Special Feature: Products Sally Recommends

Kid Friendly Zones: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

by Elaine Sosa Labalme

While Pittsburgh may no longer be the King of Heavy Industry, it's the legacy of that era that serves the city well today.  The fortunes made by gentlemen named Carnegie, Mellon and Heinz have endowed this mid-size western Pennsylvania city with museums, concert halls and sporting venues that are the envy of the U.S.  Even better, many of these facilities are aimed at kids.  Read on for a list of our favorites.

Where to stay:  At the edge of the city's business district, the Doubletree Hotel City Center promises a river or skyline view from its spacious one-bedroom suites.  Newly outfitted in burgundy and beige tones, the fresh accommodation offers plenty of seating and sleeping options along with pleasing perks such as a microwave, mini-fridge and two flat-screen TVs.  Wireless hi-speed Internet access is a boon for multi-tasking parents while the warm chocolate chip cookie at check-in will surely win over the kids.  The hotel's free shuttle bus is a plus for downtown jaunts.  One Bigelow Square (412) 281-5800; doubles start at $179doubletree.com.  Package deals/special rates available.  Just up the hill and away from the city center is the Pittsburgh Marriott, where a corner king makes it possible for kids to play "name that skyscraper" from the large plate-glass window.  A color scheme of navy, green and gold dresses up the newly-remodeled rooms, with a fluffy, pillow-topped bed the inviting centerpiece.  A small sofa bed can pull double-duty for kids, though they'll surely stay up late playing hide-and-seek in the enormous closet.  112 Washington Place (412) 471-4000; doubles from $179.  marriott.com.  Hotel specials and packages available.

Cheap eats:  Pittsburgh's workmanlike roots come to the fore come meal time, thanks to a profusion of cheap eats establishments offering portions big enough for a Steeler.  Leading the way is Primanti Brothers, where the "all-in-one sandwich" has been satisfying hungry diners for generations.  Packed between two pieces of doughy bread is your choice of meat or fish topped with french fries, cole slaw and tomatoes.  Wrap your hands around the delicious mess and dig in.  The Strip District location reeks of big-bruiser charm and the indifferent service that goes along with it, but face it, you're here for the food.  46 18th Street (412) 263-2142. 

At Robert Wholey and Co., affectionately referred to as Wholey (pronounced "woolly"), the "Award-Winning Fish sandwich" is as good as it gets.  Lightly battered and fried cod overwhelms the thick bun and if you order fries on the side, it's a meal for two.  1711 Penn Avenue (412) 391-3737 or at the Gateway Clipper Fleet docks.  The Original Hot Dog Shop, known to locals as "the O," is located between the Pitt and CMU campuses.  The U-shaped eatery is packed full of formica tables and signage touting the many variations on a dog.  Buy one all-beef hot dog and you'll get the second at half-price, so it's easy to save money here.  More savings will be had by ordering the SMALL fries, which easily feed a family of four.  Expect the many TVs to be turned into the game (any game in sports-crazed Pittsburgh) and the revolving door of students coming in for a six-pack is a sight to see.  3901 Forbes Avenue (412) 621-7388.  Mineo's Pizza House on Squirrel Hill doesn't sell beer or wine and doesn't even offer ice for your soda, so it's a good thing the pizza is a winner.  The thin-crust pie is topped with gooey cheese and a sweet tomato sauce that does East Coast pizzerias proud.  A large pizza will fill a family of four and the many cafes and ice cream shops around the corner on Forbes Avenue are ideal for a post-pie sugar high.  2128 Murray Avenue  (412) 521-9864. 

