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

Updated on December 21, 2023 by Julie McCool

Annual events bring so many 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 the Washington DC holiday events listed below return annually, but dates and hours shift year-to-year. Follow the links to plan your visit and check the latest hours. The holiday season is a beautiful time to visit the capital.

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1. United States Botanic Garden Seasons Greenings

Nov 23 – Jan 1, 2024

The annual Seasons Greenings celebration returns in 2023! The US Botanic Garden is one of the hidden gems of the city, and it is free and open daily except closed Christmas Day n2023.

One of our favorite 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 Display of the US Capitol
National Botanic Garden DC Holiday Display

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.

Smithsonian Castle model, US Botanic Garden
Smithsonian Castle model, US Botanic Garden

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

Nov 23 – Jan 1, 2023

The US Botanic Garden train display will be outdoors in the gardens in 2023 and it opens on Thanksgiving weekend. The elaborate model train display is constructed to reflect a different theme each year and in 2023 the theme is pollinators. The train display is one of the best things to do in DC with kids during the holidays and admission is free.

Most of the train decorations are made from natural materials and they highlight places throughout the United States. For example, 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

In 2018, the theme featured train stations from around the country, while the 2019 theme was “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.

Botanic Garden model train display
National Botanic Garden model train display

TIP: Arrive early or late in the day to avoid long and slow-moving lines around the train display. Since the trains are outdoors in 2023, they may be closed during inclement weather.

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 Washington DC
US Capitol Christmas Tree Washington DC

In 2023, the tree will come from the Monongahela National Forest in North Carolina. 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 too. During the day you'll have a better view of the decorations. Visit at dusk and you may capture a pretty background sunset.

Capitol Christmas Tree sunset view with the Washington Monument in the distance.
Capitol Christmas Tree sunset

4. Library of Congress Christmas Tree

The Library of Congress and the U.S. Capitol are open to visitors with timed entry tickets.

Close to the Capitol is one of the most beautiful building interiors in the city. Most years, a giant Christmas tree makes a great photo opp in the colorfully decorated Thomas Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress.

TIP: When the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center is open, you can walk to the Thomas Jefferson Building via an underground tunnel; a nice break on a winter day. The Library of Congress is open Tuesday to Saturday and the U.S. Capitol is open Monday to Friday.

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 and to visit 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 erects and decorates the tree each year, and there is sometimes a model train display nearby. The station is an excellent stop to warm up, enjoy a meal, and do some shopping.

Union Station DC Christmas tree
Union Station DC Christmas tree

In 2022, the Norwegian Christmas tree returned but there was no train display. There is usually a free tree lighting ceremony with live entertainment in late November.

TIP: Head to an upstairs restaurant for a nice view of the meticulously renovated coffered ceiling and Roman Legionnaires surrounding the main hall.

6. National Christmas Tree and Pathway of Peace

Dec 2 – Jan 1, 2024

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.

The official lighting ceremony is on November 30 and tickets are required. The area is open from 10:00 – 10:00 daily (to 11:00 Friday and Saturday). Lights turn on nightly at sunset.

TIP: A lottery for tickets to the tree lighting ceremony opens in late October. We prefer to skip the crowded lighting ceremony and visit another evening for clear views of the state trees.

7. National Menorah

Dec 7

The National Menorah is also located on the White House Ellipse. The annual Menorah Lighting Ceremony (Dec 7, 2023) features proclamations, entertainment, hot donuts and latkes, and free dreidels and menorah kits.

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

8. Downtown DC Holiday Market

Nov 17 – Dec 23

The Downtown DC Holiday Market has become a favorite for seasonal shopping between Thanksgiving and Christmas. A rotating schedule of over 70 vendors offers an array of unique gifts, arts, and crafts. Visitors also enjoy live entertainment and festive treats.

Downtown DC Holiday Market decorations
Downtown DC Holiday Market decorations

Booths are open daily from noon to 8:00 pm, and admission is free. In 2023, the market is open from November 17 to December 23.

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

Nov 24 – Dec 30

Zoo Lights at the National Zoo is an annual DC holiday extravaganza that 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.

New in 2023, Zoo Lights tickets are $6 per person so this event is no longer free.

TIP: Admission and shuttle buses from Woodley Park metro are free, but there is a $30 fee for parking and some optional activities.

10. Skating at the National Sculpture Garden

Ice skating at the National Sculpture Garden is another 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.

Ice Skating at the National Sculpture Garden is one of the fun things to do on a DC holiday visit
Ice Skating at National Sculpture Garden

TIP: The skating rink is open daily from mid-November to early March except for major holidays, weather permitting.

Find details and more Fun DC and Northern Virginia Ice Skating Rinks.

11. Georgetown GLOW

Dec 1 – Jan 7, 2024

Georgetown Glow returns in 2023 with 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. Works are lit nightly from 5:00 to 10:00 PM.

Tip: Visit GLOW on your own or join one of the many themed walking tours featuring history, food, photography, and art.

12. CityCenter DC Christmas Tree

Nov 25 – Jan 7, 2024

Kick off the holiday season when CityCenter DC celebrates its 10th anniversary with a special Christmas Tree Lighting event on November 25. Live performances, face painting, sweet treats, and more add to the family fun. The 75-foot treat is a great backdrop for holiday photos and it's accompanied by 20-foot reindeer and artist-decorated trees.

Whichever holiday experience you choose, we wish you a very happy DC holiday outing.

Are you visiting DC for Christmas? Check out our guide to Fun Things to Do in Washington DC on Christmas Day.

If you enjoy 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
Best Washington DC Holiday Activities