If you’ll be spending Christmas in Washington, DC, be sure to check out one (or several!) of these fantastic holiday activities.
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. 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!
Although White House tours are free and open to the public, you cannot just show up. If you’re an American citizen, you must schedule a tour through your Congressman’s office (go here to find your Congressman’s contact info). If you are an international visitor, you can schedule a tour through your embassy.
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.
Christmas at the Willard
Just a block from the White House is the beautiful Willard Intercontinental Hotel. This is where everyone who’s anyone stays when they visit DC, 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.
National Christmas Tree
The National Christmas Tree is located on the Ellipse just outside of the White House property. The official lighting ceremony happens after Thanksgiving, and that’s when Christmas in Washington, DC really kicks off! If you can’t visit the actual lighting ceremony, no worries – 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 60+ 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: Nearby New York City is another great place to spend Christmas
Most nights in December the Ellipse stage hosts performances from groups all over the country, from well-known celebrities to local schools and choirs. For a schedule of events, go here.
(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 😛 )
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!
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. Last year’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. It’s an awesome exhibit, and it’s free!
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!
For tickets, go here.
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 25, and I think it’s pretty cool!)
This is a fairly new addition to the roster of things to do during Christmas in Washington, DC (2018 will be its 4th year). But an addition worth adding! 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
Candlelight tour of Mount Vernon
Mount Vernon makes for a great day trip from DC, but particularly so during the Christmas season. During the holiday season, Mount Vernon hosts special candlelight tours that highlight how Christmas was celebrated in the days of George Washington. Imagine walking into the home of America’s first President and listening to Martha Washington tell stories of Christmas past! This is a Christmas in Washington, DC tradition that you definitely don’t want to miss!
A candlelit tour costs $25 for adults (12 and up), $17 for youths (ages 6-11), and kids 5 and under are free.
For tickets, go here.
Related: Check out this article for other things to do in Washington DC in the winter!
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!
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