It is no secret that I am a big fan of Pittsburgh. The years that I lived there were filled with great cultural experiences, beautiful vistas and great memories. It wasn’t like I felt that way before I had actually visited there. Far from it. Not only would Pittsburgh have been last on my list for a family vacation, it wouldn’t have even made the list. And boy, is that too bad. Because a Pittsburgh family vacation is one of the most engaging, affordable and easy trips to take the clan on. No matter what season, you will find lots for your family, whatever their ages and interests, to do;
Where You Should Lay Your Head
When you are considering hotels in Pittsburgh, there are two areas you want to be close to; either the Downtown/Strip District or The East End. This is where the majority of the attractions, activities and restaurants you will want to go to are or are accessible from. When it comes to a family friendly perspective I recommend a few places; the Marriott Courtyard Downtown has large rooms with the option of connecting, and is a quick hop to everywhere you need to be. We stayed there during a recent visit for the Pittsburgh Jazzlive Festival and not only were the service and accommodations solid, we had the benefit of being there for the late night jam sessions that the musicians would jump into at the onsite restaurant Sonoma Grill. Some of the rooms have oversized chairs that contain a twin pull out so that will help accommodate a larger family if needed. This also gives you walking distance access to the Strip District, the home of many of our recommended restaurants and a great number of funky little shops, as well as the Heinz History Museum.
In the East End, I have two favorites; The Marriott’s Springhill Suites Pittsburgh Bakery Square and The Shadyside Inn & Suites. Bakery Square is a funky little plaza that used to be the Nabisco Cookie Factory and now houses a Google Campus, Gym, restaurants, retail and the hotel. It is also across the street from Mellon Park, which will let your kids get some playground time if they need it. The rooms are large, with two Queen beds and a pull out, free laundry and WiFi and a fridge and microwave in the room. Breakfast is included and it’s a very decent breakfast with hot items and fruit, granola bars etceteras you can tuck in your bag for later.
Shadyside Inn & Suites is actually a number of properties of various sizes and amenities within the Shadyside neighborhood. They are apartment style with separate bedrooms, full kitchens and free parking. These are very affordable little efficiency apartments that are a favorite of visiting doctors and professors for the nearby Carnegie Melon and Pitt campuses.
You Can’t Get There From Here
The trick to getting around Pittsburgh is a car and GPS. Don’t go on about taxis and public transportation and all that stuff. They are virtually non-existent in the ‘burgh and the service is terrible. I have been asked to get out of a taxi in the pouring rain because my destination wasn’t a high enough fare and have been stranded on the way to a meeting even though I pre-booked a ride. You do have the option of UBER but really, you will be happier with a car with a GPS. Pittsburgh is a labyrinth of strangely compiled roadways and many, many bridges.
Whether you fly in to the Pittsburgh International Airport or the regional Latrobe Airport, you have a minimum 45 minute drive into the city proper. Coming in through the Fort Pitt tunnel into downtown in the dark is a spectacular thing of beauty. Try and orchestrate that at least once during your visit.
Let’s Talk About The Sports, Because You Know You Want To
In a town where the people say they “bleed black and gold” you know you are going to be met with some pretty great teams, venues and fans. Baseball, football or hockey…Pittsburgh’s professional teams all have amazing championship history, great facilities and affordable options for tickets. Affordable to the point that fans often drive down from places like Toronto because it is easier and cheaper to see the Leafs play in the Consol Energy Center than back at home. So if you are going to be there for any at home games of the Pittsburgh Pirates, Penguins or Steelers, be sure to snap up some tickets. Even if you are not a big sports fan, it is something to behold the Yinzer fandom at work.
The Pittsburgh Steelers. The best way to describe how Pittsburgh feels about its multiple Superbowl Championship Team is this; on any given Sunday with a home game around 200,000 people will show up to tailgate before a football game. Roughly a quarter of them actually have tickets to get into Heinz Stadium. That’s right; 150,000 just want to be near to the stadium and watch the game on some jerry rigged TV situation in the back of their truck or RV. If it isn’t a home game some people still show up and tailgate. And the entire city, from grannies, to priests to babies are sporting a Steelers’ jersey and won’t answer their phone except for at half time, and then only to talk about the first half of the game. That is “Stiller” pride.
PNC Park, the home of the beloved (though sometimes exasperating) Pittsburgh Pirates, is one of the most beautifully built and situated baseball parks in the league. Built on the edge of the river with an amazing view of Roberto Clemente Bridge and Pittsburgh’s gorgeous downtown, it is sometimes hard to focus on what is going on, on the field. But don’t worry even if the game is a disappointment, the playground, fireworks and Perogie Races will keep your whole brood entertained. That is right, Perogie Races, including a lady one who does the race in heels, carrying a purse. There are always cool ways to get the crowd involved, like letting the kids run the bases before or after the game, and really good giveaways pretty much every game. Definitely worth the very reasonable price of admission.
