50 Things to Do This Holiday Season in Washington, DC

Christmas tree in front of US Capitol Building in Washington DC iStock

Looking to fill your holiday calendar with festive family fun? These are the best and brightest seasonal events throughout Washington, DC

‘Tis the season to pack your calendar with everything merry and bright. You can travel to the historic town of Middleburg, VA, for one of the most famous Christmas parades in the country (be sure to grab a stack of pancakes with Santa while you’re in town), or head further south and immerse yourself in one of the country’s largest holiday displays at Busch Garden’s Christmas Town. Want to avoid holiday traffic? There is plenty to do within the beltway, including the National Menorah lighting, a dazzling fireworks display at The Wharf, a free holiday light display at the National Zoo, and a Nutcracker performance with a DC-theme. However you prefer to celebrate—whether you want to get festive with a holiday light display, board a holiday train to hear a Christmas story, or start a new family tradition—we’ve rounded up all the best things to see and do this holiday season. Memories, prepare to be made.


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Holiday Parades near Washington, DC

 

Reston Holiday Parade
Nov. 25. A tradition since 1991, this parade the day after Thanksgiving gets the holiday season going in this Northern Virginia suburb. Kids along the parade route get free jingle bells before it starts and the chance to take a picture with Santa and Mrs. Claus afterward. Mini train rides and street entertainment run until 4:30 p.m., a Christmas tree lighting happens at 6 p.m., and horse-drawn carriage rides are available from 6:30-10 p.m. Event details.

Alexandria Holiday Boat Parade of Lights
Dec. 3. 
Get a preview of the Wharf’s show as dozens of boats glide along the Potomac River in all their decorated glory at this annual event. Viewing spots include Founders Park (351 North Union St.), Alexandria City Marina (0 Cameron St.), Waterfront Park (1 King Street), Shipyard/Harborside Park (1 Wilkes St.) and Ford’s Landing Park (99 Franklin St.), and dockside festivities start at 2 p.m. and the parade kicks off at 5:30 p.m. Event details.

The District’s Holiday Boat Parade at The Wharf
Dec. 3. Make Christmas special by heading to the waterfront for this tree lighting ceremony and boat parade. This free event is packed with holiday fun, including a Santa photo op, ornament decorating, live music, a boat procession that starts at 7 p.m. and a fireworks finale at 8 p.m. A little word to the wise: carpool (parking is hard-to-find) and come early if you can for a good viewing spot. Event details.

Greater Manassas Christmas Parade
Dec. 3. The theme of the 76th annual event is “Hometown Christmas: Past, Present & Future.” The two-hour parade will feature more than 100 units, including marching bands, floats and giant balloons. About 2,000 people participate and more than 300 volunteer to help get attendees in the holiday season spirit. Event details.

Annual Scottish Walk Parade
Dec. 3. This parade has a distinctive flair as units march decked out in tartans of Scottish clans and play bagpipes and drums. Scottish dancers will perform, Scottie dogs will make an appearance and, of course, Santa will also be there. This event is sponsored by the Campagna Center, a not-for-profit organization that helps 2,000 children and families daily with education and support for at-risk students. Event details.

Middleburg’s Christmas Parade
Dec. 3. One of the area’s most famous celebrations can be found in Middleburg, VA where the first Sat. of December is packed with not one, but two parades, the Hunt & Hound Review and the Christmas Parade. Since 1972, Middleburg has celebrated the start of the holiday season with a parade that includes horses, hounds, corgis, fire trucks, antique cars and more. This historic town is the perfect backdrop for this Insta-worthy event. Start your morning at Breakfast with Santa, an annual fundraiser where you can eat pancakes with St. Nick and score parking for $10. Event details.

Holiday Lights Displays near Washington, DC

Lights on the Bay
Nov.23-Jan. 1. This light display is a drive-thru attraction that features over two miles of lights along the Chesapeake Bay. Lights on the Bay boasts over 70 animated and stationery exhibits. For an additional $5, guests can purchase 3-D glasses for a truly unique experience. Event details.

Meadowlark’s Winter Walk of Lights
Nov. 11-Jan. 8. This Vienna garden becomes a twinkling wonderland at dusk when a half-mile walk becomes illuminated with animated lights, expertly wrapped trees and holiday scenes.  The walk is a one-way trail, so be sure to grab a pic of you favorite light displays before moving on; you won’t be able to back track. Come on a Tues. night and score $5 admission (regularly $16-18). Event details.

ZooLights
Nov. 25-Dec. 30 (select days): For eco-friendly festivities, head to the National Zoo where more than 500,000 LED lights are on display. Each evening, guests can also visit the Small Mammal House and the Reptile Discovery Center. Event details.

