Ready or not, Christmas is here. You don’t even have to leave the city limits to find hotels, museums and communities that are hosting parades, holiday light displays, Santa photo ops, Christmas tree lightings and holiday model train displays. No matter your preferences, you’re bound to find a festive Washington, D.C. Christmas event across the city from Thanksgiving through New Year’s.
As the capital of the United States, the city is jam-packed with things to do during Christmas. Many of these events are free and open to the public, though some require tickets. From light displays to Christmas markets, D.C. guarantees holiday fun for the whole family.
Visit the National Christmas Tree
Each year, a massive, live evergreen tree that grows out of the ground is decorated in President’s Park near the White House. The public can swing by to see the lit-up tree every evening starting at 4:30pm. Just don’t go until the first week of December. The lights won’t officially flicker on until the annual lighting ceremony when the tree is officially lit by the President of the United States with the usual pomp and circumstance.
The National Christmas Tree is decorated with ornaments created by artists from across the country. Each is different, unique and worth a long look as the ornaments change every year.
In addition to the National Christmas Tree, you can also wander around America Celebrates, a display of trees that honor the history, heritage and culture of each state. Grab a hot cocoa to stay warm as you take photos with the trees and experience the magic of the season.
Grab more info about the National Tree here.
Visit ZooLights at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo for one of the best free holiday light displays in Washington, D.C. This magical, holiday-themed event kicks off Thanksgiving weekend and runs through New Year’s Day. ZooLights features live music, glowing animal lanterns and more than 500,000 LED lights.
Arrive early to grab your parking spot (for a fee) and visit the pandas, our favorite creatures at the zoo. Bei Bei might have gone back to China to meet a lady friend, but his parents Tian Tian and Mei Xiang are still there to wish you a Merry Christmas, along with their other zoo pals. The zoo shops are also open, so you can load up on Christmas presents that help support the zoo’s conservation efforts throughout the year.
Brewlights: Just for grown-ups
BrewLights is a craft beer night held once a year during ZooLights. Your ticket to the event covers beverage tastings, snacks and exclusive areas within ZooLights. You’ll also support the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and the Conservation Biology Institute, so everyone will feel extra good about their drinking during the holiday festivities. Just remember: Uber and other rideshare services will pick you up if you imbibe too much.
Get your BrewLights tickets here.
The historic Georgetown neighborhood lights up each year with one of the city’s most celebrated outdoor art installations. Grab coffee from Baked & Wired, a few macarons at Olivia Macaron or one of the seasonal flavors from Georgetown Cupcakes before you take a walking tour to see works by local and international artists. Past artists include Joana Stillwell, Lindsay Glatz, Frank Foole and Sui Park. This event runs from the first weekend of December through the first weekend of January.
Organized tours of Georgetown Glow can be booked through the following companies:
Self-guided tours are free and always open to the public.
Skate at the National Gallery of Art’s Sculpture Garden
One of our favorite winter traditions in Washington, D.C. is the National Gallery of Art’s Sculpture Garden ice skating rink. Bring the kids or a date to ice skate amongst the beauty that surrounds this fountain-turned-ice-rink throughout the winter months. The ice rink is open from mid-November through mid-March. For those really looking to save a few bucks on family dinner and date nights, check out the $5 food and drink specials at the Pavilion Cafe during the week from 4-7pm. This is one well-kept local secret that is sure to get out.
Skates are available to rent for just $4 per person, while skating fees for two 45-minute sessions (beginning on the hour) are as follows:
- $9 for adults (2019/2020 prices)
- $8 for age 50 and over/children age 12 and under/military/students with a valid school ID
Lessons are available for new and advanced skaters. A 30-minute drop-in lesson is your best bet if you are visiting from out of town, but season-long lessons are also available if you live locally.
Learn more about lessons and skating throughout the season here.
