Annual events offer a wealth of fun and free things to do on a Washington DC holiday visit, for a happy start to winter in the nation’s capital. Many DC holiday events are perfect for children and families, but there is plenty to entertain adults too. All of these events return annually, but dates and hours shift year-to-year, so follow the links to plan your visit.
Here are 11 fun and free things to do on a Washington DC holiday visit:
1. United States Botanic Garden Seasons Greenings
The US Botanic Garden is one of the hidden gems of the city, and it is open and free every day, including Christmas and New Year’s. One of our favorite Washington DC holiday traditions is to visit the annual display of poinsettias and models that fill the Conservatory. Recreations of DC landmarks, all built from natural materials, are paired with heirloom poinsettias and festive topiary in the Garden Court.
Favorites like the Smithsonian Castle and the Capitol Building return each year, and new models are added to honor new structures. In 2017, a model of the National Museum of African-American History and Culture was added. Another holiday highlight at the garden is the largest living, indoor, decorated tree. Nov 28 – Jan 5
TIP: The Conservatory is accessed through the main entrance of the Botanic Garden, and there is usually no line to get in. The garden stays open late on some weeknights, with holiday music adding to the fun.
2. US Botanic Garden Holiday Train Display
A separate entrance at the US Botanic Garden leads to an elaborate model train display, constructed to reflect a different theme each year. The train display is one of the best things to do in DC with kids during the holidays. Most of the decorations are made from natural materials, and highlight places throughout the United States. In 2016, the focus was US National Parks, in honor of the park service’s 150th anniversary.
In 2018, the theme featured train stations from around the country. The 2019 theme is “America’s Gardens.” No matter what the theme, there are always multiple trains in motion over bridges, through mountains, and past scenes you’ll recognize if you’ve traveled the U.S. Nov 28 – Jan 5
TIP: Arrive early or late in the day to avoid long and slow moving lines to view the train display.
3. Capitol Christmas Tree
Across the street from the Botanic Garden stands the US Capitol building and the Capitol Christmas Tree. Each year an enormous tree is shipped from one of our National Forests, erected on the Capitol’s front lawn, and decorated with ornaments from the tree’s home state.
In 2019, the tree will travel all the way from the Carson National Forest in New Mexico. Capitol tree decorations are handmade, giving this tree an authentic touch.
TIP: The tree is lit from dusk until 11:00 pm nightly, but we like to visit in the daytime for a better look at the decorations and better pictures of the Capitol in the background. In 2019, you can attend the Lighting of the U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree on December 5 at 5:00 pm.
4. Library of Congress Christmas Tree
Close to the Capitol is one of the most beautiful building interiors in the city. A giant Christmas tree makes a great photo opp in the colorfully decorated Thomas Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress.
TIP: You can walk between the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center and the Thomas Jefferson Building via an underground tunnel; a nice break on a winter day. The Library of Congress and the U.S. Capitol are closed on Sundays.
Plan a Washington DC Holiday Getaway
You could try to visit all of these Washington DC holiday attractions on a day trip, but why not extend your fun with a longer getaway? Spend a night or two in DC to enjoy the holiday activities listed here, plus make a final visit to the Newseum (closing permanently on Dec 31, 2019) and some of the Smithsonian museums.
5. Union Station
Giant wreaths, garlands, lights, and a Christmas tree add DC holiday spirit to Union Station every December. The Norwegian Embassy erects and decorates the tree each year, and there is usually a model train display nearby. The station is an excellent stop to warm up, enjoy a meal, and do some shopping.
TIP: Head to an upstairs restaurant for a nice view of Roman Legionnaires surrounding the main hall and the meticulously renovated coffered ceiling.
6. National Christmas Tree and Pathway of Peace
President Calvin Coolidge lit the first National Christmas Tree in 1923, and the tradition continues each year. The heavily decorated tree is located on the Ellipse, in front of the White House.
Surrounding the National Tree is the Christmas Pathway of Peace, with 56 trees from each state and territory. Unique hand-made ornaments decorate each state tree. The Pathway of Peace and National trees are free and open to the public from 10:00 – 10:00 daily through January 1st. Lights turn on nightly around 4:30 pm. Dec 9 – Jan 1
TIP: Tickets to the annual lighting ceremony are assigned by lottery. We suggest you skip the crowded ceremony, and visit another evening for clear views of the state trees.
7. National Menorah
The National Menorah is also located on the White House Ellipse. The annual Menorah Lightling Ceremony features proclamations, entertainment, hot donuts and latkes, and free dreidels and menorah kits. In 2019, the lighting ceremony is on Dec 22 at 4:00.
TIP: Tickets to the lighting ceremony are free, but you must register online in advance.
8. Zoo Lights at the National Zoo
Holiday lights, animals at night, tubing runs and choo-choo fun are all part of Zoo Lights at the National Zoo. This annual DC holiday extravaganza features more than 500,000 environmentally-friendly LED lights that transform the Zoo into a winter wonderland. ZooLights includes live music performances, tasty winter treats, and plenty of opportunities for holiday shopping.
The National Zoo packs a lot of activities and a little education into it’s holiday light show. Zoo lights is open 5:00 – 9:00 pm nightly except Christmas Eve, Christmas, and New Year’s Eve. Nov 29 – Jan 1
TIP: Admission and shuttle buses from Woodley Park metro are free, but there is a fee for parking and some optional activities.
9. Downtown DC Holiday Market
The Downtown Holiday Market has become a favorite for seasonal shopping between Thanksgiving and Christmas. A rotating schedule of over 150 vendors offer an array of unique gifts, arts, and crafts. Visitors also enjoy live entertainment and festive treats. Booths are open daily noon to 8:00 pm, and admission is free. Nov 22 – Dec 23
TIP: The market is located at 8th and F Street NW, close to the Gallery Place metro stop.
Check our guide Favorite Holiday Markets in Northern Virginia and the DC Region for more shopping fun.
10. Skating at the National Sculpture Garden
A spin on the ice at the National Sculpture Garden is a fun, though not free, addition to any Washington DC holiday visit. Visit the large scale sculptures by major artists that surround the rink during the day, and skate under festive lights at night.
Adult skating is $9.00 for two 45-minute sessions, with various options for skate rentals, lessons, and special events. Nov 15 – Mar 15
TIP: The skating rink is open daily from mid-November to early March except major holidays, weather permitting.
Find more places to skate: 9 Fun Northern Virginia Ice Skating Rinks
11. Georgetown GLOW
Georgetown Glow is a free annual exhibition of lighted public art installations. 11 curated lighted art pieces are spread among the historic buildings and shops of Georgetown. Spend a festive evening checking out the lighted art and visiting Georgetown’s many shops, bars, and restaurants.
Tip: Visit GLOW on your own or join one of the many themed walking tours featuring history, food, photography, and art.
Whichever holiday experience you choose, we wish you a very happy DC holiday outing. Please share your tips in the comments below.
Are you visiting DC for Christmas? Here are fun things to do in Washington DC on Christmas Day:
If you like DC holiday fun, you’ll find more seasonal events and displays in Virginia and Maryland in our guides:
- 12 Holiday Favorites from Northern Virginia Experts
- Holiday Lights in the Northern Virginia and Washington DC Area
This article was published in 2017 and updated in 2018 and 2019.