Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, located in the Schenley Park part of Oakland, PA, is just simply a magical place in Pittsburgh. Nico, Gabriella, my mom and I made a trip over Saturday morning right for opening. Being such a landmark location in Pittsburgh, you might be surprised to know that almost every time we go there we hear someone mention how they have lived in Pittsburgh their entire lives without having ever been to Phipps! And with my hands full of my kids, it’s not like I’m trying to listen to other people’s conversations!
I’ve been taking my oldest (Nico, 2.5) to Phipps since he was about five months old. I had been a few times over the years and just thought it might be a fun sensory experience. He ended up loving it so much that it’s probably our most frequented local adventure spot; we bought an annual pass earlier this year since we visit so much.
Phipps is both a City of Pittsburgh historic landmark and has a coveted listing on the National Register of Historic Places. Almost unbelievably, it was gifted to the city with a dual purpose of education and entertainment — it does not disappoint.
Florals aside for a minute, I have to first touch on the kids favorite two rooms. They are inevitably where we spend at least 75% of our visit each time. The first of these rooms is the Garden Railroad Room. This room is perfect for toddlers because: 1) it’s kid size… all of the displays are at their height and they have a brick border that is anywhere from 18-24” high, helping those early walkers make their way along the display, and 2) trains… need I say more? Children are always fascinated by trains, and mine are no exception. Miniature locomotives wind their way through the room with plenty of other miniature features along the way. This room is absolutely mesmerizing, and it’s not even what Phipps is best known for! Except to my kids…
There is no room on the planet that makes my son happier (upon arrival) and angrier (when we have to leave) than the Play Farmers Market and Kitchen in the Gallery Room, located just off to the left of the Garden Railroad Room. He would literally rather starve, never sleep again and pee his pants then leave this toddler heaven. Living the Montessori lifestyle that we do, I especially appreciate when there are children’s play area with natural products (wood) and little or no artificial noises or flashing lights. This room is a dream for a Montessori mom like me (admittedly, there are differing trains of thought within Montessori about “pretend” play environments, but that’s a topic for another day. My favorite article describing this consternation can be found HERE by the great folks at The Montessori Notebook).
Within this space kids find full set ups of a farmers market, complete with toddler sized shelves that have pictures showing what produce belongs on which shelf, also making great matching work. There are scales for weighing the food, cashiers registers (without the literal bells and whistles!), and grocery carts. This area is always packed with children!
There’s a short walkway down the center of the room (my kids think it’s an aisle in the “flowers grocery store”) that leads to a kitchen setup, complete with all wooden stoven/oven, sink and cabinets, and toddler table and chairs. There are several sets of dishware, which the kids use to set the table (over… and over… and over… and over again) and assorted cooking pots and pans that make the experience perfect for their little minds and bodies.
Perhaps best of all, for parents at least, is that the toy food is all whole fruits and vegetables and lean meats! We’ve been to so many pop up play areas for kids that have processed foods in their grocery areas; this begs curiosity for food that I want my kids to play and learn with!
The Sunken Garden is usually one of our first stops at Phipps. It can be found when you enter the conservatory space and head to the left. While I like some seasons more than others, this room is always one of my favorites, featuring small waterfalls, elevated and hanging plants, and, true to name, a sunken garden. Children of any age can reach nearly all of the flowers and plants in the center of the room, really making this space very engaging for the young ones. I also just happen to get the best pictures in this room; perhaps because most of the items are down on the kids level!
Our family makes is to Phipps about once per month, taking full advantage of that annual pass. Just two visits with two adults and one paying child make the annual pass financially worth it, and we go much more than that! Along with admission for the year, membership also brings with it discounted pricing at the gift shop (certain dates), discounted classes and educational programs, early access to signups for the Holiday Magic! Winter Flower Show and Light Garden tickets, and access to members-only events! Truly worth it! Our admission is for two adults and two children, and was only $99!.
Oh, and the flowers! I got so excited about all the fun kids-only things that I almost forgot to mention the beauty and education winding through the building! The various areas include: Entrance/Middle- The Palm Court, South Conservatory, Gallery Room and Tropical Fruit and Spice Room; To the Left- Sunken Garden, Victoria Room, East Room, Broderie Room, and Desert Room; To the Right- Serpentine Room, Fern Room, Stove Room, and Orchid Room. Check out the gallery immediately below to see some pictures from these gorgeous places!
If you haven’t ventured out to this special place in Pittsburgh, make plans for a few hours in the morning one weekend to check out its magic. Our favorite time to go is right at opening (9:30am on Saturdays and Sundays) because it’s practically empty for the entire first hour. That works well if you have young children!
Lastly, I had to share this photo of Gabriella; it was my favorite one of the day! Absolutely captures everything about her personality — chill, go with the flow, curious smile, and a big bow.