Glow Georgetown
Nov. 26-Jan. 22: Bright lights and neon colors brighten up the streets of historic Georgetown with a curated outdoor installation that is sure to dazzle and delight. If you’re looking for some Santa-free time that still has some seasonal sparkle, be sure to take a stroll down M St. Event details.

Get Festive with the Festival of Lights
Nov. 29-Dec. 31: Over 650,000 lights illuminate the grounds of the temple, making this one of the largest light displays in the DC area. Guests can also view internationally-inspired Christmas trees and nativity scenes. Nightly performances require a free event ticket, which are handed out on a first-come basis starting 60 minutes prior to performances. Event details.

Harry Potter’s Forbidden Forest Experience
Now-Jan. 29. Step into the magically enchanted forest of Harry Potter at Morven Park where wands really work! Walk along an illuminated path with dazzling projections and watch famous scenes from the Harry Potter films come to life. Event details.

Ice & Lights at Cameron Run 
Nov. 18-Jan. 1. Take a stroll through a tunnel of rainbow lights, walk under sparkling arches and around illuminated trees and—if you catch a chill—be sure to pop in a heated igloo. After you walk through the 20′ tree, be sure to test out your skating skills at the near-by rink. Event details. 

Garden Lights of Brookside Gardens
Nov. 18-Jan. 1. While there are plenty of places to see lights for free, the dazzling display of over one million bulbs makes the entry fee at Brookside totally worth it in our book (you pay per vehicle, so bring the minivan and pack ‘em in!). In keeping with the botanical theme, Brookside offers a colorful parade of animals, flowers and more. After you’ve enjoyed strolling from garden to garden, be sure to check out the model train display inside the Conservatory. Event details.

Miracle on 34th St.
Nov. 25-Jan. 1. Fondly referred to as the Miracle on 34th Street, the residents of the 700 block (between Chestnut Avenue and Keswick Road) of 34th Street in Hamden have been decorating their homes since 1947 (the same year the movie by the same name was released). Decoration themes include: compassion, unity, love and kindness. Event details.

Enchant Christmas
Nov. 25-Jan. 1. If bigger is better, this football-field sized wonderland should be on your must-see holiday bucket list. Stroll through the Enchant Eatery for magical gifts and gourmet treats, take a whirl on the illuminated ice skating rink and get lost in a maze of lights that will spark wonder and the Christmas spirit. Hurry: these tickets sell out! Event details.

Winter Wander
Nov. 18-Jan. 7. The beauty of light and the whimsy of nature intertwine harmoniously at the Boar’s Head Resort Winter Wander Trail of Lights. Experience the nature of a rolling landscape during this illuminated lakeside stroll as an extraordinary palette of colorful illuminations blanket the natural surroundings for a magical show of lights like no other. Event details.

Related: More DC-Area Holiday Lights Displays You Won’t Want to Miss

Holiday Fireworks near Washington, DC

Christmas Illuminations at Mount Vernon
Dec. 16 & 17. Spend an evening at George Washington’s famous home for an 18th century-inspired Christmas celebration. There will be live encampment re-enactments, strolling carolers, a colonial Christmas market, mansion tours, winter lights and, the grand finale, fireworks. Event details.

National Harbor’s Fireworks
Nov. 26, Dec. 3, Dec. 10 & Dec. 17. Watch the skies illuminate along the Potomac River at this free display in National Harbor. Every Sat. night now through Dec. 17, National Harbor celebrates the season with fireworks at 5:30 p.m. immediately following the weekly tree lighting ceremony. Event details.

The Wharf’s Fireworks
Dec. 3. Fireworks light the skies at 8 p.m. following the annual boat parade. The best place to view this magical display is from the water. Don’t have your own boat? Book a ticket on The Wharf water taxi ($22) and watch the illuminations while also getting an unclose look at all those dazzling boats from the parade. Event details.

Special Santa Sightings near Washington, DC

Santa Fly In
Dec. 3. Watch Ol’ St. Nick touch down at the historic College Park Airport where he is rumored to be landing between 10-10:15 a.m. After, kids can participate in hands-on crafts and tour the museum.  If you want to share your Christmas Wish List with the Big Guy himself (and pose for a photo op), you’ll need a reservation. Event details.

The Capital Wheel
Nov. 26, Dec. 3-4, 10-11, 17-18. Before you board The Capital Wheel, snap a pic with Ol’ St. Nick in a specially themed holiday booth. This special photo op is available on Saturdays and Sundays from 2-4 p.m. with purchase of a ticket. Event details.

DC’s Black Santa
Now-Dec. 24. Santa comes in all colors. Having trouble finding one that looks like your family? Check out this app. Or you can simply head to Prince Georges, which hosts the closest Black Santa to the DMV. The Mall of PG has been celebrating Christmas with a Black Santa for over a decade. Event details.

