15 Festive Ways To Celebrate Christmas In Washington D.C.

U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree
Photo: OGphoto / Getty Images

Washington D.C. goes all out for the holidays. The Big Apple has the iconic Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree, high-kicking Radio City Rockettes, and elaborate Fifth Avenue window displays—all of which are well worth seeing. But our nation's capital, our very own city on a hill, brings a little something extra. D.C. rivals NYC's celebrations with a dizzying array of tree lightings, events, performances, and all-around festive fanfare that are guaranteed to get you in the Christmas spirit.

Whether you want to marvel at the majesty of the famous National Christmas Tree, go ice skating on a massive rink, or shop at an authentic German Christmas market, once December rolls around (and maybe even a little before), D.C. is all about tinsel, garland, and decor galore. Certain traditions like the Capitol Christmas Tree Lighting have been around for decades, while others like the Downtown Holiday Market are a little newer on the scene. One thing's for sure, there's never a dull moment when it comes to Christmas in the Capital. Here are some of our favorite ways to celebrate the season in Washington D.C.

01 of 15

See the National Christmas Tree

National Christmas Tree, Washington DC, USA

Going to Washington D.C. over the holidays and not seeing the National Christmas Tree would be like going to Paris and not seeing the Eiffel Tower. Each year, a massive live evergreen is erected and decorated in President's Park near the White House. If you can't make it for the president's official lighting during the first week of December, you can stop by any day after 4:30 p.m. throughout the month to see it lit in all its glory.

02 of 15

Experience ZooLights at the Smithsonian National Zoo

Zoolights at the Smithsonian's National Zoo happens nightly 5pm until 9pm until January 1, 2017.
The Washington Post / Contributor / Getty Images

This free holiday lights display kicks off Thanksgiving weekend and runs through December 30 this year. It's a favorite for D.C. families, as well as visitors from near and far, who flock to the zoo to see the 500,000 LED lights and glowing lanterns put on their brightest show for the holidays. There's also an adults-only sister event called BrewLights that features craft beer tastings and snacks alongside the regular show.

03 of 15

Skate at Washington Harbour Ice Rink

Ice skating couple
Yelizaveta Tomashevska / Getty Images

Rivaling the Rink at Rockefeller Center, the Washington Harbour Ice Rink is D.C.'s largest outdoor ice skating space. Make an evening of your visit by grabbing dinner at one of many surrounding restaurants like Fiola Mare, Guapo's Restaurant, or Farmers Fishers Bakers, then rent some skates and go for a twirl on the ice. The rink opens on November 11 this year and will remain open through the middle of March.

04 of 15

Visit the U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree

U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree
OGphoto / Getty Images

The U.S. Capitol Tree travels far and wide before reaching its final display place on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol. Each year, a Christmas tree farmer from somewhere in the U.S. is given the honor of having his or her tree selected as the U.S. Capitol Tree, and thus begins its harrowing journey to the capital. The massive tree is often twice as tall as the National Christmas Tree and has measured up to 75 feet in the past. It's also decorated with more than 10,000 ornaments, so it's truly a sight to behold.

05 of 15

Attend Mount Vernon by Candlelight

Mount Vernon
Walter Bibikow / Getty Images

This attraction isn't technically within the parameters of the city, but we give it a pass because it doesn't get much more festive than visiting the former estate of President George Washington during the holidays. This special event begins with a tour of several Christmas trees highlighting the Washington family history, then launches into a walking tour of the property where you'll learn all about historic holiday traditions and the Washingtons' personal family celebrations. The tour concludes with some 18th century dancing, live music, and cider and cookies.

06 of 15

Attend the CityCenterDC Holiday Tree Lighting Celebration

EVA HAMBACH / Staff / Getty Images

Head to this mixed-use development in the heart of downtown D.C. for fun and fanfare all season long. The excitement kicks off on the Saturday after Thanksgiving when the area unveils its 75-foot lit Christmas tree with a massive party featuring live music, vendors, food, and holiday-themed activities. While you're in the area, be sure to peek into the windows at Louis Vuitton, Hermes, and Tiffany & Co. for Fifth Avenue vibes.

