Get Away From It All... In the Square

Okay, we know that gas prices now are a real pain in the pump — especially with the summer travel season just around the corner. So if you canceled that family outing to the shore or cabin during the upcoming Memorial Day weekend, we've got a budget-minded travel tip on a visit to one of the trendiest destinations around — Downtown Pittsburgh.

These days, just about any time you open a newspaper or magazine or turn on the TV or Internet, Pittsburgh is picking up another accolade, from the nation's most livable city to the safest place for pedestrians to get around town. And we couldn't agree more. Which is why we're posting a few ideas on how to plan a little Downtown Weekend Getaway — this weekend or any other.

Of course, we think every journey should start in this blog's favorite Downtown spot — Market Square. After you lace up those walking shoes, you might want to make a fast pit stop at Bruegger's Bagels or Dunkin Donuts to load up on the calories you'll need to burn as you discover the ins and outs of Downtown. And for some extra energy, stop by Nicholas Coffee and order one of their freshly brewed specialty java drinks. Now that your tank is full — at prices far below what OPEC charges — it's time to get this weekend jaunt on the road.

By now you know that the Square is the historic heart of the city.  While we're talking about history, there's no better way to explore many of the city's wonders than on a self-guided Pittsburgh History & Landmarks walking tour or the Art In Public Places walk, sponsored by the Office of Public Art. Whatever direction you take, you'll discover some of the oldest buildings and the coolest art you'll find outside of a museum. In the case of inclemnet weather, stop into the Fort Pitt Museum at Point State Park. At only $5 you won't even miss the fuel perks!

With a chunk of art, architecture and history smarts under your belt, you might want to relax with a bit of a shopping spree. We suggest that you head back to where this all started, where you could spend nearly a whole day — and a little bit of cash — at the shops in and around the Square. From the oh-so-hip stylings at Serendipity to the well-heeled footware at the Nettleton Shop, the Square is fast becoming a shopper's oasis. For the coolest looks in sunglasses and other accessories, stop in at WEAR and Heinz-Healy's for casual men's wear. And just around the corner, on tony Fifth Avenue, there's even more at Larrimor's and the newly opened Joseph A. Banks stores.

If you don't know where to go or what to do, a weekend Downtown could seem long.  Fortunately, you've got us as your secreate weapon!  After all that shopping you might want to give your credit card a break, so why not enjoy the city from a different point of view. We think one of the best ways to make a splash Downtown is to dip your oar in one of Pittsburgh three rivers in a kayak. To put your best Lewis and Clark navigation skills to the test, Kayak Pittsburgh rents one and two person craft May through October. We certainly don't believe in corporal punishment, but this is one form of paddling that everyone deserves. If you're not looking to get your feet wet but still want to cruise the waterways, the Just Ducky and Gateway Clipper launch from Station Square, just across the Smithfield Street Bridge. For a unique view of why the three rivers make our city special, take a few moment to watch a special video produced by Riverlife.

With more than 25 miles of trails that follow the city's rivers, hiking, walking and biking have never been easier in Pittsburgh. With the opening of a new section of trail near the Convention Center, bikers can pedal from the McKees Rocks Bridge to the 40th Street Bridge to 21st Street in the Strip to the Steelers training facility near the SouthSide Works. With all the outdoor cafes throughout Downtown, you can roll up put a quick hurt on that hunger and keep rolling. And if you don't own a bike, you can rent a set of wheels at Golden Triangle Bike Rental, near the PNC Bank Firstside facility, just off Grant Street. 

Just about now, it might be time to start thinking about a bite to eat. And, that means it's time to head back to the Square. Maybe you want to go old school with a hefty meal at the Oyster House or Primanti's. Of perhaps it's a spicy specialty from Chipotle or Moe's Southwest. For something a little more upscale, try Bella Sera, urban tratoria of the Canonsburg venue of the same name.  And for some bon temps gourmet at NOLA, where the tastes of New Orleans flavor the menu. Or comfort food with a twist at Winghart's Burgers. Best of all, if the sun is shining, almost every eatery in the Square now offers al fresco dining. From Italian to All-American, there's something for every palette in the Square.

