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Top 10 holiday hotspots for Pittsburgh families

Kelly Hughes
November21/ 2014

The holiday season is one of the most special times of year to be a parent. As I watch my children discover the magic of this season, I always find myself reflecting on my family’s blessings. Health. Happiness. Supportive loved ones. And, of course, our beautiful city to explore. There are so many family-friendly holiday destinations in Pittsburgh that it can be hard to choose which ones to visit–especially when so many of them are free and accessible to visitors from the city and beyond!

To help guide your family’s adventures over the next six weeks, we present our Kidsburgh tour of the Top 10 holiday hotspots for Pittsburgh families.

We start in Downtown Pittsburgh–the epicenter of holiday activity in the city. A visit to Downtown Pittsburgh during the Christmas season is a one-of-kind experience–a must for my family and many others. With free parking in the Pittsburgh Parking Authority garages on Saturdays and the free Holly Trolley running on weekend days, the trip is surprisingly painless and worth every minute. Although there are holiday destinations throughout Downtown Pittsburgh, we focus on three.

MassMutual Ice Skating Rink at PPG Place, Photo courtesy of PPG Place
MassMutual Ice Skating Rink at PPG Place, Photo courtesy of PPG Place

PPG Place

If Downtown Pittsburgh is the epicenter of holiday activity in the city, then PPG Place is at its heart. PPG Place holds two well-known holiday destinations. The first is its Wintergarden located inside a plant-filled, all-glass atrium adjacent to Fourth Avenue. The Wintergarden at PPG Place is the site of the annual Spirits of Giving Around the World Exhibit featuring 16 life-sized Santa Claus figures dressed in traditional costumes from countries around the world. The Wintergarden also holds the Community Gingerbread House Display with nearly 500 colorful and creative gingerbread houses submitted by families, schools and local organizations from around the city. Finally, the Wintergarden has a beautiful 32-foot decorated Christmas tree with a model train display around its base. The Wintergarden is free to visit and open seven days per week from Nov. 21-Jan. 7.

In the nearby Plaza at PPG Place, the MassMutual Pittsburgh Ice Rink encircles a 65-foot decorated Christmas tree. Many Pittsburgh families choose to spend a holiday evening gliding along the ice below its twinkling lights. The ice rink is open seven days per week from Nov. 21 to March 1. Admission is $8 for adults, $7 for children and ice skate rentals are available for $3.

Santa Spotting: The MassMutual Pittsburgh Ice Rink will host a Skate with Santa on Dec. 6, 13 and 20 from 2-4 p.m.

Market Square

Market Square sits right across Fourth Avenue from PPG Place and holds its own holiday hotspot–the Peoples Gas Holiday Market. The Peoples Gas Holiday Market is designed to mimic a traditional German Christkindlmarkt with rows of Alpine-style chalets selling handmade, high-quality gift items. There are a couple of exciting new additions to the market this year, including a Yule Haus selling traditional German fare and a Women of the Cloud Forest area selling fair trade products from artisans in Costa Rica and Nicaragua. The Peoples Gas Holiday Market also holds the BNY Mellon Season of the Lights display with over 150,000 holiday lights and a 30-foot electronic sphere tree with a musical light show every half hour after sunset. Market Square also offers daily musical performances celebrating the diverse cultural traditions of our region.

Santa Spotting: Santa will be at the Peoples Gas Holiday Market daily from Nov. 21-Dec. 23. If you bring a donation for the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, you can even get a free photo with him!

The Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's Nutcracker. Photo courtesy of PBT
The Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s Nutcracker. Photo courtesy of PBT

The Cultural District

Pittsburgh’s Cultural District offers a wide range of family-friendly entertainment for every budget this holiday season. The Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s production of the classic Christmas ballet, the Nutcracker, runs from Dec. 5-28 at the Benedum Center. For the second year in a row, the PBT will also offer a special sensory-friendly performance of the Nutcracker on Dec. 23 for individuals with autism or other sensory-processing disorders.

Other family-friendly holiday productions in the Cultural District include the Pittsburgh CLO’s annual A Musical Christmas Carol at the Byham Theater from Dec. 5-21 and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra’s Highmark Holiday Pops at Heinz Hall from Dec. 12-21.

Finally, the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership will host its new Holiday Kidsplay program on weekend afternoons. This free program invites families into several hotspots in the Cultural District for child-friendly activities and short performances. Highlights of this year’s Holiday Kidsplay include showings of short holiday films at the Harris Theater, a holiday arts & crafts area at the Trust Arts Education Center and even an improv comedy workshop at the Arcade Comedy Theater. With advance registration, families can also participate in a puppet-making workshop on Dec. 13 where they will create festive puppets to be used in the city’s First Night Parade.

