Last Updated on November 8, 2022 by Maggie McKneely
If you’ll be spending Christmas in Washington DC, be sure to check out one (or several!) of these fantastic holiday activities. (Updated for 2022)
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
- Holiday events 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. The date for the official lighting ceremony for 2022 will be November 30th and the lottery for tickets to attend runs from October 25 – November 1. Go here to enter!
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.
Related: Both New York City and Chicago are great cities to spend Christmas too
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 2 – January 1, 2023
- Musical Performances: TBD
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 the 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!
- Dates: November 24, 2022 – January 2, 2023
- Times: 10 AM-5 PM every day
- Admission: Free, no tickets required (but expect long lines!)
U.S. Botanic Garden Info:
- Admission: Free
- Dates: The seasonal decorations will be on display TBD
- House: The garden is open 7 days a week, from 10 AM -5 PM
Downtown Holiday Market
Don’t want to rely on Amazon for all of your Christmas shopping needs? Check out DC’s Downtown Holiday Market! 2021 marks the 17th 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. Check out their website for details.
Holiday Market info:
- Dates: November 18 to December 23, 2022
- 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
After its debut in 2019, Enchant is coming back to DC for the 2022 season! Enchant Christmas is set to take over Nats Park this holiday season once again with 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: $35 for adults, $23 for youths (3-17). Upgrades available
- Dates: November 25 – January 1, 2023
- Location: Nationals Park
- Purchase tickets here
The Messiah at the National Cathedral
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!
- Dates: December 2, 3, and 4, 2022
- Ticket Price: $20 – $95
- Location: Washington National Cathedral
- Tickets: Purchase here
Every year, the Smithsonian National Zoo gets into the holiday spirit by putting on its 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 (like 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!) This is one of the most family-friendly ways to celebrate Christmas in Washington DC.
- Dates: November 25 – December 30, 2022
- Time: 5-9 PM
- Admission: Free
- Location: Smithsonian National Zoo
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: $36 for adults, $28 for youths (6-11), kids 5 and under are free
- 2022 Dates: November 25-26, Dec. 2-3, Dec. 9-10, and Dec. 18
- Purchase tickets here
A Christmas Carol at Ford’s Theater
The musical version of Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol is coming to DC’s most historic theater this season! Ford’s Theater was the site of President Lincoln’s assassination, but your experience watching the ghosts of Christmas lead Scrooge to redemption will have a happier ending.
A Christmas Carol info
- Dates: November 18-December 31, 2022
- Tickets: Range from $30-$104 (museum admission is included)
- 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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This completely got me in the Christmas spirit! I’ve never considered going to the white house for Christmas, but now it’s on my list.
Great article! I loved the pics of the C&O canal. The White House is always so beautiful for Christmas.
Looks like fun! We were just there in May for a school field trip and I would LOVE to see D.C. decorated for the holidays.
Those gingerbread houses are so cool. I’d love to see the white house in gingerbread – do they use frosting to make the whole thing white?
Thanks for getting me in the Christmas spirit! I really love the Botanic Garden’s “Season’s Greenings” holiday fun and didn’t know you could visit the White House for a Christmas tour!
Love it! The U.S. East Coast was one of my first solo trips and I loved all the lights, trees, and Christmas atmosphere. To see D.C. and the White House with the Christmas trees from all over the country was special to me. Thanks for bringing back these memories!
We are thinking about going to DC the weekend after Christmas – I lived there for 7 years but that was a long time ago. Def going to see about a white house tour!
I’d love to experience Christmas in the US, especially in Washington – you’ve really sold it to me! I spent Christmas in the Algarve once, but normally I stay at home.
I never thought of DC as a Christmas destination but reading this I have certainly changed my mind. A White House tour would be so amazing, because as you say it is the people’s house and it doesn’t matter what your political affiliation is.
What a lovely guide! I always think that New York must be spectacular at Christmas time but now I may have to try and squeeze DC in as well! Love the idea of looking around the white house at Christmastime!
So cool! I had no idea that there was a Christmas tour at the White House! That one goes directly to my bucket list!
