Pittsburgh: Bargains Along the Rail Lines?
July 9, 2014 7:12 AM   Subscribe

My wife and I will be visiting the Warhol Museum and the Mattress Factory during a two-day trip to Pittsburgh, and we're trying to avoid the CBD markup on hotels, parking, and restaurants.

We like rail and walking, and are willing to trade distance from the CBD for savings on food, lodging and parking. So our tentative plan is to find a deal on a hotel somewhere along the red or blue line, go downtown after breakfast, see the two museums and get lunch at Church Brew Works, and come back in time for a more reasonably-priced dinner.

It'd be fine to get off the train anywhere along our route for breakfast or dinner, and anything else that's worth a look near that stop would be a bonus. We don't care about nightlife at all--record/book stores, libraries, quirky museums, and cinema are more our style.

We're not total cheapskates, but we're still recovering from a trip to Las Vegas we had to take for work recently, so we'd like to do things a little smarter this time. So any recommendations for places to stay or eat at better-than-tourist-trap prices that don't involve cab rides, and along the rail lines, would be welcome.
posted by Rykey to Travel & Transportation around Pittsburgh, PA (13 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
My recommendation is that you rent a car at the airport and stay in one of the metric shit-ton of motels in Robinson Township. This puts you right off the Parkway, and it's pretty easy to get around from there.

You'll want a car in Pittsburgh and you probably won't have to pay too much. Parking at the motels out there will be free, and it's pretty easy to find at the Warhol (don't really know about the Mattress Factory.)

The car lets you drive up to Mt. Washington, or to Squirrel Hill for Mineo's Pizza. As well as getting you directly to the places you want to go.

Check out Shadyside, or the Mexican War Streets. Walk around the Strip, and have breakfast at Primante Brothers or Pamelas. Check out the Heinz museum while you're there.

It used to be you could get around Pittsburgh easily on the trolley, but not so much any more.

Have FUN!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:04 AM on July 9, 2014

Normally I tell people to rent cars when they are here as well, but since you're only going to be in Pittsburgh for two days and don't care about being out late (i.e., nightlife), I think your plan is doable. One thing I will note is that Church Brew Works is not near the North Shore (where Warhol and the Mattress Factory are), and it is nowhere near the T (how the locals refer to the rail). You are going to need to use the bus or a car for that. (Or I guess you could walk from downtown but that would take well over an hour.)

Another thing I will say is that the cooler stuff - "record/book stores, libraries, quirky museums, and cinema" - is in the East End, which is only served by bus. But I think you could find enough to do along the rail for two days. Is there a reason you are specifying rail and not public transportation in general? Bus makes up the bulk of public transportation here, and rail really only serves a small portion, and said portion is not considered the heart of the city. (There's some goofy political history behind why that is.)

Also check out Airbnb for cheap lodging. Robinson is a boring place to stay.
posted by unannihilated at 8:17 AM on July 9, 2014

We went last year and stayed out by the airport. After rush hour it's only a 20 minute drive to downtown. Parking in Pittsburgh is cheap relative to what I'm used to in DC. We'd park somewhere central to our plans for the day and mostly walk, staying through dinner and whatever evening activities we took in, driving back to the hotel pretty much just to sleep. I wrote a blog post about the weekend.
posted by COD at 8:38 AM on July 9, 2014

For background, I just moved from Pittsburgh this spring, after living there for 5 years. I love Pittsburgh, and there's a lot of neat stuff going on.

I don't think this is your best plan if you want to be charmed by Pittsburgh. As unannihilated says, the "cooler" stuff isn't found on the T lines. There are a few good restaurants in Beechview on the Red Line (Casa Rasta, Crested Duck Charcuterie), and Mt. Lebanon (also Red Line) is a nicer suburb...but I don't think either are well-served by hotels.

Honestly I don't know of any hotels on either of the T lines that aren't total dumps, if they exist at all. Hotels in Pittsburgh are really concentrated either downtown or near the highways. In which case, I'd probably optimize for staying near to downtown or in the East End (there aren't many hotels here, and they aren't any cheaper than downtown) and saving yourself the car rental. You can get around pretty easily by bus. Check out hotels in Oakland as well, as it's one of the bus hubs, and depending on your dates, this might be the cheapest option for hotels.

Parking isn't particularly hard or expensive in Pittsburgh (except around the Warhol, really). If you can rent a really cheap car and stay in the 'burbs, the money balance might work out in your favor, but your nightly restaurant options near your hotel will skew towards typical mall-adjacent chains, and you won't save money eating. I don't think this is worth the negligible amount you'd save.
posted by another zebra at 8:45 AM on July 9, 2014 [2 favorites]

Here's my thinking on staying out by Robinson Township. The hotels are MUCH cheaper than anything in town. And you have more selection at the lower end of things. It's on the way to and from the airport.

Yes, Robinson Township is Mall America, no dispute. It is. BUT, for a couple of days, it is very convenient for most of everything one might want to do.

