Weekending: Lexington, VA + Natural Bridge Edition

All apologies to Purcellville, Charlottesville, and any other town my excitable brain previously declared to be my favorite small town in Virginia. There’s a new kid in town: Lexington. This one’s definitely my favorite small town in Virginia. I’m sure of it. Until I find the next one, but for right now, it’s the winner.

The timing for a weekend trip this past weekend initially did not seem so great- I had just wrapped up the last week of spring semester for my grad program and an auction I had chaired and spent 8 months working on took place Friday night, so my brain was essentially non-functioning and my zest for life was at nil. The forecast was also a weekend full of cool temps and rain. But we had months ago purchased a Certifikid voucher for a night at the Natural Bridge hotel with admission to the bridge and the caverns included, and the last day to use it was April 30, so the trip was on no matter what.

And wouldn’t you know it, I found it to be the perfect little two day getaway. Some friends of ours bought the same voucher and joined us down in Lexington and we had a blast. The drive couldn’t be easier- a relatively quick 3 hours down I-81 through the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains. We decided to be leisurely about it since we weren’t in a huge rush and stopped in Staunton for some frozen custard from Kline’s Dairy Bar, which has been operating in Harrisonburg since 1943.

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Our voucher was good for a night at the Natural Bridge Hotel (right next to the Natural Bridge itself) with admission for four to the Natural Bridge AND the caverns right next door. We paid $109 for all that and so I was mentally prepared for a rundown, dark and dank hotel that had not been updated since the 1970s. NOT SO AT ALL, although I do think the road leading to the Natural Bridge hotel may be haunted. I base this completely on the fact that on one side suddenly loomed a giant baby head inside what was a graveyard of strange giant props. The sign indicated it was a place called Enchanted Castle Studios that offered “tours” though who gives them, I’m not sure, because it looked abandoned. Look, I’m not saying you’ll go into that place on a “tour” and never come out and that the Scooby Doo crew is going to have to come in and find you. I am not saying that. Just think about it is all.

The Natural Bridge Hotel was recently updated with nicely furnished rooms and a very pleasant staff. If you’re looking for proximity to the bridge, it’s great. If you would prefer to be closer to Lexington, you may want to stay elsewhere, but if this deal is ever offered by Certifikid again, snatch it up, because for two days of admission the attractions and a night in a perfectly pleasant hotel, it was a steal.

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After settling in and meeting up with our friends we grabbed dinner at Foothill Momma’s BBQ Juke Joint (recommend) and then headed back to the bridge for the nightly light show.

Now look.

I’m from Georgia, and down there, one thing that everyone does growing up is go to Stone Mountain to watch the laser show, which is extravaganza of the highest order. Lights and lasers shoots around the mountain and give the illusion the carved figures are riding their horses and Dixie is played as well as The Devil Went Down to Georgia. It is definitely one of those things that only when you grow up and move away from the Deep South do you go, “Huh, yeah, that is a bit weird.” BUT IT’S AWESOME. So you can perhaps see what I expected from the Natural Bridge light show. Maybe some Van Halen? Lots of zooming light rays and strobe lights.

That is decidedly not at all what the Natural Bridge light show is like.

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So here’s the story of the Natural Bridge, which is told to you by the recording at the Natural Bridge: it took 3-4 million years to evolve naturally through the gentle erosion process of the stream that flows beneath it. It was originally discovered by the Monocan Indians as they were evading an enemy and considered by them to be a sacred site, and later Thomas Jefferson “bought” it for his own pleasure because, well, aint that just the way history tends to go. (My husband and I quibbled all weekend over whether a person can truly own something like the Natural Bridge; call me Pocahontas, I just really don’t think so. I don’t even care if you’re Thomas Jefferson, you can’t own that stuff, dude, it’s for all mankind.)

Right after you are told that the Natural Bridge formed naturally, through the course of nature, over millions of years, the light show program begins, and it tells the story of Genesis and how God created the earth in 7 days. It was written and created by Calvin Coolidge back in the 1920s and has been used ever since. There were several times sitting there, somewhere in the middle of the third day of creation, when I realized that this passed for high entertainment in the 1920s. In 2016, well, it seems a bit… antiquated. A musical version of the Lord’s Prayer that my friend aptly described as “a dirge” played in the fifth day of creation. Hey, I got no dog in the hunt when it comes to how the bridge was formed. Maybe you think the stream did it, maybe you think God plopped it there somewhere in the six days he was decorating the earth. It’s just funny how the Natural Bridge show simultaneously suggests it somehow could be both.