I’m so jealous of the White House tour! Even planning well in advance of our April trip to the nation’s capital, everything was booked and we couldn’t go inside. It’s even more amazing at Christmastime!
It looks so pretty and Christmassy. Somehow I would never have thought of Washington like that. Its been years since I visited there.
I love the idea of spending Christmas in Washington or any big city. Adore the trees and now I know about advance reservations for the White House. So much fun.
We’ve been meaning to get our boys to DC but had never considered it at Christmas time- I think we should!!
I love Christmas in DC! It’s so utterly beautiful, and reading your post brings back memories. My friends and I did something like “Christmas Tree hunting” where we met all over town trying to spot Christmas trees in public places. Didn’t know about Willard though! Your family pic is adorable btw!
I’ve always wanted to spend a Xmas holiday in the United States. And after this post, I’m really considering it! Maybe this year, who knows?!
Thanks for so much inspiration!!
Cheers from Argentina 🙂
Wow, this looks amazing! I’d love to visit Washington DC someday, and now I want to do it at Christmas Time. Thanks for the inspiration!
Wow. Was not aware that you could go on a tour to White House for Christmas time. That is amazing. Would share with friends heading to US for Christmas. Am yet to visit Washington myself and hope to plan it during Christmas time. Loved U.S. Botanic Garden Seasonal exhibit. Copper color stands out.
I didn’t even realize they were giving tours of the white house anymore. I have also spent Christmas in DC and it is magical
Definitely got me into the Christmas mood now, always nice to see what is going on in other places. The tour inside the White House would be my first pick!
I absolutely love hearing carols played by grand church organs and I absolutely love cathedrals so this will be a treat to hear/see. I have to go on a WH tour one day; it is the People’s House regardless of party affiliation. I really need to do D.C. beyond a weekend and the sights cos I didn’t know of the canal.
I have been to DC in the winter but never did the full “Christmas” tour. I always get skunked on White House tours because they book so far in advance. Now I know the window is 3 months so I can plan accordingly. I never thought about popping into hotels like the Willard but that’s on the list too. Very informative article.
I still have to spend a Xmas in the USA. Every year I promise that it will be next year, but I never seem to be able to plan it. DC is definitely on my list of towns to spend some time in, but I never thought about visiting at Xmas. It looks stunning! Thanks for an interesting read.
Washington DC is a nice place to visit around the holidays. The weather is usually cool enough there to feel appropriately seasonable, but it’s rarely cold enough to snow. The monuments and public buildings, which are always well lit and attractive in the evenings, look even prettier with the extra lights and color of the holiday season.
I’ve always wanted to visit Washington in Spring for the blossom trees, Autumn for the beautiful coloured leaves and now I have the perfect excuse to visit at Christmas too! It all looks so festive and the lights look so pretty!
Thanks for sharing!
I have never made it to D.C. during Christmas. It looks so magical. What a great insight to take a tour of the White House during this season. I love the creations at the Botanical Gardens. I am very impressed that Zoo Lights is free. Most events like that come with a hefty price tag. I would love to do a candlelight tour at Mount Vernon. You have added so many things to my bucket list!
It looks like there’s quite a bit to see and do in the DC area around Christmas! I definitely need to visit a GLOW festival! I read that they are organized in multiple places around the world and I love the idea. Guess it must be a great experience too!
I never thought to go to Washington over Christmas but it actually looks unbelievable!! Thanks so much for all the recommendations 🙂
I love to stroll through Christmas markets, drink mulled wine and look at the colorful stalls. Surely I would like the Christmas spirit in Washington too. The Christmas trees look so gigantic.
One day, we HAVE to spend Christmas in DC! Yep, your post has just inspired us to do that! 😀 In fact, we visited DC 2 years ago and really loved this city! But we didn’t spend many days in the city and there’s so much to do and see, plus it was super hot during summer, so we sweared that we’ll visit again soon. Christmas is definitely a great time to go there. We’d love to tour the White House, and have a walk inside the Willard. Thanks for sharing this! 🙂
That’s it. After reading this and admiring all of your gorgeous pictures, I am definitely adding a visit to DC for my 2019 holiday plans. I’ve always wanted to see the White House all decorated but never really planned to do it. I love the Botanic Garden, as well.
