If you’ll be spending Christmas in Washington DC, be sure to check out one (or several!) of these fantastic holiday activities. (Updated for 2020)
Christmas in Washington DC
Christmas is my favorite time of year! All of the colorful, twinkly lights, Mannheim Steamroller music playing on a neverending loop, Santa, elves, reindeer – yeah, I’m into all of it. Most people think of New York City when it comes to Christmas in America, but that’s not the only city with awesome holiday activities. Fortunately, Washington, DC is into all of it too. I love living near a city with so much going on during the holiday season! So, I’ve put together a list of the best Christmas activities in the city that happen every year. If you’re lucky enough to be spending Christmas in Washington DC, be sure to check some (or all) of them out!
White House Christmas Tour
The White House is open for tours year-round, but going on a tour at Christmas-time is particularly special. The White House staff goes ALL OUT on Christmas decorations. The halls are filled with glittering lights, fresh pine garland, icicles, and beautiful wreaths. Every room has at least one (but usually more!) immaculately decorated Christmas tree. And every year, a gingerbread replica of the White House is placed in the State Dining Room!
And yes, you can appreciate a White House tour regardless of your political affiliation. I have visited the White House during the administrations of both parties, and have enjoyed myself every time. The White House is the People’s House and is always beautiful at Christmas time!
What you get to see on a White House Christmas Tour:
- East Wing and Movie Theater – The Movie Theater wasn’t part of the tour until 2017, so this is a real treat! In the East Wing is a collection of Christmas cards sent from past Presidential families, a tradition started in 1953 under President Eisenhower
- Library – a beautiful cozy ringed by inset shelves filled with books, including President Teddy Roosevelt’s personal copy of A Christmas Story
- East Room – the largest room in the White House, most often used for entertaining. In here you’ll find a magnificent 18th-century Italian creche (nativity scene) that has belonged to the White House since 1961
- Green, Blue, and Red Rooms – each room is beautifully decorated to suit its namesake color theme, often including the works of local artisans among the Christmas ornaments
- State Dining Room – this is where the traditional gingerbread version of the White House lives during the Christmas season. But don’t try and taste it (unless you want an untimely meeting with the Secret Service!)
- Grand Foyer – this is always the grand finale of a White House Christmas tour. Don’t forget to take a photo under the Presidential seal before you leave!
White House Christmas Tour Info:
- Admission: Free
- The earliest you can request a tour is 3 months in advance, and if you want to visit during the Christmas season, you’ll want to schedule a tour as far in advance as possible. Only a certain amount of people can tour the White House each day, and tours fill up very quickly.
- American citizens must request a White Tour through the office of their Congressman. To find out who your Representative is, go here.
- Foreign visitors can request a tour through their embassy
- Dates: White House Christmas Tours are available throughout the month of December
Christmas at the Willard
Just a block from the White House is the beautiful Willard Intercontinental Hotel. For 200 years, the Willard has been hosting Washington D.C’s most elite visitors, from international dignitaries to pop icons. So no, I’ve never stayed here. Maybe one day 😉
But, you can walk into the lobby for free! At Christmas, The Willard gives off an “Eloise at the plaza” sort of vibe, with a magnificently decorated central Christmas tree and lights and garland elegantly draped throughout the lobby, as well as an impressive gingerbread house. And every night in December, from 5:30-7:30, there’s a free musical performance by local groups such as the Children’s Chorus of Washington. This is a great way to experience Christmas in Washington DC like one of the elite, without paying the price tag.
Christmas at the Willard Info:
- Address: 1401 Pennsylvania Ave NW, Washington, DC 20004
- Musical Performance Calendar: Click here
National Christmas Tree
Did you even visit DC during Christmastime if you didn’t see THE National Christmas Tree?! The beautifully decorated conifer is located in President’s Park just outside of the White House property and has been a DC tradition since 1923 when Calvin Coolidge lit the first decorated tree. This year, the official lighting ceremony will happen on December 3, 2020, and that’s when Christmas in Washington, DC really kicks off! While it’s usually difficult to get tickets to attend the ceremony, this year’s event will be streamed online, so everyone can view it! Go here for more info.
The tree stays lit for the whole month of December, from 4:30 to midnight each day, and is worth visiting during your time in the city. Because if you visit the National Christmas Tree, you’ll get to see a lot more than just one tree. Around the main tree are 56 smaller trees, one for each U.S. state and territory. Each tree is decorated with ornaments made by residents of those states. Also near the National Christmas Tree is the National Menorah.
Most nights in December the Ellipse stage hosts performances from groups all over the country, from well-known celebrities to local schools and choirs.
(Fun fact: I got to perform here several years in a row as part of a kids’ choir I was in when I was little! I liked to tell people I sang at the White House; not technically true, but close enough 😛 )
National Christmas Tree Info:
- Admission: Free
- Hours: The display is open from 10 AM-10 PM and the tree is lit from 4:30 PM-10 PM
- Dates: December 3, 2020 -January 1, 2021
- Musical Performances: TBD due to COVID
U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree
Why have one National Christmas Tree when you can have two?! That’s right; the Capitol building also has a Christmas tree. Since the 1960s, a tree has been brought to the steps of the U.S. Capitol from a different National Forest each year. This one doesn’t have all of the extras, like the mini trees and musical performances, but it does get its own lighting ceremony. And in my personal opinion, this tree is much prettier than the official National Christmas Tree.
