Ten Charming Pittsburgh-Area Towns

    Sometimes one gets the feeling that most Pittsburghers would rather stay in their neighborhoods than enjoy strolling the streets and partaking of the eateries of charming towns that may happen to be across a river or in “hills” of the opposite direction. Mention a supposed faraway town, and the response might be a phrase such as “All the way out there?” or “We never get out to that area.” This attitude is a shame because it implies a reluctance to explore some wonderful local areas—quaint and charming towns with walkable, well-established downtowns, tree-lined streets, Victorian-style homes, and tempting restaurants and bakeries.

    This is, therefore, a short survey of such towns that central-centric Pittsburghers, or Allegheny County purists, might normally ignore. It doesn’t matter whether each is officially a borough, or a city neighborhood, or a township, or a municipality within a township, or even a suburb inscrutably with a Pittsburgh city zip code; these are all here being treated as “towns” in the traditional sense—charmingly nostalgic shopping districts with blocks of restaurants, cafes, bookstores, antiques/gift shops, boutiques, and bakeries. Perhaps there’s a nearby park or gazebo or waterway; and it doesn’t hurt to have close-by residential streets with lovely Victorian homes lining them. Some locations may be a bit more (or less) than an hour away from the city/the Strip. For those in the South Hills, visiting places like Aspinwall and Sewickley may be considered by some to be a major undertaking across two rivers, while North Hills folks might see a day in Mt. Lebanon as an unusual outing—and thus, these make the list as well as farther attractions such as Volant and Ligonier. (Temporarily absent from the “top ten” are such worthy destinations as Oakdale, Dormont, Brookline, Millvale, Bellevue, Brentwood, Ben Avon, Saxonburg, and Evans City.) The selections here are based on fairly frequent personal experiences of afternoons spent strolling, shopping—and eating. So explore, and enjoy!

    Beaver

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    Some may consider a day trip to Beaver to be too much of a travel commitment—but it’s really just a convenient drive west on I-79. This wonderful town has everything for those wanting to spend an afternoon in another, somewhat nostalgic, world. Its charming main avenue (Third St./Rt. 68) of storefronts has fine restaurants/cafes, an excellent bakery (Kretchmar’s), and a central gazebo—and free parking! At one end of Third Street are two beautiful parks, and towards the other end is an outpost of the Strip’s familiar Grandpa Joe’s Candy Shop. The nostalgia continues with the Beaver Super [Market] and the Towne Square Restaurant—a diner/luncheonette with inexpensive homemade dishes—both right out of the 1960s.

    An important aspect of a walk or drive through Beaver is what most of these destinations have in common: well-kept Victorian homes on mainly flat side streets that are easily reached or connected to the main commercial section. In the case of Beaver, you will also want to travel down nearby River Road, with its many stately homes across from an avenue-long park that looks over the Ohio River below. Along River Road are the Beaver Area Heritage Museum and the site and monument of the historically important Fort McIntosh (built 1778).

    Easy travel: I-376 West to Rt. 68/Beaver.

    Volant and New Wilmington 

    A trip up I-79 can be additionally rewarding for those visiting the Grove City outlets: At that exit (113), turning west onto a country road (Rt. 208) will bring day-trippers to the small village of Volant—certainly a well-known destination for its Victorian-farmhouse homes turned into shops, and its Volant Mills building, a 200-plus-year-old gristmill that is now a huge old-fashioned general store. Most of the house-stores on Main Street are decked out by season, with Halloween and Christmas being notably festive; gift and antiques shops proliferate; and the Neshannock Creek Inn is a nice place for lunch. If you continue on the road before you leave Volant you can sample (or purchase) vintages at the Volant Mill Winery, and possibly spy horse-drawn buggies carrying Amish drivers.

    Further along the route is one of this corridor’s hidden gems—New Wilmington, home of the beautiful campus of Westminster College and with a large Amish population. There are several quaint shops here (e.g., The Silk Road Market), and the historic Tavern on the Square was always worth a visit—until its unfortunate closure late last year (contact the town for any news regarding its reopening). But continuing a bit further on Route 208, at Route 18 you can satisfy certain cravings at the famous Abe’s Old-Fashioned Custard stand. And those who wish to search out Amish businesses tucked away on farms may be able to find Anna’s Baked Goods and Donuts (642 Wilson Mills Rd.) or Byler’s Candy (62 Windmill Ln.).

