by Andrew Der
Someone switched cities while I wasn’t looking. Don’t worry – the city of three rivers is still the familiar Steeltown of the Penguins, Pirates and Steelers but some might be tempted to ask its residents ” OK, who are you and what have you done with Pittsburgh”?
Not only has the city quietly evolved into a visitor’s cultural and recreational Mecca for families but it has done so gracefully and rapidly without losing its roots. The Heinz’s and Carnegie’s would certainly be impressed with what the people have wrought from a revitalized downtown to centers of cultural arts, academia and sciences as well as spectacular new stadiums, parks and vistas.
With the trend to discover family destinations closer to home by vehicle (see my previous features), those of you in the Eastern U. S. might be surprised to find Pittsburgh within 500 miles of more than one half of the U. S. population and the perfect destination for a weekend family getaway. In fact, the city’s Convention and Visitors Bureau promotes a very affordable discovery package called “Kidsburgh” which can be viewed and purchased entirely on their web site – it is slick as duck poop. Spring for the extra night (or two) add-on for the kid factor – the package itinerary is a tad ambitious and rigorous for parents who know that precision scheduling and children are not necessarily compatible. The additional investment will yield more leisurely vacation-like results.
For strategic reasons, the best place to stay is at one of the several downtown hotels. I recommend the competitively priced Ramada Plaza Suites, one of the choices in the Kidsburgh package, because of the available kitchenettes and it’s central location equidistant to numerous attractions. Again, the kid factor prevails here – the convenience of affordable in-room dining cannot be understated especially in the mornings.
Much of downtown is very suitable for walking tours and is teeming with shopping, dining and cultural attractions. Although accessible by short bus and metro jaunts, use the bus system with caution for more outlying destinations and on weekends. The schedule and stops are less than reliable by experience and the bus drivers’ own admission. When visiting by car, save time by driving – parking and traffic are not formidable by big city standards.
Downtown exploration can also be a stepping stone to the appreciation of the vast riverfront greenways, parks and paths, which offer a plethora of hiking, biking, rollerblading and kayaking opportunities. Bicycling the city’s riverfront greenways is one of the most memorable ways to experience the regional attractions. If embarking on a downtown adventure, include a stop at the Point State Park – a National Historic Landmark for the strategic role it played during the French and Indian War. Where the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers confluence to form the Ohio, this tip of Pittsburgh’s Golden Triangle has a fabulous water fountain, paved promenades along the riverfront, overlooks with dramatic views of the city, busy waterways and impressive hillside scenery.
At downtown’s edge, the famous Strip District lays in wait leading you to ethnic food markets, specialty shops and antique stores. A great place to have a breakfast or lunch, – try DeLuca’s Restaurant – this area closes down in the afternoon, so get there in the morning. Include a stop at the Heinz History Center to learn how H. J. Heinz parlayed a tomato patch into a multi-billion dollar food business and why the nostalgic ketchup bottle label shape is seen even on State Highway markers. Don’t miss the Heinz 57 product marketing exhibit.
Some of the prime family attractions are away from downtown and will require some planning but minimal effort. The length of your stay will directly affect how much you can see so prioritize any schedule with preferences in mind. A sports theme should include both the new 64,475- seat Heinz field replacing Three Rivers Stadium as well as the PNC Park – the new 38,000-seat home of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Of course, the essence of such an experience is scheduling any visit to include one or more hometeam events.
If your goals are oriented to learning and amusement, a must is the Carnegie Science Center. One of four of Pittsburgh’s Carnegie museums and next to the new Heinz field, this spectacular imaginarium for both sides of the child and adult brain modestly bills itself as one of the top science centers in the country. As a leader in science and technology education, the Center attracts more than 650,000 visitors each year to its four massive floors of more than 300 hands-on exhibits, a four-story Omnimax Theater, interactive planetarium, a real submarine, three live demonstration theaters and the world’s largest science and sport exhibition.
The secret to its success is the ability to connect science and technology to everyday life by old-fashioned fun, doing, touching and inspiring curiosity. I confess that I found myself distracted and occupied as much as my children. Some of my favorite interactive exhibits included the numerous and varied quickie science experiments, how and why displays, the marine reef aquarium, the real submarine, the largest and most intricate model railroad and village (more like a country), planetarium, live demonstration theatres and the separate UPMC SportsWorks building which emphasizes the physics of sports and human movement by actual participation and amusement park-like virtual reality rides. The Sports Works by itself is wondrous enough to see alone as an entire day’s activity.
If this experience does not satiate the family’s thirst for knowledge, then the next item on the agenda must be the 77-acre natural-habitat Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium. Located in a slower-paced suburb, a car is a must to comfortably reach this home to 3,000 animals and 29 endangered species. My favorite attractions were the indigenously designed aquariums, the gorillas and the kids’ touching areas. If making the effort to travel to this region, combine this excursion with another worthy experience in the nearby Oakland District for efficiency. Both the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens or the Carnegie Museum of Natural History make a memorable add-on. The Museum offers a good old fashioned dinosaur and paleontology experience and the Gardens will satisfy the needs of any amateur gardener or botanist.
If time allows, some other adventures to round out your stay should include the National Aviary, Pittsburgh Children’s Museum, The Frick Art and Historical Center, Kennywood Park (a national historic landmark amusement park) and Sandcastle Water Park. Combine the Waterpark with a stop at Dave and Busters, a 60,000 square foot restaurant and entertainment facility for the whole family. Any visit to Pittsburgh absolutely must include a ride up one of the two historic incline railways along the south ridge of the river providing you with one of the most spectacular urban panoramic views I have ever seen. Although a tad farther, I recommend the Duquesne Incline for the best view. Bring a camera, exact fare change and an appetite and have dinner at one of several restaurants at the top.
The advantage of the other Incline, Monongahela, is its association with the renowned Station Square district at its base. The site of the restored Pittsburgh and Lake Erie Railroad Headquarters, this riverfront shopping and restaurant playground is also home to an amphitheater, outdoor museum and what is billed as the largest excursion boat operation. Consisting of six self-contained riverboats, try the Good Ship Lollipop, a river cruise on one of these floating entertainment centers while figuring how to schedule everything you want to see is the most serene way to conclude the Kidsburgh experience.
Greater Pittsburgh Convention and Visitors Bureau
800 359 0758 or 412 281 7711
This web site is your one-stop shop for all the information you need including, hotels, reservations, attraction addresses, phone numbers, admissions, restaurants and links to other sources.
Other information sources include:
Has a plethora of information and links
Great source of information on all the museums.
Ramada Plaza Suites
1 Bigelow Square,
412 281 5800 www.the.ramada.com/pittsburgh00107
Carnegie Science Center
One Allegheny Avenue,
412 237 3400 www.carnegiesciencecenter.org
Point State Park
101 Commonwealth Place,
Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium
PNC Park pirates.mlb.com/NASApp/mlb/pit/ballpark/pit_ballpark_history.jsp
1220 Grandview Avenue,
412 381 1665 trfn.clpgh.org/incline
Golden Triangle Bike Rentals
412 600 0675