Washington Harbour Ice Rink
Washington, D.C.’s largest outdoor ice-skating space is open from mid-November through mid-March each year along the Potomac River. Weekly themed events like Cartoon Skate or Rock the Rink are sure to get your kids excited to learn a new skill or your friends to bundle up even on a chilly evening.
Restaurants like Fiola Mare and Sequoia are the perfect spots to warm up with cocktails and a bite while the Zamboni smooths the ice. Better yet, book brunch at Farmers Fishers Bakers and work off those calories with a few laps around the rink. Rentals are available for $6, and sessions cost $10 adult/$9 child.
Click HERE for Washington Harbour Ice Rink hours and a full list of fees.
U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree
We sure love our Christmas trees in Washington, D.C. While Christmas tree scavenger hunts are fun, sometimes you just want to see the best, and the U.S. Capitol Christmas tree is definitely one of the best. Every year since 1964, a tree is chosen from a different national forest to be the official “People’s Tree” on display at the U.S. Capitol’s West Lawn.
This tree travels far and wide from its home state, stopping in at least 20 towns along the way. People love to track the tree’s journey and pop over when it gets close to their town. Thousands of volunteers help raise money and make sure the tree stays watered and protected as it travels to the nation’s capital.
It is free to view this massive tree, which can be almost twice as tall as the National Christmas Tree, sometimes standing as tall as 75 feet. The more-than-10,000 ornaments that decorate this tree are created by children of the tree’s home state. It is truly a tree that touches the entire nation, not just the residents of Washington, DC.
Get this year’s U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree lighting dates HERE.
Warm Up at the Library of Congress Indoor Tree
On a cold and rainy day in Washington, D.C., we always know that we can warm up and find holiday joy in front of the Library of Congress Christmas tree. Located in the Thomas Jefferson Library of Congress, this tree is sure to put a smile on your face. It is lit all day long, making it an easy spot to visit with young kids in tow who have an early bedtime. You won’t have to worry about the weather when all you want is a little holiday cheer to brighten up your day.
For even more fun, get your library card while you are at the library, which will give you access to the stunning Reading Room.
Mount Vernon By Candlelight
Step back into the 18th century for an evening at George Washington’s Virginia estate just outside of Washington, D.C. Start your visit with a tour of Christmas trees highlighting the Washington family’s lives, and then take a walking tour of the property. You’ll learn about historical holiday traditions while you walk past the slave quarters and outbuildings.
“Mrs. Washington” will then welcome you into the mansion, sharing stories of the years her family spent Christmases in the house with family and friends. End your journey in the Greenhouse with a bit of 18th-century dancing, a visit to Aladdin the Christmas Camel, a stop at the 18th-century soldiers’ winter encampment, and live musical performances, cider and cookies in the Donald W. Reynolds Museum & Education Center Lobby.
Unlike a regular visit during the day, this holiday tour is much more specialized and your time will be more limited. If you love history, we do recommend you visit during the day on your own and again at night.
For an extra special experience, head here the weekend before Christmas for Christmas Illuminations at Mount Vernon. This two-night event is family friendly and the perfect way to add an educational twist to the holidays, without a long tour little ones might not be able to tolerate. The reenactors from the First Virginia Regiment will be there to answer all your burning questions about life in the 18th century, along with artisans making chocolate treats the “old-fashioned” way. Fireworks set to holiday music start around 8pm, but you are welcome to wander the estate and tour the mansion before the show begins.
Book your Mount Vernon by Candlelight tickets here.
CityCenter DC is an Instagram-worthy spot throughout the year, and Christmas is no exception. Wander around this luxury shopping complex to find ice sculptures, string lights, and not one but two 25-foot-tall reindeer. The holidays kick off the Saturday right after Thanksgiving with the Annual CityCenterDC Holiday Tree Lighting Celebration. There’s live music by the Washington Chorus and holiday activities; balloon artists, face painters and more are ready to entertain the entire family.
