Look past Pittsburgh's popular attractions for some off-the-beaten-path summer fun
May 22, 2015 12:00 AM
Randyland, the Mexican War Streets home of Randy Gilson, features colorful murals and street art.
Tony Marsico shows off some of the Bayernhof Museum's music machines and a pool table made for use in the 1961 movie "The Hustler" in 2004.
The Center for PostNatural History in Garfield features vegetables engineered by humans along with transgenic insects and radioactive rodents.
By Janice Crompton / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Pittsburgh is home to many hidden gems. With a museum devoted to robots, a center showcasing mutant vegetables and a set of tours focused mainly on food, it’s a place that revels in its unique character.
Journalist Andrea Poe of the Huffington Post recently referred to our beloved ’Burgh as “the coolest American city you haven’t been to,” saying it has “an authentic, indie-spirited vibrancy you don't see much in cities anymore. In this era of homogenized cities, Pittsburgh is a breath of fresh air. It embraces its industrial past while simultaneously wrapping its strong arms around progressive green developments, an enlightened foodie reputation, and its birthright as one of America's quirkiest cities.”
Locals know that both the suburbs and city have many attractions that often aren’t highlighted on the typical tourist map or visitor’s guide.
Here are some unusual things to do around the region as summer unofficially kicks off this weekend.
This Tudor mansion overlooking the Allegheny River in O’Hara has secret passageways and an eclectic collection of musical instruments curated by the late Charles B. Brown III.
After his death in 1999, Mr. Brown’s 19,000-square-foot home was converted into a showcase of rare and unusual instruments, but there’s more than just self-playing violins and automatic banjos in every nook and corner — the home includes a subterranean passage, which Ms. Poe said is accessed “Scooby-Doo-style,” that leads to a cave containing stalagmites and stalactites. Farther in is an indoor pool and waterfall with a wine cellar equipped with a moonshine still.
Admission is $10. Reservations are required for guided tours. Visitors must be age 12 and older. Information: www.bayernhofmuseum.com or 412-782-4231.
’Burgh Bits & Bites
It’s practically impossible to experience all Pittsburgh has to offer without sampling some of its famous foods.
These walking tours — of the Strip District, Brookline, Bloomfield, Lawrenceville and the North Side — feature some of the city’s best-known neighborhoods and their historic sites, stopping along the way to snack on a variety of treats unique to each location.
In addition, you will likely meet some of the more interesting characters behind the foods, who may share some of their culinary secrets. The tours also lead visitors through many specialty shops.
The cost is $39 per person for any of the five neighborhood tours. Reservations are required. Group tours or special locations are available. Information: www.burghfoodtour.com or 412-901-7150.
Center for Postnatural History
Pittsburgh is home to a museum that celebrates genetic engineering in a most unusual way.
Not for the faint of heart, the Center for PostNatural History in Garfield features vegetables engineered by humans along with transgenic insects and radioactive rodents — all natural organisms that have been altered by humans for various purposes.
Science geeks will thrill at the mutant exhibitions, including a collection of animals and insects found dead on the grounds of the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, a “Bio-Steel” goat that was genetically modified to produce silk from the Golden Orb Weaver Spider in its milk, and a ribless mouse embryo that is also transparent.
Admission is free. The center is open from noon to 4 p.m. Sundays and from 6 to 8 p.m. the first Friday each month or by appointment. Information: www.postnatural.org or 412-223-7698.
The Arch Avenue courtyard of artist Randy Gilson in the Mexican War Streets on the North Side is open to the public every day from about 1-7 p.m. Well-known among locals, this is a treasure that probably is not listed in any tourist guide.
Mr. Gilson’s courtyard is filled with his street art, and on most days, the artist can be found outside working on his latest piece, perhaps recycling glass shards into a mosaic or decoratively hanging discarded metal patio chairs from his fire escape.
The public art display he has put together over the past 30 years includes a 40-foot mural of brilliantly colored ladybugs, butterflies, dinosaurs and more.
Admission is free. A donation is suggested. Information: randy.land or 412-342-8152.
Robot Hall of Fame
Never let it be said that Pittsburgh has a shortage of fun-loving nerds.
In 2003, a group of them put together a Robot Hall of Fame at Carnegie Mellon University as a way to recognize excellence in robotics technology and to honor fictional and real robots that have provided inspiration or made breakthrough accomplishments in robotics.
Designed by the university’s school of computer science, the hall of fame at first was only online, but by 2009, the school incorporated the hall with its “roboworld” exhibit at Carnegie Science Center on the North Shore. Each year, a group of jurists is to select a new class of inductees, though it hasn’t been done since 2012.