The bridge sure is beautiful, though!

Sunday morning we had breakfast down at The Pink Cadillac (insert Springsteen lyrics):

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I’ve mentioned before the “bubble” that extends about 50 miles in any direction from DC and how different life is once you break out of that bubble. At the Pink Cadillac, a plate of three pancakes was $2. TWO DOLLARS. No crushed velvet seats, though, and I really think they missed the mark there.

The rain began to pour after breakfast so we took the opportunity to visit the Natural Bridge Caverns and hide out 340 feet underground and give it a chance to pass. Hey, aren’t caverns cool? At one place in the caverns our guide told us to look up at what appeared to be an opening and said it was called a Murder Hole. Way back when, when people drove around in buggies and such, they would sometimes roll right over one of these Murder Holes and fall ass over teakettle into the caverns. Whoopsie doops! Not a great day.

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Emerging from the Murder Hole we re-entered a world filled with sunshine! The rain had passed so we headed into the town of Lexington to see the sights.

Some things you should know about Lexington:

It’s home to two colleges: Washington and Lee University and Virginia Military Institute (so-called West Point of the South). You can tell the student bodies apart as they mill around town because the Washington and Lee students are wearing clothes nicer than you, a grown adult, typically wear, and the VMI cadets are decked out in their finest military dress. Even to walk into a Sheetz gas station, yes I saw that.

It’s also pretty much Robert E Lee’s town. Everything there revolves around Lee in some way. There’s Lee Highway, the Robert E. Lee hotel, Lee Chapel, a different church named the Robert E Lee Memorial Episcopal church, which is about 200 yards in front of Lee Chapel. Lee died in Lexington after serving as president of (then) Washington University, renamed to include Lee after his time there. Stonewall Jackson also features prominently in Lexington, given the fact he lived there and taught at VMI in the 1850s. Some of his curriculum is still taught there today! He was not a very popular teacher though and students there called him “Tom Fool,” which luckily for him was later replaced by the everlasting nickname he earned on the battlefield at Manassas, and by which we still know him- Stonewall. (I am seriously just beyond tickled that one person, in the span of about fifteen years, can be the recipient of two such diametrically opposed nicknames, and also walk away forever bearing only the really good one.)

The house Stonewall Jackson owned and lived in during his time in Lexington still stands on Washington St., right down the road from Lee Chapel:

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The downtown Lexington area was funny like this- on one corner might be a new shop or popular restaurant, and then a few doors down, the home of a huge Civil War figure. Virginia is so cool.

We paid a visit to the  Robert E. Lee Hotel:

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Eventually we made our way down to the campus of Washington and Lee University to visit Lee Chapel. And WOW, what a campus! My own alma mater is beautifully landscaped and  frequently makes lists of Most Beautiful Campuses, but it must be said that a good chunk of the buildings are from the 1960s/70s and leave something to be desired, aesthetically speaking. Meanwhile, in Lexington, not only is the campus impeccably landscaped, look at this architecture!

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This is known as the Colonnade and faces Lee Chapel. When I mentioned at the beginning of this post I am in a grad program, it’s to receive my Master’s in Education. This means I’m spending chunks of time each semester student teaching in high school English classes. The last two semesters, my students have been seniors, and it’s been very exciting as they get accepted to colleges and decide where they’re going to go. Many of them are going to JMU, a couple to William and Mary, some to UVA, but I realized when I was on W&L campus that none of them had decided to go to Washington and Lee and I wondered why. It was such a nice looking school in such a pleasant little town not terribly far from Northern Virginia. I started thinking, I would encourage my own girls to consider this school when the time comes! When we were on the way home I looked up the university and discovered it is private and costs $47,000 a year to attend as an undergraduate, so that explained that. It also explained why all the students were dressed so nicely and the frat houses were giant antebellum homes on lush wide avenues.

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Tucked into this little glade right across from the Colonnade is Lee Chapel, where Robert E. Lee is buried and where his beloved horse, Traveller, was buried in 1971 after his bones were disinterred and placed here to be with his master.

