Last Updated on December 11, 2020 by Jeremy
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Christmas is one of the most popular holidays in Pittsburgh, and there is a very good reason for it- there is so much to do!
In fact, over the course of our exploration of the city we've found nine incredible holiday activities to enjoy in the region, meaning you can enjoy something holiday-related every weekend from Light Up Night all the way until Christmas day.
For more about each highlight in this list, click the link in the description to read more!
Note: This guide features some of our favorite holiday attractions and events that typically occur yearly. However, 2020 has had many cancelations of popular holiday attractions and they are noted as such below. We recommend verifying operating hours in advance as things are prone to daily changes. We also hope many of these will return in 2021!
1. Light Up Night's Fireworks
Light Up Night is canceled in 2020 but we expect it to return in 2021.
Light Up Night marks the start of Christmas in Pittsburgh (and don't let any over-zealous store tell you otherwise). Always on the Friday before Thanksgiving, Light Up Night is a full-day event which features tree lightings, the start of the Christmas markets, live music from local and popular musicians, and culminates with not one, but three fireworks shows during the evening.
While you may journey downtown for other Light Up Night festivities, what we care about here are the fireworks in Pittsburgh as they should not be missed.
The first show is at the Highmark Building at 7 PM when the lights of the Unity Tree are turned on. This fireworks show is quick but is what we consider to be the ceremonial start of the evening.
At 8:30 PM a fifteen-minute fireworks show is launched off of the river directly in front of the Point and at 9:38 PM the official Light Up Night fireworks show takes place on the Allegheny River, giving the North Shore river trail the best views! (Traditionally these fireworks have been launched from the river between the Clemente and Warhol Bridges, but shutdowns for bridge improvements may change this over the next few years.)
For those who wish to catch all of the fireworks shows, be prepared to make a dash between the spots over the course of the evening!
Light Up Night is the Friday before Thanksgiving.
2. Downtown Pittsburgh's Christmas Displays
Note: The Christmas Market was closed in mid-December.
In a way, downtown Pittsburgh is like the epicenter for all things Christmas cheer during the holidays.
To start, there is the Pittsburgh Christmas Market which takes over Market Square with vendors selling gorgeous holiday and local wares.
Then there is the ice skating rink at PPG Place and the collection of international Santas visible in the window displays in the walkway connecting PPG Place and Market Square (formerly inside but moved for outdoor viewing in 2020).
For those who want to brave the cold a little longer, the walk down to Highmark to check out the Unity Tree is a must, as is visiting Point State Park for their massive Christmas tree made of lights (only on at night) and the US Steel Plaza for one of the largest Nativity Scenes you'll ever see.
Yes, downtown Pittsburgh really has it going on during the holidays!
The Christmas Market begins on the Friday before Thanksgiving (Light Up Night) and is open through Christmas (closed Thanksgiving day).
3. Drive-Thru Holiday Lights
A few of the drive-thru experiences normally have a Christmas village you can stop in after the light show. These have been canceled in 2020 while the drive-thru sections are still open.
Pittsburgh has numerous drive-thru light experiences around the city including the choreographed Shadrack's Christmas Wonderland in Butler, Clinton PA's Christmas Light-Up, the Zoo's Holiday Lights exhibit, and a drive-through lights section at Overly's Country Christmas to name a few. North Park even has a holiday laser show as well!
So if you want to experience some holiday cheer without leaving your car, you have a number of great options to consider with a drive-thru display!
4. Western Pennsylvania Model Railroad Museum
The Western Pennsylvania Model Railroad Museum has canceled their 2020 holiday season. We expect this to return in 2021.
The Western Pennsylvania Model Railroad Museum is the only attraction featured on this holiday inspired list that is not holiday themed in the slightest. However, this museum makes this list because it is only open for visitors during the holiday season (which is a very important distinction to make).
Here you are transported to the 1950s to make a train journey from Pittsburgh to Cumberland, MD, in record time. As you follow the model train around its tracks you'll see such favorites as Pittsburgh's incline, the rapids at Ohiopyle, and the gorgeous countryside just as it was in the 1950s.
