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Pittsburgh may be small, but it has all the attractions of a much larger city, and then some. The city's focus on education translates into first-rate museums and a vibrant lifestyle, along with plenty of fun things to do on the cheap or for free. Just walking through the historic neighborhoods and comparing Victorian mansions can be a thrill. Or take a ride on the incline (a cable car, or funicular) up Mount Washington. It’s a regular commute for some Pittsburghers, but can be an exciting thing for visitors to experience. We recommend making an itinerary, or at least a list, for your trip before you arrive, as the options, from museums and bridges to professional sports and dining, can be a bit overwhelming (in a good way). Keep in mind that most of the attractions are located at the confluence of the three rivers. You can plan to knock off several attractions a day. In the words of Mae West: "Too much of a good thing can be wonderful."
The Pirates and the Steelers once shared Three Rivers Stadium, but since 2001, each has had its own park: the Steelers at Heinz Field, and the Pirates at PNC Park. The parks are located in Northside, right above The Golden Triangle and just across Interstate 279 from one another. You get the unusual option of taking a ferry to the stadiums here—which is a whole lot of fun on game day. Catch an evening ballgame at PNC Park to get the ultimate wow effect of sunset, skyline and bridge views. During the day April through September, get yourself a guided tour of PNC Park ($7.00 per adult, $5.00 for kids and seniors) or Heinz Field ($6.50 per adult, $4.00 for kids and seniors).
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Visible from atop Mount Washington, the Carnegie Science Center is just west of Heinz Field. The facility is filled with hands-on exhibits that engage adults and children alike, and that even the rowdiest kids can't wreck. Favorites include the Highmark Sportsworks, where you can try sporty challenges and learn about nutrition, physics and health. Or try the USS Requin Submarine, an actual submarine. You can board to learn about the defensive and scientific expeditions of this historic vessel—at least the ones that aren't still classified! There is a lot to see here that you won’t find in other science museums, and it's easy to spend a whole day, so plan to lunch at the on-site River View Café. One thing to be aware of: the museum often closes early due to Steelers home games, so call ahead to check on times.
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Built in 1927, the Benedum (formerly known as the Stanley Theatre) is the cornerstone of the downtown Cultural District. The Stanley Theatre was built during the golden age of movie palaces and opened in 1928. It had a stint in the late 1970s and early ‘80s as a live music venue before its $43 million refurbishment and reopening as an arts center in 1987. The Benedum building is on the National Register of Historic Places and proudly maintains many of its most unique features, including more than 90 original crystal chandeliers and sconces. The main chandelier measures an impressive 20 feet by 12 feet. The 3,000-plus-seat venue is now home to the Pittsburgh Opera, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre and Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera.
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The National Aviary isn't just a bird conservation institution, but a teaching organization and a fun place to visit. Every day, visitors can enjoy the collection of over 600 birds in indoor and outdoor free-flight spaces, participate in feedings and learn about avian habitats, behavior and conservation. With a little planning, you can arrange to get up close and personal with a penguin, a raptor or a flamingo. Or, for $250, you can become a trainer for a day, shadowing the staff and helping take care of the birds. The Penguin Talk (daily at 2:15PM) and FliteZone Parrots show in the Rose Garden are both highly recommended—but you have to choose, so decide in advance.
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Neighborhood: Highland Park
The Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium conveniently share their Highland Park location, and one ticket gets you into both. The enormous complex is open every day except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day, and parking is free. A bit about what they have: the zoo has over 400 species of animals, 22 of them threatened or endangered. So yeah, you're gonna see bears, lions and giraffes, but wait until you get a glimpse of the rare black-and-white ruffed lemur and the endangered snow leopard. The aquarium has glowing moon jellyfish and the incomparably beautiful seahorse cousin the leafy seadragon. Whatever you do, don't miss Kid's Kingdom, which features animals native to Pennsylvania (education you can use every day) and a petting zoo.
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One of the best ways to see the city is via its crisscrossing waterways. Quite possibly the most enjoyable and affordable way to do this is by kayak. Kayak Pittsburgh rents easy-to-navigate flat-bottom boats for adventurers of any age. Well, age 3 and up—but were you really going to try to kayak with a 2-year-old? If so, we can't help you. You don't need a reservation, and you'll be surprised at the tranquility you'll feel on the water, even in the middle of downtown with cars rushing across multi-lane bridges overhead. If you're a timid first timer, head to the Northside to Lake Elizabeth, a calmer setting for kayaking in Pittsburgh's oldest park, Allegheny Commons. The views of the Downtown skyline from Lake Elizabeth are spectacular.
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Neighborhood: The Strip District
Located on the fringe of the Strip District and Downtown, the Senator John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center (known more often as the Heinz History Center) is the largest history museum in the state and is affiliated with The Smithsonian Institution. It chronicles the history of Pittsburgh and highlights the city's most important contributions to the nation and the world. It is, however, so much more than just a history center. The Sports Museum inside contains hundreds of artifacts and interactive exhibits highlighting more than 100 years of sports in the region, and just the views from the museum's multiple floors make it a must-see on any visit to the city.
