5 Christmas Attractions in Downtown Pittsburgh
The festive holiday season is the best time to plan a visit to downtown Pittsburgh. In addition to enjoying restaurants, beautiful views of the skyline and bridges, and museums (the Andy Warhol is a must-see), there are a number of holiday events which you can add to your itinerary. The prime attraction is a beautiful ice skating rink with a dazzling and colorful Christmas tree as the centerpiece. Special holiday plays and concerts, a European style holiday market, and an annual gingerbread show are a few of the unique festive activities which you can add to your seasonal to-do list.
1. The UPMC Rink at PPG Place
Since 2001, locals and visitors alike have been enjoying the skating rink at PPG Place. While there are numerous ice rinks in the Pittsburgh metro region, none are as festive as this downtown rink. Featuring holiday music, a choreographed light show, and a colorful tree as the breathtaking centerpiece, skating at PPG Place at least once is worth the extra cost. As a bonus, the rink is located within walking distance to the Peoples Gas Holiday Market and the Spirits of Giving Around the World exhibit. Note that this rink gets really busy almost the entire holiday season, so book in advance to ensure availability.
The rink opens in mid-November and closes at the end of February. Thus, it transforms from a fun holiday activity into a fun winter activity. There is no better way to work off a ton of holiday calories and have fun at the same time than by enjoying a calorie blasting skating session! When it is too cold to do much else outside, skating is a great idea!
Location: 4 PPG Place
2. Spirits of Giving Around the World exhibit
See 16 Santas representing cultural holiday traditions throughout the world. Learn some new folklore legends while also getting into the holiday spirit! Not only are the lifelike displays beautiful, but so are the accompanying paintings. This festive and free attraction is a great add-on if you are skating. Located in One and Two PPG Place lobbies, simply stroll over before or after your skating session for a fun and informative lesson in Santa legends worldwide.
Location: One and Two PPG Place Lobbies
3. Peoples Gas Holiday Market
Almost every major city has some type of holiday market where you can enjoy seasonal European goodies and shop for handcrafted gifts. Pittsburgh’s holiday market, now in its’ 11th year, is conveniently located just steps from the ice rink, so again another great add-on activity. Highlights include Cinnaroast featuring specialty roasted holiday nuts and Kathe Wohlfahrt featuring handcrafted German glass ornaments and nutcrackers. The festive lights at night and occasional live entertainment add a little bit of extra holiday pizazz.
Location: 28 Market Square
4. Gingerbread House Competition
While not worth going totally out of your way for, the Annual Gingerbread Competition, now in its’ 20th year at the City Council building is a must-see by any art lovers. A panel of judges selects the winners, although locals and visitors can vote for their favorite in the People’s Choice category. While in the vicinity, treat yourself to lunch at Chinatown Inn, the city’s best authentic Chinese restaurant. Also, if you are up for a short half mile walk, take a stroll over to the US Steel Tower. Out front you will find the only authorized replica of the Vatican’s Christmas nativity.
Location: 414 Grant Street
5. The Highmark Tree
This iconic tree which is located on the former Horne’s department store is lit up each November in a massively popular event known as Highmark Light Up Night. Tourists come from all over the Pittsburgh metro and western Pennsylvania to watch the iconic tree be lit and enjoy all sorts of entertainment. 2022 marked the 61st anniversary of one of the city’s most beloved events. For those who do not feel like putting up with massive crowds (understandably!), simply view the tree before/after skating on the PPG ice rink or enjoying other city attractions.
Location: Stanwix Street & Penn Avenue
Finding parking downtown can be a bit of a hassle especially on weekend nights and during busy holiday periods. Unfortunately, it’s also quite pricey. I recommend planning your visit after 6 on Monday-Saturday or on Sunday as street parking is free during these periods. Wolf Street is where I typically end up finding a spot.
Where to eat
There are a number of restaurants within walking distance from the ice rink and holiday market in Market Square. You will find a number of popular chains like Starbucks, Chipotle, and Five Guys, along with a few local restaurants. I am not a big fan of the rowdy scene or style of restaurants in this area.
That being said, the best choices are Primanti Brothers and Pizzaiolo Primo. Pizzaiolo serves great woodfired pizzas and features a nice ambiance, although it’s a bit pricey. Primanti is known for their signature sandwiches topped with coleslaw and fries. Lots of great happy hour deals too. If visiting on Saturday or Sunday morning, treat yourself to brunch in The Terrace Room at the Omni William Penn. The buffet is great and the hotel is decorated beautifully for the holidays.
December temperatures average in the 20’s-30’s at night and the 30’s-40 in the daytime. Skies are usually overcast and dreary and rain and/or snow are always possible. Bundle up, bring a scarf, gloves, and a hat. Warm up with a hot coffee or cocoa at Nicholas Coffee and Tea or Defer.
Book skating tickets in advance: they often sell out. Weekdays are least crowded with the best skating conditions. Avoid skating when rain is in the forecast. Bring your own skates if possible to save a few bucks.