I’m not originally from Pittsburgh and have been saying for years that I need to visit the Heinz History Center, but it never occurred to me until recently that it would be such a great place to take my toddler-aged son. If you’ve seen our page on children’s book inspiration, you already know that we love using books as a way to learn about places we’re visiting or activities we’re doing. I’m a firm believer that kids are never too young to learn about history and the world around them.
We visited the Senator John Heinz History Center with a friend and her daughter who is close in age to my 20 month old son. One of the best things about the History Center is that it captures our region’s history in a way that’s relatable to children and adults of all ages. From the visual appeal of the exhibits and the hands-on learning for the younger crowd to the detailed explanations along the way, there really is something for everyone.
Enter Into a Lobby Filled with Antique Automobiles
The History Center is located in Pittsburgh’s Strip District neighborhood with ample parking available in the nearby lots. From the minute we entered the building, we were greeted in the lobby with several antique cars, including a firetruck, one of the original Pittsburgh trolleys and an old Heinz delivery truck. There’s a lot of open space for the kiddos to walk around and explore here, and it was the perfect start to the museum for my son who’s obsessed with both trucks and the color red. (Note: The lobby also holds a Cafe, Gift Shop and Kidsburgh play area in addition to the entrance to the 1st floor exhibition room.)
See Part of the Apollo 11 Spacecraft Up Close
We were lucky enough to visit when the “Destination Moon: The Apollo 11 Mission” exhibit was set up on the first floor. As a Smithsonian affiliate, the Heinz History Center is one of only four museums throughout the United States to have this Apollo 11 exhibit on display. The coolest part about the exhibit was being able to see the real Columbia command module, which if you’re familiar with Apollo 11 you know that it was the first mission to space to land a man on the Moon and bring him back safely to Earth. While my little future astronaut didn’t necessarily have an appreciation for that, he loved playing in the life-sized command module and flipping the switches complete with sound effects. The photo opportunity in a space suit was also a favorite, and there was a stool that made it possible for my son and his friend to peek their little heads into the round face mask. True to the Heinz History Center’s reflection of Pittsburgh’s past, the exhibit also weaves in the integral part that Pittsburgh people and businesses played in the Apollo 11 mission, including the fact that the idea for placing a flag on the moon came by suggestion from a young man from Pittsburgh. Note: This exhibit only runs until February 18, 2019, so be sure to head there soon if you have any space fans in your family! If you’re not able to catch the Apollo 11 exhibit in Pittsburgh, be sure to check it out at the Smithsonian in Washington, DC when it returns later this year.
Explore Pittsburgh’s Major Contributions to History
On the 2nd floor we spent a lot of time in the “Pittsburgh: A Tradition of Innovation” exhibit, learning about Pittsburgh’s contributions to world history. A favorite of our toddlers was the displays dating back to the early years of Pittsburgh, from the crops of the American Indians to a Civil War era dog, life-size horse and a little wooden house made just their size. The floor also contained so much about Pittsburgh’s history of innovation, music and science, including Andrew Carnegie, George Westinghouse and music from well known jazz musicians at the infamous Crawford Grill. We didn’t get to spend a lot of time in the Sports Museum portion of the History Center, but it starts on the 2nd floor and continues to the 3rd floor, with a new hockey exhibit opening on January 25th, 2019. This is one that I definitely plan to come back for.
Learn Through Play at the Discovery Place
The 3rd floor houses the new “Discovery Place,” geared toward the younger history buffs and science fanatics. My son loved entering the area through a pint-sized bridge, similar to the yellow bridges that Pittsburgh is known for. The first section feels like a gigantic living room, with a huge TV with clips from Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood and Daniel Tiger, both of which have Pittsburgh roots. There are also oversized lego-like blocks surrounded by comfy cushions, a faces of innovation board game and comfy, colorful seats throughout. The second section of Discovery Place has a huge area known as the “Engineering Playground” with the biggest blue foam blocks I’ve ever seen, allowing kids to build bridges and towers in a soft play space for even the littlest kiddos to climb around in. There are several other science focused stations as well, including a wind tunnel, interactive light up displays and colored test tubes. For the older kids, there are specific tasks outline at each station to encourage them to think creatively. At 20 months old, my son would have been perfectly content spending the entire time there.
