Washington DC’s Christmas activities will make anyone feel festive, regardless of whether you are a shopper, theatergoer, walker, or ice skater. Here is my list of the Top 13 Things to Do in the nation’s capital. Holiday magic abounds for visitors as well as residents.
After a two-year cancellation due to the pandemic, the outdoor holiday light show returns to Georgetown. This represents the 8th edition of Georgetown GLOW. Running November 26 through January 22, it features five light art installations. They are lit nightly.
The most popular installation may be The Cloud Swing. According to the organizers, “it is a series of swings suspended from three glowing cloud structures that will be located in East Market Lane (3276 M St NW), in which color and light are created as people engage with the artwork and swing through the air.”
DC Holiday Lights
Described as “DC Dazzle, DC Holiday Lights will feature multiple DC neighborhoods which compete to be named the best and brightest during the holiday. More than a dozen commercial corridors are participating, including the historic Chevy Chase, Cleveland Park, Dupont Circle, Georgetown, and U Street neighborhoods. Visitors are asked to cast their votes online before December 11 for the “best-decorated corridor.”
“Between November 18 and January 8, take a stroll down each of the participating corridors below to experience a dazzling array of lights and decor.”DC Holiday Lights
Hillwood Estate, Museum & Gardens hosted its annual Holiday Open House on November 29. Former home of Marjorie Merriweather Post, the museum’s holiday decorations are a feast for the eyes. Discover elaborate Christmas trees staged in the family’s personal rooms.
There are four Christmas trees in the mansion. Principal designer and Studio Q owner Quintece Hill-Mattauszek designed the Christmas tree in the Visitor’s Center. Hillwood floral and event decor designer Ami Wilber used the museum’s Grace of Monaco exhibit as her inspiration.
“Haute Holidays at Hillwood draws inspiration from the special exhibition Grace of Monaco: Princess in Dior with resplendent Christmas trees and holiday decorations throughout the estate.”Hillwood Museum
A Christmas Carol
While you might want to say Bah Humbug to seeing A Christmas Carol at the Ford’s Theatre, ignore your Ebenezer Scrooge inclination. This is a family tradition for most Washingtonians.
The play began with the actors coming on stage to deliver a heartfelt speech about their joy to come together as a company. I attended the play’s opening night in 2021 on the eve of Thanksgiving. I could feel the electricity in the air as the audience members leaned forward to listen to actor Craig Wallace welcome us back after the 2020 pandemic cancellation.
“I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year …”Charles Dickens
While billed as “A Ghost Story of Christmas,” A Christmas Carol is a perennial reminder that Christmas lives in our hearts.
Downtown Holiday Market
Conveniently located just blocks from Ford’s Theatre, the Downtown Holiday Market features small businesses and entrepreneurs across the region selling their wares. I like to just wander from stall to stall to smell the candles and soaps and browse gifts.
According to the organizers, there are “70 exhibitors including Black-owned and minority-owned businesses from the DC Department of Small and Local Business Development’s (DSLBD).”
The 18th Annual Downtown Holiday Market runs daily thru Dec. 23. Hours of operation are 12 p.m. to 8 p.m. The city closed an entire block on F Street NW between 7th and 9th Street. The main grand entrance is located on the sidewalk in front of the National Portrait Gallery and Smithsonian American Art Museum. Several “selfie stations” are set up to pose with loved ones (human or furry friends).
No purchases are necessary as DC’s outdoor shopping village is free. But there are vendors selling food and hot beverages. Buy a donut and then find a seat in the pavilion to watch singers and musicians perform on the live stage.
After you finish your shopping, head over to Jaleo’s to enjoy tapas and sangria. Seating is provided outside in a covered area festooned with holidays decorations.
Or you choose among three other restaurants operated by ThinkFoodGroup in the Penn Quarter. They are Zaytinya, China Chilcano, and Oyamel Cocina Mexicana. After you finish your cocktail and a small bite, button up your coat and head down to the U.S. Capitol.
Capitol Christmas Tree
Known as “The People’s Tree,” the Capitol Christmas Tree looms large on the West Lawn in front of the august building. Since 1970, the U.S. Park Service procures the Christmas tree from different national parks for Christmas in Washington. Over the last decade, the species of the tree include Nobel Fir, Engelmann Spruce, Sierra White Fir, and Lutz Spruce (the first tree from Alaska).
This towering tree stands in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol—which is “a symbol of the American people and their government, the meeting place of the nation’s legislature” (www.VisitTheCapitol.org).
