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The Best Things to Do in Washington DC Over the Holidays

There’s nothing quite like the holidays in DC and whether or not you live here full time or are just in town for a few days, there are a handful of can’t-miss things to see and activities to do because the Nation’s Capital truly shines in the winter! I’m coming up to my fifth holiday season in the city (time is flying) and over time, have done my fair share of festive celebrating. This is my favorite time of year and I’ve really enjoyed making some traditions that I know I’ll only be adding to for years to come. Here are some of the seasonal highlights…

DRINKS OR TEA AT THE WILLARD: Getting a drink (and usually dessert) at The Willard is one of our favorite holiday traditions. We’ve done it two years in a row and I foresee this being an annual thing as long as we live here! The Round Robin Bar is well-known and is bustling year-round, but the hotel itself gets completely decked out for the holidays and it’s always fun to see the lobby decorations and grab a table or seats at their cozy bar. I love ordering the hot toddy and a massive slice of cake :) Similarly, Tea at The Willard (it’s off the lobby) has been on my DC bucket list, but I’ve heard only great things. There’s a special holiday tea, too, with a festive menu for the season. The hotel’s location is also incredibly convenient for a stop before or after one of the below activities, too!

TEA AT THE HAY ADAMS: This year, the Hay Adams–another one of DC’s most iconic hotels–is bringing back their afternoon tea for a few weekends this year. I don’t see the information on their website yet, but the dates are Sunday December 2, 9, 16, and 23. There is a diverse (and incredibly scrumptious looking) food and tea menu, plus a special menu for kids. It runs $75/person for adults ($35 for under 12) and includes a glass of Taittinger champagne. Their well-known bar, Off the Record, is one of my favorites in the city and my go-to for out of town guests!

DOWNTOWN HOLIDAY MARKET: There’s a huge holiday market set up downtown and it’s a fun place to “window” shop, grab a festive bite to eat, and shop with local vendors as you tick gifts off your list. It’s generally pretty crowded (especially on the weekends) but is easy to walk through and also conveniently located, as it’s set up right outside the National Portrait Gallery and by the Chinatown/Gallery Plate + Metro Center metro stops.

CHRISTMAS AT THE WHITE HOUSE:: You can get tickets to tour the White House through your member of Congress, and if you have the opportunity to go at any time, it’s well worth it! Regardless of your political affiliation and views, it’s amazing to get to see the inside of one of the most iconic homes in our country and it’s even more special over the holidays where there are the most over the top decorations I’ve ever seen. We went last year and it was one of the coolest things I’ve ever done while living here. It may be a little late to snag holiday tickets this year–the WH website isn’t particularly helpful right now–but if you’re patient and want to give your member’s office a call, hopefully you’ll get a more clear answer!

ZOOLIGHTS: One of DC’s most well-known traditions and a fun one, regardless of your age! Admission to the National Zoo is free (since it’s a Smithsonian Institution) and from November 23-January 1, the zoo is decked out with thousands of LED lights. There are seasonal festivities including live performances, food + drink, and activities for the younger set–I’d say this is one of the most popular attractions over the holidays!

NATIONAL CHRISTMAS TREE: Another holiday institution–you may have seen it on TV! The National Christmas Tree lighting always draws huge crowds, but people stop by to see the tree, which is just south of the White House grounds, all season long. There are some cute aspects you can’t see well from photos and TV–I remember some trains and state-specific decorations, and there are nightly performances every evening.

STOP BY CITY CENTER: City Center is a newer addition to the city and they do a really fun, modern set of holiday decorations. The art installations suspended between their buildings are always gorgeous (it was recently colorful umbrellas!) and they’re doing their own tree lighting on November 24 (which would be fun to go to if you’re spending Thanksgiving in the area, or coming back into town early like we are!).

MOUNT VERNON CANDLELIGHT TOUR: Visiting George and Martha Washington’s historic home a few miles outside of DC is a must-see for many people heading to the DMV! I’ve never visited during the holidays, but the Candlelight Tour specifically makes every DC “holiday list” and it’s known to be a huge hit! If you’re a history buff or traveling with kids, this seasonal spin on their tours would be worth the drive.

GLOW GEORGETOWN: Georgetown is putting on their fifth outdoor light experience, featuring the work of 16 artists over the course of five weeks. If you’re in the area for dinner (there are so many good restaurants!), consider stopping by–it’s unlike anything else I’ve seen in the city!

ICE SKATING IN GEORGETOWN OR AT THE SCULPTURE GARDEN: There are two popular ice skating rinks in the city–one in on the Georgetown Waterfront, and one at the National Gallery of Art’s Sculpture Garden downtown. They can both get pretty crowded but if you’re patient or time your visit right, they’re a lot of fun! I’d recommend trying to go on an especially cold day if you can brave it, as there tend to be fewer crowds.

US BOTANIC GAREN: I’m kicking myself for not having visited the Botanic Garden over the holidays after all this time, but they have this really cool installation that’s intended to recreate classic, well-known train stations from around the country and shed light on America’s railroad history. Admission is also free!

ALEXANDRIA’S HOLIDAY BOAT PARADE (and THE DISTRICT’S HOLIDAY BOAT PARADE): If you’re in town on December 1, head to Alexandria or The Wharf for holiday boat parades, complete with activities and festive food + drinks. I’ve never been, but this is supposed to be a huge highlight of the season and would be a great family-friendly activity that’s equally fun for all ages!


If you’re from the DMV, I’d love to know if there are any spots you love that I missed, or what your favorite things to do in Washington DC may be! I know NYC gets all the acclaim for its holiday charm–and it’s supposed to be pretty tremendous–but DC shows off in its own right and I’m always especially pinching myself for getting to live here this time of year!

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