Last Updated on September 16, 2021 by Jeremy
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In Pittsburgh, the start of the holiday season is not ambiguous.
It is not after Halloween when department stores put out Christmas decorations (or do they do it before now?). It is not the day after Thanksgiving that many traditionally observe. It is also not the first snow sighting, December 1st, the fall time change, or any other arbitrary benchmark.
This one particular instance should not be up for debate, as the start of the Christmas season in Pittsburgh is Light Up Night- the Saturday before Thanksgiving. (Previously the Friday before Thanksgiving, but was moved to Saturday for 2021).
In this guide we want to share some of our favorite tips on how to get the most out of what is perhaps our favorite annual event in Pittsburgh!
Light Up Night has Many Meanings
When thinking of the actual term Light Up Night, the celebration takes on several meanings.
Light Up Night is the day when all the Christmas lights are turned on in the city. During the festivities, most all skyscrapers and stadiums are lit up. And there are even two unique fireworks shows that light up the skyline throughout the evening.
Pick whichever meaning you would like for Light Up Night, as this term covers them all!
Focusing on the tree lighting aspect of Light Up Night (what we believe is the real source of the name), there are actually several events throughout the day. Typically the following:
- 12:00pm – The US Steel Nativity/Creche
- 4:30pm – Allegheny County Courthouse
- 5:00pm – The City-County Building
- 5:30pm – The tree at PPG Plaza
- 5:45pm – The tree at One Oxford Center
- 7:00pm – The lighting of the Highmark Unity Tree
Historically there have also been festivities at Point State Park beginning at 5:00pm for the Santa Spectacular, but we are unsure if this event will be returning in the future. This event is technically not part of Light Up Night as they are operated by two different sponsors, but as they often occur simultaneously the lines between Light Up Night and the Santa Spectacular get a little blurred.
The Opening of Many Christmas Activities
Going beyond the tree lighting ceremonies that occur throughout Light Up Night, the event marks the opening of Christmas displays in downtown Pittsburgh.
Market Square is transformed into a large Christmas Market with local and international vendors selling Christmas wares (pick up a Pittsburgh Christmas ornament while there!). The square at PPG Place is home to a large ice rink with a gorgeous tree in the middle. One and Two PPG Place features international Santa statues. The City-County Building features an array of gingerbread houses. And the US Steel Tower has a life-sized creche / nativity scene that is the only licensed replica of the one featured in Vatican City.
We could go on, but we think you get the idea that Christmas in Pittsburgh is a big deal, and it all begins with Light Up Night!
Live Music at Several Stages
Light Up Night also typically hosts three or four stages of performers each year, with sets starting on the hour at six and seven and the headline acts typically begin at 8:30pm.
Two stages are typically found on Fort Duquesne Blvd between the sister bridges (which is also closed as a walking street), and two more stages are also often found a few blocks inward in downtown.
In addition, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra also hosts free live performances in thirty minute increments beginning at 6:30pm at Heinz Hall and most all of the event highlights (such as the Christmas Market in Market Square, PPG Place's ice rink) also have live music regularly throughout the evening.
Suffice it to say, there is no shortage of music during Light Up Night!
Plan to Enjoy the Fireworks Shows
It is never a true Pittsburgh event without fireworks, and Light Up Night traditionally hosts two fireworks shows during the festivities (and, when running, the NRG Santa Spectacular hosts a third although we're unsure if this event is continuing in 2021).
The first fireworks show is a short one that occurs right after the lighting of the Unity Tree at Penn Avenue Place (corner of Stanwix and Penn Avenue). This fireworks show is the shortest of the bunch by far (roughly three minutes in length) but is also the most unique as they are launched off from the roof of the building!
At 7:45pm a second (and often less talked about) fireworks show occurs just off of Point State Park as part of the Santa Spectacular event that goes on at the Point. As noted previously, we are unsure if the NRG Santa Spectacular will be returning in 2021. If it does, we will update this article accordingly.
The main fireworks show typically takes place either at 9:30 pm and is generally along the banks of the Allegheny River. Some years it has been located between the Warhol and Clemente Bridge, while in recent years the barge has been located between the Fort Duquesne Bridge and the Clemente Bridge due to construction on the bridges. This one is the grand finale and lasts roughly 20-30 minutes. While not much different than the 7:45pm show if we're being honest, we'll take the extra few minutes of fireworks all the same!
Light Up Night indeed!
So, How Would We Recommend Tackling it All?
When it comes down to it, odds are good you won't be able to see everything at Light Up Night and you'll have to pick and choose what you want to see over the course of an evening.
If you live in the city and think you'll make it down to the Christmas festivities more than once in the season, then your interests may be more towards the special events, live music, and of course, the fireworks.
If you live further away and Light Up Night is your only chance of seeing the holiday decorations, you'll want to take in as much as the festivities as possible and may decide to shy away from the performances.
In a perfect world, we would do the following in order to get a good cross-section of all the festivities Light Up Night has to offer!
- 5:00pm: Explore the Christmas Market at Market Square and grab food from one of the many vendors.
- 5:15pm (Optional Alternative): Watch the lighting ceremony at the City-County Building and check out the gingerbread houses.
- 5:30pm: Watch the lighting ceremony for the PPG Plaza tree and then explore the santas at One/Two PPG Place.
- Odds are good you'll spend a lot of time at the two spots as they are always crowd favorites, but if you find yourself with a bit of time you should make a detour to see the creche at the US Steel Building or grab a cocktail at a downtown bar!
- 7:00pm: Watch the lighting of the Unity Tree at Fifth Avenue Place and enjoy the brief rooftop fireworks.
- 7:15pm: Listen to a few songs at the live music stages, watch the 7:30 performance from the PSO if you can get a seat (could be tricky), or grab a snack from a food vendor.
- 7:30pm: Head to the Point to get a good spot for the second fireworks show if the NRG Spectacular is going on.
- 7:45pm: Enjoy the fireworks at the confluence from the river.
- 8:00pm: Head to the music stage to listen to a few songs from the music acts, including the headliner.
- 9:00pm: Cross either the Fort Duquesne Bridge via the pedestrian walkway or the Clemente Bridge and find a good spot on the North Shore River Trail for the fireworks.
- 9:30pm: Enjoy the final fireworks show of the evening!
We will be the first to admit that the above schedule leaves little wiggle room for downtime. But that is preciously the point- Light Up Night is one of the largest events of the year, and you have to pack it all in if you want to see it all!
Note: The official Light Up Night schedule is available here. We recommend confirming times before heading to Light Up Night as they may change since our last update of the above.
Skip the Traffic and Get a Hotel
One of the downsides to Light Up Night is on the same note as the highlights- it is very crowded. While this is fine when enjoying the festivities, driving to and from downtown is tricky at best.
Throw in several road closures around Fort Duquesne for the music, and the mass exodus when the fireworks finale is over, and traffic becomes a big issue.
We stayed at a Pittsburgh hotel downtown one year for Light Up Night and had a wonderful time using our hotel as a base, skipping traffic, and more importantly quickly warming up after a night out in the November elements!
Have you experienced Light Up Night in the past? Comment below to share your favorite parts or tips from your visit!