Holiday Activities in Washington, DC
So "botanical garden" isn't the first thing that comes to mind as a child-friendly Christmas wonderland? The US Botanic Garden does winter holidays in style. From Thanksgiving to New Year's Day, the Conservatory is filled with model trains and incredible plant-based replicas of DC's landmark buildings and monuments. There are also giant decorated Christmas trees, scores of poinsettias, wreaths and garlands galore, the smell of fresh pine and plenty of scenic backdrops for that yearly Christmas photo. Avoid the inevitable weekend crowds by stopping by during extended hours on Tuesday and Thursday evenings, when you can also catch musical guests ranging from choral groups to klezmer to Irish rock. Admission is free. While you're on the Capitol grounds, be sure to step outside and visit the majestic Capitol Christmas Tree.
The National Christmas Tree isn't the only holiday draw on the Ellipse south of the White House. For over 30 years, DC has commemorated Chanukah with the lighting of the world's largest menorah. One candle is lit for each of the eight days of the Festival of Lights, with special events surrounding each late-afternoon lighting ceremony. Candle-lighting festivities include musical performances (everything from military bands to perennial favorite Dreidelman and the Macabees) and snacks like donuts and hot latkes. Free advance tickets are required for reserved seating at the lighting ceremony; standing room is also available. We recommend traveling by Metro; parking in the area can be scarce.
George Washington did Christmas in a big way, once even bringing in a live Christmas camel to entertain his guests. Washington's estate at Mount Vernon still goes all out in decking the halls each year, with Christmas trees, special hoilday decor and an annual gingerbread replica of the main house. The holiday displays are included in the regular price of daily admission ($15 for adults, $7 for children ages 6-11). There are also magically atmospheric candlelight evening tours on several evenings in December, with outdoor caroling, hot cider and cookies, and estate tours by Martha Washington herself. Mount Vernon was named one of the country's 12 Best Places to Catch the Holiday Spirit by AAA. And if you're running late on holiday shopping, Mount Vernon's unique and extensive gift shop is an ideal place to pick up last-minute gifts.
If most Christmas displays are the equivalent of a string of lights around an outdoor tree, Christmas on the Potomac, the yearly display inside National Harbor's Gaylord National Resort, is one of those houses so lit up you can see them from space. Highlights include over two million lights, a 60-foot glass tree, a dancing fountain that shoots water many stories into the air, light shows and indoor snowfalls. The decorations are free to view, or you can opt for paid activities like an ice skating rink, kiddie train, gingerbread decorating or photos with Santa. The Gaylord also features a popular (if pricey) annual display of fabulous ice sculptures carved from two million pounds of ice. Holiday attractions last from mid-November to early January. Paid garage parking is available at the hotel and throughout National Harbor.
Anyone driving past 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in December is sure to notice the giant Christmas tree in front of the White House. But there's more to Holliday on the Ellipse than just the National Christmas Tree. Each year kicks off with a tree lighting ceremony starring celebrity hosts and nationally known musicians. Then free concerts and dance performances by local community groups are held several nights a week throughout December. The Ellipse also features a "Pathway of Peace" with Christmas trees from each state and U.S. territory, a Yule log and a large-scale model train. Kids can visit Santa's Workshop to chat with the big man and his elves. Santa's Workshop is open afternoons and evenings; the trees are lit until 11 p.m. each night.