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Would you just! Have you ever seen a more perfect little chapel? I got married in what I consider to be a very beautiful and picturesque southern chapel but it really doesn’t compare at all to Lee Chapel. Inside on the pulpit is a statue of Lee known as “Recumbent Lee” which depicts him lying in repose, and the stained-glass windows tell his life story. He and his family are buried in a crypt below the chapel and Traveller is buried just outside:

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Students at the university leave pennies (and sometimes apples) on Traveller’s marker in hopes it will bring them good luck in their studies. Awwww! Traveller is maybe one of the best-known horses of all time, certainly the best known Civil War horse, and the following is written about him in the poem Army of Northern Virginia by Stephen Vincent Benet:

Such horses are
The jewels of the horseman’s hands and thighs,
They go by the word and hardly need the rein.
They bred such horses in Virginia then,
Horses that were remembered after death
And buried not so far from Christian ground
That if their sleeping riders should arise
They could not witch them from the earth again
And ride a printless course along the grass
With the old manage and light ease of hand.

I can’t tell you what a good choice it was that we invited the friends we did, because the husband in that family is a high school history teacher and he and I were nerding out together the whole time.

Other small scenes around Lexington:

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I loved everything about Lexington and really can’t suggest strongly enough that you take a trip down for a night or a weekend and pay it a visit. They bred such horses in Virginia then- and they made such towns in Virginia then.

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Weekending: Charlottesville Edition

My family is currently plotting to escape January.

We can’t actually escape January, but every year at this time we plan a weekend trip away to shake off some of the drab ennui that accompanies this month. The weekend trip away is a very special sort of treat- everyone loves a good week-long summer vacation, but a weekend trip is a nice way to break up the routine here and there and just get away for a bit. During the Doldrums months, as I call them, when there’s very little to look forward to, we like to plan a weekend trip to get everyone excited about something, escape the monotony of inbound life in the winter, and see something new. This year’s Doldrums trip will take place either MLK Jr. weekend in January or President’s Day weekend in February, because February is pretty much the Tuesday to January’s Monday. We’re tossing around a couple possibilities at the moment but are leaning heavily toward Norfolk (so if you have any Norfolk tips, let me know!).

If you’re looking for a nice mid-winter (or anytime) escape from real life, one of our favorite Weekending destinations is Charlottesville, just about two hours away from Northern Virginia. If you’re ambitious, a 4-5 hour drive is perfectly acceptable for a weekend trip (and we have done this for a weekend trip to Pittsburgh, which we LOVED), but at 2 hours, the drive to Charlottesville is perfectly suited to the concept of a last-minute, spur of the moment, “Oh why the heck not, we have hotel points to burn”  mini vacation. You have no reason not to escape January for the weekend when somewhere so great is so close by. We’ve gone there twice now for weekend trips- once in January, once in October- and each trip we had a grand old time.

Your first stop upon reaching Charlottesville should be the Downtown Mall, which is probably one of Charlottesville’s best-loved features. A pedestrian thoroughfare that is packed with unique local restaurants, restored theaters, small shops and coffee cars, the Downtown Mall is the perfect place to get out and explore Charlottesville at the ground level. Plus your kids can’t get hit by cars. Always a plus.

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Charlottesville prides itself on its local restaurant scene and there are plenty of options for lunch right on the Mall – Eppie’s for a Southern style meat-and-three platter, Citizen Burger Bar, Revolutionary Soup for a soup and sandwich plate, The Nook for old fashioned diner food, and Splendora’s for gelato are all solid choices. Java Java makes those cute little lattes with art in the foam that make you feel like a living Instagram picture.

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At the far end of the Mall is Virginia Discovery Museum, a sweet little hands-on kids museum where kids can explore and play different exhibits specifically tailored to their interests- there’s a hospital, firehouse, Post Office, an Panera Bread room where they’re free to indulge in that special and fleeting childhood fantasy that work is fun. There’s also a free carousel that kids can hop on and ride. If I recall, parents have to push it to keep it going so between that and your walk up and down the Mall, you’ve successfully worked off your Java Java latte and can make room for WINE.

Wineries

Charlottesville is located in the Monticello American Viticultural Area, a designated wine-making region located in Central Virginia/the Piedmont. Like Northern Virginia, there’s tons of wineries in Charlottesville producing some great Virginia wines (the Monticello Wine Trail includes 25 nearby wineries). One of our (and everyone else’s) favorites is the stunning Pippin Hill, which not only has one of the prettiest, most photogenic tasting rooms I’ve ever seen, but also incredible mountain views. The wine is great as well (their Select Red and Sauvignon blanc were our favorites).

