11 Fun and Free Things to Do on a Washington DC Holiday Visit

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.

Some of our 11 fun and free things to do on a Washington DC holiday visit are closed in 2020, but there are still many fun holiday events in DC. (Note: photos were taken in previous years.)

1. United States Botanic Garden Seasons Greenings

In 2020, the Terrace Gardens and Bartholdi Park will be decorated with festive lights and adornments Nov 23 – Jan 10. The conservatory and gated gardens are closed. Free holiday concerts will be live-streamed.

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.

National Botanic Garden DC holiday fun
Smithsonian Castle model, US Botanic Garden
Smithsonian Castle model, US Botanic Garden

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.

US Botanic Garden Christmas tree Washington DC holiday fun
Giant Botanic Garden tree

2. US Botanic Garden Holiday Train Display, CLOSED in 2020

The US Botanic Garden train display is canceled in 2020.

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.

US National Park Service at the Botanic Garden holiday train display
US National Park Service at the Botanic Garden holiday train display
Botanic Garden model train display
National Botanic Garden model train display

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 U.S. 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.

US Capitol Christmas Tree
US Capitol Christmas Tree

In 2020, the tree will travel all the way from the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre, and Gunnison (GMUG) National Forests in Colorado. 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, the Lighting of the U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree was held on December 5 at 5:00 pm.

4. Library of Congress Christmas Tree, CLOSED in 2020

The Library of Congress is currently closed to visitors.

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.

Library of Congress interior Washington DC
Library of Congress interior Washington DC

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.

Stay at the Kimpton George Hotel and you’ll have easy access to the entire US Capitol area. Plan your DC holiday getaway with our tips: Exploring the US Capitol Area on a DC Overnight.

5. Union Station

Giant wreaths, garlands, lights, and a Christmas tree add DC holiday spirit to Union Station every December. The Norwegian Embassy usually erects and decorates the tree each year, and there is a model train display nearby. The station is an excellent stop to warm up, enjoy a meal, and do some shopping.

New in 2020: For the 2020 holiday season, Union Station is hosting a new Holiday Reflections Walk-through Village. The village is open Nov 21 – Jan 3 and features giant trees, lights, forest friends, and floating ornaments. The village is a beautiful backdrop for holiday family photos. Tickets are required and can be purchase online. Your $5 ticket includes access to the village and a model train display, plus a ride on the Mini Holiday Express. Monday – Sunday, 10:00 – 3:00 and 4:00 – 8:00.

Union Station DC Christmas tree
Union Station DC Christmas tree
Holiday model train at Union Station DC
Holiday model train at Union Station DC

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.

Natonal Christmas Tree and Menorah
National Christmas Tree and Menorah

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 (to 11:00 Friday and Saturday) through January 1st. Lights turn on nightly at sunset, Dec 1 – Jan 1

TIP: The annual lighting ceremony is closed to the public but will be live-streamed on December 3rd. We prefer to skip the crowded lighting 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 2020, limited tickets are available for the lighting ceremony on Dec 20 at 4:00.

TIP: Tickets to the lighting ceremony are free, but are limited in 2020.

8. 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 20 – Dec 23

Downtown DC Holiday Market decorations
Downtown DC Holiday Market decorations
Downtown DC Holiday Market
Downtown DC Holiday Market

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.

9. Zoo Lights at the National Zoo

The 2020 Zoo Lights at the National Zoo is canceled. Instead, the zoo will send a mobile ZooLights Express truck to each Washington DC ward.

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.

10. Skating at the National Sculpture Garden, CLOSED in 2020

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.

Sculpture Garden ice skating Washington DC
Sculpture Garden ice skating Washington DC

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: 11 Fun Northern Virginia Ice Skating Rinks

11. Georgetown GLOW, POSTPONED

The 2020 Georgetown GLOW is postponed to Spring/Summer 2021.

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:

8 Great DC Area Places to Visit on Christmas Day

If you like DC holiday fun, you’ll find more seasonal events and displays in Virginia and Maryland in our guides:

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Holiday fun and free things to do in Washington DC including winter festivals, Christmas markets, and holiday lights in and near the nation's capital

This article was published in 2017 and updated in 2018, 2019, and 2020.

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