Road Trip. To Pittsburgh. With Kiddo.
January 3, 2020 8:36 AM   Subscribe

What shouldn't we miss? Details inside, of course.

The first week of August my boyfriend and I will be taking our first family trip with my daughter, who will be 8 when we go. We picked Pittsburgh at random because it's not too far for a road trip and we're trying to do this budget-style. So, can you help us plan our trip? Previous AskMe's seem to be more adult-focused, but we're hoping to show kiddo a really fantastic time. Here are some questions we have:

--We'll be driving from Milwaukee. Our plan is to make a roughly 8-hour drive from Milwaukee to Columbus, OH in one day. Because kiddo will be in the backseat solo, we're looking for cool places to stop for breaks during that day. Great restaurants, roadside attractions that are fun and quick, that kind of thing, just to help her not feel lonely back there. (Not Chicago, please, we're hoping to avoid that whole traffic nightmare as much as possible by leaving very early and cruising straight on through).

--We're spending the following day at the Columbus Zoo and then having dinner and driving into Pittsburgh. Good tips/tricks for what I understand is a gigantic zoo? Food suggestions anywhere between there and PA?

--What do we absolutely have to do in or around Pittsburgh? Kiddo will be 8 and at the moment enjoys animals, art & other creative pursuits, and sometimes light hiking/outdoor adventures. She also really wants to go swimming or to a beach if possible. Boyfriend and I are up for anything, including easy day trips, since we'll have a car. The only hard-and-fast on our list so far is the Warhol Museum, because he's my absolute favorite.

--Food suggestions? My daughter is a pretty picky eater but is delighted by fancy ice cream, bakeries, and donut shops. The adults would appreciate any and all restaurant suggestions, we're less fussy.
posted by cheese to Travel & Transportation around Pittsburgh, PA (24 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Not far from the Warhol are the Water Steps.
posted by jon1270 at 8:52 AM on January 3, 2020 [2 favorites]

Fancy ice cream - Klavon's!

Best Bakery - Jean-Marc Chatellier

I haven't been in a long while, but the Children's Museum was a staple of my... well... entire young life - I loved the place so much I volunteered there as a teenager. Check the page - there might be something especially cool happening when you are in town.

And oooh - check the calendar on the page for the Allegheny Goatscape goats (and sometimes donkey!) when it's closer to August. If you luck out, they might be in a other-cool-things adjacent area (e.g. i've seen 'em in the Polish Hill neighborhood, which is a stone's throw from Klavon's). They are a DELIGHT to see doing their thing.
posted by Ennis Tennyone at 8:56 AM on January 3, 2020 [2 favorites]

The National Aviary is very cool but pricey.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 8:56 AM on January 3, 2020 [2 favorites]

Seconding Klavon’s — a good old-fashioned soda fountain.

Five Points and La Gourmandine are excellent small bakeries.
posted by jon1270 at 8:57 AM on January 3, 2020

I was 100% certain the first five answers were all going to be Kennywood, and I was going to add a +1.
posted by arco at 8:59 AM on January 3, 2020 [5 favorites]

Oh, good call on the Aviary. And it's near the Children's Museum! Which is near-ish to the Warhol!
posted by Ennis Tennyone at 9:00 AM on January 3, 2020 [1 favorite]

The Columbus Zoo is big - but it's manageable to see all the parts in a few hours and also compartmentalized in such a way that it is easy to, say, decide to skip Asia, but still see all the other things. Skip the penguins and aquarium (though go see the manatees - they're in a separate building). Heart Of Africa is my favorite of the exhibits, and I'm a fan of the Australia and Nocturnal exhibit. The zoo is very spread out and exhibits are large, so there's a lot of walking between places, but in general it is a well-done and nice zoo! Their North American exhibits are really lovely, so if you're tempted to skip those because you can see black bears anywhere, I'd recommend actually going through that section.

In Columbus, your daughter might enjoy Mozart's, which is a Viennese bakery and restaurant (good for breakfast and dinner) and also Buckeye Donuts. I'd say Jeni's is overwrought for an 8-year-old, but Graeters is good!

