5 Free Holiday Attractions in Washington D.C.
Washington D.C. is home to one of the most famous Christmas trees in the country. The beautiful National Tree on the White House Ellipse draws many visitors and much media coverage each year. Although the city itself is not overly festive this time of year, there are a number of festive attractions and activities to check out if you happen to be visiting over the holiday season. And, most importantly, there are plenty of wonderful free historical sites and Smithsonian museums to explore. Be sure to check out my guide to the top attractions in D.C. and also incorporate a few of the festive activities listed below into your trip itinerary.
1. The National Tree
On any December visit to D.C., you will definitely want to plan some time to see The National tree. This 100 year old tradition started in 1923 during the Presidency of Calvin Coolidge. He walked from the White House to the Ellipse and lit a 48 foot tree with 2500 lights. Today, it has become a tradition to watch the lighting of The National Tree in a star studded ceremony.
The tree opens to the public on December 2nd and is free to visit. Note that there will be many crowds especially during the evening hours. The tree is lit on Nov. 30th, although CBS broadcasts the lighting event sometime in mid December (tickets to the lighting are based on a lottery system). The current 27 foot tree was planted in October 2021. Trees representing each state and territory – a “Pathway of Peace” surround the beauty.
I have always wanted to see this tree in person after watching the fantastic Hallmark holiday film, The National Tree – definitely add this one to your watch list!
- Location: The Ellipse (5th St NW &, E St NW)
- 2022 Dates: Dec. 2nd-January 1st. Sunset-10pm (11pm on Fri & Sat).
- Learn more about the history of The National Tree
2. The Capitol Hill tree
While The National Tree receives much more press coverage, the tree at Capitol Hill is even more dazzling. And, less tourists visit this tree which means taking photos is much easier. The lighting takes place on the West Front Lawn in late November. This tradition has been going strong for over 50 years. The 2022 tree is a beautiful 78 foot tall red spruce (nicknamed Ruby) from the gorgeous Pisgah National Forest in Western North Carolina. Also, if you have the time, be sure to take a tour of the gorgeous Capitol building. Along with the historical significance, the gorgeous murals and architecture warrant a visit!
- Location: US Capitol Building West Lawn
- 2022 Dates: The tree is lit from sunset-11pm, Nov. 29th- January 1st.
- Read more about the Capitol Hill tree
3. “Season’s Greetings” at the U.S. Botanical Gardens
Often overlooked is the beautiful holiday exhibit at the US Botanical Gardens. First off, this place is a beautiful escape any time of the year. The warm conservatory is ideal during the cold winter season, while the outdoor gardens are gorgeous for exploring during the spring and summer season. Second, the gardens transform into a winter wonderland each Christmas. During the holidays, you will enjoy colorful poinsettia displays, holiday decor, a model train set, and mini replicas of famous DC landmarks. It will not take long to explore, however, admission is free! Do check out the festive outdoor display at night too!
- Location: 100 Maryland Ave SW
- 2022 Dates/hours: Nov. 24th-Jan. 2 (closed Christmas). 10am-5pm (8pm on Tuesdays).
- More info on this event
4. Downtown Holiday Market
2022 marks the 18th year for this festive outdoor shopping village. Here you can shop for unique gifts from small business owners, enjoy holiday treats, and take in festive decor and music. There are many great photos opps, chocolate churros, and even a bit of fake snow! If you are lucky enough, you may get to enjoy rare December snow (about 2 inches is normal). After the market, enjoy a stroll around the fabulous National Portrait Gallery, located just across the street. Bonus – you are within an easy walk of many local restaurants and coffeehouses. La Colombe is a wonderful roaster.
- Location: F St NW &, 8th St NW,
- 2022 Dates: Nov 18th-Dec. 23rd. 12pm-8pm.
- Vendor lineup 2022
5. The District Holiday Boat parade
This festive spectacular is now in its’ 30th year. At one of D.C.’s most popular events, you will get to see 60 illuminated boats make their way down the Washington Channel. There’s live music, lots of foods stands and restaurants, a fireworks show, a beer and wine garden, and much more. Really, it’s so over-the-top and crowded, it feels more like a 4th of July or NYE celebration. If you can handle the crowds and commotions, it’s a fun time.
- Location: The Wharf (760 Maine Ave SW)
- 2022 Date: December 3rd, 6-9pm.
- 2022 Event lineup
More festive winter fun
Holiday pop up bars – Enjoy a drink in a most festive setting. Urban Roast decks their space with plenty of holiday cheer. Due to the immense popularity, reservations are recommended. Along with the typical holiday cocktails, you can opt for espresso drinks and hot cocoa flights!
Ice skating – The best place to skate is at the beautiful rink at the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden. The setting is gorgeous, prices are affordable, the ice well maintained, and it’s never too busy. Best of all, you are within a 5 min walk to 2 of the best D.C. museums, The National Gallery of Art and The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.
Stroll around Georgetown – Gorgeous area with historic homes, and plenty of local restaurants and shops. Looks beautiful around the holiday season. Treat yourself to dinner at Il Canale.
Enjoy decor at various museums – Most museums feature beautiful holiday decor and/or gardens. The Library of Congress puts up a gorgeous tree in the Jefferson building. The National Gallery of Art also looks stunning this time of year. Highlights include holiday floral displays and 8 festively decorated trees in the Rotunda and Garden courts.
For more winter fun ideas, check out my winter in D.C. post.
Where to stay?
The Capitol Hill Hotel, conveniently located within walking distance to The National Mall, museums, and monuments is a wonderful moderately priced 3 star hotel. Amenities include a continental breakfast, all day coffee, tea, and cocoa, and complimentary use of bicycles.
Where to dine
Hunan Dynasty – Great Chinese food in a beautiful setting. Walkable from Capitol Hill Hotel.
Founding Farmers – Trendy farm-to-table restaurants within a half mile walk of the White House. Try the Butternut Squash Ravioli!