Though he is still bitter about not getting the GI Joe Gemini capsule as a present in the mid-60s, Tom can't help but love Christmas lights!
Nothing announces the beginning of the holiday season like the appearance of Christmas lights. Beginning in late November, cities, towns, villages and homes do their part to add merriment to the holidays by lighting up their properties. The colorful lights and decorative trees transform mundane buildings into bedazzling displays.
Most major cities have some sort of special event heralding in the season, with the lighting of the tree the centerpiece of the celebration. In large metro areas, not only do the city centers have tree lighting ceremonies, but many of the surrounding neighborhoods as well. Unfortunately, many of those events take place on the same night, making fans of holiday lights chose between them.
In downtown Pittsburgh, the city hosts a “Light Up the Night” in which revelers can watch several displays and trees go lights on in one night. This close-knit group of lights is timed so that one can watch a lighting event, and then make a brisk walk and witness the next one. It's a popular tradition that draws thousands of people to the center of the Steel City on the night they turn on the juice. Except in 2020 of course. The event, like most events, was canceled due to a resurging pandemic.
Do not be discouraged. Despite missing the magnificent lighting event, you can still take in the best of downtown Pittsburgh's famous Christmas lights on your own. Be it this year, or years to come when you just want to avoid the crowds, you can spend an hour or so of holiday merrymaking on foot by strolling along the streets of the 'burgh and conduct your own Christmas lights tour.
Using the plan below, you can bask in the beauty of the colorful lights and trees. You can start at any point as the entire route is very walkable.
Where to Park
You have to get to the center of the city to enjoy the lights. My first recommendation would be to take the bus. Pittsburgh has one of the best public transportation systems in the nation. Use it if possible.
If not, parking won't be too much of a hassle as you need to do your viewing in the dark, after most downtown workers have split for the day. Try to arrive a little after 6pm. Street parking is free after 6, and all day Sunday.
I recommend parking on the street in the general area of Wood St. and Third Ave. That will give you a good starting point that is away from the packed area near PPG Place and in the middle of the lights.
You might as well start with the grandaddy of them all. When Pittsburghers think of Christmas downtown, they immediately think of PPG Place. It's also the busiest and most crowded, mainly due to the ice skating rink that pops up in the middle of the place during the holidays.
In the center of the rink is a towering Christmas tree. It's the biggest, baddest tree in southwestern Pennsylvania. It's also fun to watch folks who only skate once a year bust their bottoms on the hard ice. Maybe that's just me.
To get there, assuming you parked near Wood and Third, follow Fourth Street west for a few blocks. If the ginormous tree doesn't get your attention, the crowd will. You have arrived at PPG Place.
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Point State Park
For over three decades, the 80-foot-tall “Tree of Lights” has adorned the grounds of Point State Park. It is not an actual tree, it's an antenna tower that is erected specifically for the event, and strings of lights are run from the top of the tower to the ground forming a Christmas-tree-like display. It has been sponsored by Duquesne Light since 1988.
Evidently, the tree viewing takes a toll on the historic grounds of Fort Duquesne as onlookers trample across the field to behold the magnificence. The wear and tear on the grounds was the reason it was to be retired after the 2020 holiday season. I am happy to report, that after pubic backlash and petitions, the tree at Point State Park has received a stay of execution and will return for 2021 and beyond. The people spoke, Pittsburgh listened.
To get there, exit PPG Place on the north side (Forbes Ave.) and head west on Forbes. Cross Stanwix St. (which is where Forbes Ave. ends) on to Liberty Ave. Keep walking west on Liberty and you will soon see it in the distance. Enter the park after crossing Commonwealth Pl. and follow the lights from there.
Highmark Unity Tree (Horne's Tree)
This tree is also known as the Horne's Tree. If it looks like a giant decoration from the mid 20th century, that is because it is. Back when big cities had unique and individually owned large department stores, the first one that sprang up in Pittsburgh was the Joseph Horne Company, known primarily as just Horne's. The company first placed their 100-foot-tall Christmas tree on the corner of their building in 1953. It consists of two pieces, each on one side of the building and meeting at the corner of the structure.
If you only have time to see one light display while in Pittsburgh, this is the one. It is the most iconic symbol of Christmas in the city. It is on the corner of Penn Ave and Stanwix St. You might have seen it on your way to Point State Park. If not, from PPG Place just follow the directions to Point State Park, but stop once you reach the corner of Liberty and Stanwix. The Horne's/Unity Tree is at the next intersection to the north. Trust me, you can't miss it.
Return to PPG Place using the same route if you went to see the Tree of Lights at Point State Park, or also the same way from viewing the Highmark Unity Tree. Once there, take Forbes Ave. once again, only in the opposite direction (east). Just follow Forbes east for a few yards and you will enter Market Square.
The square is filled with booths hawking Christmas gifts like a European Christmas market. The square boasts the most unique tree of the bunch. It looks like several giant Christmas tree bulbs stacked on top of each other to form the shape of a tree. Embrace the modernism.
City County Building
Forbes Ave. is interrupted by Market Square. From PPG Place you entered from the west. Forbes continues on the east side of Market Square, continue walking east until you come to Grant St. Hang a right (south) and you will soon see the fabulous display of holiday cheer that adorns the City County Building.
The entire front is lit with changing light schemes with their giant majestic tree in the center. The tree at the City County Building is the best live tree in the entire city. And they are good at picking them; 2020 is the 105th year a tree has been on display.
Allegheny County Courthouse
Go in the opposite direction on Grant for a few yards and you will be staring at the colorful front of the county courthouse. The courthouse's display is a relative newcomer to the holiday lights of Pittsburgh, appearing in 2012. Despite its youth, the lights are a must-see on a light tour.
Fourth and Smithfield
From the Allegheny Courthouse, head back down Forbes (again) until you come to Smithfield St. Turn left (south) and at the next street you will arrive at the intersection of Fourth and Smithfield. On the southwest corner is a small, gated plaza that sports a regular-sized, but extremely well-appointed, Christmas tree.
After being mesmerized by the preceding giant trees and bright lights, this classic tree will be a welcome respite. Best of all, it will put you in the general area of where you parked. You do remember where you parked, don't you?
Christmas in Pittsburgh
The Steel City is proud of its downtown, and the city, county and businesses that comprise it make tremendous efforts to do Christmas right. Together, they really set the holiday mood in the city. Now you can share in the excitement and experience the highlights of Pittsburgh's holiday displays, and get some exercise while doing it. It's a walking tour that would make the Grinch get into the holiday spirit.
© 2020 Tom Lohr