The 2021 tree came from the Six Rivers National Forest in California. Its name is Sugar Bear. The selected theme of “Six Rivers, Many Peoples, One Tree.” This is only the fifth time a Capitol tree has been harvested from California, and the first time a tree has been selected from the Six Rivers National Forest.
In Eureka, California, North Coast residents were invited to help create 15,000 ornaments for the U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree. The 2021 Christmas Tree lighting occurred on Dec. 1.
U.S. Botanical Garden
If you managed to wake up before sunrise, you can enjoy the U.S. Capitol Tree shimmering in a glow of red, yellow, green, and white lights. It is then a short walk across the circle to the U.S. Botanic Gardens. The Architect of the Capitol also lights the trees in front of the entrance. In previous years, the lights rotated between different colors. I was bathed in purple, blue, and red lights. (I also recommend visiting at sunset.)
This year, the Botanical Garden presents “Season’s Greenings.” An outdoor G-gauge train display can be visited in the gated outdoor gardens during these dates between the hours of 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. Tickets are not required.
I visited the train display with Parker (my Golden Retriever). He was fascinated by the black Santa Fe train rushing across the bridge.
The train display is located in the gated outdoor gardens. It also features Patrick Dougherty bicentennial stickwork sculpture, Rose Garden, and Regional Garden of native plants, and more). It is open from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.
Visitors can also now go inside to see the garden exhibits. The Conservatory will feature poinsettias, holiday decor, and D.C. landmarks made from plants. My favorites are the U.S. Capitol and the White House.
The Conservatory and outdoor train display will be open until 8:00 p.m. on Tuesdays in December.
Festive adornments, winterberries, lighted trees and shrubs, and conifers and greenery are placed throughout the Botanical Gardens through Jan. 2, 2023. It is closed on Dec. 25.
Canadian Embassy Christmas Tree
Within view of the U.S. Capitol is the Canadian Embassy. It is located on Pennsylvania Avenue NW. Each year the Canadian Embassy decorates a huge outdoor Christmas tree inside the Rotunda of the Provinces & Territories.
At night, the columns glow red and black. The majestic tree can be seen by all who drive or walk down Pennsylvania Avenue NW. It is definitely worth a detour.
Capitol Hill Neighborhood
Roaming through the streets of the Historic Capitol Hill neighborhood is one of my favorite jaunts during the month of December. I describe it as “Miracle on A Street NE.” I love to walk my Golden Retriever dog (Parker) here in the morning before work. A sign up on one resident’s house points to “Sleigh Rides,” “Hot Cocoa,” and “Ice Skating.”
Neighbors compete to create Christmas tableaus featuring cartoon characters, reindeer wearing red light necklaces, hedgehogs in LL Bean hats, and chubby gnomes. There is even an inflatable Christmas monster. My favorite is Snoopy lying on the roof of his dog house. It is decorated with a string of Christmas lights.
Usually, near Christmas Eve, a few houses on A Street NE will hang a string of colored lights and giant red Christmas ornaments on the stately trees. Check out my YouTube video: https://m.youtube.com/shorts/KpANZ2Olt9o
National Christmas Tree
Not to be confused with the U.S. Capitol Christmas tree, the National Christmas Tree adorns the northeast quadrant of The Ellipse. According to the National Park Service, “the tradition of the National Christmas Tree on the Ellipse began with President Calvin Coolidge over 90 years ago when he lit a 48 foot Balsam Fir from Vermont decorated with 2,500 electric bulbs in red, white, and green on Christmas Eve 1923.”
The 2022 National Christmas Tree opens to the public on December 1. The lighting ceremony occurs on November 30. The TV special will air on December 10.
Visit the National Christmas Tree in President’s Park on the White House Ellipse. You will also see trees decorated with handmade ornaments from 56 U.S. states and territories. There are nightly musical performances.
The Heurich House in Dupont Circle organizes an annual Christmas market German-style (December 2-4) in Washington D.C. Held in the walled garden, the market features artisans selling gifts.
Consumers can sip on a “Senate” brand beer or consume mulled wine (“gluhwein). The market features handmade gifts, such as candles and jewelry as well as chocolates. A ticket costs $2-$19. The “Christmas Cheer” ticket includes an adult beverage as well as an entrance to the market.
This is the 10th edition of the Christmas market which features local artisans. “Craftsmanship and entrepreneurship are an important part of the museum’s history. The Heurich mansion was built by local artisans in 1894,” according to the museum.
