Last Updated on September 12, 2021 by Jeremy
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The Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium is known for putting on many events throughout the year, and in fall 2021 they put on one of the grandest yet- the Asian Lantern Festival running on Thursday to Sunday nights through October 30th!
We were fortunate enough to visit the Seoul Lantern Festival when visiting South Korea in 2019 and absolutely loved the large, ornate, and colorful paper sculptures that lined Cheonggyecheon Stream in the heart of the city (see some of our favorites over at our travel blog at the previous link).
Naturally, when we heard that the Pittsburgh Zoo was going to host their own lantern festival, we knew we had to attend.
In this one, we thought we'd share a bit more about what the Asian Lantern Festival at the zoo is like, share a few of our favorite pieces, and give some tips to help you plan your visit for this limited-time show!
What to Expect at the Asian Lantern Festival
The Asian Lantern Festival at the Pittsburgh Zoo is designed around three key themes- Asian culture, their global conservation partners, and of course the zoo itself.
Over the course of our ~75-minute walk around the zoo, we were dazzled with approximately 50 unique paper lanterns including scenes like a color-changing chameleon, butterflies swarming a ~25-foot tall tree, a Chinese dragon, the Chinese zodiac animals, a peacock that raises its feathers, and so much more. The scenes trended towards zoo animals primarily, split between land and water animals depending on what section of the zoo you were in.
The conservation elements were highlighted mostly in the signage that accompanied the displays and the Chinese mythological creatures were clustered at the start of the exhibit outright (admittedly, we wanted more of these- they were amazing).
Much like the lantern festival we visited in Seoul, the art was striking for its vibrant colors, complexity, and unique ways to showcase the theme at large. Throw in the fact that some of the paper lanterns had motion components and we were quite amazed at how technical the show was- they really did not skimp here!
Beyond the lanterns, the festival includes live event stations and Asian fare served on-site (including themed drinks), but this part felt significantly lacking relative to just how amazing the lanterns were. Lychee-infused white wine was great to have while walking around the zoo, but the rest of the options including passion fruit cotton candy and Chinese donuts left us wanting more on that end. That being said, we forgot about this pretty quickly as we moved on to even more displays.
How to Get the Most Out of the Event
When it comes to attending the Lantern Festival at the Pittsburgh Zoo, there are a few things you should do to get the most out of it.
First, buy tickets in advance. Although they do allow walk-ins pending availability, buying tickets in advance locks in your entry time (a 30-minute window) and also saves $2 per ticket over what you'd pay arriving directly at the zoo. Just keep in mind that same-day sales close at 4 pm so be sure to buy your tickets early in the day if you go later that night (this is what we did to time the weather).
Second, while this is a nighttime event (running from 6:30 to 10:30 with the last entry at 9:30), the colorful lanterns look great while the sun is up just as much as they do lit up at night. We arrived roughly at sunset and thought it was a good time to enter the show. Due to the location of the zoo, it was a lot darker than the rest of the city around it so the lights still looked great early on. But if you arrive before sunset, you may want to take a second loop around the lanterns to see them at their best!
Third, you may want to eat beforehand. The food aspect of this event was the only real downside as the options felt incredibly limited at all the stands we stopped at. It was a missed opportunity but honestly didn't bother us because the lanterns are that good.
Finally, the lantern festival route is a lot like the drive-through Christmas light display from 2020 in that it is designed to show off the lanterns- not the animals. If you arrive before sunset you may be able to catch a glimpse of a few animals in their enclosures, especially in the earlier parts of the zoo, but after sunset assume it'll be too dark to see anything. If you buy tickets for this event just prepare for yourself for no animal viewing and you'll be good to go.
Overall, the Asian Lantern Festival at the Pittsburgh Zoo really exceeded all expectations we had going into it. From the huge lanterns to the technical elements and other designs, we were excited to see what was coming up next all the way to the very end. For its roughly $20 admission, we thought it was worth every penny!
The Asian Lantern Festival is at the Pittsburgh Zoo and runs Thursday to Sunday nights through October 30th, 2021.