Company Logo - Home Link

Christmas in Washington DC

markets, public Christmas trees, tours, and shows.

Updated: February 19, 2024

The holidays are a magical time of year, but there is something extra special about spending Christmas in the Nation's Capital.

The popular holiday shows, as well as the famous holiday tree lightings at the National Christmas Tree, start at the end of November.

Top Things to Do during the Christmas Season

1. Holiday Light Tours
2. National Christmas Tree
3. Holiday Markets & Christmas Shopping
4. Christmas Performances
5. Christmas at the Cathedral
6. Zoolights
7. Wreaths Across America at Arlington Cemetery
8. Boat Parade of Lights
9. Christmas at Mount Vernon
10. US Botanic Gardens "Seasons Greetings"
11. Willard Hotel Carolling
12. Christmas Themed Teas, Drinks & Dinners
13. Go Ice Skating
14. Enchant Christmas
15. Christmas at National Harbor

Keep reading for details about our favorite things to do during Christmas as well as:


Is Christmas a good time to visit DC?

Absolutely! Generally, we don't have to worry about a "white Christmas" and it is not unbearably cold (see our December weather post for more!).

While many locations are closed on Christmas Day, there are enough attractions that remain open that you won't need to worry about missing out if your trip falls on Christmas.

The days leading up to and after Christmas have holiday decorations and festivities.

Our 50K Member Facebook group, Washington DC Travel Tips is full of our tour guides, local experts, and travelers just like you discussing advice, tips and sharing photos.

OVERVIEW

There are many things to do during the holiday season, which is why we created this guide.

Timing is everything. Most decorations, lights, and window displays start going up in late November.

Thanksgiving, a U.S. national holiday that takes place on the last Thursday of November, is considered the start of the Holiday Season.

DATES TO KNOW:

  • Downtown Holiday Market November 17, 2023 - December 23, 2023
  • US Botanic Gardens "Seasons Greetings Display: November 23, 2023 – January 1, 2024
  • National Christmas Tree Lighting: November 30, 2023
  • Holiday Lights Tours Start December 01, 2023 and run through December 30, 2023
Christmas in DC

If you are planning on visiting many attractions during the holidays, then consider a tourist discount pass, and be sure to check out our ultimate guide for things to do in DC.

Below, we highlight the top things to do in DC during the Christmas and holiday seasons. 

The city decks the halls, lights the menorah, and celebrates the holidays with markets, parades, and joyous celebrations.


1. Holiday Lights Tours

We have listed the top Christmas light displays around the city if you want to explore on your own but we hope you'll join us for a holiday tour.


DC by Foot's Holiday Lights Tour

We offer an evening stroll through downtown DC to view some of the best holiday light displays - from the famous Old Ebbitt's Grill giant nutcrackers to the National Christmas Tree.

Want to see even more Christmas trees? We also have a bus version of our popular Holiday Lights Tours.


Georgetown Glow Lights Tour

While it isn't meant to be a holiday lights tour, the Georgetown Glow tour is full of holiday decorations and light displays.

For the holiday season, the historic neighborhood of Georgetown hosts 5 temporary light installations.

They are not holiday-themed, but they are sure to make for an unforgettable experience.

Along the way, we'll see the best holiday decorations up in Georgetown.

Find out more.


Holiday Lights in the Neighborhoods:

Many of the city's local neighborhoods' Main Streets are sponsoring Holiday Lights and Window display competitions.

You can shop local and vote for your favorite in Logan Circle, Lower Georgia Ave, Eastern Market, Columbia Heights & More.

Find out more at: https://dcholidaylights.org/


Festival of Lights at the Mormon Temple

Monday - Sunday | December 1 - January 2 | Dusk – 9:00 pm

If you drive into the city on 495 north of DC, you see the giant white castle that is the Mormon Temple.

Each Christmas, the grounds are decorated with over 400,000 lights and Christmas trees.


MACY'S HOLIDAY WINDOWS

Like most Macy's nationwide, the DC store downtown unveils its holiday windows in mid-November with holiday theme displays.