Santa Spotting: The Highmark Holiday Pops invites Santa onto stage for an appearance during the show.

Other family-friendly holiday destinations in Downtown Pittsburgh this year include Fifth Avenue Place, One Oxford Centre, and the Pittsburgh Creche at the US Steel Tower Plaza. Also, don’t miss the chance to take a free horse-drawn carriage ride on Saturdays!

The next stop on our Kidsburgh tour of seasonal hotspots in Pittsburgh is the Oakland neighborhood of the city. Home of some of the region’s most celebrated academic and cultural institutions, Oakland embraces the holiday spirit at a couple of its most unforgettable destinations.

The Cathedral of Learning

The University of Pittsburgh’s Gothic Cathedral of Learning hosts an annual Winter Holiday Display in its 29 Nationality Rooms–each representing a different culture from North America, Europe, the Middle East, Asia and Africa. Starting Nov. 15, the Nationality Rooms are decorated in traditional seasonal decor. From the menorahs of the Israeli Heritage Room to the nativity scene in the Italian Heritage Room, a holiday tour of the Nationality Rooms fosters an appreciation of the diversity of cultural celebrations during this time of year. Special guided tours are available for groups of 10 or more and informative signage is displayed throughout to help individuals taking self-guided tours.

The Nationality Rooms will hold their annual “Holiday Open House” on Dec. 7–a fun and educational celebration of world cultures. This event features free ethnic dance performances and traditional ethnic food items available for purchase. The Winter Display in the Cathedral of Learning runs from Nov. 15 to Jan. 17.

Winter Light Garden at Phipps, Photo by Annie O'Neill
Winter Light Garden at Phipps, Photo by Annie O’Neill

Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens

Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens is one of the most beautiful spots in our city, especially at Christmas time. Its Winter Flower Show can only be described as magical–with poinsettas, paperwhites and amaryllis set against a backdrop of twinkling lights, decorated fir trees and creative props bringing to life this year’s theme, “Winter Wonderland.” Its outdoor Winter Light Garden is another memorable stop–with displays of lighted orbs, decorated trees and cascading fountains of light. The Winter Light Garden will also extend into the Children’s Discovery Garden for the first time this year.

A favorite time to visit Phipps is during its Candlelit Evenings from 5-11 p.m. when visitors can stroll through the Conservatory after dark. The exhibits are lit by hundreds of candles and classical Christmas music plays softly in the background. Visitors can even pick up a traditional seasonal beverage–perhaps a cup of mulled wine or some hot chocolate–to sip as they explore! Also, for little ballerinas, Phipps will be offering a special Saturdays with the Sugar Plum Fairy program this year on Dec. 6 and 13 with a 30-minute creative movement class led by a dancer from the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre.

Santa Spotting: Children can visit with Santa at Phipps from Nov. 28-Dec. 20 (plus Dec. 1) from 11-2 p.m.

Also, another favorite holiday destination in Oakland is the Carnegie Museums of Art and Natural History with its five decorated 20-foot holiday trees and the Neopolitan Presepio–a miniature recreation of the nativity scene within a background of 18th-century Italian life.

Next, our Kidsburgh tour of holiday destinations continues beyond the borders of Pittsburgh proper–to the suburbs where so many families live, work and play.

The Pennsylvania Trolley Museum

Starting on Nov. 28, Washington’s Pennsylvania Trolley Museum will hold its annual Santa Trolley on weekend days. Families can head south of the city and climb aboard the Museum’s newly restored 1926 vintage trolley for an hour-long ride with Santa and some Christmas caroling. Tickets also include a tour of the Trolley Display building with its Lionel toy train display and decorated street cars. Finally, kids can enjoy a snack and holiday craft and explore the museum’s new Steel City LUG’s Lego® train display. Plus, all kids get a present from Santa! Advance ticket purchase for the Santa Trolley is strongly recommended.

