Cheap Thrills in Pittsburgh

Actor Aja Wiltshire plays two roles in a multifaceted time-travel tragicomedy; here she's belting a tune as a 1970s rock star. (photo: Kristi Jan Hoover)

City Theatre, where the hit play ‘Cambodian Rock Band’ (above) ran recently, is one of many places in Pittsburgh offering deep discounts on high-caliber entertainment. The actress is Aja Wiltshire; photo by Kristi Jan Hoover.

In ancient times, the winter solstice festival was a big deal, but lean days loomed afterward.. Provisions ran low. Game was scarce. The post-holiday period can crunch modern budgets, too, so if you’re able to cover basic expenses, (a) be thankful and (b) read on. It’s possible to pursue the game of finding good entertainment without a strain on disposable income. 

Experts here at Entertainment Central have combed the Pittsburgh scene to highlight cheap—or even free—attractions in five categories: music, dining, art, active recreation, and live theater. Links are provided for looking up details.  

Good Music on the Low-Cost Scale

In warm weather, our town blooms with free outdoor concerts. Right now they’d be entirely too chill, but a number of indoor venues offer high-quality music at little or no cover charge.  

On Monday nights at Mr. Smalls Funhouse in Millvale, the AcoustiCafe open stage is a premier event of its type for singer-songwriters and other musicians. There’s no cover; the staff won’t hassle you to keep buying; and you can catch a variety of good acts, including the night’s featured act. Performers start signing in at 6 p.m., then play from about 7 to 11 p.m. 

Early Tuesday evenings, also with no cover, the Backstage Bar in the Cultural District hosts the BNY Mellon JazzLive series from 5 to 7:30 p.m. (This is the same series that plays outdoors in summer.) And every Wednesday night from 8 to 11 p.m. is free Banjo Night, courtesy of the Pittsburgh Banjo Club at Elks Lodge #339 on the North Side. Advance reservations are suggested because banjo fans are legion, and they like to sing along.   

Last but not least: Pittsburgh has excellent smaller music venues at which the ticket prices vary. Some shows may cost dozens of dollars while you can get into others for $10 or less. Two places where this is true—each booking strong touring acts along with Pittsburgh-based talent—are: Club Cafe on the South Side, an intimate nightspot known for genres from prog rock to folk; and Thunderbird Cafe and Music Hall in Lawrenceville, where the music runs from wild indie rock to roots, funk, and soul. 

Cheap Eats

Apocalypse Not! This is taco art, adorning the wall at Doce Taqueria, a suggested spot for low-cost dining. (photo: Rick Handler)

Apocalypse Not! This is taco imagery, adorning the wall of Doce Taqueria, a suggested spot for low-cost dining. (photo: Rick Handler)

The definition of “cheap” dining is subjective. To some, it’s a fine gourmet meal at a not-so-staggering cost. The time has come for such a feast, as January 13 to 19 is Restaurant Week in Pittsburgh, when many upper-tier establishments offer complete dinners for $20.20 or other discounts. 

Tacos at Doce Taqueria are generous, good, and $3. (photo: Rick Handler)

Tacos at Doce Taqueria are generous, good, and $3. (photo: Rick Handler)

But cheap dining also refers to delicious foods that tend to be inherently less expensive. Many can be found among the region’s Asian and Latinx restaurants, pizza parlors, and DDD (“Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives”)-type joints.

Two favorites of the EC staff: Doce Taqueria has cheap-’n-tasty tacos at locations on the South Side and McKnight Road. Nadine’s, on the South Side, serves bar food done to high standards at 20th-century prices. 

We could name more. Try browsing the archive of EC reviews. And low-cost dining choices are so plentiful that it pays just to be adventurous. Visit a local spot you’ve wondered about. At pricier restaurants, look for buffets or specials, and when you find deals you savor, spread the word. 

Cheap and Free Art

Era of Cool: The Art of John Van Hamersveld exhibition gallery.

In Pittsburgh and nearby, some fine museums charge no admission fee. Greensburg’s Westmoreland Museum of American Art is an up-and-coming institution with intriguing exhibits like the recent ‘Era of Cool,’ which featured classic psychedelic artist John Van Hamersveld.

Winter is prime time for visiting art museums. They’re indoors; they are places to stretch your legs while opening the mind and senses, and they needn’t be expensive. The Andy Warhol Museum hums with activity on “Good Fridays,” meaning every Friday, when admission is half-price from 5 to 10 p.m. (See our review of the special exhibit Andy Warhol: Revelation, up through February 16.) Carnegie Museum of Art in Oakland, Pittsburgh’s comprehensive art showplace, is half price on Thursdays from 3 to 8 p.m. Admission here includes the adjoining  Carnegie Museum of Natural History, which allows you to marvel at the juxtaposition of dinosaur fossils and art made by humans.  

