Tom Lohr is an avid traveler and has driven the entire length of Route 66 twice.
Free Activities in Pittsburgh
Pittsburgh often ranks in the top ten of affordable cities in the United States. Housing is reasonable, and most staples are either at or below the national average. But let's face it—these days, every penny counts. Whether you live in Steel City or are just visiting, having options for free entertainment can help you stay within your budget without binging on Netflix all weekend.
Pittsburgh offers an array of activities that cost absolutely nothing except the price of getting there. While some suggestions are seasonal, there is plenty to keep you entertained the entire year. As an added benefit, all of them will get you out of the house and at least get you moving. So grab your keys, warm up the car, leave your wallet at home and get ready to explore Da Burgh.
1. Explore the City's Bridges
Pittsburgh is built along two major rivers, so it takes a ton of bridges to keep the traffic moving. From the Three Sisters of Clemente, Warhol and Carson to the fancy Smithfield Bridge, you can find all types of spans. Nearly all of them have a plaque mounted at one end detaining that bridge's history.
Before you head out, take the time to learn the architecture of each. You will be surprised how many types there are. To know Pittsburgh is to know its bridges.
2. Take a Drive on America's Steepest Street
To be fair, Pittsburgh has a lot of steep streets that test even the sturdiest brakes. But if you really want to drive the steepest in the nation, head to the Beechview neighborhood. There will you find Canton Avenue; while the length of the street is not impressive, the 37 percent grade is.
3. Fountain Sightsee
Kansas City, Missouri, is known as the “City of Fountains,” but Pittsburgh ain't no slouch. The massive fountain at Point State Park is the granddaddy of them all, but Highland Park, Schenley Park, Allegheny Commons, PPG Plaza, Gateway Plaza and Allegheny Cemetery all have spectacular fountains.
Note: Fountains are only on during warmer months.
4. Get Woke at Alphabet City
This cultural center at 40 W. North Avenue, offers an eclectic program of musical performances, film and poetry readings. Most revolve around some sort of social issue, so be prepared for that. Entrance is free, but you need to register for most performances.
5. Take a Bike Ride
Pittsburgh has miles of fabulous, multi-use trails. Most are paved, making them perfect for taking a spin on your bike.
Pedal along all or part of the 33 miles that make up the Three Rivers Heritage Trail for an inspiring tour of the local riverfronts. The trail meanders along the banks of both the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers. It is multi-use, so keep an eye out for dogs and their humans.
6. View a WWII Submarine
Did you ever wonder what a sub from the Second World War looks like? Take a walk on the trail in front of the Carnegie Science Center and catch a glimpse of the USS Requin. It is permanently moored alongside the Three Rivers Heritage Trail there.
You will have to purchase a ticket if you want to tour the innards of the vessel, but unless you are interested in naval warfare, you can behold its beauty totally free from the trail.
7. Pay Homage to Mr. Rogers
While you are checking out the submarine, pay your respects to a Pittsburgh icon: Fred Rogers. If Mister Rogers' Neighborhood was an important building block of your youth, then you can bow to his likeness at the Mr. Rogers Memorial, also along the Three Rivers Heritage Trail next to Heinz Field.
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8. Relive the 1960 World Series
If you are a baseball fan, the 1960 World Series is a Pittsburgh legend. In a matchup between the Pirates and Yankees, the series ended with a Pittsburgh victory that still remains the only World Series Game 7 walk-off home run. Second baseman Bill Mazeroski smacked one over the wall at Forbes Field on October 13, 1960.
Since then, Forbes Field has been torn down and replaced by Three Rivers Stadium. That ballpark has also been torn down and replaced by PNC Park. That's how long it has been.
But a portion of the Forbes Field outfield wall—where Mazeroski's home run flew over—still stands. It's worth a visit, but if you really want to relive history, every October 13, at precisely game time of the famous 1960 game, fans gather and listen to a recording of the radio broadcast. They have been doing it for decades.
9. Take a Stroll Among the Dead
Many graveyards are creepy, but there are two in Pittsburgh that are manicured and better kept than most parks. Both the Union Dale Cemetery on the North Side and the Allegheny Cemetery in the Lawrenceville neighborhood are perfect for peaceful strolling.
You can also often get a glimpse of local wildlife on the grounds. Walkers in the Union Dale Cemetery have seen deer, foxes, squirrels, groundhogs and geese, as well as the full array of native birds. Leashed dogs are allowed in Union Dale, but not in the Allegheny Cemetery.
