Strike the harp and join the chorus, it’s time to roast some chestnuts and deck the halls. December in Pittsburgh is overflowing with holiday celebrations, wintry fun and New Year’s Eve parties. This is the perfect month to honor family traditions and maybe create a few new ones, too.

With enough ideas to fill a few stockings, our Top Family Adventure guide for December will help you make the most of this beautiful month in Pittsburgh. Cheers to some quiet, peaceful moments amidst all the sparkly hustle and bustle!

Photo courtesy Venture Outdoors.
Photo courtesy Venture Outdoors.

Put a holiday twist on outdoor activity with Venture Outdoors

The weather is cooler but it’s still important to get outside and move. Thankfully, Venture Outdoors has planned some creative activities that combine the joy of the holidays and the necessity of exercise.

On December 5th, families can celebrate the season on a Twinkle Lights and Hot Cocoa Walk through all the holiday decorations in Downtown Pittsburgh. Good for all ages, this urban hike will use the city sidewalks to maneuver through the hotspots in the early evening before warming up with some hot chocolate. On December 6th, the holiday theme continues with a Candy Cane Walk in Highland Park. Families will search for hidden candy canes along the trail and then use the sweet treats to stir their hot chocolate at the end of the hike. On December 13th, try out Gingerbread Letterboxing in Olson Park in Moon Township. Best for elementary-aged children and older, families will complete a scavenger hunt over a two- or three-mile hike to find stamps for everything needed to build edible gingerbread art.

Finally, if you’re up for hiking in the snow, sign up for the Family Snowshoe Adventures in January.

Photo courtesy Anita Falce/PPG Place.
Photo courtesy Anita Falce/PPG Place.

Celebrate the magic of the season in Downtown Pittsburgh

There’s something special about seeing your city all dressed up for the holidays. This month, make your way downtown to enjoy all the fun things that the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership has coordinated for us. We understand that it may feel overwhelming to venture into the city, especially with young kids in tow, so we’ll break it down for you.

First, where to park? All Pittsburgh Parking Authority Garages are free on Saturdays and here’s an interactive map to help you find a good spot. From there, you can walk and catch free rides on the Holly Trolley or horse-drawn carriages to get you from point A to B (or just for the adventure).

The key hotspots you’ll want to visit are PPG Place, home to the Wintergarden where you’ll find the life-size Santas in the “Spirits of Giving From Around the World” exhibit, a gingerbread house and model train display. Adjacent to the Wintergarden in PPG Plaza is the newly expanded MassMutual Pittsburgh Ice Rink. Take a short walk across the street to Market Square where the kids can get photos with Santa and you can find a special gift from the vendors at the Peoples Gas Holiday Market. Other great family spots that offer kid-friendly activities are Fifth Avenue Place and One Oxford Centre. Plus, there’s the Pittsburgh Creche, MetLife Holiday Kidsplay, Snoopy meet and greets and so much more. Keep this full Season of Events calendar handy because it spells out everything. Enjoy!

Photo courtesy Joey Kennedy/Handmade Arcade.
Photo courtesy Joey Kennedy/Handmade Arcade.

Find a truly unique, hand-crafted gift

If you want to find a special gift for the holidays while also supporting independent artisans, don’t miss Handmade Arcade on December 5th from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center. With free admission to over 150 artisans selling their work, you’re sure to find something for even the hard-to-buy-for people on your list. Families will especially enjoy the Hands-On Handmade area full of arts and craft activities. True to the creative spirit of the craft fair, kids will be able to make a coloring book, create with clay, make spin art using old vinyl records, learn how to do a traditional leather saddle stitch, weave fabric on a wooden hand loom, work with robots and much more. Keep a look out for the 10-foot tall dancing puppet!

Let your children surprise you with a gift they choose themselves at the Ten Thousand Villages Children’s Shop on December 4th and 5th in Squirrel Hill. Store volunteers help children select fair trade, handmade items within their budget (gifts range from $2 to $10). Kids then get to help wrap the presents and personalize their own gift tags.

Take in all the holiday festivities at Phipps

Oh, the weather outside might be frightful but it’s always warm and magical inside Phipps Conservatory this time of year. Holiday highlights include the Winter Flower Show, themed this season after the “Deck the Hall” carol. Dazzling lights, whimsical props and flowers help each exhibit room embody the favorite holiday tune. Extended hours for Candlelight Evenings let visitors enjoy the flower show at night, plus musical entertainment fills the space Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday evenings.

On Saturday, December 5th from 11 to 11:30 a.m., children can Visit with the Sugarplum Fairy, where a costumed dancer from Pittsburgh Ballet’s Nutcracker will lead children in a half-hour creative movement dance class and a story time. A perennial kid-favorite, the Winter Light Garden is back with its colorful lights placed throughout the Outdoor and Discovery Gardens. Make sure to bring a warm coat and winter accessories in case it’s cold outside. Finally, Phipps will host Visits with Santa throughout the month, free with admission. 

Photo courtesy Nationality Rooms.
Photo courtesy Nationality Rooms.