    Easy travel: I-79 North to Grove City exit (113), west on Route 208.

    Harmony and Zelienople 

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    The Zelienople Main Street shopping district hosts lots of stores and a superb theater (The Strand, a restored 1914 movie house now featuring movies, concerts, and Broadway-quality shows)—as well as the landmark Kaufman House/Hotel (built 1902), recently renovated into a grandiose restaurant, the Kaufman Tavern.

    “Attached” to Zelienople just a few blocks away is Harmony—a National Historic Landmark District—established at this location from 1804 to 1814 by Johann George Rapp as the religious Harmonist community, to be succeeded by Mennonites. The 19th-century structures remain, with several original log cabins, and everything is well preserved or restored. Lovely period cottages are scattered throughout the more institutional buildings, and all of this ends at a park that borders the winding Connoquenessing Creek. In the central (Main Street) area one finds the Lagerhaus Bakery and the Harmony Museum and the Bottlebrush Gallery arts center/shop (which also houses Last Dog Records for vintage-vinyl lovers).

    Main Street connects with Mercer Street, with more storefronts—notable are Two Fraus Bakery and Wunderbar Coffee & Crepes—and one of the best restaurant destinations in several counties: At the historic (1856) Harmony Inn, with its outdoor patios and indoor 19th-century fireplaced rooms, diners can enjoy food (and weekend entertainment) with a German and pub accent—and perhaps glimpse evidence of its rumored hauntings.

    Easy travel: I-79 North (exits 85/88, to Zelienople and Harmony).

    Perrysville

    By turning off Route 19 (McKnight Road) in the McCandless/Ross area at Babcock Boulevard and then continuing straight, one comes upon the “village” of Perrysville (apparently part of Ross Township, but with some businesses claiming West View as their address)—in the 19th century, a significant and thriving stagecoach stop. Perrysville strikes one as being purposefully set up as an oasis of quaintness as one approaches the City of Pittsburgh from the north. Decorated vintage-style street lamps line blocks of shops, bakeries, and cafes, all crowned by a remaining Isaly’s—a step-back-in-time diner where words like lunch counter, ice-cream soda fountain, and “chipped chopped ham” describe the experience. Also on this road one comes across Sweet Mary’s Ice Cream, the Perrytowne Drafthouse, the Cakery, DiPietro’s Restaurant, and Wiegand’s Café. Travel more deeply into West View to visit Duncan Books, Comics, and Accessories—and then up a hill to Pinball Perfection (an arcade museum where you can also try your luck at any of the 300 vintage pinball machines).

    Easy travel: Rt. 19 north of Pittsburgh, in Ross area: Babcock Blvd., then continuing straight onto Three Degree Rd.; left onto Perry Hwy. 

    Aspinwall

    The borough of Aspinwall is located along Freeport Road along the Allegheny River, between (and accessible by) Oakmont’s Hulton Bridge and the Highland Park Bridge. Its Riverfront Park has been called one of the best in Pittsburgh by the Post-Gazette, and associated with it is the Riverfront Theater Company. Aspinwall is a small-scale reflection of its historic-homed western neighbors down the road, Sewickley and Ben Avon. Aspinwall has lovely early 20th-century brick houses on humble lots, and those on Brilliant Avenue segue into modestly upscale shops and boutiques (including Spark Books, for children). A pleasant walk among the flat residential streets will lead to a second shopping area on Commercial Avenue. One may know Bella Christie and Lil Z’s Sweet Boutique bakery from its original Lawrenceville incarnation, and a half-block down is Luke and Mike’s Frontporch; the town’s other restaurants include the Cornerstone and Caliente Pizza & Drafthouse. Aspinwall is also home to one of the best and oldest Italian-food stores in our area, Labriola’s Italian Market (also in Warrendale and Monroeville).

