Picture families all bundled up drinking hot chocolate and whirling around an outdoor ice skating rink lit up by a 65-foot Christmas tree. The clippity-clop of horse hooves pulling carriages is faintly noticeable in the distance, and fireworks light up the sky to the beat of popular Christmas songs. Folks are jumping on and off a red and green trolley shopping for presents. Families hustle to make it in time to a holiday show in a local theater. Sounds like a scene from a Christmas card, doesn’t it? Think again. The Christmas events in Pittsburgh are all of this and so much more. The Season of Lights spans from Point State Park to Kennywood Park and families will have the merriest of times visiting all that The ‘Burgh has to offer.
Pittsburgh Light-up Night
Pittsburgh Light-up Night officially kicks off the start of the holiday season, and the fun doesn’t wait until the sun goes down. Starting at lunch time, the city shows off its gorgeous twinkling displays and outdoor musical shows, the former Macy’s holiday window reveal, ice sculpting, and a huge fireworks display by the famous Zambelli Fireworks that draw well over 400,000 people into the city. There are holiday parties, including Blast VIP Party by Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership. Free horse-drawn carriage rides are offered or families can stroll through the streets checking out pretty Christmas displays. Molly’s Holly Trolley’s free service during the holidays runs every 15 minutes making stops at popular downtown holiday spots.
PPG Place in Downtown Pittsburgh
Not only is PPG Place in Downtown Pittsburgh one of the most iconic skyscrapers that defines the city’s skyline, but the holiday happenings in and around the all-glass building draw thousands of families each Christmas season. The MassMutual Pittsburgh Ice Rink has been a childhood favorite since 2001, and not only can ice skaters of all levels have a blast whirling and twirling around the giant Christmas tree in the center of the ice, but special skating events, including skating with a Pittsburgh mascot, put giant smiles on the faces of the skaters from mid-November through early March. Need to head indoors? Check out Wintergarden for the annual Spirits of Giving Around the World. You’ll see life-sized Santas depicted in their traditional garb who tell the story of each country’s jolly old elf. Also on display is the Gingerbread House Display, a city-wide competition showing off tasty skills from hundreds of competitors.
Erected in 1999, the Pittsburgh Crèche is the world’s only authorized creche outside of the Vatican in Saint Peter’s Basilica. Beginning on Pittsburgh Light-up Night, the life-sized Nativity is available for viewing at the USX Tower Plaza on Grant Street, and has 20 statues including detailed animals. There is no cost for visiting the gorgeous nativity and photos are encouraged.
Peoples Gas Holiday Market
Designed to look and feel like a traditional outdoor German Market, the Peoples Gas Holiday Market in Market Square offers one-of-a-kind gifts and German wares. Local artists and musical groups add to the holiday fun on the performance stage. Kids wanting to tell Santa their Christmas lists and take a photo on his lap can bring a non-perishable donation and visit Santa’s House, helping the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank.
Kennywood Park’s Holiday Lights
Bundle up and get ready for over one million twinkling lights at Kennywood Park‘s Holiday Lights! Families can walk around the park at night listening to local choirs sing Christmas carols or hop on the Gingerbread Express for a beautiful view of the park. Kids can whisper in Santa’s ear what is on the top of their Christmas list during the event. Open on weekends, Kennywood Park’s Holiday Lights is a favorite annual draw for locals, and the outdoor fun is even prettier when it’s snowing.
Carnegie Science Center
Kids (and big kids!) love miniature trains, and the Miniature Railroad & Village at Carnegie Science Center is sure to get your family in the Christmas spirit. Free with paid admission, the miniature train display room showcases the four seasons of Western Pennsylvania including the smallest of details that make the area so popular. Breakfast Express is a fun annual Saturday tradition at the Center, with a showing of The Polar Express and some fun in the train room it is always a blast for Santa fans. Kids from ages 4-10 can participate in science day camps during Christmas vacation, and educational camps featuring age appropriate themes and activities.
Penguins on Parade at Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium
In December, Penguins on Parade lets families see the fun that Pittsburgh Zoo’s penguins have in the snow. The feathered waddlers walk on the visitor’s pathway during the fun, and the parades are held on December weekends. Breakfast or lunch with Santa is also held on December weekends. Not only can kids have some one-on-one time with the man in red, but they can check out some fun zoo animals, decorate Christmas cookies, make some holiday crafts, and enjoy a tasty meal.
Carnegie Museum of Art
The Hall of Architecture in The Carnegie Museum of Art is home to five giant Christmas trees and the beautiful Neapolitan Presepio- a miniature nativity decorated annually by The Museum of Art Women’s Committee. Celebrating holidays around the world, the themed Christmas trees are on display during regular museum hours. Don’t forget to take your camera as the wide-eyed, opened mouth gazes from your wee ones will make a fun photo-op.
The National Aviary on the North Shore hosts Wings in Winter from November through early January. The aviary’s Holiday Show will have you singing along to avian-themed Christmas carols, and the fun birds soar over the crowd showing off their pretty plumage. Take a walk through the Southside Pole to see the penguins surrounded by Christmas trees, and don’t forget to look for Fleury, the aviary’s Snowy Owl figurine. Photos with Santa and his Penguin Helpers take place on Saturdays in December, and Holiday Camps let kids and adults get up close to the popular penguins.
Cathedral of Learning Nationality Rooms
Learning about holidays around the world is a snap with a visit to the Cathedral of Learning’s Nationality Rooms. 29 rooms, each lavishly decorated in that particular country’s traditions will have you hard-pressed to pick a favorite. From mid-November through Martin Luther King Day, winter holidays are celebrated with decorations from Christmas trees to New Year celebrations. Timed guided tours are available and jam-packed with information.
Phipps Conservatory in Oakland hosts Winter Flower Show and Light Garden, bringing to life the popular Christmas Carol, “Winter Wonderland.” Tons of Christmas lights on fir trees, poinsettias as far as the eye can see, and Candlelight Evenings make the Winter Flower Show even more magical. Several rooms have added holiday flowers, trees, and plants. Night visits to Phipps Conservatory are a must for families that love the magic that falling snow creates in the outdoor gardens. Children’s activities and hands-on tables throughout will provide some learning over the school break and may just instill a love of horticulture in your child.
Where to Stay in the City
The oldest hotel in the city, Omni William Penn, is decorated to the hilt during the Christmas season. Omni William Penn is decorated in the classic style, so the holiday trim adds to the hotel’s general splendor and style. From a tree lighting ceremony in the lobby to the annual gingerbread replica of the building, the hotel offers plenty of holiday cheer, including a fun Holiday Tea in the Palm Court. Stunning views of the city lights make for a pretty night-time scene, so be sure to ask for a room on one of the upper floors.
Looking for a spot right in the heart of all the hustle and bustle? Wyndham Grand Pittsburgh Downtown has a fabulous location at the top of Point State Park where you can literally walk across the street and see two Pittsburgh rivers converge to make the Ohio River, and gaze at all of the lights on Mount Washington. It’s only a few steps away from the “T”- Pittsburgh’s subway system as well- and as long as you stay within the rivers’ boundaries, it’s free!
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Disclosure: I was hosted by Visit Pittsburgh to bring fine folks the scoop on what makes Pittsburgh so great during the holidays. I was not asked to state a particular point of view and all opinions are my own!