Washington DC Christmas: 10 Amazing Holiday Activities

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in December 2013 and was completely updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness in August 2019.
Will you be spending Christmas in DC either as a tourist or as a local? The holidays in Washington DC are festive and magical – here are 10 perfect family-friendly activities to help you celebrate a perfect Washington DC Christmas!
christmas in DC family activities
There are few more festive times than Christmas in DC. With music, trains, shows, and more, Washington DC has so many fantastic holiday activities. Keep reading for 10 fun-filled activities for Christmas in Washington DC.
washington dc Christmas activities

 

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A WASHINGTON DC CHRISTMAS: FESTIVE HOLIDAY ACTIVITIES

 

Train Display at the United States Botanic Garden

The US Botanic Garden is a gem to visit anytime, with its huge rainforest area, and hundreds of plants form all over the world. But Christmas in DC is a special time to visit, when the Botanic Garden has a special room dedicated to a full train display. The trains weave through all-natural, plant-based materials to create a wonderland of holiday fun.

Surrounding the trains are poinsetties, Christmas trees, and various baubles and other decorations. It’s definitely a highlight of the Washington DC Christmas experience! Be sure to go either first thing in the morning or late in the day to avoid some of the crowds – it gets busy!

christmas in dc train display botanic garden

 

Candlelight Tour at Mount Vernon or Old Town Alexandria

Old Town Alexandria is always charming, but that’s especially true during Christmas in DC. Tons of homes and shops are decked with lights and window displays, and it’s a perfect area to partake in some old-fashioned holiday cheer. Wander through the adorable streets, choosing different hot chocolates or treats to test along the way.

One of the best parts of Old Town Alexandria during the Washington DC holidays is the gorgeous candlelight tour. During these evenings, certain historic homes and museums are set up with holiday decorations, tours, and treats and welcome visitors to partake. It’s a charming way to remember a Washington DC Christmas of yore. There are often discounts on various deal sites, so be sure to check before you head out to enjoy one of the best holiday activities in DC.

Not to be outdone, Mount Vernon, George Washington’s former estate, puts on a spectacular candlelight tour of its own. You’ll be able to enjoy being guided by Revolutionary War-era characters, and be treated to cookies and cider as you tour. Few things could be more charming.

 

Washington DC Christmas concert at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception

Despite its size, this basilica feels like a DC hidden gem. It’s away from the main tourist areas, and really only frequented by locals. Despite often being overshadowed by the National Cathedral (at least for tourists), though, it’s actually the largest Catholic church in the US and North America.

Size aside, the basilica maintains a high-caliber choir that puts on a stunning Christmas in DC concert each year. The tone and the quality of music is gorgeous. They also put on a series of other concerts throughout the year, so be sure to check their calendar for those, as well.

washington dc christmas concert basilica of the shrine

Ice Skating at the National Gallery

The National Gallery sculpture garden gets turned into an ice rink during the holidays in DC and, I mean, it’s ice skating at the NATIONAL GALLERY. The rink isn’t huge, so be sure to go early in the day if you want to make sure to get in.

Be sure to stop into the gallery itself before or after your skating time and check out some of the incredible masterpieces on display. It’ll add even more excitement to your Washington DC holidays. Here’s a great guide if you’re short on time and need some guidance at the museum.

Also, the Kettler Capitals Ice Plex in Arlington has county sponsored skate times during which guests only pay $1 for admission, including skates. It’s a great option if you don’t want to battle crowds, want a warmer experience (the Ice Plex is indoors), and want to spend almost nothing!

 

Handel’s Messiah

It never fully feels like the holidays for me until I’ve listened to at least one rendition of Handel’s Messiah. DC puts on almost countless sing alongs and performances. You can take your pick of which to attend for your Christmas in DC celebrations!

We’ve personally attended sing alongs at St. Peter’s, Truro Anglican, and the First Baptist Church of DC. While living there, we also always attended the (paid) performance at the Kennedy Center with the National Symphony Orchestra (glorious).

The Kennedy Center also always has a sing along, but since tickets for that one are free, you have to wait in line and it’s not quite as family friendly as some of the other sing alongs. (We like to take the kids to the sing along, and do the performance as a date.  We’re intense about Messiah over here.)

 

The Nutcracker

Is it even the holidays without the Nutcracker? The city holds too many performances to name and it really is one of the best holiday activities in DC.  We attended the one put on by the ballet school BalletNova for a couple of year. It’s perfect as a Nutcracker intro for kids, but still has a good talent and costumes.

The Washington Ballet always puts on Septime Webre’s Nutcracker, where the Nutcracker is represented by George Washington and the Rat King by King George. It’s also set in Revolutionary War-era Georgetown, so the set is beautiful, and the whole performance is classic and fun.

A number of nonstandard Nutcrackers have also become holidays in DC mainstays; you’ll find everything from a children’s puppet show to a hip hop version. There are also a number of traveling companies that make their way through DC, so there’s something for every taste.

 

Zoolights

Zoolights Christmas events typically cost lots of money other cities, but when enjoying Christmas in DC, you can go for free! Our kids are pretty much beside themselves with all the lights of animals and such. The National Zoo Zoolights also includes trains and gingerbread house habitats for a full and fun evening of Washington DC Christmas entertainment.

washington dc zoolights christmas in dc

 

Wreath-laying at Arlington Cemetery

The wreath-laying at Arlington is such a beautiful and meaningful event during the holidays in DC, and a great way to feel gratitude during the busy time of Christmas in DC. Following a short program, everyone who attends is invited to take a wreath or two and lay it on one of the stones.

While a certain degree of reverence is expected, the program is fairly short and there were lots of kids (including ours) in attendance. We loved talking to them about those who had served and why we honor them. One of our favorite Washington DC Christmas traditions!

 

arlington cemetery wreath laying with kids

Washington DC Mormon Temple Festival of Lights

With over 650,000 lights, the Washington DC Mormon temple grounds glow from miles around – and can even be spotted from the Beltway! The on-ground visitors’ center hosts twice-nightly musical performances, as well as an exhibit with creche displays from around the world. It’s a perfect and family-friendly way to spend Christmas in DC.

 

National Menorah/Christmas Tree Lighting + White House Tour

This last one is the trickiest to figure out during the Washington DC holidays, but is worth it. The National Christmas tree and Menorah lighting is fairly self-explanatory. The lights turn on and it’s fun to be there with others drinking in the magic of Christmas in DC. Reserve some time after to walk around and view all the state trees with their themed ornaments.

The White House holiday tour is a little harder; you have to either request tickets from a Congressperson or get them through an agency. I was lucky enough to perform with a group there a few years ago, and we got to tour. The decorations truly were spectacular.  If you can swing it, do – it’s a highlight of any Washington DC Christmas season.

Christmas In DC: A Few More Holiday Activities

There you go – 10 fun, festive, and family-friendly holiday activities in DC to help you celebrate a Washington DC Christmas. But don’t limit yourself to these – there are so many more!

We love the storytimes (our favorites are the ones at the Library of Congress and through Barnes & Noble), holiday markets, gingerbread house-making workshops, and holiday teas. You can celebrate Scottish heritage with a parade and boat tour in Alexandria. You can enjoy a free outdoor holiday sing along at Wolftrap. Or take the little ones to enjoy a traditional Christmas pageant at the National Cathedral – where all children are invited to participate! It makes me wish every year that the Washington DC Christmas season lasted just a little bit longer.

 

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