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

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.

A few of our 11 fun and free things to do on a Washington DC holiday visit are closed in 2021. Fortunately, there are still many fun holiday events in DC that are open this year.

1. United States Botanic Garden Seasons Greenings

In 2021, 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

The US Botanic Garden train display is closed in 2021.

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 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
Botanic Garden model train display
National Botanic Garden model 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.

TIP: Arrive early or late in the day to avoid long and slow-moving lines around 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.

Capitol Christmas Tree DC holiday lights
Capitol Christmas Tree DC

In 2021, the tree traveled all the way from the Six Rivers National Forest in California. 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.

In 2021, the Lighting of the U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree is held on December 1 at 5:00 pm.

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 is open to visitors with timed entry tickets for the 2021 holiday season. The U.S. Capitol is closed to visitors.

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 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 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 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
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.

The National Tree area is open from 10:00 – 10:00 daily (to 11:00 Friday and Saturday). Lights turn on nightly at sunset.

TIP: In 2012, the annual lighting ceremony is closed to the public but will be live-streamed on December 5. 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 Lighting Ceremony features proclamations, entertainment, hot donuts and latkes, and free dreidels and menorah kits.

TIP: Tickets to the lighting ceremony are free, but are limited in 2021.

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 offers an array of unique gifts, arts, and crafts. Visitors also enjoy live entertainment and festive treats.

Booths are open daily from noon to 8:00 pm, and admission is free. In 2021, the market is open from November 19 to December 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 2021 Zoo Lights at the National Zoo is canceled.

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.

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

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

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

Find more places to skate: 11 Fun Northern Virginia Ice Skating Rinks.

11. Georgetown GLOW

The 2021 Georgetown GLOW was held in the summer.

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 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
Washington DC Holiday Fun

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