Walk down the street to see them all or pop into the store for even more.

Macy's Window Display

2. Visit the National Christmas Tree

The National Christmas tree is an actual tree planted on the south side of the White House on what's called the Ellipse - we visit it on our Holiday Lights of DC tour.

So while it is there year-round, it's not until December when it is lit up and surrounded by smaller state-themed threes.

National Christmas Tree

Find out more about the National Christmas Tree as well as how to attend the official lighting ceremony.

Near the National Christmas tree is the largest menorah in the world, the National Menorah.

You can also attend the tree lighting ceremony if you have a ticket, available through a lottery system.

Other Holiday Trees around Washington DC to see:

  • National Christmas Tree
  • US Capitol Christmas Tree
  • Union Station Norwegian Tree
  • The Wharf Holiday Tree
  • City Center Holiday Tree
  • Main Street Holiday Lights
Canadian Embassy Tree

3. Shop at the Christmas Markets in Washington DC

While we only have one main holiday market that lasts all month long, there are a number of pop-up holiday markets in December.

If you're looking for DC-themed gifts, be sure to check out our DC Holiday Gift Guide!

The main market is the Downtown DC Holiday Market, located just outside the National Portrait Gallery.

Open Daily from 12 pm -8 pm from November 17, 2023, to December 23, 2023, you can find locally made art, jewelry, ornaments, winter scarves, and gloves.

Below is a list of the most popular markets in DC, but for a full list read our post on the best Christmas markets to find some unique pop-up markets.


4. Attend Christmas Performances

From late November until the beginning of January, DC hosts several Christmas and winter holiday-themed plays, musicals, and other performances.

The most popular events:

The Washington Ballet's The Nutcracker runs from December 2, 2023, to December 30, 2023, at Downtown DC's Warner Theatre.

One of the most famous Christmas performances in DC is Ford's Theatre's production of A Christmas Carol which runs Nov. 17 – Dec. 31 (get tickets at www.fords.org)

PRO TIP: If you want a good view of the President's Box, select seats in the Left Orchestra (but not too far back) or in the Left Balcony. However, you will have a chance before, during intermission, and after the play to get out of your seat and get a good photo of the President's Box.


5. Christmas at the Washington National Cathedral

All December | More popular services do require tickets.

The National Cathedral is a beautiful place to visit. You can even find the Darth Vader gargoyle on it if you search hard enough!

While we offer tours throughout the year, the National Cathedral puts on special programs during holidays, including Christmas at the Cathedral concert.

There will be a mix of medieval and modern music being performed that will surely put you in the holiday spirit!

In addition to this, there will also be a Christmas Day Organ Recital on December 25th at 1:30 p.m.


6. Smithsonian National Zoo's ZOOLIGHTS

November 24 - December 30, 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. (Sundays 5 p.m. to 8 p.m.

ZooLights includes live music performances, tasty winter treats, and plenty of opportunities for holiday shopping. 

Environmentally friendly LED lights and dozens of glowing animal lanterns transform the Zoo into a winter wonderland! 

NEW FOR 2023: Tickets are required with a small cost of $6 per person.

Discover more about Zoolights and how to get tickets.


7. Wreaths Across America at Arlington Cemetery

December 16, 2023

Participating in Wreaths Across America is a special way to honor our fallen veterans.

Every year, this organization lays out thousands of holiday wreaths on graves in military cemeteries across America, including Arlington National Cemetery.

Volunteers will make sure every grave gets placed with a beautiful wreath, and the effect of seeing these thousands of wreaths laid out is incredibly moving. (website)

If you can't participate, you can still visit Arlington National Cemetery on one of our free walking tours.


8. Boat Parade of Lights

December 2, 2023 | Alexandria, Virginia & The Wharf

The annual Holiday Boat Parade of Lights takes place in Alexandria again this year.

This family-friendly event invites you out to see the boat parade floating down the Potomac River.

Prior to the parade, there are lots of family-friendly festivities and the parade begins at 5:30 p.m.

