Most of us have an idea of the kind of place we’d run away to if we could when times get tough. We’d Eat, Pray, Love our way through quaint small towns, white sandy beaches, or hip hubs like Portland or Austin. Maybe we’ve never been to the south of France but we’ve heard good things, and it seems like as ideal a place as any to heal and reinvent oneself. Every woman we’ve spoken to about this has her own version of a paradise escape. And usually that paradise aligns with the standard definition.
But not for Val. Val’s happy place is Pittsburgh. Even those of us, who (like Val) live here in Green Bay, WI, tend to have a hard time seeing the merit of “escaping” to that blue collar city with a football team. After all, we’ve already got that here. So what makes the Steel City so special?
It started on a whim
Like most love affairs, Pittsburgh caught Val completely by surprise.
“Every summer, my ex and I used to load up our three kids and go on a road trip to a different city,” she tells us. “The parameters were that the city had to be within a 12 hour drive. Then, a few years back, a friend suggested Pittsburgh.”
Val says, “My perception of Pittsburgh was probably a lot like yours; I pictured it as dreary, dirty, and dangerous. But then I did a little research and thought, why not?”
First impressions of Pittsburgh
“My first impression of Pittsburgh was that the topography was beautiful,” says Val. “The hills, rivers, and bridges
as you approach the city are beautiful. Also, before moving back to Green Bay, my family and I had lived in the San Francisco area. I’m fascinated with the architecture of structures built into crazy locations, like the hills. I never get tired of looking at the houses dotting the bluffs.”
When asked about the rest of her family’s impressions of the City of Bridges (it’s more than just steel!), we see where the cracks in Val’s marriage started to show.
“My kids loved it,” she says. “My ex? Not so much.”
Seeing other cities
After their first trip to Pittsburgh, Val and her family would once again get out the map and pick another city within a 12 hour drive. “We’ve visited other cities,” says Val. “But none have resonated with me the same way.”
Covid, and other challenges
Val says that Covid was hard on her family. They missed their annual trip. “My kids were doing virtual learning and had terrible cabin fever,” she says. “We made the decision to drive back to Pittsburgh and it was the best decision for us at the time. We were able to rent a beautiful hotel room at a bargain price since no one was traveling. We spent a week walking and exploring as much as safety protocols would allow, and I fell even more in love with Pittsburgh.”
But Val’s husband at the time didn’t share her affection for the city.
An enticing offer
“By the time covid hit, our 23 year marriage was already on shaky ground,” she says. “By January of 2021, I saw no future and asked for a separation. My husband wanted to work it out and dangled a carrot – a trip to Pittsburgh – in front of me. Months went by and he made excuses for why we couldn’t go, including that we couldn’t afford it, which wasn’t true at all.”
Val’s “a-ha” moment(s)
“I didn’t necessarily have just one,” says Val, of when she knew her marriage was over. “My ex always seemed to have energy to do things with his friends, but never me. And he certainly didn’t have energy for my favorite place in the world. So I checked my frequent flier miles and realized I had enough miles for a trip to Pittsburgh. I told my husband that it was something I needed to do and he didn’t object. I booked the trip and for the first time in my life, I took a solo trip.”
Pittsburgh, for one
Val loved her solo trip.
“It was amazing for so many reasons,” she says. “It began when I took a cab from the airport and told the cabbie I was
traveling alone. He was impressed with my moxie, and he gave me insider tips for the best local bars and restaurants and warned me about areas to avoid. When he dropped me off, he gave me his cell number and told me to call him for a ride at any time if I found myself in a sketchy area. It was just so sweet and flattering that he took such an interest. I felt taken care of in a way that I hadn’t been in a long, long time.”
The rest of the trip was pure empowerment, Val says.
“I had never traveled alone before and I felt really brave and proud of myself. When I got to my hotel, I checked in and just kind of walked around the city,” she says.
Reality sets in
On her Pittsburgh walks, Val says she came to terms with what was going on in her life. Her marriage was over but it wasn’t the end of the world.
“I realized that I could do things on my own and be just fine,” she says. “Pittsburgh helped me realize that.”
The day after Val got back from that trip, she got “412” tattooed on her wrist. It’s the Pittsburgh area code. “It’s a reminder of what I can do, where I’m happinest, and to always stay true to myself,” she says.
Discovering new love in Pittsburgh
That trip to Pittsburgh, says Val, is where she learned to love her own company as well as the city that embraced her when times were tough.
“I love it here in Northeast Wisconsin, but it’s flat. There are spots in Pittsburgh where you can look out and see everything for miles. It’s a much different perspective than what we have here,” she says. And perspective was just what Val needed.
It’s the people
“The sights and topography are great,” Val says. “But really, my favorite thing about Pittsburgh is the people. Everyone there is just so welcoming and warm and genuine. Some cities give the vibe that they don’t want you there. People in Pittsburgh are completely unpretentious and really proud of their city and, if you show your affection for it, they will take you in. I feel like a cool kid in Pittsburgh because people are so generous in sharing hidden gems and local treasures with me. It just feels like a place where I don’t have to pretend to be anything other than ‘Val’ and the people accept me.”
Pittsburgh had what was missing in her marriage
“The warmth, the sense of discovery, the unassuming default of kindness and goodwill … everything I love about Pittsburgh is everything that I was missing in my marriage,” says Val. “That trip definitely helped me gain perspective on my life and gave me clarity on my marriage. I filed for divorce soon after I got home.”
Better than ever, with more trips in store
Val’s divorce was finalized a year ago. She’s been back to Pittsburgh four times since.
Val’s Pittsburgh Picks
Move over, ashrams and other so-called centers of spiritual healing. Val says all you need is Pittsburgh. And these are her top picks.
Breakfast at Cherrie’s Diner near Market Square for typical diner breakfast.
Cafe Raymond for breakfast or lunch. Cafe Raymond is on the strip, says Val. “I lost my hoodie there once and six months later, when I came back, they still had it. They’d held onto it for me!”
Bridges and Bourbon on Penn is a must-visit when Val is in town. “Amazing food,” she reports.
For dessert any time of day, it’s got to be The Milkshake Factory.
Redbeards on Shiloh is great for watching sports.
Coughlin’s Law on Mount Washington is one of Val’s all time favorites: “It’s always warm and friendly there.”
Attending a Penguins game is always worth it as well, says Val.
Val likes to go to the North Shore and sit by the Mr. Rogers statue and take in the gorgeous view of the water and the bluffs above.