Although Pittsburgh is home to more than 100 Catholic churches, St. Anthony’s Chapel in Troy Hill is one of a kind — it houses the world’s largest collection of Catholic artifacts outside of the Vatican.
More than 5,000 relics are on display at the chapel, which has been designated a Historical Landmark by the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation.
The chapel is open 1 to 4 p.m. every day except Friday, with tours available at 1, 2 and 3 p.m.
Admission is free, although donations are accepted. Children are welcome, but the chapel prohibits photography or videotaping. Parking is free.
This museum in Hampton tells the story of The Depreciation Lands, property that Pennsylvania gave to its residents who fought in the Revolutionary War as a way to pay them for their service because the dollar had greatly depreciated during the war. The area included all of the North Hills and parts of Butler, Beaver, Lawrence and Armstrong counties.
The site contains a church built in 1837, a log house, a functioning blacksmith shop, a barn housing a Conestoga wagon and more. Costumed interpreters portray life in that era from 1 to 4 p.m. Sundays during the season.
Admission is $3 for adults, $1 for children and free to museum members, with other rates for special events and programs.
Founded in 1977, the Mattress Factory is a contemporary art museum and experimental lab that showcases work created by artists in residence from around the world, according to its website.
Definitely not your typical museum, the cutting-edge Mattress Factory offers interactive elements spread out in multiple attached buildings on Sampsonia Way on the North Side.
The museum sponsors an artist-in-residence program each year in addition to its permanent exhibits and those created by visiting artists.
There also is an ARTLab for kids, along with activities for all ages.
Admission is $20 for adults; $15 for age 64 and older and for students; $10 for veterans; and free for children younger than 6, museum members and students from Carnegie Mellon and Point Park universities. Admission is half price for those who live in the 15212 ZIP code and have identification. Tuesdays are half-price admission days for everyone. Group discounts are available. Information: 412-231-3169 or www.mattress.org.
Other out-of-the-way attractions can be found in these city neighborhoods:
If you’re visiting the city this summer, consider heading to Oakland to eat at the Conflict Kitchen, which serves food from countries in conflict with the U.S., then take a short walk to the Nationality Rooms at the University of Pittsburgh Cathedral of Learning and onto Posvar Hall, formerly called Forbes Quadrangle, where the home plate from Forbes Field is displayed inside.
Rent bikes for a ride on the Strip District section of the Three Rivers Heritage Trail, then have lunch and shop in the many Strip District shops. Cap off the day with a visit to the Heinz History Center.
Surrounding counties offer out-of-the-box activities, too
Here’s a quick-reference list of some unusual activities in counties surrounding Pittsburgh:
If you have the need for speed, hit the road to the Pittsburgh International Race Complex in Big Beaver. Racing enthusiasts can spend an afternoon driving on the 0.82-mile go-kart track or watching cars, motorcycles or autocross race.
The track, formerly BeaverRun MotorSports Complex, which went bankrupt in 2010, offers go-kart rentals, defensive driver training and more. Information: www.pittrace.com or 724-535-1000.
Another place to visit is the Air Heritage Museum at the Beaver County Airport in Chippewa. The museum features a link to aviation history and relics from historical aircraft. A number of historic aircraft on display from both military and civilian origins.
Museum admission is free. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and by appointment only on Sunday. Information: www.airheritage.org or 724-843-2820.
In addition to Old Economy Village in Ambridge, history buffs can visit the Beaver Area Heritage Museum in Beaver or the Italian Renaisssance-style B.F. Jones Memorial Library, built in 1928, in Aliquippa.
If you head north this summer to Butler County, you’ll find the Jennings Environmental Education Center, the Harmony Museum and the Evans City Cemetery, where “Night of the Living Dead” was filmed.
If you want to travel a little farther north to Lawrence County, you can visit the Volant shopping district, where local Amish families sell their wares. Some community members sell baked goods, produce and other treats right from their farms. Remember to leave the cameras behind — Amish people object to having their photo taken.
There’s much to do in the Laurel Mountains, so you might want to make it a weekend trip. You can visit Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterpieces, Fallingwater and Kentuck Knob; go cave exploring in the Laurel Caverns; go whitewater rafting or visit the large waterfall in Ohiopyle State Park. Other stops can include Fort Necessity or Nemacolin Castle.
Yes, the Big Mac was invented here. For proof, stop by the Big Mac Museum in North Huntingdon.
The area also offers the KLBE Latrobe Air Museum — named for the international identifier for the Arnold Palmer Regional Airport in Unity, where the museum is located — as well as the Westmoreland Museum of American Art and Historic Hanna’s Town.
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