The new Consol Energy Center is the state of the art home of the Pittsburgh Penguins and every major indoor concert that comes to town. Come check out the legendary team, the great building and what I consider to be the best sport ever. (That’s hockey, for you rubes)
Ooh The Culture
Every time I talk about the arts scene in Pittsburgh some asshole gets a look on their face like they smelled a fart and goes, “Eww? Pittsburgh? Really?” Yes. Really. People forget that before Pittsburgh was simply a notch in America’s rust belt, it was one of America’s wealthiest cities. Andrew Carnegie, the Mellons, the Fricks. Steel and banking magnates left a legacy of investment (ie. money) that has given Pittsburgh an excellent infrastructure for the arts. Add to that the artistic pedigree of a city that produced Andy Warhol, August Wilson, George Benson, Martha Graham, Gertrude Stein…and the list goes on, and on, and on and you have a vibrant, thriving and accessible arts scene. Remember that if you are looking for great art, go where there is cheap rent – the affordability of Pittsburgh lets creative people be creative and buy groceries too.
Any given time of the year you will have a multitude of artistic things to do. Whether it is world class ballet at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, compelling drama at Pittsburgh Public Theater or the gluttony of festivals, performances and exhibits available through the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, The Warhol museum or otherwise. All of these arts organizations have family friendly options. In fact not only is the pop art of the Warhol in and of itself something kids love, they can silkscreen t-shirts, complete pop art paper collages or run around in the famed Silver Cloud exhibit. If you have exhausted those options look to go for some hands on learning at the Pittsburgh Glass Center. Want to take home some of the quality local art to remember your visit? The gift shop at the Warhol always has local art from the likes of Ron Copeland or you can head to the Gallerie Chiz in Shadyside where owner Ellen Chisdes Neuberg has a gifted eye for choosing talented up and comers like Vanessa German, Scott Griffin and others. I have many pieces in my home purchased there that I would no longer be able to afford because of their increase in value. If you really want to splash out track down an original piece by local p0p art phenom, Burton Morris. His art will just plain make you happy, and if you have one of his originals, it will make me jealous.
Music makes the city of Pittsburgh go ’round
The music pedigree of this city is something to reckon with, especially when it comes to jazz. You will find fantastic music in a variety of places – and many of them are family friendly and super cheap if not free. There are the festivals; Pittsburgh Jazzlive, First Fridays at the Frick, Bach and Beethoven in the Park, Reservoir Jazz. If you are looking for a some music to go with a great cocktail or some tasty food, that you can still bring the kids along to, try the regular line up at Andy’s.
- Out And About You will never run out of things to do in Pittsburgh, regardless of the season or weather. There are amazing parks and attractions in Pittsburgh you won’t find anywhere else. Park at Station Square and check out the dancing fountains. Hop on the Gateway Clipper and then head up the hill on the Duquesne Incline. Grab an ice cream or a coffee at the top of the hill and take a walk along the concourse of Mount Washington where you will be treated to the most beautiful view. Animal lovers will dig the Pittsburgh Zoo with its lions, tigers and bears oh my. And elephants, giraffes and zebras – there is also a great playground with a multitude of slides where parents can sit on a bench in the shade and watch there kids run themselves right out of energy. For a some indoor fun, the Pittsburgh Children’s Museum is one of the absolute best I have ever been to. Lots of hands on fun, a vertical two story climbing maze and an art room to muck about in.
Foodie Fun in the ‘Burgh
One thing Pittsburgh has tons of is great food. Whether you wander the streets of the Strip District to nibble on some goodies from the street vendors and or a some seafood magic from Wholey’s market, there are cuisines for everyone. My kids love, love, love to get breakfast at Pamela’s, home of the best pancakes in the ‘burgh. They have a few locations but the one in the Strip is our fave and close to a bunch of other stuff my kids like to do. Stopping at the Milk Shake Factory on the South Side is always on our list and no one said no to Noodlehead, great spot in Shadyside. My favorite, albeit more grown up spot on my most recent trip was Tako – a tasty latin spot so hip you will forget you aren’t in New York. Actually, scratch that you will know you are in Pittsburgh. You need to head to Vanilla Pastry Studio in Regent Square for the cupcakes of the gods. Your kids and your tummy will thank you.
Pittsburgh is unique, affordable and has something for everyone. Which of course is what you are looking for in a family vacation. In fact there are so many things to do in Pittsburgh we often had to make some hard choices between them. My kids ask regularly when we are going back for a visit to do all the things we missed out on last time around…and that says a lot because they are seasoned travelers. There is always something new to experience and even on this last visit I was able to walk the amazingly cool and transformative Homestead Labyrinth, at dawn, on Summer Solstice. Just goes to show you – you never know what to expect in the ‘burgh. We’ll be seeing you soon Pittsburgh! Especially if my kids get their way.