was actually built to rust -- and Joseph Horne Co. Dry Goods, the former downtown department store with the magical Christmas window displays.

There were signs, too, from Eat 'n Park, Gulf Oil and the Alcoa Building -- the first to be built entirely of aluminum. All are memories now.

The Heinz museum also showcases Pittsburgh illustrious sports history -- from the Homestead Grays of the old Negro Leagues to Franco Harris' Immaculate Reception. From Arnold Palmer to Tony Dorsett and Dan Marino.

Even my old high school, North Hills, was featured -- national champions in 1987.

If you ask nicely in the gift shop, the young woman behind the cash register will give you a pickle pin -- the souvenir given to millions of school children after their tour of the Heinz factory on the North Side.

Glass and pitchers

Pittsburgh has long been associated with steel-making, but the region was also the birthplace of glassmaking and is home to PPG Industries, once known as Pittsburgh Plate Glass.

The city is celebrating that heritage with magnificent glass displays at the Heinz History Center, the Carnegie Museum, the Pittsburgh Glass Center and Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Garden.

The Phipps was my next stop.

Located in the jewel that is Schenley Park -- a 400-acre park in the heart of the Oakland section of town and next to the University of Pittsburgh, Phipps was often my destination at Easter for its beautiful spring flower show.

Until Nov. 11, the otherworldly work of Seattle glass artist Dale Chihuly and his team is on display, mixed and mingled with the plants and in the gardens.

I had an quick lunch in the Phipps cafe for $9 before my leisurely tour of the exhibit. The tickets are timed -- the "Chihuly Nights" light show sells out -- but the conservatory was not crowded for a Saturday.

One of the volunteers told me that Chihuly and his staff arrived with six tractor-trailers of glass and took several weeks to install the hundreds of pieces. The $12.50 ticket price was a typical Pittsburgh bargain.

"You have to see the polar bears." My nephew called me before I left to demand that I visit his favorite Pittsburgh feature -- the sprawling ice-water home for a pair of teenage polar bear brothers, Koda and Nuka, just opened at the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium. (Admission is $10.)

The bears are so close you can play patty-cake with them through the Plexiglas. (They are trained to present their paws and open their mouths so their keepers can check for injuries.) And a Plexiglas tunnel underneath their pool enables you to watch them swim and play.

I couldn't help it. I found myself grinning and laughing like a child.

I returned to the Renaissance hot and tired, but determined to cram as much into my day as possible.

Just outside the hotel one of Pittsburgh's many bridges, this one renamed for baseball great Roberto Clemente and closed for pedestrian traffic on game nights at PNC Park.

It was 5:30 p.m. and fans were streaming across the bridge from downtown parking spots for a game against the Los Angeles Dodgers. And it was Bobblehead Doll Night.

My sisters were too busy with their daily lives to join me at the Strip, the Phipps or the zoo (see what I mean about the natives?), but one of them met me at the game.

We bought a couple of $9 bleacher tickets, collected our bobbleheads and took a tour of the stadium.

PNC Park is part of a new sports complex on the North Shore that includes Heinz Field, home to the Steelers. (Somehow, naming a sports stadium for a corporation doesn't seem so crass when you've been pouring its ketchup on your food for your whole life.)

It is an intimate park, with a grass field, designed to fit snugly in an urban grid, and it opens up to allow baseball fans a breathtaking view of the river and downtown.

Though we could have eaten at any of the 19 different concessions, some owned by Pittsburgh's favorite restaurants, my sister and I left the game early and strolled to Max's Allegheny Tavern on the North Side, a cozy neighborhood restaurant that features terrific German food, including red cabbage, every kind of wurst, sauerkraut with caraway seeds and smoky German potato salad.

We stuffed ourselves for $35 and washed it down with beer served in a Mason jar.

The next morning, I popped one of the Renaissance's smoothies in the cup holder of my van and headed for the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

Pittsburgh struggled during its painful transition from manufacturing town to the medical and banking center it has become. But it has blossomed again, while maintaining its intimacy and down-to-earth qualities.

On my way home, I called my husband and told him that it might have been a mistake to leave all those years ago when we thought the city was dying.

"I could have told you that," he said.

susan.reimer@baltsun.com

How the money was spent

Hotel

-- $180.28

Dining

-- $173.70

Tickets and entrance fees

-- $39

Gasoline and tolls

-- $103.70

Total

-- $496.68

If You Go

GETTING THERE

Southwest Airlines has a $39 one-way fare now, but if you choose to drive, take Interstate 70 West to Breezewood, Pa., to the Pennsylvania Turnpike, I-76 West. There are a number of exits around Pittsburgh, but the one that will take you downtown is the Monroeville exit, Route 22 and I-376. The drive takes between four and five hours. Tolls cost $6.50.

LODGING

There are plenty of places to stay in Pittsburgh. I went on priceline.com and bid $75 for a four-star hotel, and my wish was granted.

Renaissance Pittsburgh Hotel

-- The four-star hotel, on the water and in the heart of downtown, is beautifully restored. (Average rates $139-$209; 412-562-1200 or renaissancepittsburgh.com)

Omni William Penn

-- The Omni at 530 William Penn Place is a historic landmark. (Average rates $119-$249; 412-281-7100 or omnihotels.com.)

DINING

Mallorca

-- 2228 E. Carson St. This South Side restaurant offers Spanish cuisine. 412-488-1818; mallorcarestaurant.com.

Primanti Brothers

-- 46 18th St., inside PNC Park and other locations around Pittsburgh. Pick up a sandwich piled high with meat -- and fries and cole slaw. rackdeal.com/primantibrothers.

Max's Allegheny Tavern

-- 537 Suismon St. Max's, on the North Side, has terrific German food, including every kind of wurst. 412-231-1899; maxsalleghenytavern.com.

ACTIVITIES

The Strip District

-- This area is known for its rows of loading docks, food stores, restaurants, night spots, open air markets, sidewalk vendors and musicians.

Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens

-- See the otherworldly work of Seattle glass artist Dale Chihuly and his team here through Nov. 11. 412-622-6914; phipps.conservatory.org.

Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium

-- The zoo is home to thousands of animals representing more than 400 species, including Koda and Nuka, a pair of polar bear brothers. 412-665-3640; zoo.pgh.pa.us.

PNC Park

-- See the Pittsburgh Pirates play ball. pittsburgh.pirates.mlb.com.

INFORMATION

For a variety of Pittsburgh itineraries and suggestions, go to visitpittsburgh.com.

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