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Pippin Hill has a large grassy area overlooking the Blue Ridge Mountains and it is such a bucolic and peaceful place to sit and have a glass of wine and just… stare. When we went, a mass of kids all gathered together and organized a ragtag football game (from where they procured the football, I do not know) and I had a moment of thinking, well, if my kids aren’t going to grow up in Georgia like I did, at least they can grow up here. So they won’t be Georgia girls. To be a Virginia girl is quite an honor. Their childhood memories will be different from mine for sure, but how great will theirs be? Fond recollections of spending the waning hours of a weekend afternoon flitting in and out of vineyards.

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I get to raise Virginia girls and I am not the least bit disappointed by it.

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The day we were at Pippin Hill, a wedding was taking place after the tasting room closed to the public for the day and we got to watch the most gorgeous bride make her way through the grapevines to tap her groom on the shoulder so he could turn and see her in her full wedding regalia for the first time.

We’ve also visited Jefferson Vineyards, near Monticello, which was a bit more low-key than Pippin Hill (not everyone can be the Prom Queen, okay) but another great place for kids to run and play while parents sit and drink some wine. I recall their Pinot Gris being quite tasty.

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While you’re over at Jefferson Vineyards, you of course need to pop into the main draw to visiting Charlottesville:

Monticello 

Living where we do, we’ve of course been to George Washington’s presidential home, Mount Vernon, which is no shack, but is a bit austere and ascetic compared to Jefferson’s lavish and opulent Monticello. Of course, Jefferson was like a bajillion dollars in debt when he died because although he made a salary of $25,000 a year, he had  $100,000/year salary tastes and built a house like Monticello when he really had no business building a house like Monticello, but that’s neither here nor there. This is the house that Conspicuous Consumerism built. And it’s awesome.

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The tour of Monticello is probably one of the most informative, interesting tours I’ve ever taken and I’m not just saying that because I’m a huge nerd for Presidential history. The tour includes stops in Jefferson’s personal bedroom and his library still stacked with his book collection, and amusing anecdotes about items within the home, like the sitarine Jefferson’s granddaughter wanted and which he bought after her parents told her they could not afford it. (As if he could. He bought it anyway.) It feels very intimately connected to the man himself in a way the “restored to period” homes don’t necessarily match. Every aspect of Monticello was designed and planned by Jefferson himself and this is a man who is one of the great minds of all time. You can imagine the things his brain was capable of coming up with. For instance, his bed, which was built into an alcove in the wall and could be gotten into from both sides- one side was open to his library and the other was open to his personal bedroom.

If you don’t have the time or patience for a full tour, you can still explore the grounds free of charge on the Monticello Trail, which wends through woods and land surrounding Monticello.

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Right up the road from Monticello is James Madison’s presidential home, Ash Lawn-Highland. I’m going to level with you: it’s no Monticello. It is a good representation of someone who exhibited modesty and fiscal responsibility. Nobody went into deep, lifelong debt for this house.

However, it’s still cool to see any home of any president (if you ask me) and this is one of the things I love about Virginia; you can’t throw a cat in this state without hitting a Presidential home. History is everywhere!

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Other places and activities of note in Charlottesville:

University of Virginia, flagship university of the commonwealth. If you’re there on the right weekend you may be able to catch an athletic event (the winter schedule has a lot of swimming/diving, wrestling, and basketball on it), but if not, simply taking a walk or drive around the campus itself is impressive enough. Frankly, the school is a bit of a showboat.

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Fridays After Five– From April to September, an event called Fridays After Five is held at the pavilion at the end of the Downtown Mall. Live music and local food and drink vendors are there each Friday evening, making this a fun, family-friendly event. It is also free, and attendees are welcome to bring their own picnic dinners to enjoy on the lawn.

Blenheim Vineyards– I’m singling this vineyard out in case any fans of Dave Matthews Band are reading. This vineyard is owned (and designed) by Dave Matthews himself.

Keswick Hall– A 48-room mansion, golf club, and restaurant, all in one. Take a tour of the mansion, play a round of golf, or stop in for drinks at Villa Crawford Bar and dinner at Fossett’s.


 

Charlottesville is one of the many, many reasons I so love my adopted home state of Virginia. Full of history, natural beauty from the Blue Ridge Mountains, exquisite architecture in Monticello and the UVA campus, local artisans, and a deep love of community that the town holds and prides itself on, Charlottesville is the kind of place that will make you want to visit again and again. We love it there and consider it one of our favorite Virginia destinations. I hope you’ll go and discover everything that’s great about it, and Virginia.