Full of sweetness and light is Klavon's Ice Cream Parlor, at the same Strip District location since the 1920s and with one or two family members holding court (and making sundaes) on most days.  If it's Audrey manning the scoop, rest assured that a toy will come with every treat -- and her chocolate shakes are unbeatable.  2801 Penn Avenue  (412) 434-0451.  Dave & Andy's Homemade Ice Cream makes its confections at the front of the shop, so you can count on freshness.  The strawberry ice cream is the winner here, with sorbets a close second.  Stay away from the shakes and sundaes as the college-age staffers aren't always up to the task.  207 Atwood Street (412) 681-9906.  Mornings in Pittsburgh should begin at Pamela's P&G Diner, where the pink and aqua decor is a whimsical counterpoint to your tattooed yet gracious waitress.  Order any pancake dish and you'll be presented with crepe-like flapjacks rolled around fresh fruit, whipped cream and brown sugar.  As if that wasn't enough, the omelettes are light as air and the cheesy potatoes melt in your mouth.  60 21st Street (412) 281-6366.  Somewhat less delicate is the omelette at Jo Jo's Restaurant, which is crammed full of veggies, home fries and you choice of breakfast meat.  Sure, you could order something else but the guys in hard hats would pick you for a city slicker.  110 24th Street (412) 261-0280.  Finally, if all of this cheap-and-delicious has you craving nutritious along with a side of style, head for the Grand Concourse at Station Square, on the city's South Side.  The converted P&LE railroad station is a terrific setting for an elegant meal.  Insist on a window table in the River Room, where kids can ogle the passing trains while parents swoon over the view.  Order the fish of the day with the "Dynamite" topping, a medley of crab and cheese baked on with a basil drizzle.  100 W. Station Square Drive (412) 261-1717.

Be Dazzled:  The Children's Museum of Pittsburgh believes that kids should "play with real stuff," a philosophy that plays itself out in a number of discrete exhibits.  Have them begin their exploration at The Limb Bender, a stories-high maze they'll love climbing.  Head over to The Attic next, where you can become a puppeteer or a ghost amid eye-popping colors and optical illusions.  Rest assured, Grandma's attic has nothing on this place.  Get back to reality at The Garage, where tinkerers will be fascinated by the myriad pulleys, tracks and tools.  A full-on workshop filled with real tools (and the parents who must supervise them) is good for an hour or two of practical fun.  Artsier sorts will prefer The Studio, where painting, printmaking, papermaking and clay are the media for the message.  Finally, there isn't a soul in the family who won't love the Waterplay area, where a "river" and "pond" serve as fodder for the many buckets and boats.  Raincoats and rubber sandals are provided for young ones, an especially good thing if they decide to create a PVC pipe sculpture from the many water jets on hand.  You could easily spend an entire day at what is arguably one of the best children's museums in the country.  10 Children's Way, Allegheny Square (412) 322-5058; pittsburghkids.org.  Math and science geeks will have found a new home at the Carnegie Science Center, one of the four Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh.  A series of simple scientific "experiments" fill each floor and will have kids ping-ponging from one fantastical discovery to the next.  The Kitchen Theater encourages hands-on participation while the top-floor Exploration Station has kids throwing, lobbing and grabbing all matter of objects (yes, you should duck for cover).  The Rangos Omnimax Theater rotates feature films that explore the natural world and complements the Buhl Digital Dome, a planetarium for the new millenium.  Accessible via the museum's lower level is the USS Requin submarine, parked outside and ready to receive visitors, as is UPMC SportsWorks, located across the street.  At the latter, kids can pitch a fastball, race an Olympic sprinter or design their own roller-coaster -- and ride it!  Over forty unique "challenges" make this the world's largest science-of-sport exhibition.  (412) 237-3400; carnegiesciencecenter.org.  Both the Children's Museum and Carnegie Science Center have ongoing special programs and events -- be sure to check the day's calendar on arrival.

More Fun for Kids (of All Ages)

The Gateway Clipper Fleet offers a number of excursions along Pittsburgh's three rivers.  Cruises are offered daily and depart from Station Square.  The first thing you'll learn on board the hour-long Good Ship Lollipop Cruise is that the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers combine to form the Ohio River.  With that bit of nautical detail in mind, head down the Monongahela ("the Mon" to locals) while the ship's captain ticks off Pittsburgh trivia (350 bridges total, in case you were wondering).  You'll learn something about almost every landmark on the rivers' banks and pass under countless canary-yellow bridges.  Lottie the Clown will make a pass or two herself, crafting animal-shaped balloons one time and pausing for face painting the next.  Station Square (412) 355-7980, reservations required; gatewayclipper.com. At the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium, the hilly Highland Park location is half the adventure.  Amble uphill to greet endangered snow leopards in a lushly landscaped aerie, then race back down to observe gorillas thumping their chests on a grassy plateau.  While the PPG Aquarium is a bit of a letdown, the Water's Edge, a new exhibit scheduled to open in the Fall of 2006, will showcase polar bears, sea otters and walruses in an aquatic setting.  One Wild Place (412) 665-3640; pittsburghzoo.com.  The National Aviary, on Pittsburgh's North Side, is home to more than 600 birds representing over 200 species.  Expect the avian residents to get up close and personal, since there isn't anything separating you from them in exhibit areas such as the Wetlands Room and the Tropical Forest.  "Wings of the World," the aviary's only free-flight show, is scheduled daily during the summer months.  Allegheny Commons West (412) 323-7235; aviary.org.  Centrally-located Schenley Park is the city's great greensward and definitely worth a visit.  Let the kids run crazy at the Oval, a grassy hilltop with great views of the downtown skyline.  Jungle gyms and tennis courts abound, but the simple pleasure of rolling down the hill in unison may be your best bet.  Overlook Drive (412) 422-6523; pittsburghparks.org.

