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Free Things to Do: Winter in Washington, DC
Explore the winter wonderland that is DC with free activities, holiday displays, unforgettable events and much more.
There’s nothing like a trip to Washington, DC in winter. The nation’s capital is filled with free winter activities and gorgeous holiday displays, serving as a great destination to celebrate Christmas, New Year’s Eve or any winter holiday. From festive events to holiday markets, Washington, DC features plenty of free things to do that are sure to inspire winter whimsy. Check out some of our favorites below.
Indulge your wild side with an after-hours visit to the National Zoo during ZooLights, which illuminates the zoo with more than 500,000 environmentally friendly LEDs, animated light installations and live music. Hot chocolate, coffee, eggnog, s’mores and holiday cookies are all available to satisfy appetites. Bid good cheer to various animals as well. ZooLights runs Nov. 29 — Jan. 1 (closed Dec. 24, 25 & 31).
This dining, shopping and entertainment hot spot is a great wintertime destination. The Wharf features The Torch, a 14-foot gas-powered flame situated by the water that is a marvel to see and stand by. There's also a fire pit for visitors to gather around and make delicious s’mores, as well as free winter games like curling and broomball – just check out The Wharf's upcoming events.
The National Christmas Tree is DC’s claim to fame during the holidays, and for good reason. The gorgeous conifer lives in President’s Park on the White House Ellipse and is accompanied by nightly musical performances throughout the holiday season. Planning your visit? The National Christmas Tree will be lit daily starting at 4:30 p.m. from Dec. 5 through early January.
From Dec. 6 – Jan. 5 (5-10 p.m. nightly), you can stroll through DC’s most historic neighborhood and marvel at Georgetown GLOW's stunning artworks as part of this curated exhibition of outdoor light art installations. The event has quickly become a holiday tradition in the nation’s capital, gathering work from artists both locally known and internationally celebrated.
Washington Harbour is a crown jewel of Georgetown, a waterfront destination that can be appreciated without spending a cent. Admire views of the Potomac River and the largest ice skating rink in DC (which only charges $10 for adults and $9 for children from mid-November to March) while walking the Harbour’s illustrious pier. There’s at least one dynamite Instagram photo just waiting to be snapped.
Arlington National Cemetery is the largest military cemetery in the U.S., where more than 400,000 military veterans and their immediate family members rest in peace. Each year, the cemetery participates in National Wreaths Across America Day (this year’s date: Dec. 14), when wreaths are laid at every headstone. You can join in that day, or visit any other day to pay your respects, free of charge.
Walk under Palmer Alley’s signature stringed lights and admire a 75-foot Christmas tree and reindeer sculptures that stand 25 feet tall at this luxury shopping and restaurant destination in downtown DC. The annual tree lighting takes place on Nov. 30 at 6 p.m. and includes a ceremony with live music and kid-friendly holiday activities. Before or after you admire the displays, have dinner at one of CityCenterDC’s acclaimed restaurants, a list that includes Centrolina, DBGB Kitchen & Bar, Momofuku CCDC and Fig & Olive.
Each year, dozens of holiday-themed and illuminated boats traverse the Potomac River from the waterfront in Alexandria, Va. to The Wharf as part of the Holiday Boat Parade of Lights. You can observe free of charge, and there are even holiday festivals on both sides of the river to enjoy beforehand. This year's festivities will take place Dec. 7 from 6-9 p.m.
Each year, a tree from a National Forest in the U.S. is brought to the Capitol, where it resides on the West Lawn throughout the season. This year’s tree comes from Carson National Forest in New Mexico. The tree will be set aglow in early December. Follow the tree’s Facebook and Twitter for the latest news and updates.
Located at 8th and F Streets NW across the street from Capital One Arena, the Downtown Holiday Market holds down the area in front of the Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery (2019 dates: Nov. 22 – Dec. 23). As you stroll, you will encounter stirring lights and decorations, live music on-site and irresistible holiday vibes. If you do have a few bucks to spend, dozens of vendors will be offering artwork, crafts and much, much more.
Throughout Chanukah, the National Menorah stands tall on the White House Ellipse, an international symbol for the Jewish community. Its first lighting comes on Dec. 22, featuring a free ceremony (tickets are required) complete with musical performances, hot latkes and donuts.
The U.S. National Arboretum is full of treasures, from the Capitol Columns to the Bonsai & Penjing Museum to the seven-acre Gotelli Dwarf and Slow-Growing Conifer Collection. This collection is one of the most comprehensive in the world, with 1,400 specimens forming an oasis that is perfect for getting lost in, or simply admiring from the gazebo that overlooks the area. You will be amazed by the great variance and adaptability within the conifer family.
During the month of February, the free-to-visit Library of Congress hosts a special movie series in its Pickford Theater. The theme for the 2020 film series is A Year of Change: Best Picture Nominees of 1968, featuring five wide-ranging films that paint an in-depth picture of American life in the late 1960s. All screenings are free, but you will need to secure tickets beforehand. Tickets for the 2020 film series will be available in December.
Union Station is like its own self-contained holiday retreat. Its famous model train display cannot be missed, and neither can its dazzling Norwegian Christmas tree. Amazing wreaths that hang at the front of the station either greet you on the way in or wish you a holiday goodbye before you explore more of the city.
Held at the House of Sweden, this annual DC tradition takes place on the first Saturday in December from 11 a.m. – 5 p.m. each year. The Swedish Christmas Bazaar offers a marketplace decked out with for-sale crystal glassware, artworks, craft items and food from a Swedish cafe, and you can also participate in a special raffle. Make sure not to miss the main event: the St. Lucia procession featuring festive caroling.