As November rolls into Pittsburgh, many parents introduce their children to an important part of being a family–the traditions that are passed on through generations. My family is no exception. We always bring our kids to the circus in November. We always visit the railroad museum in Gibsonia. We always battle the crowds at Light Up Night. And, of course, we always gorge ourselves at Thanksgiving dinner with the people we love. To help guide your family’s adventures over the next month–and possibly help you create some new traditions of your own–here’s our “Top ten family adventures this November in Pittsburgh.”

Putting those jack-o-lanterns to rest at the Great Pumpkin Smash!

November in Pittsburgh begins with a bang. Or, more accurately, a smash. The Carnegie Science Center hosts its annual Great Pumpkin Smash! on Saturday, November 1st. Families are invited to bring their Halloween jack-o-lanterns to the roof of the Science Center and send them plummeting to the ground below. Before your pumpkin meets its fate, staff will weigh it to keep a running tab of the largest and smallest pumpkins. All smashed pumpkins are then composted by AgRecycle. The Great Pumpkin Smash! also features controlled pumpkin explosions on the lawn outside of the Omnimax Theater throughout the day.

Being amazed at Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus

The beginning of November in Pittsburgh also holds another favorite family tradition–the circus! Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus will present their Built to Amaze show at the Consol Energy Center from November 5-9th. The performance features over 100 performers and 95 exotic and domestic animals executing feats of strength and agility. Led by ringmaster, Andre McClain, the show will include many of the acts we remember from our own childhoods, including the Asian elephants, synchronized equestrians and aerialists, acrobats on the high wire, the human cannonball, Clown Alley, the fearless big cat trainer and much more. Also, the show is preceded by an All Access Pre Show, a very special opportunity for kids to come down to the ring, meet the circus performers, try on costumes, learn circus skills and get their photos taken with the clowns. The ALL-Access Pre Show is FREE for all ticket-holders. Tickets for opening night start at $15.

If the mainstream circus is not your family’s scene, there is another cirque company coming to town this month. The Hillman Center for Performing Arts at Fox Chapel’s Shady Side Academy is hosting the Cirk La Putyka, Prague’s resident cirque company, on November 15th. This 20-person ensemble blends acrobatics, dance, puppetry and live music in a visually stunning performance. The show is preceded by East European crafts, snacks and face-painting.

Scale model of ..., Photo courtesy of Western PA Model Railroad Museum
Scale model of the Smithfield Street Bridge and Downtown Pgh, Photo courtesy of Western PA Model Railroad Museum

Exploring the Western Pennsylvania Model Railroad Museum’s Holiday Train Display

Located in Gibsonia, the Western Pennsylvania Model Railroad Museum has a rich history. It is run by one of the oldest railroad organizations in the nation and was a major pioneer in the hobby of model railroading. Each November to January, this volunteer-run organization opens its doors to the public for its annual Holiday Train Display. During this event, the bottom floor of the museum holds an interactive play area for kids with wooden train tables and a Lionel display, where toy trains wind through a kid-friendly town filled with familiar icons like Superman, Big Bird and T-rex.

The second level of the museum is devoted to the “Railroad Journey in Miniature.”  This 4000-sf layout displays a fictional “Mon Valley” train line running between Pittsburgh and Cumberland, MD set in the summer of 1952 during the early years of the transition from steam to diesel locomotives. Trains travel along 6500+ feet of track through scale reproductions of communities along the rail line, including the city of Pittsburgh, McKeesport and Ohiopyle.  

This year’s Holiday Train Display is open from 11-5pm on Saturdays and Sundays from November 8-January 11th. The Museum also holds a special “Steam at Twilight” display on Friday evenings.

Cuddling up for a kid-friendly foreign film at the Dollar Bank Three Rivers Film Festival

Each November, the Pittsburgh Filmmakers presents the Dollar Bank Three Rivers Film Festival–a showcase of some of the world’s highest quality indie and international films. This year’s Dollar Bank Three Rivers Film Festival will run from November 7-22nd at a variety of venues throughout the city, including the Waterworks Cinema, the Melwood Screening Room, the Harris Theater and the Regent Square Theater. The festival organizers have placed an increased emphasis on kid-friendly programming this year with a selection of five international motion pictures intended for families. Highlights include “Spirited Away,” a 2001 Japanese film with English dubbing about a ten-year-old girl who discovers a magical world when her family ventures through a tunnel, “Belle and Sebastian,” a 2013 French film about the friendship of a young boy and a Pyrenean Mountain Dog during World War II and “Welcome to the Space Show,” a 2010 Japanese sci-fi anime movie about a space colony on the dark side of the moon. Children’s tickets are only $5 and more information about movies, times, locations and appropriate age groups can be found here.

Getting into the holiday spirit at Light Up Night

This year, Light Up Night in Downtown Pittsburgh falls on Friday, November 21st. This not-to-miss event marks the beginning of the holiday season in the city and is a magical experience for both kids and adults alike. Light Up Night is filled with some of my family’s favorite things–tree lightings throughout Downtown, Santa at Macy’s, free carriage rides, a reindeer petting zoo, the People’s Gas Holiday Market, the International Santa Display at PPG Place, fireworks and much more. Plus, all activities are FREE!