Appreciate a variety of holiday traditions at the Nationality Room Open House

Looking for a holiday event that is both educational and full of joy? On Sunday, December 6th, the Nationality Rooms at the Cathedral of Learning in Oakland will welcome the public to its annual Holiday Open House, a not-to-miss event that offers an immersive glimpse into Pittsburgh’s ethnic diversity. The collection of 30 Nationality Rooms, located on the 1st and 3rd floors of the Cathedral of Learning, will be decorated for the holidays with costumed guides on hand to share information about each one. From 12 to 4 p.m., a variety of cultural groups will fill the towering Commons Room with music and dance performances every 15 minutes.

Truly a multi-sensory experience, the Open House offers authentic foods for sale so your family can taste flavors from around the world while enjoying the entertainment. Still have gifts to buy? Vendors will be selling traditional, hand-crafted items.

Photo courtesy Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.
Photo courtesy Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.

Sing all your favorite Christmas songs

Listening to beloved holiday music is a sure-fire way to get into the spirit of the season. Lucky for us in Pittsburgh, we have many options for enjoying all the classics. One of the best events for families is the Pittsburgh Concert Chorale’s Singin’ with Santa event just north of the city in Allison Park. Held on Saturday, December 12th at 11 a.m., and developed specifically for young kids, this sing-a-long will feature all the traditional songs you love with a few surprises along the way. Door prizes and goody bags add to the excitement and, at only $10 per family, the price is just right. Free photos with Santa make this event an all-around great family adventure out in the community.

Other wonderful musical events include the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra’s Holiday Pops, the Pittsburgh School for the Choral Arts’ Peace on Earth Holiday Concert in Shadyside and the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall and Museum’s Patriotic Holiday Concert featuring The Brass Roots, The 6th Regiment USCT Drum Corps and The Pine Creek Community Band. This concert is free, but please reserve tickets in advance.

Photo courtesy National Aviary.
Photo courtesy National Aviary.

Visit Santa and his penguin helpers at the National Aviary

Partridges in pear trees and turtle doves probably wish they could hang out with the snowy owls and penguins at the National Aviary’s Wings in Winter holiday events. Highlights this year include the Night Before Christmas event on December 3rd when families can enjoy a holiday movie together (with popcorn) and story time with Mrs. Claus and her penguins. What about gifts for your backyard birds? Kids can make edible ornaments to hang outside for them. Other fun events include photos with Santa and his penguin helpers every Saturday until Christmas. While you’re visiting, take in the holiday free-flight show and see the snowy owls. And if your kids really love birds, the Aviary is offering a special Brunch with Santa event on Sunday, December 13th.

Can’t get enough birds in your life? Participate in the 2015 Pittsburgh Christmas Bird Count on December 26th. Sponsored by the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania, the yearly event involves tallying the birds you see and novice bird watchers are welcome to help out.

Photo courtesy Rich Sofranko/Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre.
Photo courtesy Rich Sofranko/Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre.

Create family memories at holiday dance and theater performances

This month can get crazy busy and the to-do list can seem overwhelming. Escaping on a family adventure to see live theater and dance is good for the soul and helps to remind us of what’s most important this time of year.

Attending a performance of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s The Nutcracker is a holiday tradition for many families. The classic, dreamlike story is a feast for the senses with beautiful dancing, music and costumes. With a cast of more than 150 dancers, this experience is majestic. If you want a little more bang for your buck, plan to attend the show at 2 p.m. on Saturday, December 12th, and make sure to get reservations for the free Family Pointe session at 1 p.m. where you can take part in a pre-performance discussion and demonstration.

If your kids are big fans of the animated holiday TV classic, then the Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer show at Heinz Hall is not-to-miss. Part of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust’s PNC Broadway in Pittsburgh Series, these performances are filling up fast.

The Pittsburgh CLO will present A Musical Christmas Carol, bringing the Scrooge and Bob Cratchit characters to life on stage. If you go, make sure to take advantage of the half-price children’s tickets sponsored by Macy’s.

Explore all the family holiday offerings at the Carnegie Museums

Looking for a holiday tradition that won’t break the bank? Explore the Carnegie Museums of Art and Natural History for free from 3 to 8 p.m. on Thursday evenings in December (the 3rd, 10th and 17th).

Enjoy the holidays at the Art Museum with a walk through the Hall of Architecture to view the beautiful 20-foot Christmas trees, each decorated with tartan flair for this year’s Holidays in the Highlands theme. Also don’t miss the Neapolitan presepio, an elaborate Nativity scene set within a detailed representation of an 18th-century Italian village. What makes it really amazing? The detailed figures and accessories were handcrafted by artisans between 1700 and 1830.

On December 12th and 13th, the Museum of Natural History manages to make artifacts festive during its Super Science Series: Holidays Around the World event. Children get to explore the world’s diversity as they “travel” through holiday-themed stations focusing on the traditions of other cultures.

