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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.
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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 will host the theme of “Holiday Magic!”. Built around the wonder that only winter holidays can provide, the dazzling displays of this year’s Winter Flower Show will feature heartwarming vignettes including an extravagant winter feast, Santa’s workshop and a sparkling New Year’s Eve celebration.
You can expect tons of Christmas lights on fir trees & poinsettias as far as the eye can see. Candlelight Evenings make the Winter Flower Show even more magical.
The kiddos will LOVE the pirate-themed miniature train display, too. Interactive buttons and minute attention to detail makes for a cool way to spy how pirates would celebrate the holidays – including a Jolly Roger Christmas tree!
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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!
Oglebay Winter Festival of Lights
Photo by: Melissa Moore
One of the nation’s best drive-thru Christmas displays covering more than 300 acres can be found in Wheeling, West Virginia less than 60 miles outside the heart of Pittsburgh. Oglebay is a sprawling city park and resort complex sitting atop the hills of the northern panhandle of West Virginia overlooking the city of Wheeling. The drive through light display is one of a kind; since 1985, unique displays have been welded by local high school students. A highlight is the 60 foot tall poinsettia wreath and candle formation perfectly placed out on one of the resort’s several golf courses; this stunning display is one of almost 90 lighted structures across the park.
Yes, as you can imagine, the drive can get a bit backed-up on Saturday’s in season — Oglebay Winter Festival of Lights is well known in the surrounding region. However, there are options for families that don’t wish to drive in stop-and-go traffic; traffic is not nearly as bad on weeknights and even weekends early in the season before Thanksgiving. Also, Trolley Tours departing from Wilson Lodge are available by reservation up to seven days in advance throughout the season. We experienced the final 9:30PM trolly tour on a Sunday night, and highly recommend the trolley for people of all ages. The narrated tour provides information about the history of Oglebay as well as the construction of the various light displays. I would not have known that the pyramid of cheerleaders not far from the Wilson Lodge had one girl represent each of the local high schools, had we not heard the story on our tour.
Photo by: Melissa Moore
The entire resort complex, including the Oglebay Good Zoo, celebrates the season with special activities. A new tradition for the 2017 season is Santa’s Reindeer Training School. Our thirty minute experience with the reindeer at the zoo was easily my 8 year old daughter’s favorite memory from our weekend at Oglebay. Not only did we get to interact and feed the zoo’s two young reindeer (neither yet grown to full size), we also learned so much about reindeer from Mindi, the curator of animals. This passion for animal care, education and conservation was obvious throughout our visit to this fully accredited zoo. In addition to seasonal animal encounters, the zoo also offers a seasonal light show and laser show.
Wilson Lodge, the center of the resort complex at Oglebay, gets fully decked out for the season as well with sparkling trees and ornaments in the lobby areas and the hallways. It’s so festive! A holiday buffet is offered in the Ihlenfeld Dining Room featuring several different meat and vegetarian options. Down the hall in the Hickman Lounge there is nightly music, hot chocolate, and cookies available at the nightly Cordial Gathering; families are welcome to relax, listen to the music and choose from the large selection of board games available.
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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! (Karyn Locke)
I was provided a complimentary night’s stay at Oglebay, as well as a trolley tour, meals and Reindeer experience at the Oglebay Good Zoo for the purpose of this review. All opinions are my own. (Melissa Moore)
Lead image by: FlickrCreativeCommons/daveynin