In Pittsburgh, if dinosaurs are at all an attraction, the Carnegie Museum of Natural History has both a juvenile brontosaurus, and an adolescent T. rex and a lot of other dinos!
posted by ChuraChura at 9:02 AM on January 3, 2020 [3 favorites]

You'll definitely want to hit the National Aviary which is just a couple blocks from the Warhol museum. The Children's Museum is also a couple blocks from both. The Children's Museum just opened a brand new facility called MuseumLab targeted towards older kids. I haven't been to MusemLab yet (my own kid is 7) but I'm a big fan of the Children's Museum. Pittsburgh also has a lovely Zoo if you don't already have your fill of zoos after Columbus. And then there's the other Carnegie Museums in Oakland, as well as the Phipp's Conservatory.

We are quite land-locked but I can recommend Raccoon Creek State Park, which my kid calls "the lake beach". It's got sand and everything. There are also excellent hikes to be had there. How about some kayaking on the three rivers? A trip to Sandcastle and/or Kennywood?

Does she like to bike? My kid is a major major fan of The Wheel Mill, an indoor bike park where bikes and helmets/pads can be rented or you can bring your own.

Food-wise: if she likes pizza, Mercurio's has both pizza and gelato and both are magnificent. Lawrenceville is a good neighborhood for food of all sorts. Franktuary has hot dogs and hopefully by this summer the Millie's Ice Cream location going in across the street will be open.

Given our kids are similar age, please feel free to memail me if you have more specific queries about stuff to do.
posted by soren_lorensen at 9:03 AM on January 3, 2020 [1 favorite]

It's not anywhere close to the zoo, but my favorite restaurant in Columbus is the DK Diner in Grandview. DK stands for "donut kitchen", and they do indeed make a delicious donut, but it's also a full-service restaurant as well. All things being equal, the donuts at the aforementioned Buckeye Donuts are better, but as the name suggests, they're on campus, and parking (even over the summer) is a hassle. On top of that, the food situation on campus is kinda disappointing, so you'd really just be going for the donuts, which at least to me wouldn't be worth it. Better to get a delicious dinner AND delicious donuts, in my opinion.

I agree about the North American exhibit at the zoo: something about it is really nice. There's a little train, too, which I always loved when I was a kid (OK, as an adult as well). You'll go through it to get to the polar bears, which are worth it. I also like the Australian exhibits, but they're kind of out of the way. The penguins aren't anything special, but they're pretty close to the manatees, so if you see one, see the other. For food, the Congo River Market (near the gorillas, natch) has always been our preferred stop; it's a food court with several options.

Ice cream in Columbus has been pretty well covered, but in between Columbus and Pittsburgh is Tom's Ice Cream Bowl in Zanesville, which is both delicious and charmingly old-school.

On the way to Columbus, depending on time, it might be worth a stop for dinner at Young's Jersey Dairy/the Golden Jersey Inn. It's a dairy farm near my hometown that makes their own ice cream and has all sorts of fun attractions (mini golf, batting cages, playgrounds, etc., plus a barn where you can feed goats). The key thing is that they team up with Schuler's, a bakery in town that makes the world's best donuts. You can kill the ice cream and donut birds with one stone. (The food isn't bad, either - as a Wisconsinite, you might appreciate that they make cheese curds.) My family reports that the quality of both the ice cream and the donuts has gone downhill recently, although that's a bit like saying Lebron James's skill level has gone down - he's still one of the best basketball players in the world.

My suggestion for Pittsburgh is to ride one of the funiculars. It's one of my regrets that I haven't yet done so.
posted by kevinbelt at 9:39 AM on January 3, 2020

I'd plan to go to the Warhol earlier in the day rather than later so you have time to do your own silkscreens & other hands-on stuff in the Factory in the basement.

Highly recommended for quirky fun: Bicycle Heaven and Randyland.

FWIW we were underwhelmed by the incline that everyone told us was a must-do.
posted by headnsouth at 9:51 AM on January 3, 2020 [2 favorites]

The Incline is really just a means to an end. It gets you up to Mt. Washington which has great views. Little kids love it because it's a train! that goes up hill! But it's also just a part of our public transit system that people ride every day to work so it's not a theme park ride type of thrill or anything. (I take my kid on it periodically because my transit pass that works on buses and light rail also works on the incline so it's a free 20 minutes of entertainment for a transit-obsessed child.)
posted by soren_lorensen at 9:54 AM on January 3, 2020 [1 favorite]

I'm also here to say Kennywood! It's a great amusement park, not too big or too small.
posted by bleep at 9:56 AM on January 3, 2020

the mr Rogers exhibit in latrobe
posted by brujita at 9:57 AM on January 3, 2020

Yes yes their children's museum is really good! I went there for a conference of the Association of Children's Museums.