A Blast From The Past

San Francisco may have its cable cars but Pittsburgh has its inclines and is doggone proud of them.  Rightfully so, since these cable-cars-on-a-hillside may do the city by the Bay one better.  Dating to the late 1800s, the cars originally transported workers from the hilly residential neighborhoods of the South Side down to the waterfront steel mills.  Today, the two remaining lines still shuttle workers, albeit suited ones on their way to downtown office buildings.  The Duquesne Incline, in operation since 1877, offers bright red cars for the minutes-long ride.  At the top, step out onto the observation deck for a panoramic view of greater Pittsburgh.  1220 Grandview Avenue (412) 381-1665; incline.cc. (lower entrance is on E. Carson Street).  The Monongahela Incline, dating to 1870, has the shorter ride and the lesser view but may be more easily accessible to visitors thanks to its Station Square location.  Adjacent to Station Square (412) 442-2000.

Be A Sport:  The city of three rivers could easily be called the city of three kings when it comes to sports, since Pittsburgh's Steelers (football), Pirates (baseball) and Penguins (hockey) have all held the title of world champion at one time or another. 

If you visit during spring, summer or fall, make it a point to take in a Pittsburgh Pirates game at spanking-new PNC Park.  This jewel of a ballpark is accessible from the downtown area by walking across the Roberto Clemente Bridge, which is closed every game day so that fans can walk across the expanse and straight into the ballpark.  Huge bronzes of Pirates greats Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell adorn the plaza leading up to the entrance; once inside, the cozy confines of the park exude old-time charm and make every seat a good one.  Root for a home-team homer, since the payoff is a blaze of red and green fireworks.  Night games are a special treat here, since the outfield opens onto the Mon River and the brightly-lit downtown skyline.  Oh yeah, peanuts, popcorn and Primanti Brothers are in the house.  Go Pirates!  Visit pirates.mlb.com. for schedule and tickets.

Falling In Love:  As evidenced above, there is no shortage of riches in the city of Pittsburgh...and then there's Fallingwater.  Frank Lloyd Wright's masterwork, considered one of the crowning achievements in American architecture, is located ninety minutes south of Pittsburgh in the Laurel Highlands.  Designed as a weekend retreat for the Kaufmann family of Pittsburgh in 1936, the house is dramatically perched over a waterfall and is a wonder of indoor/outdoor living thanks to its cantilevered patios and wraparound windows.  The recent addition of an hour-long Family Tour makes it possible for visitors as young as five to experience the house and grounds.  Knowledgeable and patient guides make architecture fun for children, inviting them to build a cantilever of their own out of blocks at the start of the tour.  And it only gets better: if they wear a standard-issue pair of white gloves, they can gently touch anything in the house!  Parents aren't offered gloves, so they can't touch.  This clever conceit has empowered little ones towing the line for the duration of the tour.  The attention to detail in every corner of the house is magnificent, as are the furnishings, largely designed by Wright himself.  A visit to Fallingwater ensures that everyone will fall in love with Pittsburgh all over again.  Call (724) 329-8501 for tour times and tickets, reservations are essential; paconserve.org.


Elaine Sosa Labalme is a food and travel writer based in San Francisco, California. When she's not busy as a domestic goddess she's out traveling with husband Fen and five-year-old son Steven. She hopes to be the next Charles Kuralt.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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