Free concerts, over-the-top light displays, high tea, and sparkly hotels have the Capital shining during the season.
In the past five years, the Capital has loosened its tie, making way for innovative restaurants, bars, and boutiques. The town's shopping profile is on the rise, thanks to stylish retailers that benefit from Washingtonians' international influences and strong dedication to locally made products.
For visitors, the holiday season offers a unique opportunity to explore the dynamic city and its burgeoning neighborhoods. As lawmakers decamp for their hometowns, the bustle slows down and the city's institutions slip on their seasonal sparkle. The Smithsonian museums are open every day except Christmas Day, and the National Zoo extends its hours into the night with train rides and a captivating light show. Near the White House, the National Christmas Tree continues a come-all-ye tradition dating back to Calvin Coolidge's time, and from December 9 to 22, the city hosts free concerts against the magical backdrop.
Eat and Drink.
Beefsteak. Celebrity chef José Andrés' latest venture—named for the tomato, not the cut of meat—pushes produce to the center of the plate. It's a departure from the meat-heavy menus at the Spanish chef's roster of establishments (Jaleo, China Chilcano, and Barmini). The casual joint has locations in both Foggy Bottom and Dupont Circle, where guests can design their own dishes, choosing among veggies; grains; crunchy toppings (like corn nuts and kimchi); and, per the house recommendation, "something meaty"—a poached egg, perhaps, or an avocado. It's fast food done better.
Rose's Luxury. This no-reservations, dinner-only spot has been scooping up awards (and troves of devotees) since opening in 2013 on Barracks Row. Arrive toward the end of service, around 9 p.m., to increase your chances of slipping right in. The "Rose" in the name refers to chef/owner Aaron Silverman's grandmother, who passed down the joys of cooking and entertaining. The restaurant's multiple seating areas feel lived-in and loved with shelves of cookbooks, mixers, and tchotchkes, plus wooden tables built by Silverman's uncle. The menu centers on about 15 seasonal dishes created off the chef's whims and global influences, and the food is meant to be shared, just as you would during a convivial supper.
Dog Tag Bakery. The year-old Georgetown spot, which describes itself as a community bakery with a national message, runs a fellowship program for disabled veterans and their caregivers and spouses. The fellows spend their work-study hours on-site, helping to bake treats and greet customers. The red, white, and blue decor, with dog tags dangling from the ceiling, exudes a patriotic spirit—as do the personal apple pies.
Le Diplomate. The City of Light twinkles in Logan Circle through Le Diplomate. The eatery captures the élan of Paris cafe culture with mosaic tiles, imported wood floors, and bistro tables that line the sidewalk. The French brasserie's signature is the Grand Plateau, a three-tier seafood tower big enough to feed up to six with lobster, three types of oysters, mussels, scallops, shrimp, and crab. While it's tough to get into this buzzy hideaway (guests include First Ladies and Vice Presidents), it is quicker than a trip to France.
2 Birds 1 Stone. Since opening this subterranean U Street lounge in 2013, owner and bar director Adam Bernbach has been sketching out the weekly changing menu on strips of cardboard. Many of the drinks are culinary-driven, resulting in unique but delicious sippers like the Bananas Is My Business (house-made banana soda with whiskey, wheat beer, and amaro). The team's creativity shines through in the presentation: In winter, the daily punch is heated and served out of a slow cooker for a cheeky twist on the crystal bowl.
Right Proper Brewing Company. This brewpub dares to be different with original recipes that co-owner Leah Cheston simply describes as "less weird" and "weirder." Right Proper keeps 6 to 10 house-made creations on tap at any given time. Sample one of their American Primitive Beers, which pay homage to historic brewing and fermenting methods and use wild ingredients like sunflower seeds and pine tips. Those scared of commitment can try a small pour of any style for half the price.
Southern Efficiency. There are more whiskey brands (85) than seats (26) at this bourbon-focused enclave, which takes its name from a John F. Kennedy quote: "Washington is a city of Southern efficiency and Northern charm." The bar, which is part of celebrated bartender Derek Brown's roster of blossoming Shaw neighborhood establishments, upholds traditions with cocktails such as D.C.'s unofficial drink, The Rickey, and four types of juleps. But we love Southern Efficiency most for its commitment to regional makers. The Better Red Than Dead cocktail combines rye from Catoctin Creek Distilling Company in Loudoun County, Virginia, and Cheerwine, North Carolina's home-state pop.
Things to Do.
