There is no place like home for the holidays, and this year that home is Washington, DC. Most years, we’re traveling either by road or by plane to our original homes or adopted homes, so it’s a treat this year to stick close by and welcome our families here instead. And since we have extra time in our own house and in our city, with lots of guests to entertain, I’ve tried to be diligent about the things we’ll go out and do – a combination of tried and true favorites, of recommendations from others, a few things we’ve always been meaning to get to, and a few new things altogether.
A few of you wrote in once posts started going up here on the blog again, asking for holiday thoughts on our city. Here is our guide to Christmas in Washington!
Take in the Decorations
- A Tree for Every State: The state Christmas trees right outside of the White House are a favorite of ours. Officially called the Pathway of Peace, there is one tree representing each state and territory of the United States, with decorations made by a selected grade school. It’s fun to review them all and it can also be a quick geography lesson for the littles. The National Christmas tree is the crown jewel in the collection, and various music groups from around the US perform throughout December.
- Lights, Camera, Lights: ZooLights are a favorite of ours (plus, you have to love free attractions in DC). Animals come alive with their lighted outlines all throughout the zoo and we’ve already knocked this out on this year! It’s a lovely walk outside and while you don’t really see any real animals (though sometimes things like the small mammal house might be open), the lights are plenty exciting and a completely different way to enjoy the zoo. Note, the food isn’t the greatest there so try to eat before arriving. Also, parking can be a headache so this would be the time to hitch a ride via Uber or taxi.
- And even more lights!: I’ve driven by the LDS temple a million times on my out in or out of DC but I confess I’ve never seen it up close, even though I have heard about the Festival of Lights that they host for years. This is the year we’re going to finally make it. The grounds of the temple are outfitted with over 650,000 lights (um, more than half a million lights people!!!). I don’t think you can miss 650,000 lights.
- ICE!: National Harbor has built out a full on re-creation of Burl Ives’s Rudolph the Rednosed Reindeer – complete with Santa’s village, and rumor has it, Yukon Cornelius! We were raised on this vintage classic, and continue the tradition with our children, so I feel like we can’t miss it. I have been out to the harbor plenty for work events so I associate it more as a corporate destination, but between the village, the bonus of ice slides (!!!), a carousel and a train, I’m pretty sure an afternoon with the littles with go by quickly. The tickets for the Rudolph portion are for timed entry so do yourself a favor and book them in advance. And also dress warmly. Apparently you’ll be given a parka but a luge is a luge and I bet it’s cold.
- All aboard: …speaking of trains, you can’t miss the annual Christmas train display at the Botanical gardens. Or at least, my son, train fanatic, can’t miss it. He’s not yet three but remembers it from last year and looks for it every time he goes to the botanical gardens regardless of season. It can get crowded on the weekends but easier during the week and is quickly becoming an annual tradition for us.
See the Arts
One of my absolute favorite things about Christmas in Washington is that the arts schedule is absolutely, positively PACKED. In fact, it’s possible you could be out and about everything evening and still not get to everything, which is something I’ve missed in other cities (short of Vienna, where you could probably go twice a day and still not see everything). There is truly a myriad to choose from but here’s our short list for this year :
- Washington Ballet’s Nutcracker: In any year, it would be a must if you haven’t yet seen it, but this year it’s a double must as my daughter is in it! Okay, that was my parental pride kicking in. But this Nutcracker story takes the stage in Georgetown, and sets all the favorites amongst just a touch of DC – you’ll have fun spotting the historical figures and references, and the cherry blossom reveal is pure holiday magic.
- A Christmas Carol at Ford’s Theater: A historic play in a historic theater – this is an annual classic and yet one of that has eluded me every year. I think my daughter is old enough to understand now the messages behind the ghosts of the past, present and future and I’d love to take her in this theater who’s walls have been in the center of history.
- The Holiday Program at the Kennedy Center: Literally anything – there is so much to choose from. We have done the candlelight carols several times and have enjoyed it so much, but whether music or drama or comedy or jazz or just about anything, there is something for you. Plus, getting dressed up and walking those long red carpets with a glass of champagne has an air of holidays about it (you might even be able to forget the glass they gave you is plastic!).
- Handel’s Messiah: I was bummed to miss it at the National Cathedral (although they will have other caroling events still) and so I’ve short listed that for another year. But you can still catch it at the Kennedy Center, either with the traditional NSO or with a soulful twist with the Pops and a panoply of guest stars.