If you would prefer avoiding the crowds in Downtown Pittsburgh on Light Up Night, there are several alternative celebrations at other locations this evening. The Elliot Community Group hosts its annual Winter Wonderland at the West End Overlook with Santa, games, food, hot cocoa, music and a killer vantage point for viewing the city’s fireworks display. The Carnegie Science Center also holds its Light Up Night Sleepover with holiday-themed science activities and a view of the city’s fireworks from its roof on the North Side. Finally, other Light Up Night alternatives include Poinsettass and Pointe Shoes at Phipps and Santa’s First Stop in Cranberry Township.

Family Volunteer Day, Photo courtesy of Pittsburgh Cares
Family Volunteer Day, Photo courtesy of Pittsburgh Cares

Helping those in need at Family Volunteer Day with Pittsburgh Cares

Pittsburgh Cares holds it own “kick-off” to the holiday season with Family Volunteer Day, on Saturday, November 22nd. This event inspires families to begin the holiday season on a generous note by participating in a service project together. This year’s event will take place at Lincoln Park Community Center in the Penn Hills area and will include activities for children ages 3 and up. The day will kick-off with a breakfast, a rally and an orientation. Families will then be assigned to projects based on children’s ages. There are a variety of service activities planned for the day, including helping in the food pantry, making dresses for girls in Uganda, making animal tug toys for local children and creating holiday decor for senior citizens. To register for Family Volunteer Day, click here.

Celebrating the season with friendly neighbors at Oakmont’s Hometown Christmas

Many of Pittsburgh’s surrounding communities hold festive celebrations during the holidays. These events generally offer a “small-town” feel within easy driving distance of the city. One of my family’s favorites is Oakmont’s Hometown Christmas on November 22nd. The event hearkens back to the “A Christmas Story” era–when the holidays were a time to stroll down a bustling Main Street (or Allegheny River Boulevard, in this case), check out colorful window displays and shop for gifts at family-owned small businesses. The evening starts at 5pm with the well-known Christmas Parade, featuring an impressive collection of lighted floats, marching bands, fire trucks and Santa. There will also be horse and buggy rides, free cookies from the Oakmont Bakery, a tree-lighting ceremony, children’s games and a storefront window decorating contest.

Other community holiday celebrations this month include Light up the Wall in Aspinwall on November 13th and the Pine Holiday Dazzle in Wexford on November 15th.

Working up an appetite at the PNC YMCA Turkey Trot

The YMCA of Greater Pittsburgh invites families to begin Thanksgiving Day bright and early at the 24th Annual PNC YMCA Turkey Trot at PNC Park. This event features four different races, including a one mile Family Fun Run/Walk starting at 8:30am. Children of all ages are welcome to participate and all registered kids will receive a long-sleeved t-shirt, a race bib and a medal. Strollers are encouraged and leashed pets are even invited.

All proceeds from the Turkey Trot benefit the YMCA’s many initiatives throughout Allegheny County, including its before and after-school programs and its camps for children with disabilities. As race organizer, Brandice Miller, says, “The Turkey Trot is very much a mission-oriented event. We are trying to help families lead a healthy lifestyle together while giving to those in need in our community.”

Family fun at the Mattress Factory, Photo courtesy of Mattress Factory
Family fun at the Mattress Factory, Photo courtesy of Mattress Factory

Spending Black Friday at Family Day at the Mattress Factory

Many families will spend Black Friday ravaging the city’s shopping destinations. Some will purposely avoid them. If you’re looking for a more low-key way to spend the day after Thanksgiving, consider stopping into the North Side’s Mattress Factory of Contemporary Art. The museum houses a collection of installation art, or room-sized contemporary art displays. Much to my surprise, it’s actually a pretty family-friendly destination. But don’t take my word for it. On November 28th from 11-4pm, the Mattress Factory will hold Family Day–where families can explore the exhibits, see a Folk Art Circus, take part in a mask-making party, go on a scavenger hunt and enjoy hot cider and popcorn. Also, if you would like to check out the Mattress Factory on another day, the museum offers a free early childhood educational program called Mini Factory on the 2nd and 4th Saturdays each month.

Seeing Santa at the WPXI Holiday Parade

The final weekend of the month hosts another favorite holiday tradition–WPXI’s 34th Annual Holiday Parade in Downtown Pittsburgh on Saturday, November 29. Although Macy’s stepped down as the official sponsor last year, I’ve been assured that the parade will go on! The Holiday Parade generally draws crowds of nearly 100,000 and features spectacular floats, marching bands, dance and musical performances and the grand finale, Santa! The Holiday Parade is a smaller-scale version of NYC’s Macy’s Day Parade and focuses on highlighting local talent and flair. The parade starts at 9am on Liberty Avenue and runs for approximately 2 hours. After the parade, Fifth Avenue Place will be offering a number of children’s activities, including visits with Santa, face painting, craft projects with Children’s Museum and rides on the free Holly Trolley.

Here at NEXTpittsburgh, we hope you enjoy all the city has to offer for families this month. And we wish you a wonderful Thanksgiving, spent in the company of those you cherish most in this world.

Doctor turned write-at-home-mom of two wonderful children. Founder of the Pittsburgh Mommy Blog. Editor of Kidsburgh. Contributing Editor at Next Pittsburgh. In love with the city of Pittsburgh and so excited to be raising a family here.