The parade stretches a mile along Old Town Alexandria's waterfront and there are a number of places to observe from:

  • Founders Park (351 North Union Street)
  • Alexandria City Marina (0 Cameron Street)
  • Waterfront Park (1 King Street)
  • Shipyard/Harborside Park (1 Wilkes Street)
  • Ford’s Landing Park (99 Franklin Street)

If you want to explore more of Old Town Alexandria we recommend taking our Old Town Alexandria free walking tour.

Not to be outdone by its colonial neighbor, The District’s Holiday Boat Parade at the Wharf also occurs on the same day.

The Wharf offers a holiday tree, hot cocoa and smores, live music, photos with Santa, and fireworks in the lead-up to the 6 pm board parade.

Over 60 decorated boats will sail down the channel.

Read our Christmas Lights in DC post for some tips about attending the Wharf Boat Parade!


9. Christmas at Mount Vernon

Weekends in December | Fireworks December 15 & 16, 2023

Come out to Mount Vernon and celebrate the Christmas festivities!

Tour George Washington's estate and see where the very first family lived. You can learn about the history of the place and partake in a number of holiday activities.

On one weekend, the will be a holiday fireworks show, you can see how 18th-century chocolate is made and there will be a special guest, Aladdin the camel.

Other select weekends in December will offer tours by candlelight - wander his home the same way he and Martha did in the 18th century.

Grab your tickets here.


10. US Botanical Gardens Display

November 23, 2023 – January 1, 2024 | 10:00-5:00

On three Thursdays in December - Dec. 14, Dec. 21, and Dec. 28, the Conservatory and outdoor train display will have extended hours, staying open until 8:00 p.m.

The US Botanical Garden is a great free place to visit anytime you're in Washington DC but the holiday decorations are some of the favorite amongst DC locals.

The highlight is the miniature train display, a large structure you can walk around and under to see nearly a dozen trains in a natural landscape.

The gardens also create small-scale versions of DC landmarks out of natural elements.

For the holidays they usually decorate the area with winterberries, lights, and greenery in the Terrace Gardens and Bartholdi Park.


11. Willard Hotel Carolling

The Willard Hotel is one of the most famous hotels in Washington, DC, located right near the White House.

The lobby will be decorated beautifully and will be hosting nightly choral concerts that you and your loved ones are welcome to attend. You can also join them for holiday afternoon tea!

Caroling starts December 01, 2023, and runs through December 23, 2023, at 5:30 p.m. to 6:15 p.m. and 6:45 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.

If you're in town for Christmas Day, attend their Christmas Brunch from 11 a.m. to 230 p.m.

To learn more, view their website here.


12. Christmas Themed Teas, Drinks and Dinners

Many places get in the holiday spirit in DC and offer holiday-themed dining options.

Old Ebbitts Grill comes to mind first - a classic DC restaurant, its entrance is flanked by larger-than-life nutcracker statues. It's such a famous site that we include it on our Holiday Lights tour.

Holiday Teas happen at many of the luxury hotels in the city.

  • Willard Hotel - Friday, Saturday, and Sunday – 1:00 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. seating
  • St. Regis Hotel - Nov 24, 2023 - Jan 7, 2024, Daily between 1:00 pm and 4:30 pm
  • Salamander Hotel - Friday, November 24th - Monday, January 1st Daily Seatings at 1:00 p.m. & 3:30 p.m.
  • Hay-Adams Hotel - Saturdays and Sundays at 3 p.m. in December
  • Read more about afternoon teas in DC that happen year-round...

Festive Pop Up Bars show up in December around the city mixing themed drinks and Instagrammable decorations.

  • Miracle at Death Punch Bar - kitschy decorations and holiday drinks Nov 24 - Dec 31, 2023, | 12 pm - 2/3 am
  • Sippin' Santa at Black Whiskey - a more tropical version of Christmas, think Santa on a surfboard.

13. Go Ice Skating

A traditional winter past-time, DC offers a few different ice rinks though the most famous one is at the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden.

The rink is located on the National Mall, surrounded by large contemporary art sculptures and a view of the National Archives.


