DC doesn’t disappoint when it comes to the holidays. There are options galore for celebrating the season, many of them annual events that quickly become family traditions. See model trains wind through miniature Christmas villages, drive through dazzling light displays in the woods, have a cool experience (literally) with interactive sculptures in ice. Some of the fun begins as soon as this weekend, so bookmark this page (along with this one featuring live entertainment) and start making some holiday plans.
Where:U.S. Botanic Garden
When: November 24 – January 2
If my blog stats are any indication, this is easily DC’s most popular holiday attraction; searches for the Botanic Garden’s seasonal exhibit exceeded all other topics last year. And I can’t say I’m surprised. Season’s Greenings is an annual delight for all ages. The conservatory exhibit features Washington landmarks constructed from plant materials and one of the city’s largest Christmas trees. But the highlight, hands-down, is the garden railway, which never fails to impress and enchant with intricate, imaginative designs. This year, try to guess “Who Lives Here” in the whimsical animal houses along the mini-train route. For even more holiday magic at the garden, there are concerts most Tuesday and Thursday evenings in December, when the USBG stays open until 8pm. For more on the seasonal favorite, read this KFDC review from last year.
Holiday on the Ellipse
Where: The Ellipse, President’s Park
When: December 1 – January 1
This should have a permanent spot on everyone’s DC holiday repertoire. The National Christmas Tree, the National Menorah, Santa’s Workshop, plus trains and displays representing all 50 states are a must-see during the season. Kids will especially love visiting Santa in his adorable little cottage for a peek at his operations and a photo op on his lap (read about our experience there last year), which is open at select times, usually through Christmas Eve. And the rest of it lit up at night with the White House and Washington Monument glowing in the distance makes for a dazzling holiday scene.
Christmas on the Potomac
Where: National Harbor
When: November 18 – January 8
Admission: FREE, though some activities cost extra
National Harbor goes all out during the holidays. ICE! might be the big attraction, but there’s way more to do there to warrant a visit without the frozen entertainment. Most of it takes place in the Gaylord National Resort, which is transformed into a winter wonderland, complete with a spectacular glass Christmas tree, nightly tree lightings starting November 25, the Potomac Express train offering rides for guests, photo ops with Santa, indoor snowfalls, fountain shows, and more. (Read about our experience there last year.) Afterward, shop the holiday market on American Way (open Saturdays & Sundays November 26 – December 18 or grab a bite at one of the Harbor’s many restaurants.
Where: National Harbor
When: November 18 – January 8
Admission: Mon-Thurs $25/adult, $20/kids; Fri-Sun $35/adults, $25/kids; 3 and under are free. Get 50% off with this LivingSocial deal while it lasts!
Technically, this is part of Christmas on the Potomac, but it’s supposedly such a huge spectacle in itself, that it deserves its own write-up. And since I have yet to experience it myself (as explained in this post last year), here’s the description from the website: “Gaylord National’s popular ICE! winter holiday attraction returns with an all-new, hilarious theme: ICE! featuring DreamWorks’ Merry Madagascar. From Nov. 18 to Jan. 8, the DreamWorks Animation holiday TV special will be brought to life in an interactive world of colorful ice sculptures carved entirely from TWO-MILLION pounds of ice. Relive the story as you stroll through this amazing attraction featuring scenes such as how Santa and his reindeer crash-landed onto the island of Madagascar, and why Alex, Marty, Gloria, Melman and the wacky penguins must figure out how to save Christmas by delivering all the presents themselves. Even the mischievous lemur King Julien learns the true meaning of the holiday and manages to get himself off the “naughty list” once and for all. Tickets can be purchased in advance online, and there are timed entries are every half-hour. Hours vary by day, so be sure to check the schedule when you plan to go.
National Menorah Lighting
Where: The National Ellipse
When: December 20, 4pm
Admission: FREE, but you must request tickets
As I noted in this post from last year, it’s tough to find family Chanukah events open to the public in the area. But they do happen, and this is a nice one. Along with the lighting, there will be entertainment by the U.S. Marine Band as well as Dreidelman and the Macabees. If you don’t mind waiting in line afterward, stay for latkes and donuts. Tickets are free, but you need to request them in advance. Go here to get yours.
Christmas at Mount Vernon
Where: Mount Vernon Estate, Museum, & Gardens
When: November 25 – January 6
Admission: $15/adults, $7/ages 6-11, free for ages 5 and under
The special daytime holiday program at George Washington’s homestead includes 12 Christmas trees, a gingerbread Mount Vernon, historical chocolate-making demonstrations (and tastings!), and more. Guests will also have the chance to tour the rarely opened third floor of the mansion to learn how the first First Family celebrated Christmas. And outside, Alladin the camel will be on view to recall the camel ol’ George himself bought for 18 shillings in 1787 for his guests’ enjoyment at Christmas.
Holiday Train Show
Where: Union Station
When: November 22 – January 2
The Holiday Train Show located in the Main & West Halls features a new model train display for the first time at Union Station in 15 years. MTH Electric Trains, a leading model train manufacturer in Columbia, Md., is providing the locomotive exhibit that consists of model trains from every railroad era and includes trains from Europe and other parts of the world.
