A pandemic-safe guide to holiday activities in Pittsburgh

Written By Logan Garvey, For The Globe

The COVID-19 pandemic is affecting Christmas and other popular holidays, but the Winter Flower Show at Phipps Conservatory is still moving forward. Despite Light Up Night not occurring, the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership is also having various socially-distanced friendly events throughout the season. The Joy of Cookies will even host their annual cookie tour in a semi-virtual format. 


These are just a few examples of how Christmas is going to continue on even if partially virtual due to pandemic. 


“Everyone needs a breather, especially small business owners,” said Rachel Webber, district coordinator of the Lawrenceville Corporation, the group who runs the Joy of Cookies Tour. “They’ve been working really hard dealing with a lot of different things that have made operating business even harder than it normally is this year.” 


Here’s a list of a few other events happening despite the COVID-19 pandemic in the Pittsburgh area: 

-Flock to the Pittsburgh Zoo for a Penguin Parade every Saturday and Sunday in December, and checkout the Zoo Lights Drive-Thru after. According to the website, tickets must be bought in advance and cost $60 per car or $40 for season pass members.

-It isn’t officially the holiday season without Oglebay’s Winter Festival of Lights, a six-mile drive filled with twinkling lights, attracting more than one million visitors annually. A donation of $25 per car is suggested.

-Drive along the Elf trail to Santa himself with ELFburgh Christmas, a socially-distanced drive-thru event designed by the team behind Hundred Acres Manor Haunted Attraction. Online tickets cost $20 and on-site tickets cost $28.

Shadrack’s Christmas Wonderland returns to the Big Butler Fairgrounds this year. Drive through this 2-mile festive light display and listen to the sounds of the holidays without leaving your car. The standard ticket costs $25 and the anytime ticket costs $30.

Gateway Clipper Holiday Cruises are back and ready for customers for their various dinners, like the Holiday Captain’s Dinner, which costs $75 per person. The Holiday Sparkle Dinner costs $55 for adults and $22 for children, and the Santa Story Time Cruise is $30 for adults and $20 for children 12 and under.

-Ice rinks are a must this time of year, like The Rink at PPG Place, which costs $11 for adults and $10 for children, and tickets have to be purchased online. Schenley Skating Rink costs $5 for adults and $3 for youth, according to their website. North and South Park outdoor ice skating rinks ticket prices vary depending on the day, but cost between $3-$6.


While there are constant changes due to the pandemic, companies and organizations around Pittsburgh have pushed through the adversity that 2020 has caused to make the holidays special for people of all ages.


Though popular Pittsburgh events like Light Up Night and Carnegie Museum’s annual tree display are not occurring, many still feel cheerful and optimistic about this season, and expect it to be even better in its own way.


Winter Flower Show: Home for the Holidays

Phipps Conservatory is one of the countless businesses that have created their own twist on their normal events during the pandemic. Their well-known Winter Flower Show: Home for the Holidays, where guests can see this year’s indoor displays including fan-favorite colorful orbs and cones, will take place once again this season.


“I feel hopeful that friends of Phipps who have made a holiday tradition of visiting our Winter Flower Show will be able to carry on that tradition this year and find peace and joy in the beauty of nature while enjoying a safe experience,” reflected Phipps Conservatory’s Communications Manager Jenna Bodnar. 


The conservatory has worked vigorously to provide both a safe and enjoyable experience at their Botanical Gardens. Bodnar hopes that guests will find peace, tranquility and the joy of the holiday season during their visit to Winter Flower Show. 


“Phipps has always been a source of respite for the people of Pittsburgh to step away from the stress of everyday life and find serenity in the beauty of nature,” stated Bodnar. “With the added precautions Phipps has taken to ensure a safe experience, I hope our guests can take a moment to stop, breathe and just enjoy our beautiful displays.”


Tickets cost $19.95 for adults, $17.95 for seniors and students and $11.95 for children.


Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership’s Holiday Events

The Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership will also carry on various events this season in a healthy and safe format. Given the pandemic, it was found early-on they would have to change the trajectory of what events would be held this year. Reimagining the holidays, the team concluded outdoor events to be the most fitting option to provide fun holiday experiences. 


The Peoples Gas Holiday Market will take place, along with an array of other markets and pop-ups, from the Black Market, to the Merry Market and Handmade Arcade. 


“I think the community will find that we’ve taken their safety very seriously, that what we have created is a reimagining of the season that still can delight and bring back that warm glow we all like to have around the holidays. Hear the music, see the lights, browse, dine, and shop,” said Richard Hooper, Vice President of Marketing and Communications for Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership. “Things are not as typical as other years, but there’s joy, wonder, and hope all around you. I hope people leave feeling uplifted, inspired, and get those holiday feels that we all need right now.”


In other news, the giant, ornamental pickle meant to be hung in downtown Pittsburgh, will no longer be a sight to see throughout the holidays. 


With the recent ‘dill-flation,’ it became another victim of 2020 luck. It will certainly be back though,”  Hooper said. “We’re marinating it, and it will surely dill-iver a fine return that we all can relish next year.”


But, other events prevail, such as the traditional Santa House experience which has now moved to be online with Santa Zoom: Live from the North Pole. Popular public art features will continue to be displayed in collaboration with downtown business owners in a contest style format for artists.


Most events are free to attend, and a comprehensive list of all these downtown events and more can be found on their website for more details


Joy of Cookies Tour Rewards Program

This event is a crowd-favorite in Lawrenceville and beyond. Normally bringing over 10,000 people to the string of businesses, guests can help small businesses in-person or online with a punch card that can be redeemed for prizes ranging from coupons to redeem cookies, $75 gift cards, and even a grand prize basket. 