07 of 15

See Union Station's Model Trains

Christmas Wreath at Union Station at night
Amy Sparwasser / Getty Images

As one of the country's busiest train stations, there's always a sense of hustle and bustle around Union Station, but the energy becomes truly electric around the holidays. Part of that has to do with the added foot traffic from visitors stopping in to see the model trains and giant Christmas tree, both gifts from Norway. The trains are located in the West Hall and are handmade replicas of real Norwegian trains. Little ones will love spotting all the tiny details like skiers, mountains, and fjords meant to depict the Nordic landscape.

08 of 15

Visit the U.S. Botanical Gardens

U.S. Botanical Garden Arbor in Washington, DC
dkfielding / Getty Images

Red and green are the official colors of Christmas, and you can find plenty of the latter at the U.S. Botanical Gardens. In addition to seeing gorgeous holiday displays full of pine, poinsettias, and maybe even a little mistletoe, you should also take special care to find each of the gardens' replicas of landmark D.C. buildings. They're on display in the gardens year-round, but they're only outfitted in their Christmas best for the season!

09 of 15

Watch the Holiday Boat Parade at the Wharf

Alexandria, VA Christmas Boat Parade
R. Kennedy for Visit Alexandria

This one-of-a-kind D.C. event puts a spin on the classic Christmas parade by taking the celebrations out to sea. The Holiday Boat Parade features more than 60 boats covered from bow to stern in colorful Christmas lights. Bring the whole family to watch them peacefully glide by The Wharf, then stick around for the big firework show at the end of the night. Kids can sip on hot cocoa and cider, while parents can grab an adult beverage from the Waterfront Beer and Wine Garden.

10 of 15

Catch a Holiday Movie at the National Museum of American History

Movie watching
Klaus Vedfelt / Getty Images

There's not a better setting to see a classic Christmas movie than at the National Museum of American History. See seasonal favorites like It's A Wonderful Life, White Christmas, and A Christmas Story on the big screen, and don't forget to grab a bucket of popcorn and some Junior Mints to complete the night.

11 of 15

See the Washington Ballet Perform "The Nutcracker"

The Washington Ballet's Nutcracker is set in historic Georgetown and features historical figures. Artistic Director Septime Webre's all-American version was first performed in 2004.
The Washington Post / Getty Images

Watch a special D.C. version of the famous ballet courtesy of the Washington Ballet. Their interpretation of the classic story is set in historic 1882 Georgetown with George Washington, King George III, and other historic figures all joining in on the fun. The performance features original period costumes, stunning set design, and more than 100 dancers, including students from The Washington Ballet.

12 of 15

See "A Christmas Carol" at Ford Theatre

Actors Craig Wallace and Paul Morella portray Scrooge in two different productions
The Washington Post / Getty Images

This landmark is best known as the theater where President Lincoln was shot. It's open to the public for tours year-round, but around the holidays it's a stunning setting to see the traditional Christmas play A Christmas Carol. The Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future take up their residence from November 18 to December 31 this year.

13 of 15

Attend a National Cathedral Christmas Concert

Washington National Cathedral at Night
Edward H. Pien / Getty Images

As the world's sixth-largest cathedral, D.C.'s National Cathedral is a must visit. Plans for its construction were born in 1791, but it didn't open as Bethlehem Chapel until 1912. Today, you can attend a Christmas concert at the historic church featuring a mix of Medieval and modern music from a live choir and accompanying instrumentalists. A performance of Handel's Messiah is especially resounding in the setting.

14 of 15

Shop the Downtown Holiday Market

Shoppers at the District Holiday Market downtown for our story on consumer confidence in Washington, DC.
The Washington Post / Getty Images

Christmas shopping is a real treat at this annual holiday market held in front of the Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery. The market is open from 12 p.m. to 8 p.m. daily, with more than 150 vendors and craftspeople selling artisan goods. You'll also find local roasters ready to keep you warm with coffee and tea, plus holiday treats like mini donuts and pastries.

15 of 15

Browse Christkindlmarket at the Heurich House Museum

Christmas tree decorations Christmas Market Town Hall Berlin
RomanBabakin / Getty Images

This traditional German Christmas market is celebrating its 10th anniversary at the Heurich House Museum this year. From Dec. 2-4, stroll through the German-style craft market, where you can find gifts from more than 50 local small-scale makers. Make sure to grab a mug of Gluhwein to keep you warm, and get shopping!

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