    Easy travel: Off Freeport Rd.—west from the Hulton Bridge in Oakmont, or east from the Highland Park Bridge.

    Oakmont 

    Oakmont and Verona are adjacent towns with a lot of strolling-the-shops opportunities. You can reach them from the North Shore routes, or better, by a leisurely drive along scenic Allegheny River Boulevard. That way, Verona comes first, its main street filled with older but nice shops/eateries, and with the large Miller’s antiques mall on parallel Railroad Avenue. Then it’s onto Oakmont, its two main shopping streets scenically divided by the sunken tracks of the Allegheny Valley Railroad and its picturesque station. This makes one side of the avenue (continuing Allegheny River Blvd.) appear to be along a high ridge. Here—with free parking—there are plenty of inviting shops to peruse (although some restaurants and an ice-cream stand are on the avenue below). The Oaks is a restored theater for movies (classics and themes, such as for Halloween) and other attractions, and there is also the well-known Mystery Bookshop.

    Oakmont is also home to the Oakmont Country Club (ca. 1903), whose prestige in the world of golf has resulted in more USGA and PGA championships than any other U.S. course. The tour-able historic Kerr Memorial Museum—a gracious 19th-century doctor’s home with era-accurate furnishings—sits just off the main avenue among other lovely Victorian-era houses.

    Yet Oakmont’s fame and attraction may be due mainly to the gastronomically overwhelming Oakmont Bakery. This is the Kennywood of bakeries, with its own parking lot and what seems like miles of visually enticing pastries, cupcakes, breads, cookies, donuts, and other baked goods that are outstanding in terms of variety and quality. Breakfast and lunch are available, with outdoor and indoor tables, plus comfy-couch seating near a “fireplace” and a huge screen with videos of the business’s impressive cake decorators plying their art. And don’t be intimidated by the usual wait here—the ticket-number-guided lines are enormous, but the staff is so efficient and friendly that waiting around for your turn is more like being at a big party.

    Easy travel: From Lawrenceville’s Butler St.—or Fifth Ave. to Washington Blvd.—onto Allegheny
    River Blvd.

    Bridgeville 

    Unlike many of the other town centers on our list, Bridgeville’s shopping district doesn’t spring up from residential neighborhoods but rather lies between, or breaks up, the march of strip malls, supermarkets, and fast-food establishments stretching for miles along Washington Pike/Route 50. Yet its several blocks of small stores and eateries are fine examples of the comforting small-town experience, and some of its nicest homes are on several brick-paved flat roads in the historic Gregg Avenue Neighborhood between Chartiers and Bank streets. Though the famous Tambellini’s has long departed, there are several good restaurants/pubs, ’Burgh’s Pizza & Wing Pub being the best known; the Railyard and Crafty Jackalope are also great casual eateries, and LaBella Bean is an appealing coffeehouse. Collectors will find three comic book/card/sports stores, as well as an antiques stop in the basement of a multi-story stone office building. On hot summer nights lines wrap around the Dari Delite (with park-set seating, all painted “1950s” orange), and down the block is a small park with a gazebo, next to a beautifully restored train car, now the home of the local historical society.

    Easy Travel: Fort Pitt Bridge to Mt. Lebanon, onto Bower Hill Rd. to end in Bridgeville; or I-79 to exit 54. 

    Ligonier 

    A visit to Ligonier involves a commitment to heading towards Greensburg and Latrobe, then following Route 30 along a winding wooded road to emerge in a magical Shangri-la. Ligonier is full of history and boasts probably the most impressive gazebo of all, on “the Diamond” in the heart of the business district; the town’s shops encircle that large central island. A nostalgic pub/eatery, Ligonier Tavern & Table, stands on a corner—a Victorian “painted lady” with balconies for dining and a majestic turret. The restored 1930s Diamond Theater is a state-of-the-art movie house and performing-arts venue. One can visit a myriad of shops while walking towards, and then along the sidewalks around, the gazebo. For sweets lovers there’s both the Ligonier Sweet Shop and Ligonier Creamery, as well as lots of unique gift shops and eateries; and past the gazebo further on E. Main are more shops (Second Chapter Books) together with idyllic Victorian residences. Just down the road (Market St./Rt. 30) is more great history: Tour the 18th-century Fort Ligonier and enjoy special weekends at the Compass Inn Museum (Ligonier Valley Historical Society); and nearby is the Idlewild & SoakZone theme park.