Finally, the Carnegie Science Center is celebrating in a couple of fun ways. New this year, kids can channel their inner Dasher and Prancer by competing in the Reindeer Games at Highmark SportsWorks on December 12th and 13th. Looking for something more laid back? Try the Polar Pajama Party on December 5th or 19th where families can come dressed comfortably to watch the movie Polar Express and sip hot chocolate. There will be photos with Santa, crafts and time to explore the Miniature Railroad & Village. If you need a sensory-sensitive experience, the Science Center will have a pajama party on December 5th designed specifically for children affected by autism spectrum or sensory processing disorders.

Photo courtesy RMU Figure Skating Academy.
Photo courtesy RMU Figure Skating Academy.

Ice skate with Santa and other holiday characters

Bundle up in your hats and gloves, it’s time to welcome winter to the city. While local indoor rinks offer ice skating all year round, there is nothing quite like skating outside to make your cheeks rosy and your heart warm.

The Allegheny County rinks at both North and South Park make it affordable to take the whole family with the Winter Fun Wednesday sessions, only $10 per family plus skate rental for up to two adults and four children ages 17 and younger ($13 for non-residents). Check the website for a full schedule of public skate sessions. Can’t ice skate? Try the free skating lessons for kids in January.

For a fun holiday treat, try skating with Santa at either the newly expanded MassMutual Pittsburgh Ice Rink at PPG Place downtown or at the ice rink in Schenley Park.

Finally, for ice skating (indoors) with a festive performance, check out the Holiday Stories on Ice at Robert Morris University’s Island Sports Center on December 5th and 6th. Showcasing the talents of students in the Figure Skating Academy (from tiny tots to adults), this event will include performances with favorite characters from Frozen, Happy Feet, Rudolph, Polar Express and more. After the hour-long show, audience members are invited to skate with cast members. Show and skating included in the cost: $10 for children 12 and younger, $12 for adults.

Photo courtesy Larry Rippel/First Night.
Photo courtesy Larry Rippel/First Night.

Ring in the New Year at First Night and other family-friendly celebrations

The biggest New Year’s Eve party of the year happens downtown in the Cultural District at Highmark First Night Pittsburgh. Hosted by the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, with over 150 events across 50 indoor and outdoor locations, there is definitely something to appeal to people of all ages. Family highlights begin with early fireworks at 6 p.m. on the Dollar Bank Stage and ongoing crafts and activities in the First National Bank Family Tent. Gemini Theater Company will present an innovative kids’ show using local landmarks and lingo while Cattywhomp Tribal leads belly dancing lessons, Aparna Nigam performs Indian Dance and iQKids Radio sponsors Japanese Sword Dancing demonstrations.

Don’t miss the FedEx Ground Parade at 8 p.m. with its giant puppets, marching bands and creative art cars. And you’ll want to make sure you get to see some fire dancing and ice carving, too, because the kids will be mesmerized. Admission buttons to all the fun are amazingly affordable: $8 in advance, $10 at the event. Children 5 years and younger are admitted free.

Worthy alternatives to First Night include the small town Silvester New Year’s Eve Celebration, north of the city in Harmony. This event celebrates the German culture of the area and concludes with a family-friendly ball drop and awesome fireworks show at midnight in Germany, which is 6 p.m. local Pittsburgh time. Families can also celebrate together at Noon Year’s Eve at the Zoo and New Year’s Eve Family Celebration at Phipps. Want options especially for toddlers and preschoolers? Don’t forget to check your local library for events like this one at the Carnegie Library on Mt. Washington.

And because all the great holiday events can’t be wrapped up in one list, here are even more fun family activities in December:

Photo courtesy Rich Frollini/Kennywood.
Photo courtesy Rich Frollini/Kennywood.

Kennywood Holiday Lights; weekends in December

Yuletide in Sewickley; various events including Light Up Night on December 4th and a Santa Parade on December 5th.

Holiday HiJinks and Revue at Attack Theatre (daytime event for families from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.); December 5th.

Community Chanukah Celebration; December 6th.

Santa Trolley at Pennsylvania Trolley Museum; December 5th to 6th, December 12th to 13th.

Snowflake Festival at Soergel Orchards; December 12th.

Kid City Holiday Dance Party at the Children’s Museum; December 13th.

Let’s Move Family Dance Party at Kelly Strayhorn Theater; December 19th.

21st Annual Kwanzaa Celebration; December 26th.

Harlem Globetrotters at Consol Energy Center; December 26th.

Family Fun Days at Phipps; December 26th to 30th.

Holiday Penguin Camps at the Aviary; December 28th to 30th.

Looking for adult events? Check out 10 Pittsburgh Events Not To Miss in December.

Looking for music events? Check out 10 can’t miss Pittsburgh concerts in December.


Mandy Yokim

Mandy moved to Pittsburgh for grad school and fell in love with the city. She is contributing editor of Ultimate Pittsburgh Trivia and Bridges of Pittsburgh. Her freelance work has appeared in a variety of publications including Parents Magazine and Blue Ridge Country. She blogs about Pittsburgh family fun at