14. Enchant Christmas at Nationals Park

November 24 - December 31, 2023

Each year the baseball stadium at Nats Park is transformed into an enchanting Christmas light maze.

There is a village to shop, photos with Santa, ice skating, and activities throughout the park.


15. Christmas at National Harbor

NOVEMBER 19TH — DECEMBER 31ST

National Harbor is not in DC and it's not easily accessible by public transportation (though we have advice here) but for their holiday events it is worth the trip.

The Gaylord National Hotel essentially becomes a giant Christmas village with light shows, fireworks, live entertainment, and games.

The 60 foot RBG digital tree has nightly light shows every half hour from sunset to 9 pm.

On Saturday nights from November 11 – December 30 at 5:30 pm has fireworks lighting up the skyline.

A favorite of our family is the ICE! experience. This year follow the story of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer™ with larger than life ice sculptures and ice slides!

The Capitol Wheel is one of the highlights of a trip to National Harbor and on select days in December you can join Santa for photos at the wheel.


What to do in DC on Christmas Day

There is only one day a year that the Smithsonian Museums are closed and that is Christmas Day, there are still many other things to do on December 25 in DC.

These locations are open on Christmas Day

  1. Walking Tours: We are usually able to run one or two tours on Christmas Day (shout out to our Jewish guides!)
  2. Organ Recital at the Washington National Cathedral
  3. Enchant Christmas at Nationals Park
  4. Ice Rinks
  5. US Botanic Gardens
  6. Memorials on the National Mall
  7. Arlington National Cemetery (both the cemetery is open and the trolly tours operate)
  8. Mount Vernon
  9. Capitol Jewish Museum

Kid's Events for Christmas in DC

I may love the Nutcracker but my 4-year-old will 100% not sit through it without making a scene (I learned this the hard way!).

Luckily, many of the Christmas events in DC have special days just for kids with shorter performances, interactive parts, or just an understanding that the kids will dance along.

Handel's Messiah at the Washington National Cathedral Family Day: December 9, 2023

The Washington Ballet's Family Day at the Nutcracker: December 10, 2023

Maryland Youth Ballet's Mini-Nut shorter kid's version of the Nutcracker: Dec 15-17, Dec 21-23

Kennedy's Center A Family Christmas: December 16 and 24, 2023

Where to find Santa in DC - you can find Father Christmas at the usual places like malls (search for Pentagon City, Tyson's Galleria, Downtown Silver Spring) but here are a few unique to DC places to take a photo with Santa.

  1. The Capitol Wheel at National Harbor | Dec 2,3, 9,10, 16,17 2023
  2. District Holiday Boat Parade | Dec 2, 2023
  3. Holly Trolly Fest at the National Capitol Trolley Museum | December 2-3, 9-10, 16-17, and 23, from 11am - 4pm.
  4. Santa Fly-In at the College Park Aviation Museum | Date TBD but usually first Saturday of the Month
  5. Polar Express Train Ride at the B&O Museum: November 24-26 & December 1-3, 8-10 & 15-19, 2023
  6. Waterskiing Santa Show in Alexandria, VA : usually Christmas Eve but 2023 information is not published

Find a Santa Like Me:

  • The Mall at Prince George's in Hyattsville has a Black Santa every year, embracing the diversity of the DC Metro area.
  • In years pass, Deaf Santa Charles has visited DC for the hard of hearing but there are no published dates or locations for 2023 yet.

About The Author

Canden Arciniega

Follow On Instagram | I'm a historian & tour guide in Washington DC with 4 published books about the city. I have written for HuffPost Travel and have been featured in the Washington Post, WTOP, and numerous other DC papers. I've also been interviewed by the BBC, NPR, Travel Channel and Discovery Family Channel. I am the producer of the podcast, Tour Guide Tell All. I am an authority on D.C. history, and have led tours in the city since 2011. I currently resides in DC, but have also lived in London and South Korea, and have traveled to over 28 countries and every US State but Hawaii. I homeschool my 2 children by exploring the plethora of museums in DC. Read More...
Updated: February 19th, 2024
Back to Top
cross