A Visit to Pittsburgh

My older daughter’s college visits are giving us a wonderful opportunity to explore new places.  This time, we visited Pittsburgh. Once known as a gritty, working class city, Pittsburgh has a gorgeous skyline, unique attractions, and good eats.

Frick Art and Historical Center

Our first stop was the Frick Art and Historical Center. The complex includes Clayton, the Gilded Age home of Henry Clay Frick and his wife Adelaide from 1882 to 1905 before they moved to New York, a greenhouse, a Car and Carriage Museum, and the Frick Art Museum.  All of these attractions are free, except for tours of the mansion ($10 for adults, $8 for seniors and students, $6 for 16 and under) and special exhibitions ($8-10) at the Art Museum.  Even the parking is free.  Begin your visit at the Grable Visitor Center, where you can purchase tickets for special exhibitions and a tour of the house (given every hour on the hour). Tours are the only way to see the mansion. Special family tours are available on Wednesdays and Saturdays in July and August. Ask for a copy of the children’s guide to the Frick called “Discovery Fun.” Note: The Frick is open until 9 p.m. on Fridays in the summer when it hosts free concerts, special activities, and food trucks.

We loved the Car and Carriage Museum, which has a wonderful selection of vehicles owned by the family, dating back to the turn of the 20th century.  Surprisingly, the Art Museum does not have nearly the collection of the Frick in New York but it does have paintings by Rubens, Steen, Guardi, Fragonard, Boucher, Hogarth, and Gainsborough.  It is especially strong in Early Renaissance devotional paintings, Renaissance and Baroque bronze statuettes, and 18th century French painting and decorative arts.  A playhouse for the Frick children, once contained a bowling alley and darkroom, but now serves as administrative offices. Outside the greenhouse is a mailbox with a scavenger hunt for kids.  The greenhouse has rotating exhibits and is small but lovely.


We were lucky enough to get a private tour of Clayton. The house was very modern for the time with central heating, electric lighting, a phone, and an early shower. The first floor has a receiving room with an 1892 orchestrion, a mechanical instrument, a dining room, and a breakfast room.  The Frick children had a separate children’s entrance.  On the landing to the upstairs are four stained glass ladies from literature, including Miranda from The Tempest. Upstairs, you will visit the bedrooms of Mr. and Mrs. Frick and their daughter Helen.  Helen’s room is painted gold and has birds on the ceiling.  Helen once said that no one could have an unhappy childhood in such a beautiful room and returned to live in her childhood home as an old lady.  We were moved by the charcoal portrait of Mrs. Frick and her young children.  My daughter and I love visiting historic homes and this one was a great example of a Victorian mansion.  The Frick Cafe was once the Frick’s garage.  Now, it is a charming cafe that serves lunch and tea and on Fridays dinner. There are no kid’s meals but half sandwiches are $8.   The gift shop in the Visitor Center is exceptionally nice.

National Aviary

Aviary PittsburghThe next day, we visited the National Aviary, the largest in the country. Free parking is available in the back of the building. Make sure to get a schedule of the daily feedings and special activities as soon as you arrive. Admission mounted up quickly since we added two shows for an additional $5 each and “Birdly,” a simulated flight for $8. Admission is $15 for adults and $14 for children 2 to 12.  Note: Admission is half off  if you are a FONZ member (Friends of the National Zoo).