The Holiday Train Show at Western PA Model Railroad Museum, Photo courtesy of WPMRM
The Holiday Train Show at Western PA Model Railroad Museum, Photo courtesy of WPMRM

Western PA Model Railroad Museum

Located north of the city in Gibsonia, the Western Pennsylvania Model Railroad Museum is a volunteer-run nonprofit dedicated to the preservation of the history of railroading in the Pittsburgh region. The Museum is only open during the holiday season, when it invites the public to explore its 4,000 square-foot “A Railroad Journey in Miniature” model train display. Set in the 1950s, the display captures the railroading industry as it made the transition from steam to diesel locomotives. It features model trains traveling between Pittsburgh and Cumberland, MD past numerous well-known landmarks, including the P&LE train station (now Market Square in Pittsburgh), J&L Steel Mill, Cox’s Department Store (McKeesport, PA), Falling Water, Ohiopyle PA, Helmstetter’s Curve and the Cumberland Station (Cumberland, MD).

The Museum also has a first floor interactive area for children with train tables, a decorated Christmas tree and a Lionel toy train display. The Museum is open from Nov. 8-Jan. 11 on Friday evenings, Saturdays and Sundays.

Kennywood Amusement Park

East of the city, Kennywood Amusement Park holds its annual Festival of Lights starting on Nov. 28 and running on weekend evenings until Dec. 21. During this event, Kennywood is illuminated by over 1 million holiday lights and offers several favorite family activities, including rides on its Gingerbread Express train, a choreographed light show over the lagoon, caroling with local choirs, a cookie decorating area, a petting zoo and a nightly reading of Twas the Night Before Christmas. Children can even pen a letter for Santa and send it to the North Pole. Don’t be surprised if you get a response in your mailbox soon after!

Santa Spotting: Santa will be at Kennywood’s Festival of Lights each evening. Tickets are also available for “Dinner with Santa” on Saturday evenings in December.

Horse drawn wagon ride at Overly's Country Christmas, Photo courtesy of Overly's
Horse-drawn wagon ride at Overly’s Country Christmas, Photo courtesy of Overly’s

Overly’s Country Christmas

Overly’s Country Christmas is another favorite holiday destination for Pittsburgh families. Located east of the city in Greensburg, this old-fashioned nonprofit Christmas village celebrates holiday traditions of year’s past. The history of Overly’s is worth knowing. It began in the 1950s at the private home of Harry Overly, a local father who enjoyed decorating his house for his four kids at Christmas time. As the years passed, his displays became highly elaborate and well-known. Visitors, volunteers and eventually monetary donations started appearing at his doorstep during the holidays. In the spirit of the season, he saved and donated this money–nearly one million dollars in mostly loose change–to the Free Care Fund at the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh 35 years later.

Although it’s no longer in its original location, many Pittsburgh families still enjoy visiting Overly’s–taking a horsedrawn wagon ride, caroling around the bonfire, visiting the model train display, buying some traditional gifts at the general store and visiting with Henny Hemlock, its very own Talking Christmas Tree. Overly’s Country Christmas continues its commitment to supporting local nonprofit organizations and this year will be accepting donations of new, unwrapped toys for the Salvation Army, nonperishable food items for the Good Samaritan Center and dry pet food and kitty litter for In Care of Cats & Others. Overly’s Country Christmas is open seven days per week from Nov. 21-Jan. 1.

Santa Spotting: Santa will be at Overly’s each evening from Nov. 21 to Dec. 23–at which time he will head back to the North Pole to tie up some loose ends before the Big Day.

Finally, we offer a short road trip idea for Pittsburgh families who are feeling ambitious and want to get out of town for a special Christmas adventure.

Oglebay Resort

Although the “Celebration of Lights” at Hartwood Acres is no more, families can still visit a light display worth the drive. Oglebay Resort is located about 60 miles from Pittsburgh and its Winter Festival of Lights is nationally-renowned. The festival features over 80 light displays exhibited along a six-mile stretch of the resort. The festival includes several crowd-pleasers–enormous lighted displays of dinosaurs, Cinderella, the characters from the Peanuts gang and much more. Also, new this year is a 300-foot LED rainbow tunnel with multicolored lights. A $20 per car donation is requested to visit the festival.

The Winter Festival of Lights also features a couple of walk-through components, including a Garden of Lights and a Nativity Display. For an additional price, you can also visit the Mansion Museum, the Glass Museum or the Good Zoo with its Light and Music Extravaganza and holiday train exhibit.

Santa Spotting: Santa will be visiting the Good Zoo at Oglebay Resort on Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings from Dec. 5-21.

We hope our Kidsburgh holiday guide has inspired your family to get out there and explore all the city has to offer at this exciting time of year. Happy holidays from our families to yours!

Featured photo: Santa at Overly’s County Christmas, Photo courtesy of Overly’s.

This article was written by Kelly Hughes with contributions by Nadine Champsi.

Kelly Hughes