Holiday Festival of Trains & Toys
Where: B&O Railroad Museum
When: November 25 – December 31
Admission: $14/adults, $12/seniors (60+), $8/ages 2-12 free for B&O members
This is a venue dedicated to locomotives, so you know the holiday model train exhibit is going to be special. So much so, it changes throughout its run featuring new displays from various Model Railroad Exhibitors every few days. The exhibit opens the day after Thanksgiving with the arrival of Santa in the Roundhouse at 10:30am. On weekends through December 18, guests can enjoy train rides with Santa and Frosty the Snowman along with crafts and choral performances. Train rides are $2/adults, $1/children, free for B&O Members.
Holly Trolley Fest
Where: National Capitol Trolley Museum
When: November 26 – December 18, Saturdays & Sundays only
Admission: $7/adults, $5/ages 2-17 (includes unlimited rides)
Guests can ride with Santa on the street cars and enjoy the model garden railway and holiday village inside the museum. Of course the est of the museum, offering a glimpse into the history of street cars, including a Hall displaying different cars from around the region and Europe. Visit the website for directions museum.
Where: National Zoo
When: November 25 – December 11, December 16 – January 1
Every year, thousands of environmentally-friendly light and animal exhibits transform the Zoo into a holiday wonderland. The highlights are dozens of animal light displays, and this year there will be an “iceless” skating rink (made of an eco-friendly synthetic skating surface) in the Picnic Pavilion Guests can also enjoy entertainment and a special train ride for children, special talks by animal keepers, Zoo-themed model trains displays, and the gingerbread habitat contest entries on display in the auditorium. The Small Mammal House, Great Ape House, Reptile Discovery Center, Think Tank, and Kids’ Farm will be open every night. Skating and train rides cost extra: $5 to skate, $2 skate rentals, $3 train rides.
Festival of Lights
Where: Watkins Regional Park
When: November 25 – January 1, 5-9:30pm nightly
Admission: $5/car, FREE on December 25
This spectacular holiday drive-through event of more than one million twinkling lights has been dazzling holiday-goers for 25 years. This is great way to get into the holiday spirit from the comfort of your car – pop some holiday music into the CD player, turn on the seat warmers, and take in the illuminated scenes. New festival features include Santa flying a helicopter and driving a fire truck.
Symphony of Lights
Where: Symphony Woods, Merriweather Post Pavilion
When: November 21 – January 1, 6-10pm nightly
Called a “woodland wonderland,” this beautiful display of more than 70 larger-than-life, animated and stationary light creations is a local holiday tradition for many. Cruise along the 1.4-mile route through the Symphony Woods in downtown Columbia and enjoy the twinkling lights as you go.
Garden of Lights
Where: Brookside Gardens
When: November 25 – January 8, with noted exceptions
Admission: $20/car Mon-Thurs, $25/car Fri-Sun
Visualize close to one million twinkling colorful lights shaped in imaginative displays throughout the gardens. Enjoy the four seasons illuminated as giant summer sunflowers, autumn leaves, winter snowflakes, spring flowers, rain showers, and more. Walk along the easily accessible paths and you’ll see what sets this light show apart from others; it’s the hundreds of wrapped trees and shrubs, beautifully lighted gazebos, cascading fountains, and the individually formed displays in the shapes of blooming flowers and wild animals. Look for moving displays such as a flock of geese, or an 11-foot giraffe covered with 9,000 lights. Open weekdays 5:30-9pm, with last car admitted at 8:30pm, weekends (Friday – Sunday) 5:30-10pm, with last car admitted at 9:30pm. Closed December 24 & 25, and January 2-5.
Alexandria Boat Parade of Lights
Where: Alexandria City Marina
When: December 3
Alexandria’s harbor lights up when more than 50 illuminated boats cruise the Washington Channel to the historic waterfront. Pre-parade festivities at the Alexandria City Marina begin at 4pm with Santa arriving by fireboat at 4:15pm. The boat parade begins at 6pm. The Marina is located at Cameron Street in Old Town.
Winter Lights Festival
Where: Seneca Creeek State Park
When: November 25-26, then nightly December 2-31
Admission: $12/car Tues-Thurs, $15/car Fri- Sun
The 16th Annual Winter Lights Festival will feature more than 380 illuminated vignettes and 65 animated displays in a 3.5 mile drive through beautiful Seneca Creek State Park. Theme areas include Winter Woods, Teddy Bear Land, Victorian Village, North Pole, Toyland, and Penguin Cove. Proceeds Benefit Local Charities.
Holiday Trains and Planes
Where: College Park Aviation Museum
When: December 17 – December 23
Admission: 4/adults, $3/seniors, $2/ages 2-18, under 2 are free
During the holiday season the College Park Aviation Museum gets ready for the festivities as miniature trains, villages, tunnels, and depots spark the imagination and bring history to life. The National Capital Trackers bring a fascinating and constantly moving display of model railroads.
Take your pick of The Nutcracker productions, see Ebenezer Scrooge on stage, rock out or sing along to holiday tunes, discover celebrations around the world — there are shows to suit all theater preferences, ages, and wallets. See this recent KFDC post has details on live entertainment to be enjoyed this holiday season.