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Guide to Pittsburgh Holiday Fun (with hot chocolate!)

pittsburgh-light-up-nightI love getting out of the house with my kids in the winter, so I always look forward to December, when holiday activities abound. But sometimes when I look at holiday calendars, I just have to laugh in exasperation. A performance of Handel’s Messiah sounds fantastic, but if I bring my two young vibrating electrons, there’s a good chance we’ll be asked to leave. The same goes for holiday house tours (I admit: we were once asked to leave a house tour: scarring!) and evening parties. Instead, I seek out activities that involve movement and flexible timing, and in the best-case scenario, hot chocolate.

During the holidays, it’s not just my kids that I’m thinking about. Every year, my extended family plans a “day in Pittsburgh” to celebrate Christmas. It’s one of our favorite traditions. Imagine 10-15 people of various ages trouping around the city in search of gingerbread displays and Christmas trees (and bathrooms): that’s us! Over the years, we’ve found some holiday activities that we now count as family favorites.

It’s great that more and more holiday calendars (like this one from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette) are highlighting “family” events. I’ve compiled a personal list of holiday activities that have worked well for my little guys and the extended posse – they’re open on a drop-in basis, inexpensive, and/or close to bathrooms and hot chocolate. If you’ve got kids or a big group with you, you might want to:

  1. See the giant crèche at USX Tower and Plaza (also known as U.S. Steel Tower). This larger-than-life-size crèche captures a nativity scene just like one in Rome. It is truly impressive, with 20 sculpted figures, dramatic lighting, and an unusual stone and wood stable. It’s free, with donations accepted.

  2. Tour the Nationality Rooms at the Cathedral of Learning. The University of Pittsburgh’s “Nationality Rooms,” special classrooms representing countries around the world, are open (during designated times) for holiday tours. You can listen to a recorded audio tour or visit rooms at your own pace. Although they really do serve as classrooms, these are not what the word “classroom” conjures up. Instead, they are unique rooms with features like carved chairs, wood paneling, and intricate fireplaces – each room represents a specific country. For the holidays, they are decorated in traditional holiday styles. There is a small charge to visit the Nationality Rooms.

  3. Visit Wintergarden at PPG Place. A visit to PPG Place is one of our favorite holiday activities. Inside the enclosed plaza, gingerbread houses (impressive entries in a yearly contest) are arranged like an edible village. Past entries have included gingerbread versions of Heinz Field and Fallingwater! As if this weren’t magical enough for the four-foot-and-under crowd (and their parents), a model train runs between the houses. Around the perimeter of the plaza, large model Santas from around the world provide a glimpse of global holiday traditions. You can enjoy holiday performances on weekends and grab a drink at the indoor cafe. Bundle up, and you can see additional gingerbread houses in window displays outside. Free, with donations accepted for Children’s Hospital.

  4. Ride the Holly Trolley. This trolley connects downtown locations, and is free for riders on Saturdays during the holiday season. Know a kid who wouldn’t enjoy a trolley ride? Enough said. The Trolley stops at Fifth Avenue Place, One Oxford Center, ToonSeum, Grand Pittsburgh, Heinz History Center, U.S. Steel Tower, and Market Square. Free on Saturdays in December.

  5. Visit the Holiday Market, Market Square. The market is new this year, and includes individual craft kiosks and a stage with performances, all in a traditional German style. At night, there is a light display. I’m not sure how interesting the craft kiosks are for kids – when I visited, I didn’t even try to shop. But to be honest, Market Square is a winner on my list because of the many options for lunch or drinks in the vicinity. Free, not counting the food, drinks, and crafts you might be tempted to buy.

  6. See the giant trees and nativity scene (called the Neapolitan Presepio) at the Carnegie Museum of Art. Large decorated trees adorn the Hall of Architecture, which also features an unusual “village” nativity scene with dozens of carved people and angels. You’ll have to pay museum admission, but this might be a good time to treat yourself to a Carnegie membership, which also includes the Museum of Natural History, Science Center and Andy Warhol museum. For the holidays, the Science Center offers special Imax and planetarium programs, and the Museum of Natural History has themed children’s activities in its Discovery Room. Fee for daily admission or yearly membership.

  7. If you have a membership to any other Pittsburgh museums, or even if you don’t, now is a great time to enjoy Pittsburgh’s museums with special holiday activities and events. Check out events at the ToonSeum, Phipps Conservatory, Frick Art and Historical Center, Children’s Museum, and National Aviary. Fee for daily admission or yearly membership; some activities free or have special charges.

  8. Take the family ice skating. Winter rinks are set up at PPG Place (right next to Wintergarden plaza) and Schenley Park. Last year, we enjoyed skating at the larger Penguins Pond ice rink at SouthSide Works, but the rink isn’t up this year – it seems to have disappeared along with the NHL season. I hope they bring it back! Fee for skating and skate rental.

This post was written by current parent Jennifer Riddle Harding, Ph.D. and first appeared in the Post-Gazette Playground Blog.

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