Get Your Ketchup Fix at the Heinz Exhibit
The Heinz exhibit is one of the highlights on the 4th floor and does an awesome job at capturing the history of the H.J. Heinz Company, along with the Heinz family that the History Center gets it’s name from. After making his way up the red stairs, my son couldn’t believe the huge bottle of Heinz ketchup in front of him, which is actually comprised of hundreds of ketchup bottles. (I’m pretty sure my son thinks Heinz ketchup is a food group, and for now I’m totally ok with it if it means he’ll eat more foods as long as they’re dipped in ketchup.) Will and his little friend made themselves comfortable on the Heinz table complete with ketchup bottle seats, and from there we explored some of the artifacts and learning about the history of Heinz along the way. Our favorite was learning about the global reach of Heinz, along with the huge, brightly lit number 57 and a big blue tuna fish. (We also made a brief stop at the beautiful “GLASS: Shattering Notions” exhibit, but my son was literally being a bull in a china shop so we decided to excuse ourselves from any potential mishaps!)
Stroll Through Mister Roger’s Neighborhood
The other major draw to the 4th floor right now is the Special Collections Gallery with its newly added set pieces from the original Mister Roger’s Neighborhood show. After watching the show as a little girl, it was awesome getting to see the real Great Oak Tree, Mister Roger’s entryway and living room area and King Friday’s Castle up close. The exhibit also holds a few of the original puppets from the show. Be sure to stop for a break on the rocking chairs at the entrance of the Special Collections Gallery for great views of Pittsburgh.
Discover Kidsburgh and More
There’s so much more to see at the History Center including many more exhibits we didn’t even have a chance to get to such as the “From Slavery to Freedom” on the 4th floor, “Clash of Empires” on the 5th floor and the Detre Library and Archives on the 6th floor. “Kidsburgh” is one exhibit in particular that I definitely plan to check out next time as my son gets older. This two-story play area is located by the cafe in the lobby and contains games for kids, an Isaly’s play deli, a life sized fiberglass cow that moos, and a model of Pittsburgh and a fun spiral slide to exit the area, known as the “Liberty Tunnel.”
With a little over 2 hours at the Heinz History Center, it definitely wasn’t enough to get through the entire museum (unfortunately one of the drawbacks of always racing that nap time clock!) You could really spend the whole day there if you’re someone who loves to carefully go through and read every exhibit. And while the toddlers loved the visual appeal and layout of the entire museum, I personally appreciated walking away with way more knowledge of Pittsburgh’s history than I had when I arrived. Whether you’re visiting Pittsburgh or have lived here for years, it’s a must-see in this historic city. We just scratched the surface on this first visit and I definitely can’t wait to go back!
Know Before You Go: Tips for Visiting the Heinz History Center
- Location: 1212 Stallman Street, Pittsburgh (located in the Strip District)
- Tickets: Adults are $18, Children ages 6-17 are $9 and Children under 5 are FREE (additional discounts apply for senior citizens, active military and students)
- Hours: 10am-5pm daily
- Parking: There are several parking lots available near the History Center or street parking is available for visits of 2 hours or less. See here for more on parking and directions.
- There’s an on-site cafe with ample seating that offers a number of lunch options plus snacks and drinks including Starbucks coffee.
- Some areas of the museum don’t allow food/drinks or flash photography (including the Apollo 11 exhibit) to prevent any potential damage. Be sure to check first!
- The Heinz History Center is well laid out with ample space to get around, plus multiple elevators, making it very stroller and wheelchair friendly.
- If you’re able to take the stairs, there’s an exhibit in the stairwells called SmartSteps, which encourages visitors to use the starts while also learning about wellness and history simultaneously. If you take the stairs up through all 6 floors, be sure to collect your complimentary Heinz pickle pin at the end.
- The bathrooms are also equipped with changing rooms if you’re visiting with little ones.
Sponsored post: We received tickets in exchange for this review, however, all opinions are gladly our own.
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