The shows are each 20 minutes long and well worth the extra fee.  “Nature’s Voice” takes you around the world as you learn about myths and legends surrounding birds.  You will see a burrowing owl, a palm nut vulture, and macaws. For the grand finale,  volunteer to hold a meatball on a skewer for Australian seagulls to swoop down and eat.  “Soar” is a rooftop show about raptors and birds of prey.  My daughter enjoyed Birdly, a simulated flight over New York City.  She has always wanted to fly and this was the best opportunity I could offer her. Every room of the Aviary showcases a different environment. The first room, Cloud Forest, near the parking lot, has a roadrunner, toucan, and a sloth.  Other environments include Wetlands (flamingos), Grasslands (finches), and Tropical Rainforest (macaws). Condor Court and Eagle Hall are self explanatory. Canary’s Call explores how birds reflect environmental factors.  The highlight of this area was being able to see fruit bats in a bright room.  You can feed the colorful lorikeets in Canary’s Call for an additional fee. We went nuts over the three-day old flamingo in the Avian Care Center.  It was so adorable.  Another highlight of our entire trip was the African penguin feeding in Penguin Point. We have never seen penguins so close up before. Note: The viewing area is right outside of Birdly, the simulated flying area, not the benches, where we were told to go. There are two gift shops, one at the front entrance and one at the parking entrance.  The Kookaburra Kitchen serves light fare and kids meals for $4.25 to $5.25.

Andy Warhol Museum

Next, we visited the Andy Warhol Museum (a Carnegie museum), a mere 15-minute walk away.  If my daughter was way younger, the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, an interactive museum, just five minutes away would have been perfect.  Admission at the Warhol Museum is $20 for adults and $10 for children 3 to 18, students, and seniors.

Most of the Andy Warhol Museum will hold little interest and be inappropriate for children younger than 16 but there are some exceptions.  Children will love the exhibit Silver Clouds on the 5th floor.  Warhol created silver balloon-like structures filled with helium that kids can move and catch. Choreographer Merce Cunningham used them as stage decor for a dance. The second floor would appeal to film buffs with its film magazines, movie posters, and memorabilia, and Warhol’s portraits of Marilyn Monroe, Judy Garland, Liza Minnelli, Elizabeth Taylor and others.  The sixth floor is the most inappropriate floor with a risque film.  The basement has a large art room called the Factory, where people of all ages can create works inspired by Warhol’s techniques.  There are stations for creating an acetate collage, a celebrity composite, and a blotted line drawing.  You can even make a free silkscreen print.  Additional fees apply if you want to put the print on a T-shirt, apron, or a tote bag.  The basement also has a kid’s lounge area with children’s picture books.  This spot would be a good place for one parent to watch the younger kids, while another parent explores the galleries.

Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum of Art and Carnegie Museum of Natural History are actually connected so you get two museums for the admission price of one. The Carnegie Museums are open late on Wednesday nights.  They reduce their admission after 3 p.m. so a late afternoon visit was a very good deal.  We saw a wonderful temporary exhibition called The Power of Poison in the Natural World, open through September 4, 2017.  It begins with poison in the jungle, continues to explore poison in fairytales and popular stories, and concludes with three interactive poison mysteries you can solve. We also explored the Hall of Gems and Minerals, which has a good collection.  Our favorite part of the Art Museum was the Decorative Arts Hall with a lamp and stained glass windows by Tiffany.   We did not have time on our trip to visit the Carnegie Science Center, which is supposed to be the most kid-friendly and interactive of the four Carnegie museums.

University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning

A truly unique Pittsburgh attraction is the University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning. Pittsburgh’s ethnic communities decorated classrooms in the style of their home country.  Currently, there are thirty nationality rooms.  Begin your visit, at the Information and Gift Center at the Fifth Avenue entrance.  Admission is $4 for adults and $2 for ages 6 to 18.  Hours are listed as 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. weekdays and 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. on Sundays and holidays.  But we saw the entire third floor until 4 p.m.  In addition, you never know which classrooms may be closed because they are in use by the university. Because of that, we missed the first floor rooms.  As you enter each room, press the switch near the light switch and you will hear music from the country plus narration about the architecture, furnishings, and objects in the exhibit cases.  The rooms on the third floor varied from the rich, red velvet and chandeliers of the Austrian room to simplicity of the Early American room.  These rooms would be a wonderful way of teaching your children about different cultures.  We loved them and regretted not being able to see the first floor too.

Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens

Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens is a gorgeous, Victorian-style building.  Admission is $17.95 for adults, $16.95 for seniors and students and $11.95 for children 2 to 18.  There is limited free parking outside and plenty of metered parking. The Phipps just installed a number of glass flower sculptures by Jason Gamrath throughout the Conservatory on view through November 5, 2017.  They range in height from 6 to 14 feet. We particularly liked the Tropical Room with information about African produce, the Japanese Garden with koi and bonsai, the Palm Court with Chihuly glass, and the Fern Room with its enormous cacoa tree.

The Conservatory is very kid-friendly with lots of hands on activities.  Toddlers will love the Phipps Public Market, with faux fish, fruits, and vegetables they can put in shopping carts and pretend to buy.  On the day we were there, kids could pot and bring home their own tomato plant in the Discovery Garden.  In the Butterfly Forest, you can see free flying butterflies and butterflies breaking out of their chrysalises. Note: The two cafes, one at the entrance and one in the Tropical Room do not open until 10 a.m. and 11 a.m. respectively so do not skip breakfast on your Phipps visit.  The Cafe Phipps is a certified green restaurant and serves no sweets at all.

Phipps Conservatory

Other Fun Facts

For a great view of the city, take the cable car up and down the Duquesne Incline, the more renowned of the city’s two inclines.  It gives you a picture perfect view of Pittsburgh’s rivers, bridges, and stadium.  A roundtrip only takes about 10 minutes and costs $5 for adults, $2.50 for children 6 to 11, and free for children 5 and under.  The upper station has a viewing deck and a small gift shop.  The incline is open Mondays through Fridays from 5:30 a.m. to 12:30 a.m. and Sundays and holidays from 7 a.m. to 12:30 a.m. Note: Park at the lower station at 1197 West Carson Street for the cheaper parking rate. Also, there are no restrooms at either station.

Incline Pittsburgh

We found a number of good cheap eats in Pittsburgh.  Union Grill, near the Carnegie Museums of Natural History and Art, attracts college kids with its good food and reasonable prices.  I had a superior crab cake sandwich with signature waffle fries for $15; my daughter had a Devonshire sandwich (turkey, bacon, tomato, and cheese sauce).  It is called a hot brown in Kentucky and my daughter deemed it even better than her dad’s version which we eat every Derby Day.  Union Grill has $5 kids meals with waffle fries, coleslaw, or a vegetable and a drink.  Adults will appreciate the $10 bottles of wine, $5 mule cocktails and $4 beers.  There are only two desserts – a $2 hot fudge sundae (excellent but small) and $5 s’mores (serves 6 people).

Pamela’s Diner, which has multiple locations is a great place for breakfast.  I had the crepe-like hotcake special and my daughter ordered the french toast with caramel sauce–both delicious.  The branch we went to at 3703 Forbes Avenue, near our hotel, was decorated with kids’ board games.  La Gourmandine was a wonderful French bakery, also with several locations.  We got enough food for breakfast, lunch and dinner (two chocolate almond croissants, a ham and cheese croissant and a baguette with bacon) for less than $16. It is perfect for packing a picnic. Tako was a little more sophisticated and expensive.  We shared a terrific guacamole for $11 and had tasty soft tacos for $12.  This restaurant was the least kid-friendly but had exceptional food. It specializes in octopus tacos so there are octopi light fixtures, door handles, and a mural with a woman in a bikini with an octopus.

We stayed at the Hilton Garden Inn University Place in Pittsburgh.  We could not walk to any of the city’s attractions but we were within 10 minute drive from many of them.  The AAA rate was $152 a night plus $21 per night in taxes for a double room.  The hotel had a refrigerator in the room and a nice fitness center but no pool.  All guests have to spend $18 a day for valet parking. The driveway to the garage was very narrow so I was glad I was driving our smaller car not the minivan.

We had a wonderful time in Pittsburgh and would like to return with the rest of our family.  We found out too late but Pittsburgh offers a special promotion called “Kidsburgh,” where if you book online, you can get special hotel rates and most attractions are 50% off.  I hope my daughter picks another fun town for her next college visit.

Photos courtesy of Beth Meyer.

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