With Mr TravelObservation’s professional commitments, it looked like a winter break away from home was out of the question. So what better way than to enjoy ourselves than to be tourists in our own city?
Many people think that travel must mean expensive trips and out-of-this-world experiences. But did you know that research has shown that the good feelings you get from vacation actually don’t differ between a long three-day-weekend trip and a month long trip? What’s important is that you travel, experience new things, and reset your brain.
We can get caught up in thinking that Traveling Luxuriously means posting exotic photos of unbelievable experiences, and partaking in food and experiences we wouldn’t normally budget for. But for me, traveling luxuriously is all about the experience of spending time with the people I love and relaxing in beautiful environments that soothe me and “resetting” my brain with new adventures both near and far. You can accomplish this from any location, if you just know how to go looking for it!
We split our staycation into two parts – the first with a stay in Downtown Pittsburgh at the lovely Renaissance Hotel on Christmas Eve-Eve, and the second with a two-night stay at Hotel Monaco. I’ll be posting Part II separately.
Staycation Part I: The Renaissance Hotel & The Christmas Market
I chose December 23 for our stay in Downtown Pittsburgh as this was the last night of the Market Square Christmas Market. Of course, we were also fortunate that this past December was unusually mild – I’m not even wearing a scarf in my photos.
We drove to the Renaissance Hotel and parked our car in the garage opposite – they have valet parking, but the self-park garage is directly opposite and it seemed silly for two able bodied people to pay $35+ for someone to park their car. But for future reference – or for bad weather or sporting events days – there is valet parking.
The entrance to the Renaissance is quite unassuming (it’s right next to the Byham Theatre) and when I entered I had the reaction, “Wow I didn’t know all this was hiding inside.” Their lobby has a beautiful grand staircase and there was a wonderful Christmas tree right when we entered.
We checked in and discovered as Marriott Gold members we’d been upgraded to a beautiful corner room overlooking the river, with huge windows on a full two walls. The hotel had also graciously left us champagne and strawberries, since I’d tweeted them ahead of time that I was planning a staycation. It was a delightful and well appreciated welcome ~ and makes me want to start planning my next stay as soon as possible!
We stopped by the executive lounge to partake in some snacks and drinks (snacks are complimentary – drinks are on the honor payment system) before heading to Market Square. There was a reasonable selection, especially for a US hotel (international travelers will notice a difference as overseas executive lounges go quite overboard!).
After our appetizers we headed out to Market Square, just a short walk away. The Renaissance is a great location because everywhere in downtown Pittsburgh is actually close, and there are many theatres and restaurants just a stone’s throw away. In fact, Pittsburgh has the highest ratio of cultural events/buildings in a city after Broadway in NYC.
I should explain for non-Pittsburghers that Market Square is a plaza in downtown Pittsburgh, where cars are limited and restaurants form four sides of a square. It’s a popular space for events and nightlife – I even watched a live US soccer match during the World Cup here, as the city put a huge inflatable screen in the center of the square.
In Market Square, the Christmas market was buzzing. I’d never really gone to the Christmas night market as an actual activity, but rather passed through quickly on the way to restaurants. So it was delightful to take my time to explore the various stalls set up. There is a little stage with musicians and the stalls are well lit with artisanal crafts, food, hot drinks, Christmas gifts, and beautiful decorations and lights. (Mr TravelObservations in particular was pleased with a box of sugar cookies he bought.) There are also light shows every half hour set to Christmas music.
To my delight, there was an actual store, “Kathe Wohlfahrt” that I’ve personally visited in Heidelberg, Germany! Although a fraction of the size (I spent hours in the real store in Germany), it was set up in the same way – you enter through a certain door, get a basket to hold your purchases while browsing, and only walk in one certain direction to avoid bottlenecking the narrow aisles. Those who want to pick up amazing Christmas decorations from Germany without buying a plane ticket should take advantage of this amazing opportunity. I did not buy anything from Market Square, since I’d just returned from the same store in Germany a month earlier with several purchases!)
There are free trolley rights and horse carriage rides, although they were not available the night we went. But the city of Pittsburgh does an excellent job of announcing all scheduled and special activities during the Christmas market, which lasts the entire month of December, up till the 23rd. There are free maps of the trolley route and/or suggested walking routes to see the Macy’s Christmas windows and other holiday themed site-seeing. Just look up “People’s Gas Holiday Market” if you’re curious – by the way, official information is normally located at www.downtownpittsburgh.com/holidays .
From Market Square we headed to PPG Place where there is iceskating during the winter months. Because of the beautifully mild weather there were many people out and the entire atmosphere just seemed so festive and so happy. Right next door to the PPG ice skating rink was the Wintergarten (Winter-garden). An amazing exhibit of gingerbread houses built by individuals, families, schools, and organizations all over Pittsburgh. Some were traditional and others were quite original, such as the Millennium Falcon (from Star Wars) made out of graham crackers. The gingerbread houses were mixed into with a stunning model train display that wound itself around a tall Christmas tree. Scattered around the space were huge, larger-than-life statues that represented all the different Christmas “Santa Claus” figures from all over the world, explaining each country’s specific Christmas tradition and legends.
From the Wintergarten we took a bit of a walk to the US Steel Plaza Nativity display – it’s life size and quite impressive although it’s set apart from the festivities of Market Square, but I would imagine that it has more visitors during specific nights such as opening night or special concert nights. It’s the only authorized replica of the nativity scene in St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican City.
Having completed our Christmas circuit of downtown we walked back to Market Square for dinner. We chose New Orleans-themed restaurant “Nola” and as we walked in, live jazz music was just setting up, which Mr TravelObservations really appreciated. We shared appetizers and a generous portion of jambalaya, which was big enough that I was able to share with Mr TravelObservations after he had his portion of fried alligator. I also had a delicious glass of cabernet and he had a bottle of non-alcoholic beer. I had never been to Nola and I thought the food and atmosphere was just what we were looking for – fun, bustling, and unusual food, but not overcrowded with the college crowd (since most universities in Pittsburgh had already closed for break).
Once back at the Renaissance, it started to rain, which made for some stunning views of the city through the windows. Our room looked out over the river and we had a beautiful view of some of the bridges and the baseball stadium as well. The view itself made the staycation perfect.
The Renaissance is housed in the historic Fulton Building and has quite an iconic architectural design – it’s shaped like an upside down U and so from the river or the road across you’re able to spot this unusual building quite easily. I should mention that there are 2 restaurants available in the hotel itself, although we did not partake simply because of our planned walk to Market Square. I’m looking forward to trying the restaurants soon one day, however.
In the morning, we partook of breakfast in the executive lounge – again, quite good, and it was nice to talk over coffee and relax a bit before checkout.
We checked out quite regretfully in the morning, wondering why we’ve never thought to really embrace all the activities our city has to offer and the beautiful hotels that are available to us. We know we will back at the Renaissance quite soon! Thank you for a delightful stay!
If you ever have a chance to take a staycation I highly encourage it. Even just one night in your own city, giving yourself permission to relax and to explore interesting activities and events, can rejuvenate you. You don’t have to spend money on transportation and getting a sitter for your pets – just pack pajamas and a toothbrush and plan a nice dinner and special activity out.
About a week later, we launched Staycation Part II! My post and review of Part II: Hotel Monaco will be posted soon.