5 Great Ways to Unwind in Pittsburgh

No matter how much stress there is in your life, it’s nice to find an escape. I get the most enjoyment out of spending time with my friends and family — but I’m not willing to share them with you, so these are my favorite ways to unwind that you can discover too.

Beechwood Farms Nature Reserve

City and county parks are great places, especially in the summer when they are teeming with activities. But if you want to quiet your mind and enjoy nature, it’s hard to beat Beechwood Farms Nature Reserve in Fox Chapel.

The headquarters of the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania, the 134 acres of Beechwood Farms has five miles of trails that meander past a pond, through the woods and across meadows.

The Western Pennsylvania Conservancy owns the land, but the Audubon Society has been a careful and thoughtful steward that has maintained the tranquil nature of Beechwood Farms while expanding its educational offerings. Highlights include the energy-efficient educational wing, Audubon Center for Native Plants, DiscoverGround Nature Play Area, Teacher Resource Center and Natural History Library.

Explore the Evans Nature Center, a barn-like structure joined to the original farmhouse that houses the Audubon Nature Store, which has everything nature related from books and decorative items to feeders to birdseed, including Beechwood Blend, a proprietary bird seed mixture that has been developed specifically for the birds of western Pennsylvania. 

Consider it a way of bringing serenity home with you until you visit again.


East End Food Co-op

It’s fair to ask what a food co-op is doing on a list of places to unwind. But that’s because you’re thinking of this as a grocery store. While it’s that at the most basic level, the East End Food Co-op is much more.

The co-op has all the natural and organic food that you’d expect — and it has been offering it for about 40 years, decades before the trend took hold. Local is also key — products come from family farms in the region, so shopping there makes you feel good. 

And if things are a little hectic, you can pick up food from the hot bar, such as pizza or barbecue. On weekends, there is a brunch with vegan pancakes, free-range eggs, tofu scrambler and roasted potatoes. You can also get made-to-order coffee, tea, juices or a smoothie. Try the Johnny Gingerade with apple, ginger and lemon and the Banana Split smoothie with chocolate and vanilla soy ice cream, bananas, strawberries and pineapple juice.

But Whole Foods offers a lot of those same things, so what makes the co-op a better place to de-stress?

The East End Food Co-op is owned by its members. For $100, you and your household become members, which entitles you to a range of benefits, including a 2 percent discount on purchases, a 10 percent discount quarterly on a the transaction of your choice and acceptance into the credit union. There are no annual fees, and the fee is fully refundable.

The co-op also has a full calendar of events, such as classes on container gardening and composting — all of which are good ways to unwind and connect with the community. And at the root of it, that’s what makes the co-op special. It takes the simple act of grocery shopping and makes it a way to be part of something bigger. 


Orangetheory Fitness

Exercise is a great way to beat stress, and that’s one of the reasons I’ve belonged to my fair share of gyms. I still miss the defunct City Club Downtown, and I loved Pittsburgh FIT in North Point Breeze under the ownership of Jodi Butler because it combined the rigors of a CrossFit-style workout with motivational coaching. But I moved further away, and while the training had me in the best shape of my life, I also was injured a lot — and I’m just not competitive enough to be a CrossFit athlete.

Enter Orangetheory Fitness. There are four locations in Pittsburgh; I go to the East End location in East Liberty first thing in the morning. Before I have fully woken up, I’m on the treadmill and rowing machine and lifting weights and doing crunches. The variety of the interval training keeps my interest (the workouts change every day), and the heart monitor everyone wears motivates me.

A goal of the workout is to spend 12 or more minutes in the “Orange Zone,” where you are at between 84 and 91 percent of your maximum heart rate. You earn a “splat point” for every minute you spend in the Orange Zone or greater. The theory is that if you reach the goal you will continue a maximum caloric burn 36 hours after the workout. But you don’t have to buy into the theory to be motivated by it.

Each class is only an hour, so you get a good workout and move on to more important things, such as checking Facebook. For full disclosure, there is a rather annoying booking process for classes that is not unlike waiting to get tickets to a hot concert or movie.

What makes Orangetheory special are the coaches. Most days Holly leads my class, and she combines expertise with an enthusiasm that makes waking up at 6:15 each morning to go to the gym seem like a fun thing to do. 

photo by john altdorfer

The Summit

There are bars you go to when you want to cut loose and have a loud and boisterous time. But those aren’t the bars where you can de-stress after a long day. For that, you need a place like The Summit on Mount Washington. Although The Summit is along Shiloh Street, it’s worlds apart from other places there.

There are no TVs. The music is played at the right volume so it doesn’t interfere with conversations. When the weather is nice, the garage doors can go up to bring the outside in. On top of it all is a cocktail program that is spot on. No matter who is behind the bar — Jay, Mike, Adam or Leila — you are sure to get an excellent drink, whether you order one of the changing specialty cocktails or a classic. Other members of the staff (Mo, Marshall, Matt and Dan) add to the friendly atmosphere, where everybody who walks in the door is greeted like a friend.

The menu, which changes monthly, is adventurous without being fussy. Try the burger, noodle bowl or mac and cheese. 

In short, The Summit sets a mood that is casual but where all the little things are executed to perfection. And if that’s not relaxing, what is?


Tazza D’Oro Cafe & Espresso Bar

Tazza D’Oro has other locations, but nothing beats the casual atmosphere at the original shop in Highland Park. Everything about the space begs you to sit down and relax.

The coffee and tea are first-rate, and the food is delicious and locally sourced. Try a breakfast or lunch panini or a grab-and-go salad. There are even gluten-free options. Tazza D’Oro is where I first saw Pigeon Bagels, which you have to try if you haven’t already. 

A nice touch is that the friendly staff at Tazza D’Oro will bring your order to your table, which cuts the stress of milling around the cash register waiting. In addition to the indoor seating, many customers gather outside to greet neighbors walking by on Highland Avenue.

Categories: Best of the ‘Burgh