We like to think that the nighttime is the right time to be in the city. Well, we actually think anytime is a great time to be Downtown. But when the sun sets on the city, the highlights continue to shine. Whether it's a Broadway show at the Benedum, the world-class Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra at Heinz Hall, a stage play at the Public Theater or a jazz ensemble at the Fairmont Hotel, nightlife is certainly alive Downtown. If you want something more interactive, we've got salsa dancing every Friday and Saturday night. And keep in mind that the Bucs play ball all summer long at PNC Park, the best diamond any girl or guy could want. To check out all the "after-dark" happenings Downtown, be sure to click on the Downtown Pittsburgh Partnership Events Calendar. And just in case you need a spot to refuel after a big day in the city, Market Square is the perfect rest stop with a restaurants and bars for just about every taste.  With so many hotels in walking distance (Fairmont, Renaissance, and Wyndham are the closest) you've never had such an easy time getting "home."

So if a "staycation" is on the books for you this summer, you can get away yard work, bills and all those everyday routines and be a tourist in your own hometown when you visit Downtown Pittsburgh.


Reading, Riding and Caring

Okay, maybe the marathon is over. But you still might want to run over to Market Square this week to catch up on a good read or two when the Carnegie Reading Room returns to open a new chapter on one of last year's most successful programs. In fact, the Reading Room cart will park itself in the Square every Tuesday this year — starting this week — instead of every other week. From May 17 (that's tomorrow, you know) until October 11, the Reading Room is the perfect place to release the inner bookworm in you from 11 a.m.-2 p.m.. It's also great for the lunch crowd that wants to lose itself in a good mystery or history book under one of the Square's trees while sipping sip a cool, refreshing beverage or munching on delectable edibles from one of the many fine eateries that surround the Square.

Now along with picking up a best-selling novel or can't-put-it-down self-help book, everything at the Reading Room is on sale for prices that are a bargain you won't find anywhere else in town at just a buck for hardcovers and paperbacks at only 50 cents. Best of all, every book you buy will help support one of Pittsburgh's greatest assets — the free Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh system. And if you're looking to clear some space on your home bookshelf for your new purchases, you can donate your previously read volumes to the Downtown Library on Smithfield Street so that other can enjoy them. Be sure to remember to bookmark this one for every Tuesday on your calendar.

One thing we can tell you is that people around here are ready to roll up their sleeves when it comes to helping out. If you've been looking for that perfect time and opportunity to give something back to the town you call home, stop by the Square Tuesday (same day as the Reading Room) to visit the Pittsburgh Cares staff. Starting today, they'll help you get involved in HandsOn Pittsburgh, a special two-day event this May 20 and 21 to pitch in with your time and talents with the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, Habitat for Humanity, Western Pennsylvania Conservancy and other area non-profits that are making the region even more livable for everyone. You can get involved individually or with a team of co-workers or friends and family. Either way, you'll being doing a good deed. On top of all that, you'll get a free T-shirt for participating and a special discounts at local restaurants. With those kind of incentives, this is one opportunity you'll want to get your hands on.

Get ready for a doubleheader this Wednesday, with two events sharing the Square. The Higher Education Information Fair  might not have carnival rides, but if you're looking to increase your worth on the job market this might be the ticket for you. Hosted by CEA/PA, the Continuing Education Association of PA, the fair gives you the chance to speak one-on-one with admissions representatives from nearly 20 institutions of higher  learning and discover how earning a degree or advanced degree can make you more attractive to potential employers.

Across the Square the United Way of Allegheny County and The Pittsburgh Foundation ask the question, "Why Cut What Works?"  Starting at 11:30 a.m. Bob Nelkin, President and CEO of United Way and Grant Oliphant, President and CEO of The Pittsburgh Foundation, along with other nonprofit and community leaders address spending cuts for nonprofits, especially those serving the human services sector. But these folks are thinking big picture, too, and to talk about "the social compact" – the idea that together we work to safeguard the well-being of communities for ALL citizens. It's a complicated topic so get out there, listen to all sides of the debate and become part of the conversation. After all, that's what a town square like Market Square is for!

Anyone who's paying attention knows that the price of a gallon of gas is soaring and burning a big hole in your pocket. One of the cheapest — and healthiest — alternatives to the budget-busting cost of fuel is to pedal your way to work Downtown. And since this is National Bike to Work Week, there's no better time to get rolling. Just in case you're wondering, both Bicycling magazine and the League of American Bicyclists named our favorite city one of the most bike friendly towns in the U.S.A.

