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How to tour the world with your family right here in Pittsburgh

Mandy Fields Yokim
April21/ 2015

Condé Nast Traveler recently voted Pittsburgh as one of the top three places in the world to visit in 2015. And why not? Our city is beautiful and filled with dedicated people working hard to make it a world-class city. But as parents, how do we guide our children to appreciate what others see in Pittsburgh? How can we help them see the city as part of a global community as Condé Nast Traveler does?

In this guide, we offer parents an arsenal of helpful local resources for introducing a global perspective to even the youngest children. Think of Pittsburgh as a world classroom. Our children are the students. Enjoy the learning process!

Visiting cultural festivals

We have so many wonderful cultural festivals in Pittsburgh that we can introduce our children to nearly every region in the world through dance, food, art, music and more.

A great place to start is the Pittsburgh Folk Festival held each May. Since 1956, the festival has been celebrating the diversity of Pittsburgh’s ethnic communities with over 30 cultural organizations now represented. Come hungry since a visit to the Folk Festival gives families the opportunity to try foods from around the world. Stuffed grape leaves from Lebanon, sausages and sauerkraut from Germany and pork and vegetarian egg rolls from the Philippines are just a few of the choices. Performances are also scheduled throughout the event to showcase dance, music and costumes from locals groups that represent Asia, Europe, the Americas and Africa.

Another great event that features a variety of cultural groups is the McKeesport International Village held during the summer. This event is a three-day celebration of Pittsburgh’s ethnic heritage with food booths, crafts, games, educational mini-sessions about world cultures and a jam-packed schedule of live entertainment. Dance groups representing Poland, Turkey, Greece and Ghana are just a few of the countries set to take the stage this year.

Throughout the year, you can take your children to festivals that focus on the culture of one particular region of the world. Examples include the Latin American/Caribbean Festival, the Tartan Day Festival highlighting Scottish culture, the Tomodachi Festival focusing on Japanese culture, Little Italy Days, the Irish Festival and the Renaissance Festival where you can step back in time to 16th century England.

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Photo courtesy of Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh

Hosting an international visitor 

The hosting program through Global Pittsburgh provides an amazing opportunity for cultural exchange. For a one-of-a-kind global experience, you can open your home to an international student for several months or international guests for one dinner. “Citizen diplomacy starts at an early age and one of the things we hear most often from our host families is that they value the learning opportunity for their children,” says Thomas Buell, Jr. director of marketing for Global Pittsburgh. The experience of getting to know someone from another country makes a lasting impression and helps to cultivate a deeply ingrained sense of international curiosity. In fact, some of the adults in the Global Pittsburgh hosting program started out as children of families who hosted years ago.

Touring the Nationality Rooms 

On the campus of the University of Pittsburgh stands the iconic Cathedral of Learning, home to one of our city’s greatest cultural resources. The Nationality Rooms are a series of classrooms designed to reflect the cultures of Pittsburgh’s many ethnic groups at specific points in their histories. A trip to the African Heritage Room will transport you to an 18th century Asanti temple, the Israel Heritage Room to an ancient dwelling in the 1st century and the Indian Heritage Room to the courtyard of a Buddhist university in the 7th Century. While these classrooms are still used by students today, guided group tours and self-led audio tours can be arranged throughout the year.

In addition to tours, each year the Nationality Rooms host celebrations and festivals to commemorate the cultures of many of the classrooms. Examples include the Polish Festival, the Slovak Heritage Festival, the Indian Independence Festival and a Lithuanian egg-decorating workshop. From November to January, each classroom is also decorated in traditional holiday style. In December, the annual Open House features cultural dance and music shows as well as international food and craft vendors.

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Timbeleeza Brazilian percussion ensemble, Photo courtesy of Timbeleeza

Listening to international music

Music can be a powerful and entertaining way to introduce different cultures to your children. The World Kaleidoscope Series is a monthly event at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh that showcases cultures from a variety of countries through the performing arts. Held on the 4th Sunday of each month, this series lets you virtually travel to other continents through Irish dancing, Indian classical music, Brazilian drumming and West African song and dance.

For a collection of musical performances from around the world, don’t miss the World Music Festival at the University of Pittsburgh where groups representing several countries rotate onto the stage to share differing musical styles. Outside the performance area you can sample authentic cuisine from the countries represented in the show.

Watching global theater

If your children love live theater, then Pittsburgh International Children’s Theater is a perfect bridge to exploring the world with them. Each show in the family-friendly series is presented by a troupe from a different country. The performances are usually under an hour and if you can’t make it Downtown to see the show, the troupe travels to area suburbs, too.