    Easy travel: To Greensburg, then Rt. 30 East.

    Sewickley 

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    Though it may be relatively familiar, or itself one’s hometown, Sewickley must be spotlighted for meeting the pleasant criteria outlined above, albeit on a larger scale. There are several great bakeries (the Ultimate Pastry Shop; Mediterra, also a cafe and upscale market; and for our best friends, the Three Dog Bakery), a fine bookstore (Penguin), dozens of shops, a truly old-fashioned grocery store (Safran’s Supermarket), and venerable homes surrounding downtown. The trip up from Ohio River Boulevard on Broad Street provides the very definition of what we are looking at on this list: walkable residential blocks with stately Victorian homes on a basically flat terrain, ending with a few businesses—here, the recommended China Palace restaurant and Big Bang Comics and Collectibles—and emerging at a charming corner gazebo that introduces a stroll-able main commercial boulevard (Sewickley’s Beaver Street) with dozens of shops and restaurants.

    Off Beaver, Walnut Street rewards visitors with the aforementioned Safran’s and the Tull Family Theater (“a film-based arts organization”) and Crazy Mocha. Another side street, Locust, is lined with numerous rarely seen gingko trees, with their distinctive fan-shaped leaves.

    Sewickley is especially included here as part of a three-town heaven of stately, notably Victorian, mansions and park-like settings. To take in the full Sewickley experience one should make an auto excursion along one road (Beaver Ave.), starting from Route 65 up into Glen Osborne, through downtown Sewickley, and into the spaciously set flat-lot homes of Edgeworth.

    Easy travel: I-79 to exit 66, then west on Rt. 65.

    Mt. Lebanon 

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    Mt. Lebanon might not be a “destination” to South Hills residents, and it certainly is more city than town; some lovingly call it home, but for those on the northern side of the two rivers, it can make for a very pleasant day out. Washington Road (part of Rt. 19) is its wide main boulevard, with miles of impressive homes morphing into downtown Mt Lebanon. There you will find Rollier’s, an expansive department store for hardware and home goods; Betsy’s, for wild ice cream flavors; Mineo’s, for traditional pizza; the Potomac Bakery; the noted guitarists’ haven Empire Music; and many fine eateries, such as the well-known Sesame Inn. From here the municipality sprawls confusingly into meandering, hilly streets of distinctive and cozy 1920s and ’30s stone/brick manses—thus, an excursion all around Mt. Lebanon is part of the experience, with a tour of the jaw-dropping homes on, for example, Longuevue Drive and Osage Road.

    Driving around further, off Washington Road is Cochran Road, where one will find another bakery familiar from its Lawrenceville location, La Gourmandine, and additional French goodness, the creperie Mel’s Petit Café.

    More in keeping with the “charming town” character established throughout this article is the Beverly Road Shops section off Cochran. This pleasant second shopping district—a few blocks, in the midst of lovely neighborhoods—provides pizza and ice cream and the Coffee Tree Roasters, plus two of Mt. Lebanon’s best eateries—Bado’s Pizza Grill & Ale House (super for its Sundays-only breakfast) and Mediterra Café (gourmet breads, unusual breakfasts and sandwiches, and amazing pastries), forming a delicious bookend with its sister venue in Sewickley.

    Easy travel: Liberty Bridge/Tunnel to W. Liberty Ave., through Dormont to downtown Mt. Lebanon (Washington Rd./Rt. 19); or Fort Pitt Bridge to Banksville Rd. to Mt. Lebanon (Beverly Rd.); by rail, from downtown Pittsburgh via the “T.”

    Greg Suriano—editor of The Strip! and writer on cultural subjects—is a connoisseur of nostalgic destinations and considers all of the above places to be “close to home,” as does his wife and traveling companion. (Note: Apologies for any named places that may have dwindled away by the time of this publication.)