If you're looking to plan your ride route, you can get a downloadable trail map from the good folks at Bike Pittsburgh, who also offer a few tips about commuting to and from your job and biking around town in general.  You might be surprised to find out that along with an extensive network of well-maintained trails up and down the three rivers, there are more than 25 miles of designated bike lanes on city streets. What's that you say? You don't have a bike. Well, just about wherever you look these days in the city, another new cycle shop seems to be opening for business. So there's no shortage of options for getting yourself a new set of wheels. If you're not sure about spending a few hundred dollars for a new two-wheeler, Golden Triangle Bike Rentals is the place to go for a test ride or two. Finally, you'll not only save gas money, bike parking in many Downtown garages costs less than a can of soda from the lunchroom vending machine — and you might just be eligible for a commuter tax break from Uncle Sam. That's what we call a wheel deal.

If you've been keeping current on your Market Square blog reading, you know that the Square once was better known as "The Diamond." Well, this coming Saturday — May 21, to be exact — one lucky person will take home a real diamond during the 2nd Annual Henne Jeweler's Diamond Dash.  About 500 participants in teams of two will compete to win a diamond engagement ring valued at $15,000.  Dazzle your partner with your brilliant knowledge of the city and overall smarts. It's free to join in the fun. And even if you don't take home a really nice piece of "ice," you'll dig exploring the city in your quest to grab the diamond ring.   So, sign up today, come early and caffinate up at a Market Square coffee shop so you are at your sparkling best and let the games begin!

And before we sign off, don't forget the Farmers Market this Thursday from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Last week's opening day was a big success with most vendors selling out their bounty of organically grown veggies and homemade foods and other goods. Don't forget your cooler so you can take home some of the frozen meats and eggs that are new this year. 

So unless you're afraid of melting in the rain, we'll see you in the Square for an amazing week of events!


The Farmers Market Returns

Just in case you don't have May 12 — that's tomorrow, by the way — circled on your calendar, now's the time to grab that Sharpie and make a few rings around the date. That just happens to be the day that the Farmers Market returns to Market Square and the kickoff of our Thursdays in Market Square events. Now, we all know it's been a long, cool wet spring. But every time we stroll around the Market in the Square, we feel like we're walking on sunshine every Thursday from 10 a.m. -2 p.m. until November.

Of course, a lot of perennial favorites will set up tables and shop their wares tomorrow. It's kind of like getting back together with old friends or a high school reunion. We know that there are plenty of old acquaintances that we're looking forward to renewing — and getting to know even better in the weeks ahead. And if you look at the list below, you'll probably notice a smile stretching across your face as you spot a few of your favorite vendors:

Sand Hill Berries — Stop by for some of the tastiest fruit pies in town, or fruits to make your own
Greendance Winery — Take home a perfect bottle of vino for sipping with dinner
Cinco de Mayo — It's always hot, hot, hot with these homemade salsas and prepared vegetables
Gosia's Pierogies — Pittsburgh's favorite food in a pouch, ready to eat in the Square or to make at home
Evelyn's Elegant Edibles — Accent your purchases with gourmet seasonings, rubs and ready-to-go sides
Harvest Valley Farms — Your pick of 50 varieties of fresh produce (returning early June with their strawberry crop)
Little Athens — Of course it's all Greek to us... food that is, and desserts too.
Colaizzi Brothers — Satisfy your sweet tooth with speciality cakes and chocolates
Rise Above Bakery — Buy a loaf of your daily bread, or scone, or cookie...
Billy's County Smokehouse — Sausages, bacon, salmon, jerky and other meats smoked to perfection
Ridgeview Acres Farms — Add a splash of color to your home or office with flowers both familiar and unusual

And as much as we love all our old friends, we're always excited about introducing new faces in the Square. This year's crop of newcomers includes:

Uncle Fester's Favorites — Sample homemade mustards, barbecue sauces, pickled vegetables, peanut butter, jams and more
Clarion River Organics — Stop by and say hello to a cooperative of six farming families selling organic produce, meats, dairy, grains and kombucha, a fermented homemade herbal tea
As I Am Naturals — Pamper yourself with artisan soaps and skincare products

Keep your eyes open for other new additions to the Farmers Market, such as an on-site market manager to help keep things going smoothly, samplings from local chefs, seasonal recipes and some social media fun happenings.

