Last Updated on December 8, 2021 by Jeremy
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Pittsburgh's First Night is an annual New Year's Eve celebration in the Cultural District that features late-night gallery hours, live music, performances at many venues, food trucks, and so much more.
While this one is a ticketed event for a nominal fee ($10 plus fees in 2019 but will be free in 2021), there really is a lot to see and experience in this one.
What You Can See at First Night Pittsburgh
In a way, First Night is like an amped-up version of the quarterly gallery crawls downtown. Take everything you know about those, add-in more live music, performances, a ball raise at midnight (not a drop!), two fireworks shows, and spread it out over six hours and that is First Night.
During our visit, we found ourselves popping between downtown galleries like Space and Wood Street to check out the current exhibits while making brief stops at the ice carving and fire twirling stage, music stage, art pop-ups, and the children's tent set up near the Benedum Center. This made for a great balance of indoor and outdoor activities while also keeping us fairly warm on a snowy night (weather for First Night is historically not pleasant).
From there, we spent most of our time exploring some of the venues we cannot normally access like First Presbyterian and Trinity Episcopal Cathedral which were both open for First Night for live music (and were truly highlights of the evening; however, it is unclear if these are returning in 2021 due to COVID).
If you are looking to get more out of First Night, specifically around seeing any of the free performances that are scheduled (and there are many), you need to do some advanced planning.
The Free Shows Make It – If You Can Get a Seat
There is an inherent problem with First Night's show offerings in that seating at many downtown theaters is limited. Due to capacity caps it would be impossible for all guests of First Night to see every show, and as such the Cultural District has put together a reservation system to snag a seat at most every performance during the event.
This is still free, mind you, but requires registration which opens about four weeks in advance.
As such, this presents a problem for those who may wait to buy First Night tickets until later, like we did based on weather concerns, as most every performance will be sold out of advanced tickets. You may get lucky just walking up to a venue and getting in, as we did at the churches, but this is something that cannot be guaranteed.
So for those who want to take advantage of seeing all of the shows you can on First Night, buying your ticket early and registering for timeslots when they become available will greatly improve your overall experience.
If you cannot get a timeslot for indoor shows, don't worry!
The live music outdoors, parade, fire twirling and ice carving, and firework shows are more than enough to fill your evening. But we think that hitting up one or two indoor shows will make for a more robust experience all the same (especially for the ticket price).
The Fireworks Are A Bit Lackluster
As with most events, one of our highlights is often the fireworks shows that go along with it, because in Pittsburgh we need little excuse to blow things up.
First Night does this with not one, but two firework shows throughout the evening. The first kicks off the event as a Children's Countdown at 6 pm at the Dollar Bank Stage (near the Benedum Center). While billed as a 15-minute show, the fireworks typically occur at about 6:10 pm for roughly five minutes.
Likewise, the finale occurs at midnight and coincides with the raising of the Future of Pittsburgh ball above the Horne's Christmas Tree at the Highmark Stage. Much like the Children's show at 6 pm, this one also only lasts about five to ten minutes and is, admittedly a bit of a letdown.
We do not know why the fireworks on New Year's Eve are a bit muted from what you'd come to expect from Pittsburgh fireworks shows, but we do have a theory. We think this may be because the fireworks are shot off in downtown, and not over the rivers as in other shows, and only smaller mortars are used for safety reasons. This makes for a quieter show with smaller explosions and is a bit less exciting than what you get at other events- like Light Up Night in November.
Still, we'll never say no to fireworks, but if you are torn on what show to see, picking the 6 pm show and making it an early night to celebrate New Year's at home (or elsewhere) could be an option worth considering. It is what we do!
Driving Near the Cultural District is a Pain
We have one final note to mention for First Night, and that is that you should plan to avoid driving near the Cultural District if at all possible.
The reason for this is because a good section of Penn Avenue, 7th, and other cross streets are shut down for the celebration, which makes driving in the area a bit of a nightmare. One year we tried to drive to park at the 6th and Fort Duquesne Garage and were stuck in traffic for so long that we turned around and went home.
As such, you may do well parking in other public garages like those near Market Square (Third Avenue), Liberty and Smithfield, or the Mellon Square Garage and walking over- especially if you plan on getting in for either of the fireworks shows. We found that driving elsewhere downtown was quite easy, but the closer you got to the Cultural District, the worse traffic seemed to be and we recommend avoiding it if at all possible.
Overall, First Night is a pretty fun event to celebrate New Year's Eve in downtown Pittsburgh.
While this one may be a bit of a glorified gallery crawl with extra performances and fireworks, it is still a lot of fun for the price (if the weather cooperates, at least). Those who plan in advance to check out the shows will be able to maximize their experience over those, like us, who wait until the last minute based on weather.
No matter what you do, just don't go into this one expecting great fireworks- virtually every other show in Pittsburgh is more enjoyable than the two at this one. Still, we'll never say no to more!
First Night takes place from 6pm to midnight in the Cultural District on New Year's Eve.