What an informative post! I’ve never been to Washington DC and it almost feels like a sin as an American 🙂 but now I am dying to go at Christmas time! I loved all of your pictures of the different Christmas trees. Visiting the White House at Christmas must have been so cool… I always enjoy watching the White House Christmas Special on TV every year!
Christmas is my favorite time of the year too. I’ve always had Christmas in New York on my bucket list but after going through this post I must add Washington DC on that list. I had no idea one can visit the White House. That’s pretty cool. Are all these places near to each other, as in can it be visited in a day or would it take more days?
You could get all of these done in a couple of days! The White House, the Willard, and the christmas trees are right near each other, and the National Cathedral is right next to the zoo. DC is a very easy to navigate city
This is way too cool! I went around christmastime like… 10? years ago and remember it being lovely. Clearly, I need to go back because I don’t remember half of these things, and I’m OBSESSED with the gingerbread re-creations! How long do you think it should take to visit all these spots? A day? A week?
You could do most of them in just a couple of days! But if you wanted to do more in DC besides just this list, a week would be more than enough time.
Thanks so much for sharing and putting me in Christmas mode! I can’t believe it’s so soon already 🙂 I’ve never been to Washington DC but looks like I should plan my first visit around Christmas!
Christmass is the wonderful time of the year that we all look forward to. I would love to do the White House Christmass tour.
Christmas is my absolute favourite time of year! It’s so magical. I was in America with my family one Christmas, when I was quite young and it’s one of my most special memories. We were in Florida and it was like something at of a fairytale. I don’t think any other places does Christmas quite like America! Would love to go back someday. Christmas in Washington also sounds like a good time 🙂
I lived in DC for two years, and loved being there during the holidays! We did a tour of the White House once during the holidays, and it was all decked out in holiday decorations. I also loved visiting the National Christmas tree to see the ornaments that were there. I think I would enjoy going back during the holidays and visiting Mount Vernon.
All those Christmas decorations are insane! I love the Capitol Christmas tree, it adds a lovely vide to the scenery. DC surely has a lot to offer for Christmas.
I had no idea there were so many holiday-themed winter attractions in DC! I hadn’t thought of it as a particularly Christmas-y destination, but it seems hard to beat (in the U.S.) between those huge trees, the White House, and the botanical gardens.
Ohh I have never seen a Christmas from a country where it is celebrated in full swing. The US is on my list to visit during Christmas especially the western part. I’d definitely love to see the White House & the National Christmas tree, especially loved the idea of 60 smaller trees for each state.
Wow the National Christmas tree looks insane! I would love to spend Christmas somewhere like this – seems like DC goes all out!
How fun. Never knew you could do a tour of the White House and at Christmas. Looks like a great time and like you, I love the Christmas season too. Great idea to consider DC instead of the traditional Times Square in NYC.
That makes sense that Christmas in DC would be awesome! A tour of a Christmassy White House would be a great treat!
People always tell me to visit Washington DC in the autumn (fall for you, I guess!) but actually it looks so much prettier at Christmas time! I love the idea of the plant-based replicas of famous buildings, and the Zoolights display looks right up my street too!
I have been wanting to see the White House Christmas decorations but I had no idea there was so much more to see. Hope to make it there one of these years.
So I definitely want to stay at The Willard on my next visit to DC, which I am more than due for a visit. The Messiah at the National Cathedral would be amazing! YOu’ve listed a really nice selection of things to see and do for the holidays.
This list is getting me extra excited for the holidays ahead!!
There’s so much to do! I would love to go to the Botanic Garden as well as ice skating, looks like so much fun! The Georgetown GLOW looks amazing too, thanks for sharing!
Anything Christmas related and I’m sold. But I also really want to visit Washington DC. Sounds like a great time of year to visit, and everything looks so magical. Great tips, and some things I can’t wait to do when I finally make it there
I would love to visit the White House during Christmas. I bet all of the trees and the decorations are so beautiful! Thanks for a fun share
The White House Christmas tour looks amazing and beautiful! Definitely adding that to my bucket list.