Of course, there will be hot cocoa, cookies and more luxury shopping opportunities than you could ever imagine. For those not ready to spend a bundle, don’t worry. The displays at Louis Vuitton, Hermes and Tiffany & Co take festive window shopping to a whole new level. Even if you can’t afford the goodies inside, you can enjoy the beauty these designers bring to the city.
Check out our full list of the best DC Christmas light displays
Model Trains at Union Station
If you find yourself in D.C.’s Union Station, perhaps traveling from DC to Baltimore to visit family, look out for the holiday model trains and the giant Christmas tree, both gifts from Norway to Washington D.C. Some families pop down specifically to see this magical holiday train display while other passengers just happen upon it, finding a little Christmas joy they didn’t expect. The trains, located in the West Hall of Union Station, are hand-made replicas of real Norwegian trains set in a Nordic landscape complete with mountains, fjords and even skiers.
The Union Station holiday extravaganza and annual Norwegian tree lighting ceremony generally kicks off the first week of December, so mark your calendars. What makes this tree lighting special? The Norwegian Ambassador lights the tree, a tradition that goes back more than 20 years. The Royal Norwegian Embassy presents this holiday tree to the people of Washington, D.C. as a gift of gratitude for the assistance Norway received during WWII and the continued friendship between the two countries. After the ambassador flips the switch, a holiday show with local choir performances and a visit from Santa and Mrs. Claus follows.
Find this year’s tree lighting dates HERE.
Season’s Greenings at the U.S. Botanical Garden
We love a little greenery during the winter months, and D.C. does it best. The U.S. Botanical Garden hosts an annual holiday exhibit with the usual poinsettias, seasonal music, and greenery. What makes this spot unique is the replicas of many of the city’s landmark buildings all dressed up for the holidays inside the greenhouse.
These pint-size buildings, whose real-life versions are found on the National Mall, are made completely out of natural materials. They are on display throughout the year in the entry to the conservatory, just past the visitor’s desk. Kids will love having a scavenger hunt to find the Washington Monument, U.S. Capitol, Supreme Court and even the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
You can also tour the tropical room, cactus garden, kids’ gardens and special U.S. Botanical Christmas exhibits that have a different theme every year. And yes, there are Christmas trains.
Best of all, the U.S. Botanical Garden is free year-round. No more excuses not to check out this greenhouse next to the U.S. Capitol.
Holiday Boat Parade at The Wharf
The Wharf has become the place to be for Christmas in D.C. Bring the kids down to decorate ornaments, and relax by the fire pit with a hot cocoa in hand. The Annual Holiday Boat Parade will float by as you all wave at the captains, who are happy to show off their ships and all dressed up for the holidays. Grown-ups can sip on a few adult beverages at the Waterfront Beer and Wine Garden before the firework show begins. With kids, you can hang out at restaurants like La Vie and Lupo Marino so you can all stay warm and enjoy your beverages together.
BONUS: Don’t miss Light Up the Wharf, which kicks off a season of events at The District the Saturday after Thanksgiving. Watch as the tree is lit for the first time and the dock turns into your very own winter wonderland.
Holiday Movie Magic at the National Museum of American History
All of your favorite Christmas classics head back to the big screen starting the weekend of Thanksgiving and run through Christmas. Buy tickets in advance for screenings on Thursday, Saturday or Sunday nights (there is only one day and one showing offered per movie, so grab that ticket to the movie you love). Christmas classics like It’s a Wonderful Life, White Christmas, Elf and A Christmas Story have been featured in the past. And yes, the ultimate holiday movie, Die Hard, will be shown too.
Get tickets to holiday movies HERE.
Every year the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center turns into a winter wonderland filled with interactive ice sculptures and displays. Washington, D.C. doesn’t actually get that much snow, but you would never know it when you walk into ICE!
When it is only nine degrees inside, you better believe you will want to keep moving. ICE! has four two-story slides, a nativity carved from crystal-clear ice, 2 million pounds of colorful ice sculptures, and hand-carved scenes from that year’s theme (e.g. Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas, A Christmas Story and The Polar Express).