For more Charlottesville inspiration, check out the following social accounts:

 @Charlottesvilleva
@hometowntouristcville
@ilovecville

Weekending: Pittsburgh Edition

Full confession: my husband and I are the reason marketers exist. We are THE target people marketers are trying to reach when they come up with new products or commercials because we believe all the claims and immediately make plans to procure that thing. In this way, we are American to the core. Somewhere in a marketing handbook is a picture of the two of us eating some new concoction from Taco Bell, smiling and high fiving; the caption says “These are your targets.”

This is how we came to plan a weekend trip to Pittsburgh. The very night we returned from our beach vacation we were lying in bed watching tv when a commercial came on, attempting to sell Pittsburgh. At first we thought “Pffffft, nice try, nobody’s going to Pittsburgh.” Then came all the fantastical images of green spaces, gorgeous buildings,fun activities, beautiful scenery. And by the end we thought, WE’VE GOT TO GO TO PITTSBURGH!!

I didn’t grow up in this part of the country; I had no idea what Pittsburgh was like but in my head, I associated Pittsburgh with giant industrial smoke stacks belching black smoke into the air, rusty railroad trestles, hard looking people worn down by years in the coal mine, millions of Steelers flags everywhere. I imagined a decaying and decrepit Rust Belt city, where it was gritty, ugly, and most likely cold almost all of the time. Never in my life had I ever considered Pittsburgh a “must see” destination based on this very flawed personal projection I had of the city.

Pittsburgh is, I am here to tell you, absolutely nothing like that. It is the most beautiful city you never knew was beautiful. I fell in love with it. It is now my goal to compel everyone I know (especially those who live in this area, just 250 miles away) to take a trip there and experience Pittsburgh. I am an enthusiastic Pittsburgh fan now. I want you ALL to go to Pittsburgh!

Here’s what you might not know about Pittsburgh:

-It’s just 250 miles away from Northern Virginia, which makes it a great destination for a weekend trip. The drive itself is scenic and pleasant. The bulk of your travel time will be spent in the state of Maryland, with short legs in Virginia, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania itself. This drive theoretically can take only 4-5 hours; it took our family over 6 but that’s because we ran into traffic each time and took longer stops so our youngest could better tolerate the car. Coming through Maryland on I-68 you’ll cut through Sideling Hill, where the mountain was cleaved in two to reveal the layers of earth inside. A pedestrian overpass connects the eastbound rest stop to the westbound so that everyone can access the overlook built into the side of the mountain. This was one of our stops coming home and it was well worth the 20 minutes it took to walk to the top of the overlook and to get a picture of a mountain chopped in half from a bridge straddling the interstate. You’re not going to do that every day.

-Pittsburgh is a city built on rivers. Three rivers run through Pittsburgh- the Allegheny, the Ohio, and the Monongahela. All of these rivers necessitate bridges- lots and lots of bridges.There are 446 bridges in Pittsburgh and each one is slightly differently designed. In a stroke of brilliance, Pittsburgh painted the largest bridges in the downtown area a buttery lemon yellow and they arc across the river like rays of sunshine. Yellow bridges. What a whimsical idea.

Entering the city of Pittsburgh via car means going through the Fort Pitt tunnel, bored into the mountain beneath Mount Washington. When you exit this tunnel you shoot out onto the top level of the double-decker yellow Fort Pitt Bridge, crossing the Monongehala river. In a simple way, it reminded me of when Dorothy walks out of her tornado-ravaged black-and-white Kansas house into the bright and colorful world of Oz. You’re in a dark tunnel one minute and the next you’re hurtling across the water on a yellow bridge, with other yellow bridges criss-crossing the water all around you. It is the most spectacular entrance into a city I have ever experienced. On a bright sunny day, the beauty of it will take your breath away.

-The city is full of richly detailed Gothic Revival architecture:

Here in the Virginia/DC area, we’re surrounded by a lot of Greek Revival and Federal style buildings, which are absolutely stunning in their own ways, but there’s something special about the Gothic architecture all over Pittsburgh. It lends the city a refined, authoritarian air. In addition to the impressive architecture, Pittsburgh is just clean. It’s the cleanest major city you’ll ever visit. There’s flowers everywhere! Planted in small plots, hanging in baskets from lampposts. Parking is plentiful, easily accessible, and inexpensive. Pittsburgh bears the nickname the “Paris of Appalachia,” which at first sounds pretty humorous and made- up but in all actuality bears believing. WELCOME TO THE PARIS OF APPALACHIA!