10. Play With Rover
While dogs are not allowed in some cemeteries, they are allowed at the local dog parks. Pittsburgh has playgrounds for pups strewn all over the city. Riverview Dog Park and Bernard Dog Run are recommended. If it's off-leash time Fido craves, there are off-leash areas near the lake in Allegheny Commons Park, Highland Park and Frick Park.
11. Gawk at PNC Park
Even if you are not a sports fan, you should take a walk around PNC Park—home of the Pittsburgh Pirates baseball team. While the team has been in a slump for, oh, about 40 years, PNC Park is the jewel of Major League Baseball.
Many of those who have seen a game in every ballpark, or many of them, heap praise on what a great stadium PNC Park is. Take a walk around and behold its magnificence.
12. Take in the Skyline
The absolute best view of the Steel City is from the observation decks on Mount Washington all along the aptly named Grandview Avenue. Be sure to see it during both day and night times. It is one of the more iconic skylines in the United States.
13. Take a Walking Tour
Several companies offer walking tours of Pittsburgh . . . for a price. Save the cash and be your own guide. You can download the free route of a nice five-mile walking tour here.
14. Go to Jail
Take a tour of the old Allegheny Jail. Not only is it old, but it's also spooky as hell. Get a taste of what it was like to end up in the clink back in the day. Located at 950 Second Ave, Pittsburgh.
15. Check Out the Armament
The Soldiers and Sailors Museum offers free admission for all vets. Otherwise you will have to pay for admission. 4141 Fifth Ave, Pittsburgh.
16. Gaze at the Stargazers
Riverview Park is one of Pittsburgh's finest. At the top of the hill that the park is built around is an old observatory. You can just take in its grandeur from afar, or join one of its free tours/lectures. While free, you still must have a reservation. 159 Riverview Ave, Pittsburgh.
17. Get Artsy at Frick Art and Historical Center
This place has an interesting collection of art, a horseless carriage museum and ever-changing exhibits. There is also a gigantic greenhouse for those who dig botany. 7227 Reynolds Ave, Pittsburgh.
18. Fortify Yourself
You won't want to miss Point State Park and its famous fountain. While there, tour historical Fort Pitt. It's a small building that is all that is left of the original fort that heralded the beginning of Pittsburgh. 601 Commonwealth Pl, Pittsburgh.
19. Enjoy Some Pickin' at the Elks Club
The North Side has an awesome Elks Club. Normally, you would have to be a member to get in, but on Wednesday evenings, they host a banjo night. Anyone can join in and play, and you don't have to know the secret handshake to attend. 400 Cedar Ave, Pittsburgh.
20. Get Funky at Randy Land
In the Mexican War Streets area is the famous Randy Land. Started by none other than Randy himself, it is an eclectic collection of some really “interesting and unique” art. Keep an open mind. 1501 Arch St, Pittsburgh.
21. Take an Art Walking Tour
Check out the art in Pittsburgh's cultural district on foot. It's a good way to walk off one of those giant Primanti Brothers sandwiches. Check out radworkshere.org for a map to conduct your tour.
22. Secure Your Love
Next to PNC Park is the renowned Roberto Clemente Bridge. If you don't know who Roberto was, shame on you. While the bridge itself is worth a look, the railing on the west side is chock full of pad locks, combination locks, and every other type of lock imaginable. There are thousands.
Lovers put a lock on the bridge together to signify their love and commitment to each other. No word on how many of those couples are still together.
23. Visit Pittsburgh Glass Center
The region was home to many glass factories, most of which have shut down. Glass played a large role in local economics years ago. Today, glass making has evolved into an art, with artists using glass as their medium. You can visit and watch the artist work their trade. 5472 Penn Ave, Pittsburgh.
24. Get Fungus
If you are in the area from late April to early May, you can engage in a treasure hunt of sorts. Tromping through the woods in search of Morel mushrooms is a favorite local activity. They are hard to find and can fetch a pretty penny if you sell them. Best to saute them in butter and eat them yourself. It's a local delicacy.
25. Ride the T
Pittsburgh has just over 26 miles of light rail system. It connects downtown with most of the communities in the south. To get a feel of how denizens of the Steel City commute, you can hop on while downtown. As long as you don't leave the downtown area, riding the T is free.