Speaking of fun, City Paper is bringing you Thursdays Noontime Concerts take the stage again, starting in June. We think this year's lineup of musical talent will strike the perfect chord as you dance to the music all summer long in the Square.

Remember, the Farmers Market sets up in the Square every Thursday, rain or shine, from 10 a.m.-2 p.m., May 12 to November 17. Whether you're looking to pick a peck of peppers — pickled or otherwise — or just want to relax with some great food and tunes, we'll see you at the Market in the Square.

Note: If you miss our market tomorrow, or you just can't get enough of markets, the one at the City-County Building has its first day on Friday so you can stop by and say hi to them too!


Market Square — Then and Now

Just about every time we step into Market Square, it's like taking a time machine trip back to the earliest days of Pittsburgh. Maybe it's the Belgian block that paved the way for the city's first "modern" streets. Or maybe it's the fried-fish aroma wafting from the Square's oldest business Original Oyster House. And you could just say that it's the wide-open plaza of the "new" Square that hearkens to the original design of the space old-time Pittsburghers called "The Diamond" because its of its orientation to the four compass points. But the truth is, just about whatever direction you cast a glance, you're looking at a building linked to the city's past. And to show you what we mean, we put together a mini-photo album of "then and now" images of the Square not-so recent bygone days.

You don't have to be a historian to recognize the familiar name in the photo above. When that black-and-white shot was snapped nearly 50 years ago, Nicholas Coffee was freshly roasting the beans that helped perk up the morning for drowsy Downtown workers as they started another day at the office. Of course, a half-century can make a difference in any building's appearance. But if you check out the image to the right, we think you'll agree that the Square's favorite purveyor of coffee and tea looks pretty good with its Chippendale makeover in place of the building's 1940s decor.  And we're willing to bet that  Deifbaugh's Cafe served up some hearty old-time fare, but NOLA definitely adds some new spice to the Square with its bon temps roulet infused New Orleans style cuisine.

Now, if you execute a 180-degree spin, you'll be facing the corner of the-soon-to-be reopened Las Velas Mexican cantina and an under-construction new restaurant owned by the Primanti's proprietors. We love the all-glass facade of the upper floor of the building. And we have it on good word that the ground-level restaurant will provide an open-air atmosphere that will help bring the Square right into the dining area.  If you peer down Market toward Fifth Avenue, you can see the front of Prantl's and Mancini's new location, the freshly renovated blue and cream terra cotta Buhl Building and the luxe Fairmont Hotel. It's a diverse group, indeed.

But turn back the clock and that same stretch of street mixed up produce and poultry with jewelry and fancy footwear. Whether it was fresh fruit or a perfectly plucked chicken, this corner of commerce enjoyed a steady stream of potential customers looking for something to put on the dinner table. On the other hand, a different clientele might be looking to impress a certain special woman in his life with a sparkling bauble or two and maybe a new pair of shoes for himself. Coincidentally, the Nettleton Shop sits across the street today, selling some of the finest shoes around. Some things don't change all that much.

Our trip down memory lane takes a southern detour as we head to the spot where McMasters Way and Forbes Avenue meet. These days, if you look past Moe's Southwest, you'll spy Winghart's Burger and Whisky Bar, La Gondola pizzeria, Subway and Primanti's. But if you stood on that same corner in the early 1960s — a few years after the demolition of the market house that occupied what's now the Square's terrazzo plaza — the view would be a bit different, at least on the surface.

Back in 1962, a variety of business operated at street level of the Civil War era building that now houses Primanti's. Aside from a roof job and a new coat of paint, the former warehouse looks just about the same today. We can't say for sure, but we think the front of Bubble's Bar pretty much did double duty as the establishment's large-print menu for it's near-sighted patrons. And you don't have to be a surveyor to figure out that the Square's sidewalks had to be smaller back then. How else could you park cars on both sides of the street? And eagle-eyed readers will note that the upper right corner reveals a few structures that are long gone. But the PPG Place complex is welcome addition that will be around for a few years.

What makes for a truly amazing history walk is that so many of the buildings around the Square can trace their roots as far back as the 1860s. Which means that the past is always present when you're in Market Square.