The holiday and winter 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. Here are some of our favorite holiday activities in Washington, D.C.
Christmas trees, holiday lights, and menorahs
- Christmas Tree at the White House
The National Christmas Tree Lighting at the White House with live musical performances is one of the best events of the season. The tree is normally a Colorado blue spruce from Virginia, which can be seen year-round in President’s Park. Fifty-six smaller trees will surround the National Christmas Tree and 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. The speaker of the House officially lights the tree and the architect of the Capitol, Stephen T. Ayers, serves as master of ceremonies. The lighting will take place during a ceremony on the West Front Lawn. The tree will be lit from nightfall until 11 pm each evening after the ceremony.
- 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.
- 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. 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 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. There will be live musical performances, along with hot latkes, donuts, and free dreidels and menorah kits. The National Menorah will be lit for eight nights.
- 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 D.C.’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 during the holiday season. This is definitely one of those holiday activities in D.C. that you can’t miss.
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. The 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.
- 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 ethically 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.
- Christmas Illuminations at Mount Vernon
Kick off your holiday activities in D.C. with sparkling fireworks overlooking the Potomac River. This family-friendly evening of fun and fireworks can be complete 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 set to choreographed music.
- Russian Winter Festival at Hillwood Estate, Museum, and Garden
Celebrate Sviatki, the festive winter season, in traditional Russian style 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 D.C.’s iconic hotel. Top of the Gate, one of D.C.’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 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.
- Water Skiing Santa
Yes, you read that right. Water Skiing Santa has been a Christmas tradition in Washington, D.C. since 1986. On December 24 at 1 pm, water skiing Santa, flying elves, a Jet-skiing Grinch, and Frosty the Snowman will appear on the Potomac River between Old Town Alexandria, Virginia, and Washington, D.C. for a family-friendly fun Christmas Eve.
Of course the holidays are a beautiful time to explore all that Washington, D.C. has to offer, but the winter months, in general, make for a beautiful backdrop to the nation’s capital. Whether you’re visiting during the holidays or just in the wintertime, there are so many fun things to experience.
The nation’s capital is a true four-season city. Summer is ideal for outdoor dining at any number of outstanding restaurants. Fall brings a period of vibrant foliage. Blooming flowers dominate the cityscape come spring. But wintertime in Washington, D.C. holds a special place in our hearts, and might just be our favorite time to visit.
Here are some wintertime activities in Washington, D.C. you must experience:
Snowy stroll through D.C.
If your D.C. trip happens to coincide with a fresh snowfall, even if it’s only a dusting, then you’re going to want to take a stroll along the capital’s monument-lined walkways. It’s hard to top the serenity commissioned by the US Senate in 1901 as part of the City Beautiful urban design movement, the National Mall offers a roughly two-mile, uninterrupted walk from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial. Along the path, you’ll spot the Reflecting Pool, Washington Monument, memorials to the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and WWII, among other beautiful structures to survey in their snow-covered serenity. (They’re not bad on the eyes, sans-snow, either.)
Following a brisk monument walk, you could grab a cup of coffee to heat back up. But here’s a little insider tip: museums tend to have awesome heating and cooling systems. We’re not suggesting you visit one of D.C.’s world-class cultural institutions merely to beat the chill outside, only that you factor the unbeatable feeling of thawing out into your itinerary. Each of the Smithsonian Institutions’ 15 locations offer free admission to the general public, and each of them are well worth visiting. The Air and Space Museum, the Smithsonian Castle, and the National Museum of Natural History are all stellar stops, and you don’t even have to leave the Mall to access them.
For those willing to venture just slightly off the well-worn path that is the Mall, the Newseum is there to reward those intrepid spirits. This institution houses seven floors of exhibits dedicated to the five freedoms protected by the First Amendment: religion, speech, press, assembly, and petition. If learning about the history and importance of these freedoms given the current political climate isn’t enough of a pull, then surely the hyper-modern architecture and sweeping views of D.C. will suffice.
After a tiring day spent hoofing it around Washington, D.C., it’s always nice to take a load off; bonus points if you can still take in the culture of the city while seated. Ford’s Theater offers just that. Perhaps best known as the theater where Lincoln was assassinated, it now holds claim to a more happy accolade: the annual host of D.C.’s production of “A Christmas Carol,” the classic stage adaptation of the Dickens novella. For thirty-five years now, this play’s been a D.C. holiday staple. Lump together some theater, tradition, and history all in one go.
After curtain call, chances are you’ll be pretty spent, hungry, and perhaps thirsty as well. If a loose itinerary is your thing, then a crawl through the adjacent neighborhoods of Logan Circle and the U Street corridor is a surefire way to experience the sights, sounds, tastes, and toasts of D.C.’s top-notch restaurant and bar scene. Nosh on everything from Spanish tapas to Korean cart food, then wash it down with a beer from a dive, or a high-class cocktail from a lounge. This area’s ready to cater to whatever whim you may possess, and features great people-watching to boot.
As you can see, there are plenty of wintertime and 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 trip, please contact us today!