The term lobbying is reportedly derived from businessmen who congregated in the lobby of the Willard Hotel during the Lincoln Administration during the Civil War. While you will still see business people, the Willard Hotel also attracts well-heeled tourists.
During Christmas, the Willard Hotel is decked out with a giant Christmas tree as well as poinsettias. In the evening, the hotel features local singers who perform in the lobby. Hum along with Michael Buble’s version of It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas everywhere you go . . .
“There’s a tree in the Grand Hotel, one in the park as well . . .”Meredith Wilson
Located at 1401 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, the Willard Hotel is an easy walk to the Metro Center shopping district as well as restaurants. Opened in 1818, this luxury hotel is known as the “Residence of Presidents.”
No holiday celebration is complete without seeing a holiday concert at the Kennedy Center. This year, the calendar of events includes Handel’s Messiah and Bach’s Magnificat.” NPR’s “A Jazz Christmas” is always a sellout. The National Symphony Orchestra (NSO) Pops will stage “A Holiday Pops” in mid-December. In addition, the Millenium Stage North features free tickets (requiring ticket reservation in advance) for 6 pm shows. The NSO also will take its programming on the road. The Anthem will feature the NSO’s Ugly Sweater Holiday Concert on December 6.
TerriDecember 4, 2021 at 12:40 pm
Yes there are a lot of activities which returned in 2021 including the train display. We are so glad to return to the theater. It was dark for a long time in DC!
EllaDecember 4, 2021 at 4:22 pm
Thanks for sharing a cozier, lighter hearted side of D.C. Very inviting!!
CarlyDecember 4, 2021 at 6:06 pm
My fave is the Canadian Embassy (though to be fair I might be biased!). Happy holidays!
BeaDecember 5, 2021 at 1:53 am
Who would have thought that there is so much to do in Washington DC during the holidays! And I love how Parker was mesmerized by the holiday train! Adorable!
JasminaNovember 26, 2022 at 10:24 am
What a dream – the National Christmas Tree looks so pretty. As an European, I’m dreaming of Christmas in the USA – hopefully I’ll get there as soon as possible. Thanks for sharing!
TerriNovember 26, 2022 at 12:01 pm
I hope you get to visit the USA and Washington DC in particular during December. There are so many cool things to do. Our National Christmas Tree is spectacular.
simplyjolayneNovember 26, 2022 at 11:17 am
So many similar activities as we have here in Denver. We are going to visit the Christkindlmarkt tonight. I love all of the markets you highlight as well. That’s what I would love to visit.
TerriNovember 26, 2022 at 12:03 pm
I am so glad that the Christmas markets continue to expand into new neighborhoods in Washington DC. I love to explore the artisan gifts. They are one of a kind.
KarenNovember 28, 2022 at 10:16 pm
It’s wonderful to read about all the traditions of Christmas in DC. It makes me want to go visit during the holidays. Such a comprehensive write up of all there is to do there.
TerriNovember 29, 2022 at 5:27 am
I hope one day that you can visit Washington DC during the Christmas season. There is so much to do.
YvonneNovember 26, 2022 at 12:09 pm
I never considered DC for Christmas, but it looks magical! I think I would love exploring the Downtown Holiday Market. And there are so many extraordinary Christmas trees to see! Wow! It looks like DC has some great holiday cheer!
TerriNovember 26, 2022 at 12:44 pm
Yes we pride ourselves on our Christmas cheer! We’re not just about politics & cherry blossoms lol! 🌸🌸
DottiNovember 26, 2022 at 12:27 pm
So much to see and do over the holidays! I’d love to see the Canadian embassy tree. Thanks for sharing 🙂
TerriNovember 26, 2022 at 12:43 pm
The Canadian Christmas tree can be seen from the US Capitol grounds. It is spectacular.
Rachel-Jean FirchauNovember 26, 2022 at 12:52 pm
Ahh this is giving me all the Christmas feels! I miss DC. Need to return soon!
TerriNovember 26, 2022 at 4:44 pm
DC is amazing right? I hope you get back soon for a visit.
MayiNovember 26, 2022 at 3:29 pm
I absolutely the festive atmosphere of cities during Christmas and New Year. There are, for sure, lots of things to do in Washington, DC. I’d love to experience the city one day, and why not in winter? By the way, the Capitol looks stunning.
TerriNovember 26, 2022 at 4:43 pm
Everyone should see the Us Capitol once during the Christmas season. The Capitol Christmas tree is always stunning.