-Pittsburgh is incredibly family friendly. With just two days at our disposal, we were in no way able to see and do everything there is Pittsburgh. The good news: that means we’re for sure going to take a trip back next summer. Pittsburgh is the perfect family-friendly destination because there’s so much to do that is enjoyable for kids AND adults.

Our five year old is deep in the throes of an obsession with birds this summer. When we were doing some research into what there was to do in Pittsburgh, we saw that the National Aviary is located there and this solidified our decision to visit. What better place could there to be to visit for a little girl who loves all things bird? The National Aviary was our first stop on Saturday morning and it was SUCH a great experience. The penguin exhibit alone is worth the visit- there’s different viewing areas all around the habitat- an outdoor area, and inside, a glass-walled view of the enclosure where you can see the penguins playing on rocks and jumping into the water to swim.

In addition to the penguin habitat (called Penguin Point) are different “environment” rooms which house the birds who live in those environments. There’s the Rain Forest, featuring all manner of parrots; the Wetlands, with flamingos, scarlet ibis, and spoonbills, and an outdoor habitat where two gigantic Condors live. We saw eagles, toucans, and even a two-toed sloth at the Aviary. Most of the birds roam free in these rooms, flying right beside you or walking up on the path alongside, giving you a close-up view you just can’t get at most zoos.

After a brief trip back to our hotel so the toddler could take a much-needed nap, we went back into the city Saturday afternoon for more Pittsburgh exploration. We ended up in an area known as Schenley Park, near the University of Pittsburgh campus, where we planned to visit Phipps Conservatory. Get ready:

That is real life. That is a building that exists. It’s just sitting there in Pittsburgh, waiting for you to come marvel at it.

Phipps Conservatory is the greatest botanical garden you will ever see in your life. Fact. (Opinion, but let’s call it fact. This is my website, I’ll do what I want.) Do you remember as a child watching in awe as the kids who found the Golden Tickets first entered the room in Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory where every single thing was edible candy? That’s Phipps Conservatory for adults. Your brain cannot properly process all the beauty your eyes are absorbing. ALL OF THESE THINGS are real, and they are all here in this one building? I don’t think I can hide my bias; this was my favorite thing we did in Pittsburgh. It is an achievement in design. There is an entire room dedicated to ferns. And another to palms, another to cacti, another to Japanese style gardening. There’s a Butterfly Forest and a jungle. Throughout the garden rooms are scattered pieces of Dale Chihuly’s famous glass sculptures, which at times camouflage themselves so effectually as plants and flowers that it takes you a moment to recognize them.

There is an orchid room, filled to brim with different species of orchids. It smells like heaven.

This would be Australia.

Upon entrance to the Conservatory, kids are given -you guessed it- a scavenger hunt, which keeps them engaged and alert throughout the tour, carefully studying the plants around them to make sure they don’t miss anything on the list.

Just behind the Conservatory grounds we discovered a great little playground called Anderson Playground where we let our girls run around for awhile.

Schenley Park borders the Carnegie Mellon campus complex and the University of Pittsburgh campus. Right in the middle of all this is Schenley Plaza, a large grassy field that lies in the shadow of the 535 foot tall Cathedral of Learning.

Schenley Plaza is filled with college students doing things like lying in the grass on a blanket reading a book- the sort of thing everyone imagines they’ll do as college students except nobody other than the Pitt kids actually do seem to do it. I could not relate to them. Later I saw some rundown row houses near the campus with red Solo cups and empty cartons of Miller Lite on the porch and I thought “Now that looks like college.”

We spent a good chunk of time at Schenley Plaza, visiting Dippy the Diplodocus outside of Carnegie Hall of Music, rolling around in the grass, and grabbing a pre-dinner “snack” of Liege waffles topped with delicious treats from Waffallonia. If you’re asking yourself what a Liege waffle is, let me break it down for you. It’s a thick, doughy batter that’s studded with special sugar crystals that caramelize and melt when placed on the heat of the waffle iron. It’s sugary and rich and maybe the most perfect waffle you’ll ever eat. This is no Eggo.

My waffle with Speculoos cookie butter and sliced bananas. My husband got his own waffle because I balked at sharing. I would do anything for love, but I won’t do that.