Of course, you can’t visit without hot cocoa and holiday treats afterwards. All of those adults that got dragged along with the kids deserve a treat, don’t you think?
Book your ICE! tickets HERE
The world’s largest light maze and market takes over Nationals Park this season, with snow falling and larger-than-life sculptures as you make your way through this North Pole wonderland. Special treats will be prepared just for the event, and a few favorite D.C. vendors like Ben’s Chili, Dog Tag Bakery and Meribeth’s Bakery will be there. We’ve been told that if someone asks you “May we Enchant that for you?” you should definitely say “Yes!”
Other activities not to miss? The Ice Skating Trail (skates are available to rent) and Santa’s Landing where you can get professional photos taken with the big man himself. Keep an eye on the website for Paws ‘n’ Claus dates, which is when you can bring your pup to take photos with Santa too.
Enchant Christmas is pricey, and doesn’t always come to D.C., but is worth a visit when it is in town.
Grab your Enchant tickets here.
Washington Ballet’s The Nutcracker
Enjoy a Christmas classic with a decidedly Washingtonian twist at the Washington Ballet. The production is set in historic 1882 Georgetown and George Washington, King George III, and other historical figures take center stage. Original period costumes are on prominent display as more than 100 dancers take part in this annual tradition that celebrates more than 75 years of the Washington School of Ballet and its students.
Book Nutcracker tickets here
A Christmas Carol at Ford’s Theatre
Ford’s Theatre is always open to the public to tour (for a small fee). During the holidays it becomes an extra special treat to see a performance at the theater where Lincoln was shot. Yes, it sounds morbid, but this historic theater has hosted plays for centuries. Family and friends will love seeing Ford’s Theatre’s A Christmas Carol this holiday season, and it’s definitely not something many people can claim to have done.
This eerie and poignant show based on the book by Charles Dickens tells the tale of Ebenezer Scrooge (usually played by a recognizable actor), a grumpy old man who is visited by his old (dead) business partner, and the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future. He learns about his own life and the lives of those around him, and eventually has a change of heart.
Book Ford’s Theatre tickets here.
Handel’s Messiah at the National Cathedral
A yearly tradition for many D.C. residents and those from across the Mid-Atlantic region, Handel’s Messiah at the Washington National Cathedral is an experience you don’t want to miss. At least three late afternoon/evening concerts are available the second weekend of December. One midday family concert, a shorter performance featuring the highlights, is also available that same weekend.
Grab Handel’s Messiah tickets here.
Afternoon tea at the Willard InterContinental Washington
Afternoon tea isn’t just for the British. Get those pinkies up at Peacock Alley and order your favorite tea with sandwiches, scones, clotted cream and jam. In December, you can enjoy a festive afternoon tea at the Willard InterContinental Washington D.C., complete with Christmas décor and harp music playing all of your holiday favorites.
Meet the Best Santa at the Fairmont D.C.
We may be biased, but we love it when Santa shows up at the Fairmont Washington D.C. Santa Suite in December. Every Saturday and Sunday between 11:30am and 2:30pm, Santa spends 15 minutes with eager boys and girls (and their parents), who want to make sure Santa is reading his list and checking it twice.
Letter-writing stations are set up for anyone who has procrastinated a bit. Visits are free, but reservations are required. The Fairmont does offer a place to make a donation to a children’s charity on your way out if you are looking to give back, too.
Other great Santa meet-and-greets in the D.C. area:
- Christmas Village at the Gaylord National Harbor, 201 Waterfront Street (National Harbor, MD)
- Mazza Gallerie, 5300 Wisconsin Ave., NW
- Aviation Museum, College Park, MD
- National Capital Trolley Museum, Colesville, MD
- B&O’s Magical Holiday Express, Baltimore, MD
Waterskiing Santa on the Potomac
Head across the Potomac River to Old Alexandria, VA for one crazy Santa experience. What started out as a dare in 1986 has turned into an annual community event you won’t want to miss. Santa cruises from Founders Park to Point Lumley Park via waterskis and jet skis, along with his reindeer pals, the Grinch and a few other friends. Yes, just for fun.