The botanical gardens are also fantastic.
posted by missrachael at 10:48 AM on January 3, 2020

Fallingwater is maybe 90 minutes from Pittsburgh, if you're Frank Lloyd Wright fans.
posted by HiddenInput at 11:29 AM on January 3, 2020 [1 favorite]

Whatever you do don't go see the incline. A friend of mine had people visiting from out-of-town who insisted on riding it, so he had to go. He said whereas when we were kids it was merely dull, now it's dull AND totteringly old. He said it was somehow simultaneously boring and terrifying.
posted by Sing Or Swim at 11:40 AM on January 3, 2020

The funicular is also hot as hell. Just to pile on.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 11:46 AM on January 3, 2020

I skimmed and maybe I missed it, but did anyone mention Jeni's for ice cream in Columbus? Because you should totally go to Jeni's for ice cream in Columbus.

If you're also planning on spending the night in Columbus on the way back, if you can squeeze in time at COSI, you won't be disappointed.
posted by cooker girl at 12:21 PM on January 3, 2020 [1 favorite]

If it's August go to a wave pool!! And the view from Mt. Washington is a must whether you ride the incline or not.
posted by serena15221 at 1:28 PM on January 3, 2020

A few people have mentioned Jeni's. I have never been to Columbus but we have them in Atlanta and it is very good ice cream.
posted by madcaptenor at 1:50 PM on January 3, 2020

I asked my 8 year old what she recommends other than Kenneywood, Sand Castle and the Zoo. She chose the Carpet Skate Park, which is a great time and the staff is good at organizing fun games for the kids. She also likes the dinosaurs at the Natural History Museum and the hands-on art stuff in the basement of the Warhol.

The Pittsburgh Society for Creative Reuse is a fun mess and a great place to find odd art supplies or drop in for a workshop.

There are a ton of wave pools in the county parks that cost $6 for admission and are a great way to enjoy the water without the crowds at Sandcastle.

For kid friendly food I would suggest brunch at the Porch, baked goods at "Food! Glorious Food!" (open W-Sat), Everyday Noodles, the Columbian Spot, Choolaah,

If you're in Columbus the best place to eat is North Market. Amazing food, lots of choices, best ice cream in the country.
posted by Alison at 8:08 PM on January 3, 2020

I go to Columbus a lot for family reasons.

First of all, and this is important, Graeter's is fine but Jeni's is the best ice cream in these United States and that is where you must go. My kids have been Jeni's maniacs since well before they were 8. Kids appreciate quality. Yes, unlike 10 years ago you can buy pints nationwide but go to the source where they have all the flavors.

You are going to drive through Indianapolis. If you like Andy Warhol, maybe you like Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., and the Kurt Vonnegut Museum is a very cool site that takes no more than an hour to see. You're also going to drive through Dayton and if your eight-year-old likes planes, the US Air Force Museum is like nothing else I've seen. (But this would definitely incredibly boring if she doesn't like planes, and it's big, so maybe not the place if you really only want to stop an hour.)

I live in Wisconsin too, and Katzinger's in Columbus has better deli than anywhere in the Midwest I've eaten that's not Chicago. Columbus also has a really big Somali population which means there are good Somali / Ethiopian restaurants there (also rare in Wisconsin in my experience.)

City history museums can be drab and by-the-numbers but the Heinz History Museum is an absolute delight, and when I went there a couple of years ago I kept wishing my kids were with me. Since you live in WI you probably know whether you like Frank Lloyd Wright -- if you do, I would definitely see Fallingwater.
posted by escabeche at 8:46 PM on January 3, 2020

Re: Graeter's vs. Jeni's...both are excellent and are top 1-5% of ice cream in the country. Graeter's is more traditionalist, Jeni's is more modern. Jeni's was founded in Columbus, Graeter's is from Cincinnati.

I will second the air force museum as over the top impressive if your kid likes big mechanical things. It really covers the history of flight from the Wright Brothers to modern day and contains military and presidential air craft.

You can't currently drive over it but as you pass from Ohio into West Virginia, look to your right to gander at the Wheeling Suspension Bridge which is ~170 years old and had the distinction of being the longest suspension bridge in the world upon its construction.
posted by mmascolino at 8:19 AM on January 4, 2020

The National Aviary. I can't recommend it enough! Huge assortment of birds of all sizes. It's a wonderful place.

(I also spent time in the Allegheny Cemetery, but I'm weird like that.)
posted by annieb at 5:28 PM on January 4, 2020

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