One of the problems is that most people don't live near the attractions, and parking in town is an issue. Let's say you decide to do AirBnB in Shadyside. It's cute there, with lots of shops and cafes, but how do you get around? Bus...eh. If you rent the car, on street parking is a hassle, as it is in Squirrel Hill and the Southside.

If you only have two days, and you want to maximize your spend, car and Motel 6 out by the airport is your best bet.

My .02.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:07 AM on July 9, 2014

Thanks for the replies. I forgot to mention-- we will be driving, not flying in. So we have wheels.

We prefer rail to bus because... we just like riding on trains, and seeing how different cities do transit. Personal thing. But if busing it in from somewhere else will save us some money and allow us to see more of the area on the way in, that's fine too.

Seriously, though, the "see cool stuff" is very secondary to hitting our two main destinations (Warhol, Mattress Factory) and heading back to our room. Even Church Brew is just an add-on; springing for pricier lunch while downtown, wherever is good and close, is fine. But staying at a Motel 6 and eating at IHOP or whatever is a fair trade-off for not having to drive and park, even at Pittsburgh prices.
posted by Rykey at 10:01 AM on July 9, 2014

There's a part of me that wants to tell you to stay in Greentree - there are several hotels there, but not much else of tourist interest. But then since you'll have a car, you could drive up the back side of Mt. Washington and leave it in a residential area (free street parking). Then take the incline down to Station Square and hop on the T from there. That would give you the bonus of seeing a unique way we do transit - the inclines, but also keep you out of the city.
posted by librarianamy at 10:47 AM on July 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

Hrm...maybe this Motel 6 would work. It's about a half a mile from the Red Line, and the walk looks to be mostly residential.

I have no idea if that's an acceptable hotel, for the record, but Google put the ballpark price at $70. But I think that may be the best you can do, given your parameters.
posted by another zebra at 11:12 AM on July 9, 2014

I would consider hotels in Ross Township as well. There are a few reasonably cheap hotels along McKnight Road, and it's closer than Robinson to the cultural district and downtown, with none of that pesky Fort Pitt Tunnel traffic.

If you do end up venturing across the Allegheny at any point, you may want to check out Max's Allegheny Tavern and/or Penn Brewery for German food. That may be overkill if you're doing Church Brew as well, but they're two places I try to take friends to any time they visit.
posted by tonycpsu at 12:29 PM on July 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'll say it, there's NOTHING downtown once the work day is done. So you want to pick a neighborhood that has something going on after 5 and on weekends.

I like the Courtyard at Homestead, I used to stay there all the time when I was flying up every week. Homestead waterfront has some stuff there, and there's tons of free parking down there. A short drive up the street takes you across the Homestead Grays bridge, and into Squirrel Hill.

You can get to the South Side for bars, and cafes and general awesome funkiness by crossing over the railroad tracks (past the waterpark) and turning right onto 837 to Carson Street. Find street parking.

Really, you may like trains and stuff, but the inconvenience of it...naw man.

Also, I can't recommend Kennywood enough!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:59 PM on July 9, 2014 [2 favorites]

It's definitely worth trying out the trains for their own sake, but don't expect to take them anywhere interesting. Loop around downtown and then take it to Station Square and walk to one of the inclines or maybe to the South Side/Carson St if you're up for hike.
posted by the jam at 3:34 PM on July 9, 2014

I agree with the Homestead suggestion. It's close enough to the North Shore and Downtown, but with ample parking and spacious enough that you can take a break from the crowded feeling that pervades other parts of the city.
posted by dean_deen at 4:38 PM on July 9, 2014

The T line doesn't go to the quirky bits of town, but to the solidly suburban ones. It's not even a moneysaving proposition, and unfortunately the rail line is an afterthought to the city, not a central one.

The bus system in Pittsburgh, however, is one of the larger ones in the country.

Downtown and Oakland are the public-transit hubs of the city; if you're trying to avoid driving, that's likely where you want to start near. The 28X bus line will take you from the airport to either of those hubs, if you're flying in.

Do the Warhol and Mattress Factory in the Northside; they are great.

In Oakland, you'd probably like the Carnegie Museums, Phipps Conservatory, and the bookstores, record stores, and whatnot on Craig St nearby. Oakland is largely a student neighborhood... and also has cheap eats, as Pamela's (breakfast) may often have a long wait, but is *crazy* cheap for what you get, and was Obama's favorite breakfast on the campaign trail. (Love him or hate him, he only picked one breakfast place in the US, and that was it.)

Eide's in Squirrel Hill is one of the largest record stores in the world, if by "records", you mean 12" vinyl. It's worth stopping in just to see once, if you still own a record player. :-)

But again, Pittsburgh doesn't do rail; if you're trying to spend time along the rail line, Pittsburgh is almost certainly the wrong city. If you're okay with bus... everything I just recommended is connected by a 15 minute walk (Warhol to Downtown) and a single bus ride, likely the 61C.

I don't think staying in Homestead would be my cup of tea - it's not quirky or cheap! - but to each their own.
posted by talldean at 5:57 PM on July 9, 2014

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