The excitement starts every Christmas Eve at 1pm. A meet-and-greet happens after the show near the waterfront pavilion and behind the Torpedo Factory.
Find out more about the Waterskiing Santa HERE.
Brunch with Santa at the Kennedy Center
On the two Saturdays leading up to Christmas, Santa sets aside a little time to pop over to the Roof Terrace Restaurant at the Kennedy Center for a special buffet-style brunch. Bottomless Mimosa Brunch is the norm for parents, with discount prices for kids. This is a coveted event, so keep an eye out for when reservations open up each year via OpenTable or the reservation line— (202) 416-8555.
For more Brunch with Santa details, click HERE.
Taste the spirits of the season at Miracle on 7th Street
Miracle on 7th Street, brought to you by Pop Up Bar DC, serves up festive beverages from Thanksgiving through New Year’s Eve starting at 5pm on weekdays and 1pm on weekends. Elaborate décor takes over the space and brings together friends from near and far. Whether you want a “Son of a Nutcracker” or a not-so-simple “G & Tree,” you are sure to leave with a little more cheer, and possibly a new friend or two.
Check the latest offerings from Miracle on 7th Street here.
D.C. Downtown Holiday Market
The Downtown Holiday Market is an annual tradition celebrating local D.C. makers. Set up in front of the Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery, it’s the bright spot in the Penn Quarter and Chinatown during the holiday season.
The market is open 12pm-8pm daily with rotating vendors throughout the season, so be sure to stop by more than once. You’ll find hot coffee from local roasters to go along with fresh mini donuts and other festive treats, plus 150 crafters, artisans and stylish boutiques with customized tents at this much-anticipated D.C. Christmas event.
Get all of the details on the Downtown Holiday Market here.
Shop Local at Shop Made in DC
We love to pop into Shop Made in DC throughout the year. However, the holidays are when you can really put your money back into the community and share over 200 makers with your friends and family across the USA and abroad. You’ll find products that are designed, crafted, roasted, stitched, baked, welded, brewed and built by amazing artists and artisans living and working in DC. Shop online or at the three Shop Made in DC locations:
- Shop Made in DC DUPONT: 1710 Connecticut Ave, NW, Washington, DC 20009
- Shop Made in DC GEORGETOWN: 1242 Wisconsin Ave NW, Washington, DC 20007
- Shop Made in DC WHARF: 10 District Square SW, Washington, DC 20024
Other great spots to shop local in D.C.:
- Annual Holiday PopUP Shop in Van Ness: 20+ local creatives are set up for Friday night’s SIP & SHOP preview party with wine and delicious bites from local restaurants. On Saturdays, the whole family is invited to shop. The kids can color and create in the craft room, make holiday cards with their favorite adult, enjoy gingerbread decorating for kids with Bread Furst, and participate in Caroling on Connecticut with The Singing Capital Chorus and more.
- Annual DC Brau Holiday Market: Kid-friendly, lots of food trucks and loads of vendors plus free general admission for all. Parking will be tight, so take the metro, rideshare, bike or walk on over.
- SWEA DC’s Julmarknad/Bazaar: The annual D.C. Swedish Christmas Bazaar is held on the first Saturday in December. Vendors selling gifts, crafts, books, homemade bread, Glögg, Kosta Boda and Orrefors glassware, jewelry, and textiles attract both locals and visitors in search of Scandinavian delights.
Dupont Circle Christkindlmarkt
Not sure what to get someone on your Christmas list? Head over to Dupont Circle for the annual Christkindlmarkt, a traditional German Christmas market held in the Heurich mansion (now the Heurich House Museum). The event brings together 40 local artisans from D.C, Maryland, and Virginia to celebrate their crafts, art and yummy food gifts. Tours of the property all dressed up for the holiday are available, if you can tear yourself away from the tables piled high with things to buy.