Our final stop on Saturday was the famous Duquesne Incline. I’m going to be 100% honest with you and tell you that although the view is absolutely worth the ride, the Duquesne Incline operation is run pretty poorly and it might be a stressful endeavor. Here’s some handy tips to keep in mind if you’re attempting the Duquesne Incline:

-They do not accept cards. Not only do they not accept cards, they only accept EXACT CHANGE for your fare. This means you need to check out the pricing ahead of time, figure up exactly what your family’s total is going to be based on how many people you’ve got going, what their ages are, etc. and bring THAT amount of cash. There is a cash-changing machine in the building but it gives you back only $1 coins, no bills. There is not even a register; you dump your money into an iron and glass piggy bank of sorts and then are handed a ticket from a surly employee behind a glass window.

-The room in which you board the incline is cramped and tight and the employees are going to yell at you frequently about things they find completely obvious but that to first time visitors are not intuitive at all. They behave exactly like people who spend all day wrangling tourists. The Duquese Incline website is written in Comic Sans font and the whole enterprise runs precisely how you’d think a company who advertises themselves in Comic Sans would- old fashioned, inefficient, and not at all with the times. Duquesne Incline has been in operation since 1877 and let’s just say it’s still 1877 on the incline.

But the VIEW:

You will take every abuse and slight the Duquesne Incline throws at you just to glimpse this view of the city from the top of Mount Washington. From this vantage point you can see the glorious yellow bridges, PNC Park, Carnegie Science center, riverboats tooling up the Monongehala, the confluence of the Alleghany and Monongehala rivers, the imposing Gothic architecture of PPG Place, and Point State Park Fountain. Oh, Pittsburgh. What a gem.

There were so many things I would have loved to squeeze in on this trip, but faced with the necessity of prioritizing, we chose the Carnegie Museum of Natural History for our Sunday morning activity, with a quick detour to check out the inside of the Cathedral of Learning, right across the street.

Outside the museum is a funny looking structure called a Lozziwurm:

Lozziwurms are play structures that are frequently installed on Swiss playgrounds to encourage imagination and exploration in children, but this Lozziwurm is the first installed in the US. We arrived at the museum 10 minutes before its noon opening time and my kids (and husband…) spent those 10 minutes clambering around inside the Lozziwurm, climbing and sliding and poking their heads through the cutouts to say hi. The Lozziwurm was Lozzafun. SORRY, DON’T HATE ME FOR THAT.

Displays inside the Carnegie include an exhibit of Ancient Egypt, featuring a real sarcophagus, an exhibit on Polar inhabitants featuring a fake igloo, a hall of gems and minerals, a hall of impressive pieces of architecture, and DINOSAURS.

There was also a quiet third floor room called Animal Secrets which was full of interactive exhibits that children were invited to play in which showed the inner workings of animals and their homes. There was a hollow tree with holes for toy acorns, a bald eagle nest, and a cave. This was a great spot for kids to let loose and run free and play.

My one real regret from our trip is that we didn’t get to eat at any “real” Pittsburgh restaurants. I have a blanket policy that if we go somewhere new we don’t eat at chains or anywhere we can eat when we’re at home. However, I also have a blanket policy that if our toddler’s behavior is out of bounds, we’re not subjecting restaurants to her. She was completely unfit for public consumption Saturday evening, so instead of eating at some legit Pittsburgh place for dinner, we retreated to the safety of the hotel, put the toddler to bed and then my husband and I huddled over a sad takeout order from a sports bar and grill across the street from our hotel. It was pretty pathetic, but the reality is that parents who attempt outings with young children are subjected to pretty pathetic situations from time to time so I’m sure you can relate.

We were sad to leave Pittsburgh and are already looking forward to our next trip there. Next time we hope to hit the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, take in a Pirates game at PNC Park, ride on a Duck Tour, visit the Pittsburgh Zoo and Aquarium, and eat a sandwich stuffed with french fries at Primanti Bros. 

If you’re looking for a fun new weekend trip destination for your family, I can’t suggest Pittsburgh highly enough. With an easy, scenic drive, relatively close location, and a city jam-packed with beautiful sites and fun activities, Pittsburgh is somewhere every family should visit if they have the chance. It feels like a secret place that nobody ever tells you about and exploring it gives you the impression you’re discovering a hidden treasure. The city’s slogan is “Mighty. Beautiful.” It is that, indeed. You simply must go.