26. Watch Things Roll Uphill
One of the Burgh's outlying boroughs is home to an interesting optical illusion. Gravity Hill is one of a few of these in the world. You can put a ball on the road and it appears to roll uphill. In actuality, it is following the rules of gravity, but it just doesn't look like it. 461 McKinney Rd, Wexford.
27. Check Out the Wheels at Bicycle Heaven
Bicycle Heaven is the world's largest bicycle museum. It has every bike imaginable; except Pee Wee Herman's bike. I hear it is in the basement of the Alamo. 1800 Preble Ave, Pittsburgh.
28. Check Out the Funky Collection at La Hutte Royal
In an unassuming house in the Troy Hill area, you can find La Hutte Royal. It is home to the creations of a very talented artist who pushes the limits of what is really art. Only small groups allowed at a time by appointment. You will know why when you visit. You can e-mail to schedule a tour at firstname.lastname@example.org.
29. Visit the Holy Land at Rodef Shalom Biblical Garden
Ever wanted to visit ancient Israel? Well, now you can without leaving the city limits. The Rodef Shalom Biblical Garden nicely replicates the feel of a garden in Israel back in the day. For plant enthusiast, they also have an extensive display of plants mentioned in the Bible. 4905 Fifth Ave, Pittsburgh.
30. Visit Famous Dead People
Not only does the Allegheny Cemetery have beautifully manicured grounds, but it is also the resting place for many Pittsburgh notables. From politicians to musicians to sports figures, some of the most renowned burghers are buried there. You can design your own walking tour to visit those you want to pay your respects to by checking out the cemetery's website.
31. Visit Dead Hall of Famers
If cemeteries are your thing, you can tour many of them by visiting the gravesites of six baseball Hall of Fame inductees in the greater Pittsburgh area, Josh Gibson and Honus Wagner among them. Visit Uncovering PA to get directions to and within the cemeteries.
32. See Bushes and Bach at the Mellon Bank Walled Garden
If horticulture is your thing, check out the Mellon Bank Walled Garden. Not only can you find a finely manicured park with a bounty of botany, but in summer they often have free outdoor concerts, including classical music. The park is located at 1047 Shady Ave, Pittsburgh.
33. Catch a Flick and a Breeze
During the summer, Pittsburgh hosts an array of outdoor movies. You can find one just about any day of the week. They are scattered throughout various parks in the city. The West End Overlook is our favorite.
34. Attend the Pittsburgh Vintage Grand Prix
Each July, Pittsburgh hosts a vintage auto race/rally during the Pittsburgh Vintage Grand Prix. It lasts a weekend and you can catch the cars whizzing past at blistering speeds in Schenley Park. Come early, it gets crowded. Find the details on their website.
35. Check the Time
London has its Big Ben towering timepiece; Pittsburgh has The Kaufmann's Clock. Remember when large cities had uniquely named and privately owned department stores instead of chain stores? Yeah, me neither, I'm much too young for that; but I've seen them on TV.
Kaufmann's was one of the largest and best known in Pittsburgh. In 1913, a grandiose, 1.25-ton clock was installed on the corner of the building. It has been a local landmark ever since, and is now a historical landmark. You can see it at the corner of 5th and Smithfield downtown.
36. Visit the Holy Grail of Football
Even if you were not alive in the '70s, or not a Steelers fan or even an NFL fan, you have undoubtedly heard of the “immaculate reception.” It was a touchdown scored by the Steelers late in a game that propelled them to the playoffs after years of dreadful play.
A pass from the QB was deflected and somehow ended up in the hands of a running back who took it to the end zone. It seemed, at the time, like divine intervention; hence the name. It is a Pittsburgh football legend and you can visit the exact spot where it occurred.
A large memorial celebrates the play just east of Heinz Field, where Three Rivers Stadium once stood. Look for the Steelers fans bowing and sacrificing children at this altar of victory.
37. Get Atomic
Pittsburgh has been a city with extreme ups and downs. At one time, Westinghouse was trying to get into the atomic game. Part of the facility they built included a large, bulbous tank on a tower affectionally called the “atom smasher.” It was finally knocked down in 2015, but you can visit its large, lightbulb-shaped remains at F Ave and West in Forrest Hills.
38. Take a Belt Tour
While many cities have interstate loops that circumvent the center of the city to help keep traffic flowing, Pittsburgh has a colored belt system. Each route is marked with signs signifying whether it is part of the Red, Orange, Blue, Green or Yellow belt. They are just normal roads that, when linked, provide a circular route around the city. Each one takes a wider loop around.
