Floating helium-filled balloons, a historic fort with ties to George Washington, and an exhibit dedicated to Mr. Fred Rogers are some of the highlights at the best museums in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
The Steel City is one of the country’s best-kept secrets. Which Pittsburgh museums are worth your time? Here’s my personal list, compiled after three decades of living in Pittsburgh.
Read on for the entire list, which includes the Andy Warhol Museum, the Heinz History Center, the Fort Pitt Museum, the National Aviary, and more. And feel free to leave a comment if I’ve missed your favorite!
Best Pittsburgh Museums: The Warhol
The Andy Warhol Museum is one of my favorite museums anywhere. It’s one of the largest single-artist museums in the world, with more than 8,000 works from the pop artist’s career, including photos, paintings, sculpture, films and more.
One of the highlights is the “pillow room,” an interactive exhibit in which silver helium-filled balloons float around the room, driven by wind fans and gravity.
You can walk into the room and hit the balloons around, or just stand still as they float past your face. Congratulations, you are now part of an Andy Warhol piece!
There’s an exhibit dedicated to Warhol’s magazine Interview, which is still going strong these days. The artist’s famous giant Brillo boxes are on display.
And there are always guest works, like a current exhibit by comic book artist Alex Ross. But mostly, it’s all Warhol, all the time.
If you want to meet celebrities in Pittsburgh, the Warhol is one of the few spots to do it. A lot of bands and other artsy folks stop by on their way through town. I met John Waters in an elevator once. Patti Smith did an art showing there.
On my last visit, I bumped into punk icon Henry Rollins, who was doing an autograph signing later that day. I tried to make small talk with him, but he wasn’t having any of it. Which only made me respect him more.
By the time Henry’s autograph signing rolled around, the line of people waiting to meet him extended back to the front entrance, alongside Warhol’s famous yellow and pink cows.
The Warhol also hosts some of the coolest indie rock concerts in town. Past performers have included St. Vincent, Vampire Weekend, Blonde Redhead, Ted Leo and Ra Ra Riot.
I saw John Vanderslice there once, and for the encore he actually took the show into the lobby. With no microphones or electricity, he and his band played a few songs, surrounded by the famous Warhol paintings that decorate the main lobby. It was a really cool experience.
For fanatical fans not satisfied to merely visit the museum, you can also make a side trip to Andy Warhol’s grave in a suburb outside Pittsburgh.
Related Reading: The Banksy Exhibit at the Moco Museum in Amsterdam.
Another Cool Pittsburgh Museum: The Heinz History Center
An affiliate of the Smithsonian, the Heinz History Center has exhibits about every aspect of the city of Pittsburgh, from its history in the French & Indian War, to its evolution throughout the 20th century, to its important national figures.
Like Mr. Rogers. Who doesn’t love Mr. Rogers? He’s a Pittsburgh legend, so of course there’s an exhibit dedicated to Fred Rogers.
Pittsburgh’s resurgence as a high-tech medical center is also documented.
The center features interactive exhibits, including some designed for kids. I enjoyed walking through this old trolley car that was about 50 years old.
This statue honors the Franco Harris Immaculate Reception that started the Steelers’ dynasty in the 1970s.
The Steelers are still one of the most successful franchises in sports, even after they’ve moved from Three Rivers to Acrisure Stadium.
Best Historic Museum: The Fort Pitt Museum
The Fort Pitt Museum is located within Point State Park, which is the triangular piece of land where the three rivers meet – the “confluence.”
Since it’s within the park, you cannot drive right up to its front gate. You’ll need to park downtown and take a 10-15 minute stroll over to the site.
Fort Pitt’s strategic location next to the rivers made it important during colonial times. That’s why the French set up Fort Duquesne in this area, and why the British forces sent George Washington himself to try to gain control of the point in 1754.
That attempt was unsuccessful, but in 1758, the British sent a massive contingent, and the French burned down Fort Duquesne after they realized they were out of options.
The British took over the area and set about constructing Fort Pitt on the located where the museum stands today.
The museum documents the history of the site with artifacts and displays about the site’s history, including a re-creation of a trader’s cabin used by settlers at Fort Pitt to trade with Native Americans.
The wooden cabin contained a bed, furs, tools and daily supplies.
The museum features lots of maps and displays showing how the land changed from Native American hands to French to British to American colonists.
Most of the artifacts the museum has on display are weapons – muskets, rifles, cannons.
There are couple of vintage documents. One is a British manuscript of notes from a meeting at Fort Pitt. Another is a traders’ log that detailed all the trades made at the fort.
The entries were very specific. One read, “Sold Mr. Smith’s 2 armbands for 5 bucks.” Bucks were not dollars, but buck (deer) skins.
Outside the museum itself sits a small building called the Fort Pitt Block House. Built in 1764, it’s the only remaining structure on the site from colonial days. You can’t go in this building, but you can take pictures of the historic landmark.
The Fort Pitt is more intellectual and doesn’t have the flashy exhibits that others have, but it’s still one of the best Pittsburgh museums for folks who love history.
Those who are Revolutionary War buffs or who want to learn about the city’s founding may find the place fascinating.
Best Wildlife Museum: The National Aviary
Did you know the National Aviary is right here in Pittsburgh? The facility houses more than 150 species of birds.
That includes everything from pretty birds like toucans and parrots to large predatory birds like bald eagles and condors to quirky birds like flamingos and penguins.
Roadrunners, ducks, macaws, finches… they’re all here! You can pay extra for up-close and personal encounters with penguins and owls.
Many of the birds fly around freely within their rooms. So keep your head on a swivel as you walk around the building!
Awesome Flower Museum: Phipps Conservatory
Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens is one of Pittsburgh’s most venerable institutions, having opened all the way back in 1893.
Located in Schenley Park near the University of Pittsburgh, the conservatory is listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.
This is where you’ll find plants from all over the world, ranging from pretty blooming flowers to hearty cactus varieties.
The Hawaii Room is an especially popular attraction, with all of its tropical plants, man-made waterfalls, and a fish pond.
There’s also a Palm Court with various palm trees, a Desert Room, a Fern Room, an Orchid Room, and a Tropical Fruit and Spice Room.
Best Boutique Art Museum: The Mattress Factory
Also located on the North Side, the same area as the Warhol Museum, is the Mattress Factory. The name comes from the fact that it’s located inside an old mattress warehouse.
This is a contemporary art museum in a small-ish building. Though it has fewer exhibits than some other Pittsburgh museums, the exhibits here are always weird, or thought-provoking, or innovative.
I’ve always considered the Mattress Factory one of my favorites. It’s been open for more than 40 years and has cultivated a reputation as a place that real art lovers like to patronize.
The Infinity Dots Mirrored Room is one you will never forget. The mirrored walls and mannequins covered in polka dots make it a really freaky room to walk into.
For more Pittsburgh fun, check out the displays inside the Pittsburgh inclines, which educate visitors on how and why the inclines to Mt. Washington were built. And read 66 reasons why I love Pittsburgh, and my analysis of whether Pittsburgh should be considered a Midwestern city.
These are my picks for the coolest and best Pittsburgh museums. Would you visit any of them?