- View the Nativity Paintings at the National Gallery: Most people don’t realize but each year the US Christmas Stamp is chosen from various Nativity and Christmas story paintings that find their home in the National Gallery. While they’re not grouped as such necessarily in the National Gallery, I’ve been wanting to take a walk in the West wing and take in some the art themed towards the Christmas story. Apparently I’m not the only one with this idea as the NGA has put together all sorts of art lectures and caroling and other holiday events for other patrons interested in the same. (Holidays at the National Gallery). Also as a bonus, catch up on any last minute holiday shopping at the NGA store – the one in the tunnles has great books and goods, and an especially wonderful children’s section (and if you haven’t yet seen the Vermeer exhibit, don’t miss it!).
Deck the Halls
If you’re here in the city, you’ll probably need to deck and trim a bit. While you’ll find ornaments just about everywhere (see above comment about the NGA store for some of my favorites), sometimes flowers and greenery can be a bit tricky in DC. By no means comprehensive but a few ideas below:
- Johnson’s Floral: If you’re a city dweller, Johnson’s Floral in upper NW is a great place to pick up most of your decorations from trees to garlands to florals to decorations. Some prices are more than fair, some prices (particularly cut stems) are a little wack but it’s still a great place to get a lot of what you’re probably looking for.
- Butler’s Orchard: This place has become our go-to farm for apple season, pumpkin season, holiday season. I just read that the “cut your own tree” is closed for this year as demand has skyrocketed but they’re still selling trees already cut. If cutting your own tree is top of your list, Red Tricycle did a great list of farms that are offering that option.
- Have the flowers come to you: If you’re hosting a holiday gig and can’t get to the flowers yourself, local florists can help you out or increasingly so can Urban Stems (hooray for North East corridor local delivery) and The Bouqs, which also has a collection of garlands and wreaths.
- International Christmas Markets: This didn’t used to be such a thing here but since returning to DC, I’ve noticed that there are German markets, Danish markets, Norwegian markets, and local Christmas markets popping up. I haven’t found a central listing yet of markets, but Curbed has a pretty good head start. Keep eyes open for local announcements as well.
Savor the Goodies
The holidays mean that everyone gets a little creative and a little special with flavors around town. Here are a few of our favorite holiday treats:
- Holiday Donuts: District Doughnuts has been by far one of our best discoveries since moving back to DC and their winter menu includes things like peppermint patty, nutella ganache, and brown butter. That being said, if you can’t make up your mind, you’ll never lose with the classic vanilla bean.
- Christmas Teas: Another thing that has become a thing. Have it in an igloo at the Watergate, or have it classic at the Willard, or have it at any one of the other places adding it to their menu this season (full list here from Beltway Bambinos).
- Holiday Champagne at the Hay-Adams: Holiday drinks at the Hay Adams have always made my Christmas preparation list (remember the 12 dates of Christmas here or here?). I was just there last night and while the drinks always deliver, the christmas decorations have been more tame last year and this so I think there might be a change in direction over there. Never the less, the warm reds and wood panels of Off the Record make it one of my favorite places for a holiday libation.
- The Christmas Bar: This one is new to me but it was such a success last year, it’s returned to DC this year. Miracle on 7th Street is exactly what the name implies – a bar themed around Christmas, everything from the drinks to the decorations are emotionally committed to the theme through and through. I’m told there is a line, always, and maybe soon I’ll actually go wait in it.
- Christmas Decorations at Martin’s Tavern: Another place that I have walked by a million times but never walked into. The place that actually looks like a neighborhood bar in all the good ways – and frankly, if it was good enough for JFK and Jackie, it’s good enough for me. I’ve read they make Christmas special, and as my birthday is coming up, I’m hoping we can go for a family lunch to finally check it out.
Get More Advice
Don’t just take my word for it – there are lots of good places for advice and recommendations on things to see, do, eat, and enjoy all around the city. Here are the sources I check frequently for ideas:
- Washingtonian: Our local magazine + guide + gossip + a bit of everything else. This magazine and online version have really upped their game in the last couple of years and I check them out regularly (subscribe everyone, it’s good!) for their Things to Do this Month and Things to do This Week series, as well as specialty round ups likes Ice Rinks, Places to Cozy up by the Fire, and 25 Offbeat Holiday Things to Do Around DC
- Curbed: Usually considered a site for real estate voyeurism on properties coming and going in the city, they’ve had a few recent great guides about the holiday season in DC like Every Christmas Tree Worth Visiting in DC, The Best DC Holiday Events, How and Where to Enjoy Snowdays in DC
- KidFriendly DC: If you have kids of your own or kids visiting DC, this sites Where to Play this Week and The Weekend Roundup posts will give you a myriad of ideas so that you’re always at the ready with a suggestion.
- Red Tricycle: Another all-around great kiddie site for ideas and advice, with a unique spin on round-ups like where to find Sleigh Rides in DC or the comprehensive guide to the Best Holiday Train Rides (as parent to a train nut, I can vouch that this is critical information).
So what have I missed? What are your favorites for the holiday season in DC or otherwise?