updated 9/2/2008 7:59:48 PM ET 2008-09-02T23:59:48

The smells of basil, Chinese food, fish and baked goods linger in the humid air along Penn Avenue, mixing with the sweat and grime of packed sidewalks and outdoor vendors.

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Children cling to their parents' hands and young couples stroll leisurely while elderly people zip in and out of stores they have known for generations.

It's Saturday at Pittsburgh's historic Strip District, an area stuffed with mom-and-pop businesses, gourmet food stores and offbeat gift shops. The outdoor seating, international foods, homemade clothing and artifacts and even high-end, imported spices and cheeses lend this neighborhood an almost European feel.

"It's just a wonderful, gritty environment ... there's a sense of discovery," said Becky Rodgers, executive director of Neighbors in the Strip, a nonprofit group that promotes the area. "It's Pittsburgh's favorite neighborhood."

Pittsburgh is a city of nearly 90 neighborhoods, each with its own story. But the Strip District is one of the oldest, sporting a history that combines the industrial past with the hip image Pittsburgh is trying to portray today.

In the 1700s, when the Strip was born, it was considered the outskirts of the city (today it is almost downtown). At that time, the area was home to major industries, including Westinghouse, Alcoa and Andrew Carnegie's steel operations, all of which got their start in the Strip.

By the early 1900s, the Strip had reached its peak population, with about 18,000 people living in the neighborhood. It was so dense, Carnegie was forced to move his steel operation to Homestead, where there was room for steel-making equipment.

"They had the large population, the industrial living, you had three and four families living in a dwelling," said Rodgers from her Strip District office, located in an old ice house that has been transformed into the Senator John Heinz History Center.

During the Depression, the Strip District became one of many so-called shantytowns, climbing out of the economic crisis by turning to produce and wholesale.

Today, companies that sell wholesale produce and foods sit alongside 21st Street Coffee and Tea, a cafe that trains its baristas for six months before allowing them to stir a drink, and Pittsburgh Popcorn Company, which sells gourmet popcorn with flavors including chunky chocolate caramel and creamy peanut butter kettle.

Neighbors in the Strip and the city's tourism board, VisitPittsburgh, have been working to encourage visitors to stop in the neighborhood.

Pittsburgh was named the country's most livable city in 2007 by Rand McNally's "Places Rated Almanac," and some believe it's the character of neighborhoods like the Strip that are helping transform the city's image from a smoky steel town with an aging population to an urban center suited to younger people.

"The Strip District was an ideal place for us to start," said Luke Shaffer, the owner of 21st Street Coffee and Tea. "There really aren't many chain stores around here, it's like local mom-and-pop businesses and the Strip's kind of become like a gourmet foodie destination.

"People come down to get fresh ingredients and unique stuff and just to walk around," he added, the bells from a nearby church almost drowning out the sounds emanating from his $10,000 coffee machine.

Around the corner and down the block is Pennsylvania Macaroni Company, an establishment opened in 1902 and still co-owned by four brothers and one sister from the original Sunseri family.

The store, known to locals as PennMac, still relies mostly on wholesale for most of its business, servicing between 600 to 1,000 restaurants and grocery stores in the Pittsburgh area, said David Sunseri, one of the owners.

But a booming retail business that offers up hundreds of cheese varieties, specialty Italian meats, high-quality olive oils and other Italian and international goodies is a favorite with Pittsburghers and out-of-town visitors.

"Pittsburgh is a community town and that's why everybody that lives here loves it," Sunseri said. "Pittsburgh isn't the type of town that you go to that has strip malls."

A few doors down is Jimmy and Nino Sunseri's, a breakaway business of the Italian clan. There, customers often encounter Jimmy himself serving up his famous eggplant parmesan, cannolis and meatballs with an unlit cigar dangling from the side of his mouth.

Take a walk down the block and enter the Leaf and Bean and you are instantly swept away from Pittsburgh's cracked sidewalks to Key West, Florida's sandy beaches and stalwart palm trees. There, former Marriott executive Jim Robinson reins over his loyal base of smokers, luring them with hand-rolled cigars and coffee roasted on the premises.

But, possibly most important, he offers an escape: mosaic-covered tables, beach knickknacks, seashells and fishing nets cover the walls, ceilings and shelves, allowing one to pretend they have left Pittsburgh's typically wet, gray climate for warmer environs.

"I wanted to grow my hair long and stop wearing suits," Robinson said, explaining why he left his cushy job with Marriott to open a shop in the Strip.

Sylvia McCoy grew up with fond memories of shopping in the Strip District with her father. So after enjoying a culinary tour in New York, she decided to create a similar tour for Pittsburgh.

She officially began her tours of the Strip at the beginning of the summer, and is doing at least two or three a week now.

The tour tells visitors about the district's rich history, taking them to St. Patrick's Church — at 200, Pittsburgh's oldest Roman Catholic church — and pointing out the different restaurants and businesses. Included in the $30 per person tour are tastings at six local shops.

"Culinary tours are really offered everywhere ... all of the big cities," McCoy said, "so it was just a matter of time that Pittsburgh needed to offer it as well."

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