United States Botanic Garden. For nearly 200 years, this Capitol Hill institution has kept the city in perpetual bloom. Over the holidays, artists replicate D.C. landmarks out of materials found in forests, fields, and gardens. "Tis the season for scoping out the decorated fir trees, poinsettias, and model trains that chug around the garden.
Peacock Alley Tea at The Willard InterContinental. Back in the day, guests including Mark Twain would promenade through the hotel's Peacock Alley to see and be seen. Today, locals and travelers alike settle into plush armchairs for high tea held in the gilded hall. In December, the English Tea service turns festive with a harpist playing carols and seasonal spices (clove, sage, and cinnamon) sprinkled on tiers of scones, macarons, and other cookies.
National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden Ice Rink. The museum's 135-foot-long rink is open mid-November through mid-March (weather permitting) on the National Mall. In one full loop around the frozen fountain, you can see a giant spider by Louise Bourgeois and a cartoonish house by Roy Lichtenstein. Enjoy hot cocoa at the Pavilion Café, and take a look at the rest of the sculptures in the 6-acre garden.
ZooLights. The Smithsonian's National Zoo is a major attraction year-round, but it really cranks up the power from November 27 to January 1, when the zoo glows with a 500,000-LED-light display and stays open until 9 p.m. Nocturnal visitors can tube down a hill, ride the 58-animal carousel, and zip around on the National Zoo Choo-Choo for a small fee.
Places to Stay.
Akwaaba D.C. This bed-and-breakfast, housed in an 1890s Dupont Circle mansion, has seven literary-inspired guest rooms. Owner Monique Greenwood, a former editor-in-chief of Essence magazine, fills the shelves with titles that honor authors from Zora Neale Hurston to Toni Morrison. Akwaaba D.C. also serves up a Southern breakfast (with dishes like salmon cakes and grits) and holds an evening social hour with hot mulled cider and homemade cookies. Rates from $145.
Fairmont Washington, D.C. Located between the major downtown museums and the shopping district in Georgetown, the Fairmont offers all the high-end amenities you'll find at luxury hotels (replete fitness room, Sunday jazz brunch, and house-made treats for pets) with a relatively reasonable price tag; think $240 compared to the neighboring upscale hotels' $400-to-$700 rates. Plus, you'll have plenty of space to stretch out in your 400-square-foot room—the minimum size of Fairmont's polished sleeping quarters. Rates from $240.
The Mayflower. President Harry S. Truman called this swanky downtown property D.C.'s second-best address—after the White House, of course. Last spring, this 90-year-old hotel completed a $20 million renovation that refreshed the color palette, furnishings, artwork, and baths in all 583 rooms. Despite the modern refinements, a sense of 1920s opulence persists. Crystal chandeliers light up the marble lobby, and during the holidays, more than a dozen Christmas trees line the promenade. Rates from $140.
Stores to Shop.
Emporium DNA. What makes this boutique, with coveted brands such as Marc Jacobs and See By Chloé, stand out from others is its collection of trendy, hard-to-find European brands and exclusive shop-within-a-shop setups for labels like Rebecca Minkoff and Clover Canyon, which resemble private trunk shows. It's the place to go for that showstopping dress you won't see another girl wearing at the party.
Maketto. This three-in-one space on H Street supplies men's clothing, grooming essentials, and food all under one roof. Walk into the menswear area, where you can pick up a baseball cap from the D.C. label DURKL. Then, make your way toward the back for the 60-seat lunch and dinner spot serving up Asian street food. Upstairs, you can sip a latte from Vigilante Coffee Company while perusing art books and shaving kits in the salon.
Union Market. This food hall, dating back to 1871, offers more than 30 vendors spread over nearly 70,000 square feet. Salt & Sundry specializes in kitchen and entertaining essentials, like salvaged-wood tables made by the owner's father in North Carolina and Jack Rudy Cocktail Co. mixers from Charleston, South Carolina. For a local souvenir that will never spoil, nearby vendor Righteous Cheese sells District-shaped cutting boards.
Kramerbooks. The nearly 40-year-old independent bookstore has long attracted the bookish and sleepless. The Dupont Circle mainstay and its Afterwards Cafe are open from 7:30 to 1 a.m. Sunday through Thursday and until 4 a.m. on Friday and Saturday nights. History, politics, and travel occupy a large chunk of real estate on the shelves. But it's not all serious business—a Hillary Clinton coloring book earns a prime spot near the front door.