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Understanding Pittsburgh History Through 4 Unique (and Delicious) Festivals

Pittsburgh’s festivals are a fun way to get to know the city at a deeper level. 

By Dana Colecchia Getz on March 28, 2023

Pittsburgh PA, is home to many food festivals and has a unique history.
Pittsburgh / iStock Photo/f11photo

Pittsburgh is a city rooted in history. Established in 1758 at the confluence of three rivers in Western Pennsylvania, it was the frontier’s “gateway to the west” and played a pivotal role in our young country’s story. By the late 1800s, the city was known for its booming steel industry — creating wealth for the industrialists and jobs for the massive influx of immigrants making Pittsburgh their home. 

The city has never remained stagnant, slowly transforming from steel to STEM, from an industrial town to a leader in sustainability. But along the way, it’s never lost its roots or gumption. This history comes alive at Pittsburgh’s festivals. 

Get to know the city on a deeper level by joining in to experience local traditions, historyfoodmusic and dance. You’ll never go home hungry, and you just might learn something!

1. Picklesburgh 

Since 2015, Picklesburgh has drawn tens of thousands of visitors each year. Typically held on one of Pittsburgh’s iconic bridges in July, festival-goers can enjoy a view of the city’s Three Rivers while the signature Heinz pickle balloon flies proudly above the festive scene. Its offbeat mix of pickle-themed foods, cocktails, and merchandise earned it the #1 Specialty Food Festival designation for two consecutive years. Those with a taste for adventure (and pickles) can enter the Pickle Juice Drinking Contest. The winner is crowned Mayor of Picklesburgh!

So, why pickles? Pittsburgh has a long and storied history with The Heinz Company. It was founded in Sharpsburg, PA, in 1869 and eventually headquartered in Pittsburgh. Although today most people associate Heinz with its “57 Varieties” slogan and an extensive market, the company initially focused production on horseradish, pickles, vinegar and ketchup, earning founder Henry John Heinz the title of “Pickle King.” The classic “pickle pin” was given out regularly for promotions in Pittsburgh.

They’ve since merged with Kraft Foods Group and moved production out of the city. However, they remain headquartered in Pittsburgh, where their legacy lives on. Drive into town and you’ll pass the Heinz ketchup bottle sign perpetually pouring and refilling. Enjoy a show in the Cultural District at Heinz Hall. And, of course, imbibe on some pickle beer at Picklesburgh!

2. The Pittsburgh Pierogi Festival 

An entire festival dedicated to celebrating a filled dumpling? If you are from Pittsburgh, then this concept makes total sense. Since 2012, the Pittsburgh Pierogi Festival, held each September at the iconic Kennywood Park, has been a joyful ode to this traditional food. There is something for everyone, from locally made pierogies to quirky merchandise like “pierogi soap-on-a-rope” and pierogi Christmas ornaments. 

Pittsburghers are very serious about their pierogies. Although originally brought to Pittsburgh in the late 1800s by a large influx of Polish and Slavic immigrants, they are now ubiquitous throughout the city. These beautiful little dumplings can have a variety of fillings, both savory or sweet and are often served with melted butter. Over time this handmade Eastern European staple, often sold at local church festivals, became more accessible when Mrs. T’s Pierogies, based in Shenandoah, PA, began mass producing them.  

Pittsburgh grocery stores have entire frozen sections dedicated to pierogies, handmade pierogi shops abound (there’s nothing quite like homemade), and one of the best parts of the Pittsburgh Pirates games is the Great Pierogi Races!

3. A Soulful Taste of the Burgh-Pittsburgh’s Soul Food Festival

 A Soulful Taste of the Burgh- Pittsburgh’s Soul Food Festival, showcasing regional soul food restaurants, was established in 2019. Inspired by the often-overlooked history of Pittsburgh’s Black food service entrepreneurs, it’s a celebratory reminder of the city’s cultural pioneers that built a rich legacy of Black food businesses since the 1700s. Entrepreneurs like Benjamin Richards, who opened the first Black butchery in downtown Pittsburgh in 1788 and Rev. John C. Peck, who opened the first Oyster House in 1838, are just a small part of this rich culinary history. 

This September festival is a joyful celebration of Black food and culture and the community’s history and resilience. Explore a variety of the region’s best soul food and a barbeque contest, speakers, crafts, music, and kid-friendly activities. 

Building upon this history with an eye toward the future is the Barrel & Flow Festival in August. This event celebrates Pittsburgh’s Black craft brew industry and uses that focus as an opportunity to showcase local Black artisans and small businesses in an exciting and eclectic environment. Named one of America’s favorite festivals by USA Today readers, this inclusive festival is an excellent reflection of the city’s contemporary culture.

4. The Whiskey Rebellion Festival 

The Whiskey Rebellion Festival takes place every July just 30-40 minutes outside Pittsburgh in Washington, PAHistory buffs and local distilleries come together to celebrate Western Pennsylvania’s Whiskey Rebellion with this tasty event that includes family-friendly fun and a “whiskey and spirits walk.”

In 1794, 400 Western Pennsylvania farmers rose up to oppose a federal excise tax on whiskey produced in the United States that particularly affected small-batch producers. This showdown between our young government and the rebels proved to be a critical test of federal authority. Although the rebellion was effectively stamped out, the tax proved nearly impossible to collect and was repealed in 1802.

This annual festival leans heavily into that history with popular reenactments, including the infamous 1791 tar and feathering of a tax collector! Spend some time reliving this often-overlooked piece of history while enjoying Americana music, local foods, and of course, local whiskey. If this festival whets your appetite, then take it a step further and explore the Whisky Rebellion Trail.

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