In May each year, kid-friendly international theater takes center stage at the EQT Children’s Theater’s Festival. This year’s performances will represent Scotland, Mexico, Netherlands, Australia and Denmark. Also, don’t miss the showcase of international films, arts and crafts, creative play opportunities and food trucks.

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Tibetan monks F.I.N.E artist activity at the Children’s Museum, Photo courtesy of the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh

Taste-testing ethnic foods in the Strip District

If food is what motivates your family to try new things, then you are in luck because Pittsburgh is home to many ethnic food festivals and international restaurants.

A great way to explore food from several countries in one day is to take a leisurely walk down Penn Avenue in the Strip District, a colorful neighborhood filled with ethnic food markets, sidewalk vendors and food carts, bakeries, fresh fish stores and coffee shops. You can easily eat your way around the world by sampling foods like Mediterranean hummus, Italian biscotti, Mexican tortillas, Polish pierogis and Asian candy. If you prefer a guided experience led by foodies who will also add in some local history, try a tour by ‘Burgh Bits & Bites. Families are  welcome!

Learning a new language

Pittsburgh offers a number of ways for children to learn another language. Little Linguists, founded by Pittsburgh mom Traci Eshelman Ramey in 2001, is a company that provides programs in nine different languages. After traveling to more than 40 countries for her former global sales job, Ramey grew to understand the value of exposing children to other cultures and languages. “Our children will be competing in a global workforce, she says. “Not only are they competing against exceptional students in the United States, they are competing with the best and brightest from around the world for those jobs.”

Atlas Dreams Languages and Lingua Stars are two other Pittsburgh-area companies that provide instruction in multiple languages. For language-specific learning, try these programs: Mondo ItalianoLa Escuelita ArcoirisPittsburgh Chinese SchoolBulgarian Language and Culture classesSaturday Lithuanian Language classes and Language Camp, an overnight immersion experience during the summer.

Finally, the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh offers a number of beginner language classes including Korean, Arabic and Russian. Camp Konnichiwa is a language camp specifically geared toward younger children that uses songs, games and stories to teach Japanese. The weekly Let’s Learn Chinese classes for kids incorporate fun activities like making dumplings to celebrate Chinese New Year.

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Polish Day at Kennywood, Photo courtesy of Kennywood

Learning about world cultures through special events

As parents, we hit the jackpot if we can combine cultural education with an activity that our children already love.

If your kids enjoy amusement parks, take them to Kennywood for one of the park’s Nationality Days, which highlight many of the ethnic communities in Pittsburgh. On these days the park offers all its normal rides, games and foods with the addition of special cultural programming specific to a featured county. If you have a car or truck lover, visit the Vintage Grand Prix International Car Show held every summer in Schenley Park. With one walk through a display of over 2,000 vehicles, you can discuss the craftsmanship of a German Porsche, a British Aston Martin, a Japanese Mitsubishi and an Italian Lamborghini.

Sports fans will enjoy the annual Dick’s Sporting Goods Pittsburgh Marathon in May where you can cheer on the 30,000 runners that represent nearly 15 different countries around the world. Watching the elite runners, often representing African countries like Kenya and Ethiopia, race by at an incredibly fast pace is nothing short of amazing. Also, art and music lovers will surely find something of interest at the Three Rivers Arts Festival, which takes over the Point and surrounding Downtown areas each June with a diverse schedule of art installations, music and dance performances. While not all shows are global-themed, there are always a few that fit the bill.

Lastly, look for opportunities at places like The Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh with its wonderful cultural programming throughout the year, Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens with its educational activities to accompany its newly opened Tropical Forest Congo and the National Aviary with cultural activities related to its soon-to-open Condor Court housing four Andean Condors, native to Ecuador.

We hope this guide gives you some good ideas for discovering the world in Pittsburgh with your children. Looking for more inspiration? Check out the weekly posts from Wonderaddo, a fun website dedicated to helping families learn about the world in Pittsburgh. Have fun exploring!

Featured photo: Pittsburgh Folk Festival, Photo courtesy of Pittsburgh Folk Festival

Mandy Fields Yokim

Mandy Fields Yokim is a nationally published writer and editor based in the Pittsburgh area. Her work has appeared in Parents Magazine, Blue Ridge Country Magazine, NEXTpittsburgh, Kidsburgh, TEQ Magazine, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and nearly 20 parenting publications across the United States and Canada. Her blog posts have appeared online at Pittsburgh Magazine, Kid World Citizen and Wonderaddo, the global education initiative she founded in 2013 to encourage kids and families to explore the world in Pittsburgh. She is contributing editor of regional books such as Grit, Smoke and Steam, Ultimate Pittsburgh Trivia and Bridges of Pittsburgh.