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National Aviary's New Renovations Make it Essential Pittsburgh

It's time to add the National Aviary to the list of local favorites you visit again and again.

Photo by Sean Collier


The National Aviary is essential. Everyone — family, couple, individual — should be visiting.

The institution has spent years expanding and refining its offerings, culminating in last week’s re-opening of the Tropical Rainforest exhibit (more on that later). The result is an ascension to that rarified air of places you simply must visit at least once a year — Phipps, PNC Park, the Warhol, the Aviary. It’s no longer a curiosity or a spot for kids on field trips; it’s a Pittsburgh treasure.

If you get to the Aviary in time for the 2:30 falconry show — yes, you’ll watch live and very impressive birds of prey hunt — you can then take the remaining two hours of the Aviary’s day to slowly wander from room to room. This isn’t a call to spy an animal, gawk for a moment and move on to the next enclosure; rather, the way to encounter the Aviary is to sit and watch, almost meditatively.

My favorite spot to do this is the Grasslands exhibit, where tiny, elegant colored birds flit from one side of the room to the other. If you stay still, you can observe the intricate patterns, like stained glass, shading their feathers. Often, they’ll take a curious approach to your feet, wondering what this gentle monster a hundred times their size is doing stomping about.

You can also commune with the curious, utterly fearless penguins. You can watch the sloths slumber (and, if you’re preposterously lucky, you can watch them move slightly). You can drop a few extra bucks on Birdly, the VR flight simulator, allowing you to simulate the feeling of free flight over the Manhattan skyline. You can stare back at the steely gaze of the bald eagles in the Great Hall.

And then you can step into the newly renovated Tropical Rainforest, the crown jewel of the building, where a waterfall and lush foliage conceals some of the Aviary’s most remarkable animals. I spent most of my most recent visit watching the southern bald ibis, a bizarre creature that effortlessly illustrates the link between modern birds and the dinosaurs. The bright, immersive exhibit is the kind of place you could easily lose most of a day.

If you’re still thinking of the National Aviary as a spot to visit with kids or out-of-town guests — or, worse yet, if you don’t go at all — visit and take a fresh look. We’re lucky to have it in town, and there are few better places to spend an afternoon.

Rather spend an evening than an afternoon? The Aviary’s annual fundraiser, Night in the Tropics, is this Saturday night. (Pittsburgh Magazine is a media sponsor.) Beer, wine, bites and more are included with your ticket; the DJ will be focused on Latin beats to accompany hula performers and fire dancers. Most importantly, you’ll get to see the Tropical Rainforest by night, a rare opportunity outside of private events.

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