More Day-Trip Outings an Hour (or So) from Pittsburgh

    Readers of the The Strip!’s fall 2021 issue may recall the tour we provided of some of the most charming towns easily accessible from the city. There were visits to Sewickley, Mt. Lebanon, Aspinwall, Zelienople/Harmony, Volant, Ligonier, Oakland, and more. Since the riches of western Pennsylvania’s “villages” are boundless, we thought it might be helpful—to those Pittsburghers who do like to venture out from their local communities—to provide a second tour, highlighting still more places in which to spend a pleasant, strolling afternoon.

    DORMONT

    Dormont

    Dormont

    Dormont is a hilly town with pleasant older homes. It is basically an extension of Mt. Lebanon’s bustling downtown, heading to the Liberty Tunnel along West Liberty Avenue. There are miles of shops, and as you approach Dormont’s main shopping street, close by are The Exchange for pop-culture aficionados, Arsenal Cider House (well-known in its Lawrenceville location), Mike & Tony’s Gyros, and Back Alley Brewing. As one turns the corner to stroll the brick streets of Potomac Avenue, a landmark of sorts is the long-lived Dormont Florist. Potomac from West Liberty up to the T tracks is a charming downtown street of shops and eateries. One well-known restaurant is the Dor-Stop, famous for its super breakfasts. Other nourishments can be found at the Muddy Cup Coffee Bar, Moonlit Burgers, and the Potomac Bakery. For Eastern European specialty foods, sample the goods at the Jmart International Market. There’s also the Hollywood Theater, and a welcoming children’s bookshop, Beyond Bedtime Books. This section of Dormont fits in especially well with our destination requirements, since right off it is the pleasant (and flat) Espy Avenue with its lovely Victorian homes.

    CASTLE SHANNON

    Another visitable location near Mt. Lebanon is Castle Shannon. The main thoroughfare is Library Road, aka Route 88; while it ends at Route 51 (to then travel the eastern South Hills around Brentwood and Whitehall), in the opposite direction it meanders through Bethel Park, around South Park, up to Union at Trax Farms—and keeps on going and going. Back in Castle Shannon, there are tons of shopping and dining opportunities and a Castle Shannon VFD that often sponsors a giant flea market. One traverses these miles mainly by car, but recommended are the outstanding Madsen Donuts (established in 1938 and direct from Geneva-on-the-Lake in Ohio); the edgy, fun Mindful Brewing Company; and a block up Grove Street, the Cibrone Italian Bakery & Deli.

    Castle Shannon

    Castle Shannon

    But our day-trip destination here conforms to our definition of a walkable, quaint shopping area adjacent to lovely (Pine Avenue) homes. This part of Castle Shannon weaves around and cuddles up to the curving T tracks, with storefronts on either side; it’s essentially a village—the few blocks of Willow Avenue and Caste Shannon Boulevard. Hugging the trestle that meets Library Road is Pittsburgh Antique Shops, one of the best multi-dealers in the area. There are also the Treasure Shack (more antiques), Moonstones (“A Metaphysical Haven”), and the Williams Stained Glass Studio. Foodwise, Santoro’s Pizzeria Italiana is outstanding for its quality and innovative pizza varieties; Coffee Etc is there too, as is the new Anthos Bakery & Café (the emphasis on breakfasts, Greek breads, kebobs, moussaka, and more Mediterranean casual dining).

    ELIZABETH

    If you are so inclined to follow Castle Shannon to the end of Route 88 and then travel south on Route 51, you will pass several localities on the way to spending a few pleasant hours in the borough of Elizabeth. While its downtown is not extensive, one major business is pleasantly situated along a newly built walkway, adorned with a gazebo and well-designed benches and railings that allow for a scenic view of the Monongahela River’s east bank and the exquisite arched blue-toned Elizabeth Bridge—all engulfing Elizabeth Riverfront Park. A beautifully restored 1889 train station across from the water (S. First Avenue) is now the Simply You Soap and Candle Company—home to dazzlingly displayed handmade soaps, candles, and body-care creations.

    Elizabeth

    Elizabeth

    On the next street over (Second Avenue), an impressive former bank building houses Rockwell’s Red Lion Restaurant. At Barton’s Flowers & Bake Shop, munch on pastry and cookies while browsing fun displays of seasonal gift items. Or just stop at pink-themed Snowy’s Chocolates, a well-appointed café for coffee, ice cream, and of course homemade candies. One more parallel block (Third Avenue) offers 1787 Oil Vinegar and More, and nearby, the Top O’ the Morning Donut and Coffee Shop. Indeed, 1787 marks Elizabeth’s founding year, and it is notable that Elizabeth boat builder John Walker built a 55-foot keel boat that set sail from the shores of the Monongahela River in August of 1803—in the service of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

    CARNEGIE

    Carnegie, in the South Hills down Route 50 towards Noblestown Road, received its famous library from Andrew Carnegie himself—based on a promise to rename the town after him. Its East Main Street (and across Chartiers Creek, West Main) is full of continuously restored and changing storefronts that offer a great strollable shopping experience. All this is merged with the surrounding streets of venerable homes (including Honus Wagner’s!), the Carnegie Historical Society (again Honus, as a museum), the historic hilltop Andrew Carnegie Free Library and Music Hall, the Third Street Gallery, and Off the Wall/Carnegie Stage for inventive theatricals. There are plenty of places to eat, but for authentic Irish pub grub and atmosphere and entertainment, there’s Riley’s Pour House; and for more contemporary (bacon-) themed fare, there’s Bakn-Carnegie. Nearby on the street are Pittsburgh Pottery, many gift shops and casual eateries, Carnegie Coffee Company (the old post office turned into a cozy haven for lounging with your tea or coffee), and LeoGreta for fine Italian fare.

