Stylist’s photography and specials director Tom Gormer visits an undiscovered part of America where art and food are top of the to-do list.
It is a Saturday afternoon and I’m in a basement covered in yellow poster paint. I’m screen-printing everything I can lay my hands on, from notebooks and T-shirts to sheets of paper and… a bandana. I’m basically pretending that I’m a British member of Andy Warhol’s factory. And I’m having the best time ever.
To bring you up to speed, I’ve spent the last two hours viewing the work of Warhol – from local art student to icon – at The Warhol museum in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The influential artist grew up in the city so it is only fitting that one of the largest collections of his work is housed here.
I have seen that Elizabeth Taylor. I’ve been told off for my nose almost touching a Brillo pad. I’ve starred in my own short film inspired by the screen tests he made in the Sixties. And I’ve stood in an empty room with just silver helium balloons and a wind machine, recreating his famous Silver Clouds artwork. It’s a totally brilliant multimedia exhibition.
I took a 90-minute flight from New York to get here but from 2 April British Airways will fly direct to Pittsburgh from Heathrow. Meaning you can leave London after lunch on Friday and arrive in time for a late dinner in a totally unique American city.
I am staying at the Ace Hotel – a 45-minute taxi ride from the airport (before you get here, download Uber; it is the only way to get around) – which is situated in the East Liberty neighbourhood, one of 90 neighbourhoods in the city.
The hotel is situated in a former YMCA, a 100-year-old building which has 63 rooms and has kept many of its original features. The old gym, for example, is now a communal space where people practise yoga on a Sunday, or play ping pong and cornhole. Like all Ace Hotels, the rooms have a retro feel with Pendleton blankets on the low, comfortable beds and Rudy’s toiletries in the bathroom.
The in-house restaurant, Whitfield, was started by Brent Young, a Pittsburgh native and co-founder of the famous Brooklyn butcher shop, The Meat Hook. The seasonal menu changes regularly, focusing on hearty dishes using local produce. There’s also a vegetarian tasting menu for $35 (£27), although it’s the toast with bacon jam (trust me!) I can’t stop thinking about.
My favourite neighbourhood is The Strip, just outside downtown Pittsburgh, adjacent to the river (Uber has offices here). Running from 11th to 33rd street, this – along with Butler Street, in Lawrenceville, with its multiple breweries and craft beers – has morphed from a no-go zone to one of the city’s hippest areas in recent years.
Today it’s home to everything from a chocolate boutique selling treats from 26 different countries, to an Italian grocer where you can taste the cheese, to Jimmy and Nino Sunseri Co, a bakery selling pepperoni rolls that people travel from out of town for. There is also a retro sweetshop that is like stepping into Willy Wonka’s factory.
If you need to refuel after strolling around The Strip then I recommend Smallman Galley. This unique food hall houses two bars and four pop-up street food stalls. Each eatery is given free business advice, marketing and rent for 18 months, before venturing out and setting up solo. When I visit, BA-CO tacos has the biggest queue with the pizzas of Iron Born a close second. If you want to taste some local wines, head two blocks away to The Courtyard Winery.
Escaping the crowds, I cross over one of Pittsburgh’s many bridges (there’s over 400) to the Mattress Factory , believed by many to be the most underrated art museum in America, and RandyLand – expect a very colourful public art display. The views from the bridges really showcase how varied Pittsburgh is: in its architecture, which spans modern structures to 18th-century brickworks, to its abundance of art and amazingly eclectic food.
For years New York has been my go-to city-break. A weekend in Pittsburgh taught me it might be time to change my mind.
Images: The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh, entrance, photo © Abby Warhola; The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh, floor 5 – Silver Clouds gallery, photo © Abby Warhola; Ace Hotel