It's a good way to see what the normally unseen parts of Pittsburgh look like and visit some local mom-and-pop businesses. The Blue Belt is recommended. You can find a map of the belts here.
39. Light One (or Several) Up
In late November, Pittsburgh has “Light Up Night” in which all of the downtown Christmas light displays are turned on. They light up in sequence so you can view each on a very walkable tour of Christmas lights. The event includes live music. Go to Downtown Pittsburgh Holidays for details.
40. Visit Some Edible Architecture
During the same period as the “Light Up Night”, the city hosts a gingerbread house competition. The bakers/architects can get mighty creative. You can see their curious creations in the City-County Building at 414 Grant St.
41. Tour the Cathedral of Learning
If you look to the east of downtown Pittsburgh, you will see a single skyscraper. This gothic tower is the Cathedral of Learning on the University of Pittsburgh campus. The building has 31 classrooms that are decked out to pay homage to different nationalities, and therefore are called “nationality rooms.”
You can tour when they are not being used for actual classes, and there is usually a fee involved. However, on one day in between Thanksgiving and Christmas, they host an open house when you can check them out for free. Check the University of Pittsburgh page to find out which day is free.
42. Twist Downtown
During the summer months, the city sponsors “Yoga in the Square.” You can get your yogi on in Market Square downtown in the shadow of the surrounding skyscrapers.
43. Cool Your Feet
All of that walking around Pittsburgh must have your dogs barking. Take a break and soak your feet in the Water Steps, a water feature near the sports stadiums. It's a great way to cool off your toes and enjoy the breathtaking view of the skyline. Located along the riverfront walk between PNC Park and Fort Duquesne Bridge.
44. Follow the Wooden Road
Once upon a time, streets were often made of wooden blocks. Really. Today, very few survive. But you can check one out in the Shadyside neighborhood, where Roslyn Place has a 250-foot stretch of wooden street.
45. Combine Radio and Real Life
Tickets to a major league baseball game can be pricey. Not that long ago, most people listened to games on the radio. Then the world was polluted by cable TV.
You can get the best of both worlds by taking a portable radio down to the Roberto Clemente Bridge or the riverfront walk near PNC Park and listening the game on KDKA (93.7 FM). From there, you can still hear the roar of the crowd and see the fireworks after Pirates home runs (which is seldom). It's a unique sports experience any fan will appreciate.
46. Watch the Explosions
The city has free fireworks throughout the year, many coupled with Pirates baseball games. You can watch for free from anywhere near the Roberto Clemente Bridge, or for a unique perspective, from the Mount Washington overlooks. The schedule varies throughout the summer.
47. Do a Gallery Crawl
While not known for it, Pittsburgh has a thriving art scene. Several times a year, the local galleries offer a Gallery Crawl where you can spend an evening checking out what the local artists have been up to. There are often food vendors along the street, so (while the food is not free) you won't go hungry. Check out the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust website for more info and a map of the crawl route.
48. Get Festive
The area is rife with local festivals throughout the year. There are way too many to list, but one is certain to be going on during your visit. Check out the annual events section of Visit Pittsburgh's website.
49. Check Out the Murals
All over the city, there are murals painted on buildings. Some are actual public art projects, while others are freelance work. All are fantastic. A mural road trip is a great way to check out urban art.
Try to go on a Sunday; this is a driving tour and you will appreciate less traffic. While not all-inclusive, check out “Street Art and Graffiti in Pittsburgh” on Google Maps for a decent sampling of murals.
50. Get Crafty at the Contemporary Craft Museum
Crafts are alive and well in the Burgh. We even have a museum for it. The Contemporary Craft Museum is located at 5645 Butler St, Pittsburgh. Tickets are required, but are free. Visit the museum's website to get yours.
It's Not Your Grandfather's Pittsburgh
During the 1960s and 1970s, Pittsburgh had a well-deserved reputation as a dirty city with bad air. While the demise of the steel industry was a serious economic blow still felt today, the city has reinvented itself.
Much cleaner streets and far less air and water pollution, coupled with a thriving art scene, loads of parks and friendly residents, have made Pittsburgh into a destination worth visiting. So next time you're looking for a fun budget destination with diverse and delicious food, great sports teams, unique art and plenty to keep you busy, make your way to the Burgh.
© 2021 Tom Lohr