By Guest Blogger Kelly Gunzenhauser
I love a good road trip. Road trips for me mean getting out of the house and stopping the fighting and the begging for screen time. Fortunately, we get to visit our cousins in the beautiful city of Pittsburgh, PA every August. Pittsburgh is a very friendly city for kids of all ages. Even though we go every year, we have found that we can’t fit in everything we want to do, but that’s just a reason to keep going back.
Pittsburgh isn’t nearly as far away from North Carolina as you might think. It only takes six hours to get there by car, which is doable for our family. It’s a great drive. There are mountain views and a couple of tunnels to make it exciting. On the way up, plan to make a pit stop at the New River Gorge Bridge and Canyon Rim Visitor Center. There is a small museum dedicated to the building of the third highest bridge in the US, and the center has a short trail with spectacular views, as well. (Unless, of course, there is fog, and since this is the mountains, there often is, but it’s still worth a stop.) Just driving over the bridge is a little scary, but amazing as well.
Arriving in the city of Pittsburgh is one of my favorite parts of the whole trip. If you take I-79 to I-376 through the Fort Pitt Tunnel, on the other side is the city looming ahead—spectacular when seen coming out of the dark! The city of Pittsburgh is actually surrounded by urban boroughs and neighborhoods like Edgewood, Squirrel Hill, Point Breeze, and Highland Park, but except for the changing of the street sign colors, the transition from one neighborhood to another is pretty hard to discern. Most—but not all—of the attractions I describe here are in the northeast quadrant of the Pittsburgh metro area.
So what do we do in Pittsburgh? Different things every time, but these are some of the highlights. Kennywood, the historic amusement park just 8 miles from downtown, is a favorite with the thrill seekers in our family. There are still some old rides (including wooden rollercoasters), some amazing new ones, a great “little kids’” area, and plenty of water rides. Be sure to walk across the footbridge and watch screaming people swinging on the bungee ride. It’s terrifying!
Carnegie Science Center and Highmark SportsWorks is fun and educational and also provides a workout that will leave your kids sweaty and tired. In the Science Center you will find all of the science your kids can handle—interactive river basin exhibits, a robot area, a giant train exhibit, a real submarine, a planetarium, and tons more. Sports Works is dedicated to the science of sports. Everything is interactive and you can spend hours there running races, pitching baseballs, and climbing the rock wall. (This is a good thing to take your kids to before you go to a restaurant, since they will be too exhausted to do much more than just eat!)
If you like the Science Center, you will love the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh. There are all kinds of exhibits here, but my favorites are the Garage, which has a huge metal track for little cars, and a parachute launching pad; and the water play area. Bring a change of clothes, because your kids will be soaked! Remember Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood? His studio was in Pittsburgh and the museum houses parts of his former set. (Our own local WXII TV station donated a vintage TV camera for the exhibit, so be sure to look for it!)
Pittsburgh uses its rivers to great advantage. Besides just watching the boat traffic, you can visit the Pittsburgh Water Steps on the North Shore, a free, climbable water feature overlooking the river. Bring a change of clothes! Overlooking the river area downtown is the Duquesne Incline, a gondola-type ride on rails that travels up to and down from Mount Washington. The views from Mount Washington are spectacular. (I am too chicken to ride it but I hear it’s great!)
If the kids need to get out and run, there are plenty of unusual playgrounds in the city. Our favorites are the Blue Slide playground at Frick Park, the wooden playground at Highland Park, the playground at Schenley Park, and there are many more we haven’t even gotten to try yet. (Google “Pittsburgh Playgrounds” because there are too many to list.) You can also spend a day at the Pittsburgh Zoo and Aquarium for some outdoor and indoor animal fun. Or consider taking a free walking tour of the city with Free Pittsburgh Walking Tours!
All this sightseeing will make you hungry, and there are many kid-friendly places to eat in Pittsburgh. For a legendary Pittsburgh sandwich, try one of the many Primanti Brothers locations, made famous by the fact that they put the fries ON the sandwich. The Porch at Schenley in Oakland is also a good bet for kids. They specialize in foods from local providers, and have a simple kids’ menu. For a sugar fix, visit Peace, Love, and Little Doughnuts (try the one with bacon!) or the Enrico Biscotti Bakery, where you can grab a treat for your dog at the same time. If you prefer ice cream, hit Dave and Andy’s Homemade Ice Cream in Oakland and try some crazy flavors like maple bacon or oatmeal raisin cookie. Or, walk up for dip cones and milkshakes at Page’s Dairy Mart, a historic business famous for delicious ice cream and for being destroyed twice, first by a flood in 1936, then by a gas explosion in 1958. If you like food shopping, drop by the Strip District’s Pennsylvania Macaroni Company, an authentic Italian market that has more shapes of pasta than you can imagine, and aged provolone so sharp that it will bite you back.
Last but not least, if you want to spend a few hours that are exciting and relaxing at the same time, visit PNC Park for a baseball game. The Pirates have been pretty good of late, and their ballpark is breathtaking, especially if you park and walk across the bright yellow Clementi Bridge. (And yes, they do have another little team in Pittsburgh called the Steelers, but I have yet to visit the Mustard Bowl, as it’s called because you can see the gold seats from afar.)
In Pittsburgh, there is so much to do that I have barely scratched the surface. I also haven’t talked about other things that are within a couple of hours’ driving distance, like Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater house (children’s tours available; call ahead if you have children under 8), or Idlewild, an amusement park geared toward younger kids that also has a huge water park. Nor have I talked about the fabulous dining scene in Pittsburgh—there’s Lidia’s, Park Bruges, Sienna Mercato, Six Penn Kitchen, and dozens more restaurants to sample. (We always get a sitter for the kids and have one adult night out, and it’s so worth it!)
Some logistical information:
- The summer weather in PA is usually cooler and less humid than NC, so pack a sweatshirt for evenings. (It can also be boiling hot; you just never know.) In winter, Pittsburgh can get a lot of snow or not much at all. City driving is usually fine, but driving up through WV can be pretty dicey.
- Getting around Pittsburgh can be tricky. It’s built on very hilly terrain at the convergence of the Ohio, Monongahela, and Allegheny rivers. Pittsburgh has more bridges than any other city in the US, plus a whole lot of tunnels. We consider this charming, but it’s easy to take the wrong turn and have a hard time finding the right bridge back.
- Pittsburghers are mostly polite drivers, but you have to learn to love the “Pittsburgh Left” as our relatives call it. When there is no dedicated left turn traffic signal, people turning left opposite you will often just go for it as soon as the light turns, instead of waiting politely for the stream of straight-bound traffic to finish first. It’s just one car, typically, but it can be a little startling if you aren’t used to it. I don’t recommend trying this move, either—it’s for Pittsburghers only!