If you are a special person—e.g., a student, senior, or member of the U.S. military—check the museums’ websites for discounts available every day. And whether you are special or simply average, consider the museums where admission is totally free. 

At The Frick Pittsburgh, a multi-building historic complex in Point Breeze, the Frick Art Museum is free. The museum has a wide-ranging collection of older artworks, from early Renaissance paintings to portraits by Gainsborough et al. The Frick’s vintage Car and Carriage Museum, only a few steps away, is likewise free. Further afield, the Westmoreland Museum of American Art in Greensburg exhibits colonial to contemporary art with free admission. 

Or, for an ultramodern experience, try Wood Street Galleries in the Cultural District. This free mini-museum houses an ongoing series of shows by renowned electronic and new media artists. Closed after New Year’s to install the latest exhibit (which is Power Pixels 2020 by Miguel Chevalier), Wood Street reopens January 24 at 5:30 p.m. as part of the Cultural District’s quarterly Gallery Crawl. 

Active Recreation (Indoors and Out)

The monthly 'Big Free Yoga' class at Ascend Pittsburgh can be bundled with a $10 rate for indoor climbing. (photo: Lindsay Dill)

The monthly ‘Big Free Yoga’ class at Ascend Pittsburgh can be bundled with a $10 rate for indoor climbing. (photo: Lindsay Dill)

Many in winter seek entertainment more strenuous than strolling, so let’s start with bowling. The legendary Arsenal Bowl in Lawrenceville offers more daily and nightly deals than you can shake a 16-pound Brunswick at. These include 3-hour all-you-can-bowl sessions for $9; the Wednesday night Rock ‘n Bowl, wherein the $9 also gets you a live band to bowl by; and Friday and Sunday DJ nights when the music isn’t live but is lively. 

Whereas bowling skews horizontal, climbing is vertical. Ascend Pittsburgh on the South Side, one of the new indoor climbing facilities that’s sweeping the nation, charges $17 for all-you-can-climb plus use of the onsite workout gym. Ascend also has “Big Free Yoga” classes once per month, on a Saturday morning, after which you can stay and climb for just $10.  

For an outdoor trek we suggest heading to Hays Woods, the largest urban forest in Pittsburgh. The nonprofit Friends of Hays Woods have details and maps, and here are a few highlights: This largely natural tract of land spans over 600 acres along a ridge above the Monongahela. Acquired by the City of Pittsburgh in 2016, it will be transformed to a well-tended nature park. There are no amenities as yet—no bathrooms, no first aid stations, etc.—but the area is criss-crossed by trails for hiking or mountain biking, and the views are spectacular. 

In the ice skating department: The Schenley Park skating rink, closed recently for renovations, is due to reopen this January. Once again admission will be just $5 with skate rental at $3.  Meanwhile try the ice rinks at North Park or South Park

Live Theater for Less

Live theater casts a spell, as in last year's 'The Tempest' at Pittsburgh Public Theater, where Shammen McCune played the bewitched creature Caliban.

The age-old art of live theater still casts a spell, as in 2018’s ‘The Tempest’ at Pittsburgh Public Theater, where Shammen McCune played the bewitched creature Caliban. (photo: Michael Henninger)

Finally, when it comes to entertainment enjoyed in a warm seat, live theater is hard to beat. It’s like virtual reality except real imaginary reality, enacted by real people. And though some folks feel stymied by the ticket prices of professional theater, there are ways to get significant savings. 

One is by attending preview performances. Depending on the company, these can be the first night or entire first week of a play’s run. Previews are full productions, but seats are often cheaper, as the director may wish to make tweaks before the “official” opening night. City Theatre offers some preview tickets as low as $5, and furthermore has a PWYW (pay-what-you-want) matinee later in each show’s run. City’s first play of 2020 is the psycho-thriller Downstairs, January 11 to February 2; see the EC Theater Guide for all major shows in Pittsburgh each month.  

Also, like museums, theaters give special discounts to certain audiences. At Pittsburgh Public Theater—where Little Shop of Horrors runs from January 23 to February 23—full-time students age 26 and under can attend any show for $16.50. City Theatre sells $15 tickets to patrons under 30, students or otherwise, along with offering deals to seniors and military personnel. (Details are on City’s webpages for the particular plays.)  

And at some companies, tickets for high-quality theater are just plain cheap. Off the WALL productions in Carnegie typically charges $20 standard rate and much less for “artists” and students.  

A Closing Thought

Bottom line: Pittsburgh has plenty of cheap thrills in wintertime. They are out there and they’re good. Use this little guide as a starter, then see what you can find. You don’t have to share the savings with us. But we do recommend the following.

If you wind up spending less than expected on winter entertainment, share a bit with people who are less fortunate. Donate to a charity. Help out a neighbor in need. That’s the Pittsburgh spirit. Pass it on!  

Mike Vargo, a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer, covers theater and other arts for Entertainment Central.