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The Golden Triangle of downtown Pittsburgh is the area between the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers at the point where they converge and become the Ohio River. At the very innermost tip of that triangle is an unexpected delight: Point State Park. This thirty-six-acre state park is the original site of Fort Pitt. The only surviving structure of the old fort is the Block House—which happens to be the oldest surviving structure west of the Allegheny Mountains—now part of the Fort Pitt Museum. The park serves as a recreational oasis for locals and tourists seeking a little green space within Downtown. The Three Rivers Arts Festival and Fourth of July Fireworks show are just a couple of the events that take place here. The large fountain at the tip of the park is its crowning glory and a worthy photo op.
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The Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens were built as a gift to the city of Pittsburgh. Philanthropist Henry Phipps' elaborate construction is an architectural masterpiece of the late 19th century. The Conservatory, which opened in 1893, is an expansive Victorian-style greenhouse that serves as an oasis for orchids, palms and other assorted flora. You'll find events like flower shows, tomato festivals, wine tastings and gargoyle celebrations (!) at Phipps. Don't imagine that "historic" means "difficult"; the complex is temperature controlled and wheelchair accessible, and the front walkway is equipped with self-heating sidewalks for safe winter visits.
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Sitting in the shadow of the University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning, the Carnegie Museum of Natural History shares the same building with the Carnegie Library and Music Hall and the Carnegie Museum of Art. The original structure was built in 1895, but the Museum of Natural History now resides entirely in an expansion built in 1907. The complex takes up several city blocks and contains a scientific menagerie of exhibits including ”Dinosaurs in Their Time” (which contains more real fossils than any other museum in the world), the Walton Hall of Ancient Egypt (with over 600 ancient Egyptian artifacts), African and North American Wildlife, the Bird Hall and more.
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Pittsburgh has no shortage of museums, thanks to the philanthropic efforts of this museum's namesake. Andrew Carnegie, the famed 19th century industrialist (1835-1919), wanted to utilize his wealth for benevolent purposes. Visitors to the Carnegie Museum of Art can enjoy classical to turn-of-the-20th-century art; Whistlers, Monets, Renoirs, Cézannes, Klimts and Van Goghs are included in the permanent collection. The museum also collects contemporary art and has a constantly changing series of special exhibitions, lextures and performances. There are several options for dining within the museum, including the self-service Carnegie Café, the Fossil Fuels Café, and the brown bag lunchroom and dining area—perfect if you want to bring in takeaway from one of the myriad restaurants in the neighborhood.
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One of four Carnegie museums in Pittsburgh, the Andy Warhol Museum is the largest in the U.S. dedicated to a single artist. Native son Andy Warhol remains the most renowned of the 20th century’s pop artists, long after his death in 1987. "The Warhol," as locals call it, opened in 1994 in Northside, and is a joint project of the Carnegie Institute, the Dia Center for the Arts and The Andy Warhol Foundation. The seven-floor museum in a renovated former warehouse contains some 12,000 works by Warhol in all mediums, including some 900 paintings, 77 sculptures, and thousands of drawings, prints, photographs, films and writing. The fourth floor houses “Silver Clouds,” a collection of floating silver helium balloons that was first exhibited at the famed Leo Castelli Gallery in New York in 1966, and inspired Merce Cunningham to choreograph a dance that was performed to music by David Tudor with costumes by Jasper Johns. Warhol designed the sets. The museum covers the artist’s entire career from his commercial art to the Campbell soup cans through the disaster series into the celebrity portraits.
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Neighborhood: Duquesne Heights
The Duquesne Incline opened in 1877, the first of four inclines built on Mt. Washington, formerly known as “Coal Hill.” The inclines enabled workers from the industrial plants below to settle on the hillside. Only two, the Duquesne and the Monongahela Incline, remain. For the uninitiated: inclines are cable cars (sometimes called funiculars) on tracks along steep slopes. The cars are operated on the counterweight principle. The Duquesne Incline runs two of the original 1877 cable cars at the same time, one from the top and one from the bottom, and the cars pass (and wave) at the midway point. The Duquesne Incline has breathtaking views of the city and is considered a working museum. The Upper Station includes an exhibit platform with displays regarding the history of Pittsburgh and inclines around the world.
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Founded in 1958 with a single vessel, the Gateway Clipper Fleet now has five boats. All are authentic reproductions of the riverboats that once plied the waterways of Pittsburgh, carrying from 150 to 1,000 passengers. The company provides a variety of tours along Pittsburgh’s rivers, offering guests unobstructed views of the city. Options for excursions include dinner cruises, river tours and kid-centric outings. If you go for an evening cruise, be sure to dress up—this is one of those rare places where shorts and T-shirts are shunned after dark (and we like it that way).
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Neighborhood: West Mifflin
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Though it's out in the suburbs, 12 miles southeast of downtown Pittsburgh, Kennywood Park is a Pittsburgh classic for kids and families. This amusement park has been around since 1898 and is peppered with an appropriately old-timey theme. Don't get the wrong idea, though. Kennywood has five roller coasters (not counting the water rides). The Phantom's Revenge is one of the fastest in the world—it includes a 230-foot drop you'll scream through at 85 miles per hour. Other attractions include live shows and a nightly Laser Spectacular. Don't miss Kiddieland. Kennywood was actually one of the very first parks in the world to have a special area for children. Parts date back to 1923 (don't worry, they're safe).
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