“The cookie aspect is something that’s unique to us and something fun. Having those cookie coupons be part of the prizes is our holiday trademark,”  Webber said. “Our business district, in itself, is unique. We’re lucky to have nearly 30 blocks of many different kinds of small businesses.”


The rewards program keeps the energy that the regular cookie tour held as much as possible. The interaction with helping small businesses remains feasible, with the option to also have online purchases count towards the prizes. 


“There’s a very unique sense of community between the business owners and Lawrenceville that you might not find in other neighborhoods or other events,” stated Webber. “Lots of folks are always willing to partner together to do cool stuff.”


It is free to register, but purchases are required to take part in the program. View the list of participating businesses and prize levels on their website for more information. 


Carnegie Museum of Art (CMOA) Events

Take a break from the stress of the holidays with a collection of traditions and exhibitions both live and virtually with Carnegie Museum of Art. 


Zoom In to the Details: The Neapolitan Presepio and the Family Day event will both take place on Dec.13. Zoom In to the Details costs $10 for adults and $5 for students, and both Family Day and Holiday Date night cost the normal price of admission, $19.95 for adults and $11.95 for students and children. Guests can register online on their website for the events. 


Point Park’s Campus Activities Board Events
The holidays can’t go without mentioning popular holiday events right on Point Park’s campus. As the ugly holiday sweater contest wraps up Dec. 8, students can look forward to joining CAB online for a Virtual Magician on Dec. 10 from 7-7:45 p.m. and Late Night Bingo on December 12 from 9-11 p.m. on Zoom.


CAB’s executive director Nicole Lakovic anticipates those who attend the events will form long-lasting memories and potentially join the group next semester.


“I’m hoping that our events can bring a sense of relaxation and give students an outlet to take a break from reality and finals. Since classes have been moved to fully remote, so have CAB events,”  Lakovic said. “This gives students a safe alternative to going out and finding other activities that may not be as COVID friendly.”


All events are free to attend, and those interested in attending the virtual events can follow @PointParkCAB on Instagram and Twitter for updates and more information.


Point Park’s SAEM Club Virtual Art Gallery

With the holidays right around the corner and Pittsburgh being a hot spot for art, SAEM club president Shea O’Neill and the rest of the group are showcasing student artwork virtually to destress from the stress 2020 has induced.


“SAEM Club is unfortunately not doing any holiday events per se, however we are launching a virtual art gallery on Dec.8 featuring student artwork. This gallery will stay up through the holidays,” stated O’Neill. “Since we cannot have a physical art gallery that people can walk through due to COVID, we are creating a website that will serve as a click-through gallery to showcase the art. This is something that is completely new to us. We have never had any sort of art gallery, let alone a virtual one, so I’m very excited to see how it goes.”


The event is free to attend, and those interested in viewing the artwork can follow @SAEMclubppu on Instagram and Twitter for updates on the website launch.


Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s Nutcracker

The Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre (PBT) will also present their annual version of The Nutcracker in a virtual format. 


Media relations and content marketing manager for the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre Katie Drozynski notes that this has been a laborious year for all, but arts have been hit particularly hard.


“It has been a stressful year for PBT – and just about every other arts organization in Pittsburgh and around the country – but one of the things that makes us hopeful is the ability to connect to our audiences in new and unique ways. That’s the power of the arts,” Drozynski expressed. “We have the opportunity to explore new ways of performing, like virtual programs and small in-person events. PBT is full of creative, dedicated people and we will continue to find new ways to share ballet. That gives us hope.”


This year, the show was produced through a variety of staged scenes in a safe and healthy way, much of which was done with dancers who cohabitate together and do not have to fret of spreading the virus to others outside their households. With this in mind along with a detailed health and safety plan, the company executed their annual version of The Nutcracker, a family-favorite. 


“It wouldn’t be December without a Nutcracker. PBT is typically in the theater throughout the whole month of December performing and we’re so excited to still be able to share the ballet with our audiences, even if we can’t be together in person,” reflected Drozynski. “Putting a ballet to film has been a unique challenge, but also an exciting one. On a personal note, I’m also really excited for the slate of educational programming PBT has planned for the month of December, like Nutcracker happy hours and tours of the costume shop.”


Viewers can register on Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s website, and the stream will be available at no cost from December 17-31. On Dec. 17, PBT will host an opening night celebration underwritten by UPMC and UPMC Health Plan Throughout the month of December, PBT will be hosting online Nutcracker education programs for $5 each. 


Cathedral of Learning’s Nationality Room Tours

Located on the University of Pittsburgh’s campus, the Cathedral of Learning holds a special place in the hearts of many, especially due to the nationality rooms. December is special for the rooms with their exclusive rooms showcasing holidays from around the world during this time of year. 


Launched on December 6, viewers can look forward to one-of-a-kind video tours at no cost for each of the nationality rooms and more across the span of two weeks on Pitt’s Global Hub website. The tours will go through how the holidays are celebrated, down to the food and attire worn on special days.


The goal for all involved with the process has been to create a sense of normalcy while connecting the rooms back to Pittsburghers’ history.


Tour Coordinator Michael Walter notes viewers are in for a treat with detailed shots of the rooms and intricate designs in cabinets, books, chairs, amongst other adornments.


“The idea is that we hope that by the end of two weeks, people will have a sense of the scope of different interpretations that are possible with our particular celebration,”  Walter said.