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Unique International Attractions in One of Pittsburgh’s Tallest Buildings

By Dave Zuchowski    Photos:  Bill Rockwell

Cathedral of Learning in Pittsburgh.


First time visitors to Pittsburgh are often amazed by the first glimpse of the city skyline that opens up abruptly and dramatically as they exit the Fort Pitt Tunnel. The wow factor is a good start for those who may want to see some of the city’s best known attractions.

Popular must dos include the Duquesne Incline, the view from Mt. Washington, the Warhol Museum, the Carnegie Museums, the National Aviary and the list goes on.

While the exterior of the 535-foot, 42 story tall Cathedral of Learning in Pittsburgh is impressive in and of itself, the interior holds a one-of-a-kind series of surprises for those with an adventurous spirit.

Housed on the first and third floors of the Gothic-inspired tower, the main structure of the University of Pittsburgh, a collection of 31 unique classrooms celebrate the various nationalities that settled in the Pittsburgh area.

Each room is funded by a nationality committee made up of community volunteers who select an architect to design the room that is subsequently approved by the university architect. The museum-quality rooms reflect design elements of a particular nationality as well as artifacts, both original and reproductions.

The German Room

The first four rooms constructed were the German, Russian, Swedish and Scottish rooms, which opened in 1938, a year after the dedication of the “Cathedral.”

“At the time it was built, the German Room cost around $27,000, the equivalent to $576,000 in today’s market,” said Michael Walter, tour coordinator. “One of our most recent rooms, the Korean opened in 2015 and cost more than $800,000.”

Each room has its own individuality. The Indian Room, for instance, is modeled after a typical 4th-9th century AD courtyard from Nalanda University, a Buddhist monastic university. The Syrian Room is actually made up of the interior walls and ceiling of an 18th century house in Damascus. Due to its fragility, visitors are only allowed to view it by looking through a wood and glass door.

The Syria/ Lebanon Room

The rooms hold traditional furniture and hundreds of artifacts, most of which are held in display cases. The Israeli Room, for instance, has two display cases, which hold artifacts such as replicas of the Dead Sea Scrolls and clay jars dating back 2,000 years.

A replica of the Gospels from the Book of Kells in the Irish Room

While the Chinese Room has no artifacts it does have a splendid  décor and furniture along with a carved ceiling and teakwood table.

Only the Early American Room was not built by community funds. Instead, a private donor, long time university trustee, George Hubbard Clapp, commissioned the room, which describes a Massachusetts house of the early 17th century.

The room’s 9-foot wide fireplace is made up of 200-year old bricks salvaged from New England houses. The room, the only one with two stories, has a secret passage and is reputed to be haunted by a paranormal entity.

The Lithuanian Room

Two of the rooms, the Czechoslovakian and Yugoslavian, have maintained their original titles, even though both countries have since experienced political fragmentation. Czechoslovakia, for instance, has separated into two distinct nations, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, since the room was created, but the room has retained its original name and look.

Tour Coordinator Michael Walter in the Polish Room with a Replica of the Jagiellonian Globe, the First in the World to Represent the New World

The most recently completed rooms are the Philippine (2019), the Korean (2015) and the Swiss and Turkish rooms (2012). Now in the planning stage are rooms for Finland and Iran.

Interestingly, wood for the Korean Room, based on the 14th century Hall of Enlightenment in Seoul, was harvested in Oregon and shipped to Korea where it was built by Korean artisans, then shipped back to Pittsburgh and assembled by Korean carpenters.

Some of the Quo Vadis Student Guides with Michael Walter in the Syria/Lebanon Room.

A corps of around 20 to 30 student guides from the Quo Vadis student organization conduct tours for the public. To become a guide, each student must learn the rooms by taking tours, studying a 76 page notebook and leading a tour in real time as part of an oral exam.

“Leading the tours gives students experience in public speaking and learning about subjects outside their course of study and normal comfort zone,” Walter said.

“The rooms also give the public a chance to learn about their own culture and nationality as well as that of others that they may want to know more about,” he continued. “To my knowledge, there’s nothing comparable to the nationality rooms anywhere else.”

The 4-Story Tall Common Room at the Cathedral of Learning

In 1975, the Cathedral of Learning was added to the National Register of Historic places. Currently it is the second tallest educational building in the world and the tallest in the Western hemisphere. Only the 787.5-foot tall M.V. Lomonosov Moscow State University building south of Moscow, Russia, is taller.

A Peek Inside the Greek Room

Tours of the Nationality Rooms are offered daily except during the Christmas holidays. Check the website for days in which the tours are not offered at The tours are $10 for adults, $8 for those 17 and under and must be reserved online at least three days in advance.  Group tours are also available.

For more information, phone 412-624-6000.

Outside Khalil’s Restaurant

For a Place to Dine, extend your exploration of other cultures at Khalil’s, 4757 Baum Blvd. in Pittsburgh, where the owners want its patrons to feel like they’re sitting in a Damascus courtyard. The interior is beautifully decorated with gorgeous chandeliers, colorful hanging lamps and photos of images such as St. John the Baptist Church in Damascus, where the head of St. John is believed to rest.  In the wood trim running around the top of the walls is an etched quote in Arabic by poet Khalil Gibran.

 Khalil’s Pittsburgh Food Adventure – YouTube Khalil’s Pittsburgh’s Food Adventure

Inside Khalil’s

Almost all the Middle Eastern dishes are prepared in house, including some of the best hummus anywhere. The restaurant’s Lebanese and Palestinian wines and beers pair well with menu items like lamb shank, a variety of shish kabobs and staples like stuffed grape leaves and baba ghanoush. As a tribute to its longevity as a Pittsburgh food mecca, Khalil’s celebrated it 50th anniversary last June. One of the owners, Dalel B. Khalil, published a book available on Amazon titled From Veils To Thongs: An Arab Chick’s Survival Guide to Balancing One’s Ethnic Identity in America.” Last year, American Express and the National Trust for Historic Preservation allocated a $40,000 grant to Khalil’s for improving its historic structure and defraying operating costs. Khalil’s is just 1 of 25 of these grant awardees across the U.S. Phone 412-683-4757 or


Another Look at Khalil’s

For a Place to Stay, the Hilton Garden Inn, 3454 Forbes Ave., is about 5 blocks from the University of Pittsburgh’s Nationality Rooms and close to other attractions such as the Carnegie Museums and Phipps Conservatory. The hotel is located in Pittsburgh’s Innovation District and sports a fitness center, a business center, Free WiFi and a full-service bar and restaurant that serves breakfast and dinner at cost.  Hilton Honors members can also accrue or redeem points by choosing to stay here. Phone 412-683-2040.

Fig and Feta Flat Bread at Khalil’s

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