Don’t wait to grab tickets to this market though. It only lasts one weekend, the first weekend of December. Tickets do include a self-guided tour of the house, and all proceeds go towards continuing to keep the museum open for future generations to enjoy.
Buy your tickets HERE.
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Washington, D.C. Travel Resources
Your Washington, D.C. vacation doesn’t have to be stressful. We’ve got the resources you need to plan your trip and make the most out of your time in the city and surrounding area. If this is your first time to the capital region, check out our Washington, D.C. trip planner and itineraries.
For transportation, check out our D.C. driving guide and our guide on how to ride the metro. For those flying in, you’ll want to read our guides to BWI, DCA and IAD airports.
Dive into our things to do in D.C., which is always being updated and evolving to make sure you have the latest and greatest activities to fill your checklist of things to do. Don’t forget about food, the real reason we all travel, right? Our Washington, D.C. restaurant guide will get you started and lead you into neighborhoods full of delicious treats.
For more resources, check out our pages on Baltimore, Richmond and beyond.
Where to Stay in Washington, D.C.
Budget: When it comes to Washington, D.C. budget hotels, prices vary depending on the season. In the middle of October, a four-star hotel could be under $150, while in December it may be over $400. At any given time of year, though, Hotel Hive is a safe bet for value when it comes to resting your head. If you are looking for a hostel, Hi Washington D.C. Downtown is well located for exploring all of the D.C. museums, restaurants and bars at the fraction of the price of a hotel. Check rates and availability here.
Mid-range: Every USA hotel chain can be found in Washington, D.C., but stay at the St. Gregory Hotel when you want a local touch. The modern, light-filled rooms will welcome you to the city, whether you are in a studio or suite with wraparound terrace. The hotel is walking distance to Georgetown, the National Mall and Embassy Row, making it easy to explore without a rental car. Check rates and availability here.
Luxury: You are spoiled for choice when it comes to luxury hotels in Washington, D.C. We love cozying up at the Graham Georgetown, a sweet little boutique hotel in one of the hottest neighborhoods in the city. Check rates and availability here. Major hotel brands like The Fairmont, Mandarin Oriental, Ritz-Carlton, Four Seasons Hotel Washington D.C. and St. Regis Washington D.C. all have outposts here as well. If you want something a bit more historic, we recommend The Jefferson, Washington D.C. Ninety-nine rooms in this luxury boutique hotel bring together an attentive staff, petite spa, and the Michelin-starred Plume restaurant with all of the history you could hope for when you are in the nation’s capital. Check rates and availability here.
Family-friendly: We always gravitate towards the Kimpton hotels whenever we are traveling with kids. Kimpton Hotel Monaco Washington D.C., once the General Post Office building, is located in the Penn Quarter neighborhood just four blocks off the National Mall near the National Gallery of Art. Price point is mid-range, depending on the time of year you visit. Parents will love the nightly wine events and evening nightcap perks as well as complimentary coffee and a tea bar each morning. Kids will love that they can borrow a fish friend for their stay, and that there is always a treat on hand that they can enjoy, and the robes are just their size. Kimpton also has adult and child-size bikes to borrow so you can cruise around town during your stay. Check rates and availability here.
Planning a Trip to Washington, D.C.? Don’t Forget Travel Insurance!
Whether you are traveling domestically or coming from an international destination, travel insurance is a must for anyone coming to Washington, D.C. You will be exploring both inside and outdoors; hiking may even happen if you get adventurous. You could find yourself on a Segway or bike tour. The city is highly populated and accidents and crime do happen. This is not to scare you, but to prepare you for what could occur when you are checking out the free museums, exploring neighborhoods, finding the best food and learning about the local street art. Should something happen, travel insurance has you covered. Check rates and availability here.
We recommend and use Allianz Travel insurance. Our family is covered under a household plan, but their individual plans are just as robust if you are a solo traveler or a couple looking to get away. I’ve been a customer for more than five years and have always been in good hands with the Allianz team.
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