The Capitol Tree is located on the West Lawn of Capitol Building. One of the most iconic pictures of Christmas in Washington DC is a photo of the Capitol Christmas Tree with the famous rotunda and Capitol steps behind it. Make sure to stop by here if you’re spending Christmas in Washington DC!
Follow the tree’s progress on Facebook!
U.S. Botanic Garden Seasonal Exhibit
Every year, the U.S. Botanic Garden has a special “Season’s Greenings” (see what they did there?) exhibit. The exhibit always features amazing plant-based recreations of famous landmarks and buildings. 2017’s theme was Roadside Attractions and included Cadillac Ranch made from bamboo leaves, Mr. Potato Head made from a gourd, and Mt. Rushmore made from a combination of mahogany, black walnut bark, sponge fungi, and driftwood!
The entrance hall also has huge recreations of DC landmarks, such as the White House and the Capitol Building, as well as a 3,000+ poinsettia display that includes varieties not yet on the market. It’s an awesome exhibit, and it’s free!
Because of COVID-19, the Botanic Gardens will have expanded online experiences, including seasonal concerts and classes, such as wreath-making. There will also be festive decorations in the outdoor Bartholdi Park. The indoor terrace will be closed throughout December.
U.S. Botanic Garden Info:
- Admission: Free
- Dates: The seasonal decorations will be on display November 23, 2020 – January 10, 2021
- House: The garden is open 7 days a week, from 10 AM -5 PM (Currently closed due to COVID)
Downtown Holiday Market
Don’t want to rely on Amazon for all of your Christmas shopping needs? Check out DC’s Downtown Holiday Market! 2020 market the 16th year in a row that this outdoor shopping village has showcased unique and local small businesses. This year’s market will take up two entire blocks of F Street NW, from 7th to 9th Streets NW, to allow for maximum social distancing. The retail lineup will include over 70 vendors from around the Washington, DC area.
Holiday Market info:
- Dates: November 20 to December 23, 2020
- Hours: 12-8 PM every day except Mondays
- Location: F Street NW between 7th and 9th Streets; NW Entrance is outside the National Portrait Gallery and Smithsonian American Art Museum
Enchant Christmas at Nats Park (CLOSED DUE TO COVID)
This is a brand new addition to the DC Christmas celebrations in 2019. Enchant Christmas is set to take over Nats Park this holiday season with what’s being billed as the largest light maze in the world. In addition to the maze, there will be an ice skating trail through the park and Christmas market featuring over 60 local and international artisans and vendors.
Enchant Christmas Info:
Admission: $34 for adults, $17 for youths (ages 14-17), $15 for children (ages 4-13). Upgrades available Dates: November 22- December 29, 2019 Location: Nationals Park Purchase tickets here
The Messiah at the National Cathedral (CANCELLED FOR 2020)
Handel’s Messiah unveils the story of Christianity in a way no other composer has ever accomplished. Handel wrote The Messiah to be performed in a place just like the National Cathedral, and attending a performance of it here is an experience you won’t forget. Just thinking about the jubilant notes of the pipe organ and trumpets of the Hallelujah Chorus being rung in that space sends chills down my spine. If you have the time, do not miss out on this performance!
Every year, the Smithsonian National Zoo gets into the holiday spirit by putting on their free event, Zoolights. With over 500,000 LED lights, the zoo is transformed into a colorful winter playground! The event also features live musical performances and holiday drinks and treats (liked mulled cider and eggnog, and spiked hot chocolate for the 21+ crowd), along with a light show set to music. This is a great event to take kids to but it’s a lot of fun for adults too! (I’m 26, and I think it’s pretty cool!)
Due to COVID, Zoolights will not be taking place on-site this year, but instead will be traveling around to DC’s 8 wards on Friday and Saturday evenings. The “Zoolights Express Truck” will be decorated with festive light displays. For the full schedule, go here.
What was once an experimental holiday show in Washington’s most historic neighborhood has become an annual staple. 2020 will be the 7th year for Georgetown GLOW, a holiday light show like no other! Georgetown GLOW is a free outdoor art exhibit that takes place during the month of December. Each installation lights up once the sun goes down, and many pieces are interactive. It’s an art exhibit for people who usually find art exhibits to be boring. Plus, it gives you an excuse to wander around one of DC’s oldest and most popular neighborhoods!
Related: 3-day Washington DC itinerary
Georgetown GLOW Info:
- Location: Throughout DC’s Georgetown neighborhood
- Admission: Free
- Dates: December 4, 2020 – January 10, 2021
- Hours: 5-10 PM nightly
Christmas at Mount Vernon
Mount Vernon makes for a great day trip from DC, but particularly so during the Christmas season. During the holiday season, the estate is illuminated by festive winter lights and Christmas carolers enchant visitors.
You can also say hi to Aladdin the Camel, a tribute to the camel that Washington hired to entertain guests for Christmas in 1787. This is a Christmas in Washington DC tradition that you definitely don’t want to miss!
Christmas at Mount Vernon Info:
- Admission: $45 for adults, $30 for youths (6-11), kids 5 and under are free
- Dates: November 27-29, Dec. 11-13, and 26-28 from 5:30-8:30 PM
- Purchase tickets here
There are plenty of other things to do to celebrate Christmas in Washington DC, but these are my absolute favorites! Have any questions about visiting America’s capital during the holidays? Let me know in the comments or contact me!
For another magical city Christmas, check out things to do in New York at Christmas.
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