    MILLVALE

    Across the Allegheny River and north of the city is a very Pittsburgh-y town of older homes hugging hillsides and, at the very top of Maryland Avenue, the historical St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church, with its treasure trove of restored expressionist 1930s murals by Maxo Vanka (tour-goers won’t be disappointed). This is Millvale, accessible from Route 28 and home also of the area’s famous entertainment venue, Mr. Small’s. Treading the sidewalks of its several shopping avenues can make for a really fun day. Another mural, depicting musical superstars like the Beatles, Jimmy Hendrix, and Bob Dylan, welcomes music lovers to the Attic Record Store, whose expert proprietors can help you navigate its seemingly endless and crowded aisles of new, used, rare—and often esoteric—vinyl records and CDs.

    Along North Avenue is Esther’s Hobby Shop, awash with model kits of all kinds, onsite for dozens of years and nostalgically appearing so. For lunch one should try the “corner drugstore/luncheonette.” Officially the Lincoln Pharmacy, it doubles as the P&G Diner, which is actually a version of the well-known Pamela’s, whose food and atmosphere here recall a bygone era (and across the street? the Millvale Diner!). Millvale’s main event, though, might very well be Jean-Marc Chatellier’s French Bakery (visit in the morning for the best selection). The baker/owner’s recipes and experience are directly from France, and the products’ quality is unparalleled; I am told, by a close relative expert in these things, that Marc’s are indeed the best macarons in the Pittsburgh area.

    On Grant Avenue, after being mesmerized by Attic Records, enjoy more nostalgia at Yetter’s Candy, famed (since 1950) for its homemade chocolates and ice cream (enjoyable at an old-fashioned lunch counter)—and then encounter a genuine avian shop, Pretty Birds. At the corner just as one is circling back to leave Millvale, there’s the Grant Bar, a dark and cozy family restaurant established in the 1940s that also seems frozen in time—diners can bask in comfort food, ordering such mainstays as baby beef liver and onions, turtle soup, and coconut cream pie (around here, also look for Grist House Craft Brewery and Strange Roots Experimental Ales).

    SAXONBURG

    Saxonburg

    Saxonburg

    Saxonburg is a little further from the city (up Route 28 to Route 356, or I-79 or Route 19 to Cranberry and then across Route 228), but its small-town main street is worth strolling along if only for the ambience of another era, with almost exclusively Early American/Victorian-era buildings whose dominant white facades befit its period origins. The central South Butler Community Library lives up to its name as the focal point of town activity and camaraderie. Another focus is seen in the many building doorways that are reached by early 19th-century “Historically Preserved [stone] Steps.” As you look down the avenue the vista is capped by an imposing, narrow steepled church smack in the middle of the view. Notable along West Main Street is the 1832-established Hotel Saxonburg featuring “fine dining and elegant rooms,” and the The Mainstay at Saxonburg, a bed-and-breakfast with truly old-world charm. Before browsing the timeless treasures at Red Door Antiques, stop by Saxonburg Coffee & Tea (the adjacent alleyway leads to Heritage Wine Cellars) or breakfast at Kelley’s Family Restaurant or enjoy high tea (and gifts) at Serendipi-tea.

    More history and culture can be found at the Gray Wolf Gallery and the John Roebling Historic Saxonburg Society. John Roebling founded Saxonburg in 1832 and designed the groundbreaking Brooklyn Bridge; while his son Washington, born in Saxonburg, completed that project.

    EVANS CITY

    If you took the advice from our previous travel list and have already enjoyed Zelienople/Harmony, you are probably aware that exiting here off I-79 offers two options, and by turning onto Route 68 in the opposite direction from Harmony you can embark on a pleasant wooded drive to Evans City. This nostalgic village (“city”—really?) has a Main Street with a few inviting shops/eateries, surrounding by nice residential streets. Here you’ll want to try the cinnamon rolls and other baked goods at P&B’s Sweets and Eats and enjoy gift browsing at the Evans City Pharmacy & Gift Shoppe and Pickel Barrel Antiques & Country Shoppe. Then detour a block or so for lunch at Bakers Backstreet Tavern, and return to Main for Wendereusz’s Candy & More (including ice cream). The town jewel, however, looming large near one end of Main Street, is Antiques Preferred—an ornate Queen-Anne-style mansion that is not only worth gaping at but also worth touring for its extensive antiques and collectibles offerings. Clearly all this is in striking contrast to the borough’s claim to fame as the filming location of the legendary 1968 horror flick Night of the Living Dead.

     

    Thus, there are lots of village-y destinations easily reachable from central Pittsburgh, with strollable “downtowns” near pleasant neighborhoods. These are each well worth a trip to spend a nostalgic afternoon. If you have gotten the impression from the descriptions here, as well as from our previous Strip! article, that we are seeking out, and recommending, places that harken back to an earlier, cozier, unpretentious time—whether for their older homes, their antiques shops, their murals, their bakeries, their town greens, their restaurants, their status as historic sites—you would be undoubtedly, and pleasantly, correct. Indeed, these are places where one can, for a morning or afternoon, temporarily forget present wars and pandemics and political battles and social upheavals, and bask in the joys of bygone simplicity.

    Strip! editor Greg Suriano writes about cultural and historic subjects and loves to spend his afternoons in nostalgic locales.