The WPMRM is open from mid-November until mid-January each year.
5. Phipps Conservatory's Winter Flower Show
Note: Phipps closed for in-person tours in mid-December. A virtual tour for the Winter Flower Show is available online.
Although the official start of the holiday season in Pittsburgh is Light Up Night, Phipps Conservatory's Winter Flower Show doesn't kick off until the Friday after Thanksgiving.
Throughout the season, Phipps is transformed into a winter wonderland with a unique holiday theme each year that is almost always better than the last (although with so many seasons under their belts, we're really not sure how they do it!).
In recent years Phipps has also converted its outdoor garden into a beautiful light display that is only accessible after dark. Just be sure to arrive early and be prepared for a line- this one is one of the most popular Christmas attractions in the city!
Phipps Conservatory's Winter Flower Show begins the Friday after Thanksgiving and runs until the first week of January.
6. Kennywood's Holiday Lights
Kennywood has canceled their Holiday Lights exhibit for 2020 and it will return in 2021.
Kennywood's holiday feature transforms the park into an impressive winter wonderland with nearly every corner of the park featuring holiday cheer and thousands upon thousands of twinkling lights.
From the 5:45 pm tree lighting to the light shows on the lagoon every 30 minutes, gingerbread house exhibits, and live performances throughout the park, this one is sure to bring some much needed holiday cheer!
Kennywood's Holiday Lights begins the Friday after Thanksgiving and continues until the last weekend before Christmas.
7. A Christmas Show in the Cultural District
At this time we are unsure about the schedule for holiday shows in the Cultural District in 2020.
Pittsburgh's Cultural District gets into the holiday spirit with an array of Christmas and holiday themed performances.
Historically, the Pittsburgh CLO takes on the iconic Christmas Carol, the Symphony offers Holiday Pops, and the Pittsburgh ballet performs The Nutcracker each and every year, while other performing troupes produce a number of holiday themed shows that vary from season to season!
The best part? This is just the start of all of the holiday inspired performances and activities going on in the Cultural District, so be sure to plan a trip downtown for a performance this holiday season!
8. Christmas at the Nationality Rooms
Cathedral of Learning tours are canceled in 2020 and will return in 2021.
You may know about the dozens of themed Nationality Rooms at Pitt's Cathedral of Learning. But did you know that these rooms go all out during the Christmas season with native decorations as well?
Yes! Christmas at the Nationality Rooms is a treat for the decorations alone, but if you are able to plan a visit for the first Sunday of December you'll get even more at their annual open house!
This event features live music and dances, readings, food, and more to really help bring all the cultures of the nationality rooms together in one big holiday celebration. Don't miss it!
9. Pop Up Markets and Shops
Finally, we come to the pop up shops as there is far more going on during the holiday season than the Christmas market downtown.
For those who like to shop, don't miss the Handmade Arcade at the convention center- an annual event featuring dozens upon dozens of local vendors selling their crafts just in time for the holiday season. Or if you'd rather explore one neighborhood, check out Lawrenceville's Joy of Cookies tour where many boutique shops are open for extended hours with free cookies at each stop!
10. Christmas Decorations Everywhere
Christmas decorations at various museums may be different in 2020 but we expect full displays to return in 2021.
Up to to this point in this article we've featured a few of our favorite spots for Christmas decorations in Pittsburgh. But to be honest there are many more places that get into the holiday spirit as well.
Randyland goes all out with Christmas decorations, the Carnegie Museum of Art features the Carnegie trees in the Hall of Architecture, and the house at Hartwood Acres is decorated rather spectacularly for the holidays as well (a great time to do the house tour if you've never done it- just be sure to schedule it in advance)!
So whether you head downtown to catch the fireworks for Light Up Night, or head north of the city to see the impressive light show at Shadrack's, you really have no excuse not to get out and explore this amazing city during the holidays!
Do you have a favorite Christmas experience in Pittsburgh? Comment below to share it!
Looking for more things to do in Pittsburgh in winter? Why not head down to the Laurel Highlands to go skiing! Or, if you're looking for Pittsburgh gift ideas for a loved one this holiday season, click the previous link to read about some of our favorites!