ErinNovember 26, 2022 at 3:49 pm
Oh wow, how I love the holidays up north with snow! It looks and feels like Christmas. You captured it so well – and the photography is just stunning too! I would love to see the Christmas tree at the US capitol and the botanical gardens.
TerriNovember 26, 2022 at 4:42 pm
I am so glad you like my photos. I work so hard to capture the magic of the season by photographing at daylight and also sunset.
JohnNovember 26, 2022 at 6:33 pm
What a wonderful list. Brought back a lot of good memories. I’m so glad you included the Willard. I tried to go every year for the Christmas carolers. I would get there early to secure a seat on one of the comfy couches. And they had free sugar cookies too. This list made me want to squeeze in a quick weekend back to DC in December!
TerriNovember 26, 2022 at 7:36 pm
The Willard is such a treasure. I can’t wait to head back again this year to hear the carolers.
StephanieNovember 26, 2022 at 7:51 pm
WOW, I’ll definitely be adding Washington DC to my list to visit for the holidays! It all looks so magical! Plus, I love all the light displays and dreamy Christmas trees!
TerriNovember 27, 2022 at 6:15 am
I highly recommend visiting DC during December. The city really does outdo itself with all the holiday lights!!
KathrynNovember 26, 2022 at 11:56 pm
What a fun, seasonal to do list for DC! Have yet to visit this timenof year so apprrciate the extra motivation here. The Canadian Embassy would be my first stop 🙂
TerriNovember 27, 2022 at 6:14 am
All my Canadian readers express so much excitement about visiting the Embassy to see the Christmas tree! I hope you get to visit one day.
Sara EssopNovember 27, 2022 at 3:45 am
Wow, there’s so much to do in Washington DC during the holidays! It looks like a great time to be there!
TerriNovember 27, 2022 at 6:13 am
It is magical!!
DaniellaNovember 27, 2022 at 3:46 am
It looks so festive in DC. I would definitely want to check out the botanical gardens.
TerriNovember 27, 2022 at 6:12 am
The highlight is the model train setup! The children get so excited seeing it travel around the track.
Jenn | By Land and SeaNovember 27, 2022 at 9:11 am
DC looks magical with all the Christmas festivities!
TerriNovember 28, 2022 at 4:25 pm
Pure magic in the nation’s capital 🎄
ANUKRATI DOSINovember 27, 2022 at 9:50 am
The model train setup looks so worth seeing in person.
TerriNovember 28, 2022 at 4:25 pm
The model train is so cool. Children adore it.
JeanineNovember 27, 2022 at 3:38 pm
Hard to choose a favourite thing, A Christmas Carol is a favourite, The Willard hotel looks amazing as do all the festive lights about at night…I am a sucker for Christmas Markets so I would definitely attend those… thank you for a wonderful look at Christmas in Washington DC
TerriNovember 28, 2022 at 4:25 pm
Thank you! All these events are so special to attend in Washington DC. They really get you in your holiday spirit.
SharynNovember 27, 2022 at 5:00 pm
Lots of magical things to do around Christmas. It’s starting to feel a lot like Christmas! Enjoy Christmas 2022.
TerriNovember 28, 2022 at 4:24 pm
Enjoy your Christmas! I know I am excited.
TishNovember 27, 2022 at 11:45 pm
Terri I love the wonderful holiday sights you recommended to see! Many are my favorite
I can feel Christmas in the air
TerriNovember 28, 2022 at 4:23 pm
So many locals wrote me that they have cherished memories of their Christmas traditions in Washington DC. I will never miss seeing the annual Pops holiday concert at the Kennedy Center. Merry Christmas!
AlexandraNovember 28, 2022 at 2:53 pm
DC is one of my favorite U.S. cities for Christmas! I lived there for almost 10 years and always loved the holidays. Great recommendations!
TerriNovember 28, 2022 at 4:21 pm
I wholeheartedly agree. You can find something different to do every night for the 24 days leading up to Christmas Eve in DC. It is magical. 🎄🎄
KristaNovember 30, 2022 at 11:46 am
Washington looks fantastic to visit around Christmas. I was there one summer and really enjoyed walking around the different neighbourhoods.
TerriDecember 3, 2022 at 6:10 am
I hope you get to visit DC in the winter. It is so beautiful at Christmas.
DeniseDecember 2, 2022 at 8:18 pm
Christmastime in DC is lovely! I especially love your neighborhood photos!
TerriDecember 3, 2022 at 6:09 am
My favorite thing is to roam through DC’s neighborhoods,like Capitol Hill, to admire the Christmas decorations.