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100 Free & Almost Free Things to Do: Winter in DC
Your guide to free winter fun in the nation's capital
There are plenty of awesome wintertime recreation options in Washington, DC that won't cost you a cent. Explore the winter wonderland that is DC with festive holiday displays, unforgettable events, memorable museum experiences and much more.
The National Christmas Tree, which is located on the White House Ellipse, just south of where the First Family lives. The tree is lit each night through Jan. 1, and is introduced annually during a star-studded lighting ceremony featuring the president, prominent musicians and other celebrities. The tree is surrounded by the Christmas Pathway of Peace with smaller decorated trees from 56 U.S. states and territories. The National Christmas Tree and Christmas Pathway of Peace are displayed on the White House Ellipse, which is located just south of the White House and north of the National Mall. Traveling by Metro is the best way to see the tree, which is within walking distance from the following stops: Federal Triangle, Farragut North, McPherson Square and Metro Center.
The National Zoo undergoes an LED takeover each year called ZooLights, starting the day after Thanksgiving and runs through New Year's Day (except for Dec. 24 & 25). Walk through the zoo after-hours (until 9 p.m.) and admire a half-million energy-efficient Christmas light decorations from entrance to exit, as well as nightly performances and fun-filled events.
A visit to many of DC's breweries includes a free tour, such as a visit to the DC Brau or Bluejacket breweries. Attendees must be 21 years of age and tours are conducted on a first come, first served basis. What isn’t free – the full growler you plan to gift to your dad.
No matter the weather, the National Mall is a site to behold. Take in the quiet beauty of the Korean War Veterans Memorial in snow – the memorial is designed to evoke the harsh conditions and rugged terrain servicemen faced during the conflict – or read the 16th president's Gettysburg Address while the low winter sun shimmers off the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool. Once you're done, explore these other must-visit memorials on the Mall or find a place to eat nearby.
Best known as America’s second busiest Amtrak station, Union Station rebrands itself as a holiday destination in winter. Window shop around and admire festive red and green decor, plus the model train display, which can be viewed in the station’s grand main hall. Marvel at the Union Station Christmas tree just outside the front doors, a gift from Norway. The tree will be lit on Wednesday, Nov. 30.
The National Menorah resides not far from the National Christmas Tree and is also located on the White House Ellipse. Thousands gather around the menorah for a special ceremony on the first day of Chanukah which includes latkes, menorah kits and dreidels. This year's lighting ceremony will take place on Sunday, Dec. 25 at 4 p.m., or you can visit the menorah for the duration of Chanukah, Dec. 24-Jan. 1.
Holiday shoppers come in droves to the Downtown Holiday Market (ends on Dec. 23) each year in Penn Quarter. The market opens the day after Thanksgiving and has everything on your list and then some – including plenty of local products from coffee roasters, food artisans, artists, crafters and budding clothiers. Located on the sidewalk next to the National Portrait Gallery and Smithsonian American Art Museum, the market puts on live entertainment each day and is open from noon-8 p.m. daily.
Do this by taking a trip to Eastern Market on Capitol Hill. Open every day of the week except Monday, the market sells in-season produce and meats. One of its indoor claims to fame is Market Lunch’s blueberry buckwheat pancakes. Outside during the winter, find the makings of apple cider ingredients, evergreens for sale and, on Sundays, a flea market with antiques, art and artisanal eats.
Head to the Library of Congress’ Thomas Jefferson Building for a free guided tour Monday through Saturday. The building’s Great Hall is peppered with artworks from commemorative arches to mosaics. Come on a weekday and don’t leave without visiting the sixth-floor Madison Café for sweeping views of the National Mall without the crowds.
The District tends to feel more like the North Pole than the Mid-Atlantic during the holidays thanks to some of the events we mentioned above, like the National Christmas Tree and the Downtown Holiday Market. But Washington, DC has plenty of other free and almost free ways to get in the holiday spirit. Check out some more can't-miss ways to experience the holidays in DC.
Art lovers, check the date. If you’re visiting on a first Friday of the month and you happen to be in Dupont Circle, you’re in luck. First Friday Dupont is the ultimate neighborhood gallery night with eight art houses open to the public for free. It’s the ideal reason to brave the cold for a little wine, cheese and art in the wintertime.
And relive the elementary school glory days by joining a snowball fight! DC has its very own Snowball Fight Association which gathers like-minded "snow elves" from across the city to partake in this snow day tradition at public spaces throughout the nation's capital. Be sure to follow them on Facebook next time there's snow in the forecast.
Celebrate your fandom of piney, needly, cone-bedecked conifers at the nation’s ultimate arboreal authority, the U.S. National Arboretum. While Douglas firs and balsam firs are the commonly found trees around the holidays, this curated collection consists of 500 different types of conifers spanning seven acres. From tall Italian cypress trees to weeping blue atlas cedars to rooted dwarf plants, the specimens range in all shapes, sizes and shades. Big ups to the evergreen-loving father of the exhibit, William Gotelli, who donated his personal collection of some 1,300 conifers to the Arboretum in 1962.
You can thanks to the National Museum of Women in the Arts, which hosts Community Day on the first Sunday of every month, when visitors can enter the museum for free.
Looking for more free (and almost free) things to do in DC? Check out the full list of 100 Free & Almost Free Things to Do in Washington, DC.