The holiday season is a magical time in the nation’s capital. Not only are museums and national monuments decked out in their season’s finest, but festive activities, dazzling light displays, and holiday events turn the whole town into a winter wonderland. Our professional and experienced guides will make sure that you and your family get a private and exclusive holiday experience throughout the city. Here are some of our favorite holiday activities in Washington, D.C.
Christmas trees, holiday lights, and menorahs
- Christmas Tree at the White House. This year marks the 96th annual National Christmas Tree Lighting at the White House, with live musical performances and the lighting taking place on Sunday, November 28. This year’s tree is a living Colorado blue spruce from Virginia, which can be seen year-round in President’s Park. Fifty-six smaller trees surrounding the National Christmas Tree will feature one-of-a-kind ornaments, representing every U.S. state, territory and the District of Columbia.
- Christmas Tree at the Capitol. Not to be confused with the National Christmas Tree lighting, the Capitol Christmas Tree has been an American tradition since 1964, with the U.S. Forest Service providing the trees since 1969. This year’s tree will be coming from the Willamette National Forest in Oregon. The speaker of the House officially lights the tree; Paul Ryan will do the honors this year, with the architect of the Capitol, Stephen T. Ayers, serving as master of ceremonies. The lighting will take place on December 5 at 5 pm during a ceremony on the West Front Lawn. The tree will be lit from nightfall until 11 pm each evening.
- ZooLights at the Smithsonian National Zoo. More than 500,000 environmentally friendly LED lights transform the National Zoo into a winter wonderland complete with a dazzling light show set to music. A free event, ZooLights includes live music performances, tasty winter treats, and holiday shopping. Other fun activities include the Zoo Choo-Choo, a trackless train that whisks guests around the Great Cats exhibit and features gorgeous views of the holiday light displays. There’s even snowless tubing down one of the 150-foot-long tracks, with no snow necessary. The lights are on display from November 23 to January 1, from 5 to 9 pm. (They’re closed December 24, 25, and 31.)
- Alexandria Holiday Boat Parade of Lights. For a simply gorgeous holiday event, you won’t want to miss the Alexandria Holiday Boat Parade of Lights. On December 1 at 5:30 pm, dozens of brightly lit boats will cruise the Potomac River in a parade past the historic waterfront in the Alexandria Harbor. Enjoy festivities on the dock from 4 to 7 pm, including a Letters to Santa postcard pop-up, an ornament craft activity, and a hot chocolate bar.
- White House Menorah. The National Menorah is the other religious symbol decorating the National Mall during the holidays. A tradition that began in 1979 under Jimmy Carter, the National Menorah is 30-feet high and will be lit on the first night of Hanukkah—Sunday, December 2 at 4 pm. There will be live musical performances starting at 3:15, along with hot latkes, donuts, and free dreidels and menorah kits. The National Menorah will be lit for eight nights until Monday, December 10.
- Georgetown Glow. For an amazing interactive outdoor light art show, there’s Georgetown Glow, the region’s only curated exhibition of outdoor public light art installations. Set against the backdrop of DC’s oldest neighborhood, it’s a unique and truly sparkling experience. Top off your night by ice skating in the Washington Harbour. These amazing lights can be viewed each night from December 1 to January 6, from 5 to 10 pm.
Events and markets
- Seasons Greenings at the U.S. Botanic Garden. Celebrate the holidays and America’s railroad history at the U.S. Botanic Garden. This year’s Seasons Greening’s holiday show showcases train stations from across the United States—all re-created with plants. Thousands of blooms, including heirloom and newly developed poinsettia varieties, will be on display in the form of New York City’s Grand Central Station, St. Louis’s Union Station, and many more. A collection of D.C. landmarks made from plant materials will return to fill the Garden Court, including a botanical version of Washington, D.C.’s Union Station. The holiday show is open from November 22 to January 1, 2019.
- 14th Annual Downtown Holiday Market. Don’t miss the city’s best downtown outdoor holiday shopping extravaganza. The market features more than 150 regional artisans, crafters, and boutique businesses of ethnically produced goods. Hundreds of diverse gift items, such as jewelry, pottery, paintings, and textiles will be offered by 60 exhibitors each day. There will also be live seasonal entertainment, snacks, and festive treats. The market, centered at 8th and F Streets, NW, runs from November 23 through December 23, from noon to 8 pm each day.
- Christmas Illuminations at Mount Vernon. Kick off your holidays with sparkling fireworks overlooking the Potomac River. This family-friendly evening of fun and fireworks on December 14 and 15 first starts at 5:30 pm, with a stroll through Mount Vernon. You’ll be serenaded by local choirs as you visit with re-enactors from the First Virginia Regiment, learn 18th-century dance moves, meet George and Martha Washington, and learn the 18th-century process of creating chocolate. Keep toasty at the bonfire with hot chocolate and cider, then cap off your night with fireworks over the Potomac at 8:30 pm, set to choreographed music.
- Russian Winter Festival at Hillwood Estate, Museum, and Garden. Celebrate Sviatki, the festive winter season, in traditional Russian style on December 8 and 9 at Hillwood Estate, a pristine mansion and formal gardens just five miles from downtown Washington. Meet Grandfather Frost—Russia’s Santa Claus—and his granddaughter, the Snow Maiden in a fun family play based on traditional Russian stories. Create and wear your own kokoshnik (lady’s headdress) or Russian gentleman’s winter hat. Enjoy lively folk music and festive dances, and join in the antics of Mummers parading in animal costumes.
Ice skating and Santa sightings
- The Watergate Hotel’s Top of the Skate. Here you’ll find incredible ice skating with a 360-degree view on top of DC’s iconic hotel. Top of the Gate, one of DC’s most popular rooftop bars, transforms into Top of the Skate starting in mid-November. With skyline views of the city and nearby Arlington, Virginia, you can’t help but have fun on this synthetic rink as you enjoy seasonal cocktails at the skate-up bar. There are also fire pits and couches to relax, or you can top off your skating with an igloo experience downstairs at The Next Whisky Bar, where 12-foot heated domes are available to rent outside.
- The Sculpture Garden at the National Gallery of Art. Ice skate surrounded by magnificent works of art and large-scale sculptures at the National Gallery of Art’s small, cozy, and completely romantic Sculpture Garden Ice Rink. It’s also a great venue for families. The rink is open from November 16 to March 10. 2019, weather permitting.
- The Wharf Ice Rink on Transit Pier. This skating rink offers another one-of-a-kind holiday experience as you glide beneath strings of Edison bulbs out on a rink at the end of the pier. Friday nights feature a Rock n Skate with a live deejay, and there are 20-plus new restaurants and bars in the area to relax at after your fun skate. The rink is open from December 2 until late February 2019.
- Waterskiing Santa. Yes, you read that right. Waterskiing Santa has been a Christmas tradition in Washington, DC, since 1986. On December 24 at 1 pm, waterskiing Santa, flying elves, a Jet-skiing Grinch, and Frosty the Snowman will appear on the Potomac River between Old Town Alexandria, Virginia, and Washington, DC, for a family-friendly fun Christmas Eve.
There are plenty of holiday activities in Washington, D.C. that you and your family will love. If you have any questions or would like to speak to our team about planning an exclusive tour, please contact us today!