Waterskiing Santa
Dec. 24. For over thirty years, Santa has skied the open waters of the Potomac River. This year, Santa, his elves, and Frosty the Snowman will make a special appearance on Christmas Eve (right before they hop in the sleigh!). After the show, mingle with Santa, Mrs. Clause and his merry helpers by the Christmas tree in Waterfront Park. Event details.

Breakfast with Santa
Dec. 3. If you are planning on heading out to Middleburg for their famous hunt & hounds parade followed by the annual Christmas parade, you’ll want to start your morning at this school fundraiser where you can score parking for $10 (insider tip: town parking is $50 and sold out). Get your picture with Old St. Nic, grab a stack of pancakes and take a short walk to the center of town to see the festivities. Event details.

Immersive Holiday Experiences near Washington, DC

Busch Garden Williamsburg’s Christmas Town
Select dates, now-Jan. 8. Pack holiday lights, holiday shows, Santa visits and holiday trains all in to one visit at Busch Gardens Williamsburg’s Christmas Town where holiday cheer includes Christmas-themed amusement park rides and thrilling roller coaster rides. This amusement park boasts one of the largest holiday displays in the country with photo ops at every turn. Event details.

Dutch Winter Wonderland
Sat. & Sun., now-Dec. 18. The award-winning display of lights at this amusement park is sure to spark some Christmas magic. Ride over 20 rides, meet Santa and be sure to board the miniature train for an evening ride through the illuminated park all for just $19.99. “Cookies with Santa” can be booked for an additional fee on select dates. Event details.

Gaylord National’s Christmas Activities
Now-Dec. 31. This Potomac River hotel is bursting with Christmas adventures this holiday season. Have snow much fun building snowballs with a snowball building machine and booster, whizz down an indoor snow hill, bump ice cars outdoors and brave the cold at this year’s ICE! exhibit, A Christmas Story. There is also a circus performance in the lobby, hands-on activities (like gingerbread building), a dazzling indoor light show (daily at 7:30 p.m., 8:45 p.m. & 9:15 p.m.), and opportunities to meet both Mr. & Mrs. Clause. Event details.

 

Nutcracker Performances near Washington, DC

The Washington Ballet’s The Nutcracker
Wed.-Sun., Nov. 25-Dec. 30. The Washington Ballet’s American Revolution-themed Nutcracker is set in historic Georgetown circa 1882 and features historical figures like George Washington and King George III. Note, the performers dance to a recording of The Nutcracker, not a live orchestra, but the kids won’t notice. Event details.

The Puppet Company
Thurs.-Sun., Nov. 25-Jan. 1: or the youngest of the bunch, or families interested in a “My First Nutcracker” experience, The Puppet Company offers Tchaikovsky’s familiar story of Clara and her prince with nursery rhyme spin. The Puppet Company is especially sensitive to the needs of children in theater, with gently dimmed lights and family-friendly seating. Shows run 50 minutes. Event details.

Cirque Nutcracker
Dec. 10 & 11. Troupe Vertigo’s acrobats, jugglers and high-flying aerialists join the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra for a truly unique Nutcracker experience that showcases elements of cirque acrobatics, classical dance and contemporary theater. Event details.

The Hip Hop Nutcracker
Dec. 19-22 A remixed and reimagined version of the classic, The Hip Hop Nutcracker returns to Strathmore as a holiday spectacle for the whole family. Enjoy a dozen all-star dancers, a DJ, a violinist, and MC Kurtis Blow, one of hip hop’s founding fathers, who opens the show with a short set. Event details.

Holiday Music and Festive Performances near Washington, DC

The Market Stage
Nov. 18-Dec. 23: Enjoy live music every day at DC’s premier holiday market. The downtown holiday market features over 150 vendors, making it easy to check off your holiday shopping list while enjoying the free entertainment. Event details.

Festival of Lights & Carols
Dec. 3. Get ready to belt some Christmas classics (and a few new tunes) at this annual sing-along event. Head to Old Town Square to listen to live holiday music, eat s’mores and sip hot cider. Be sure to stay for the Christmas tree lighting ceremony at 5:30 p.m. Event details.

Nightly Caroling at the Willard Hotel 
Now-Dec. 23. Daily songs fill the lobby of this historic hotel during the month of December. The Gay Man’s Chorus of DC, The Washington Chorus and the Congressional Chorus are just some of the esteemed acts slated to play. Event details.

A Candlelight Christmas Concert
Dec. 17-18. This annual tradition features over 75-minutes of holiday music. Enjoy the chorus, spirited brass and special guests at this beloved Kennedy Center event. Event details.

Related: 9 Places to Cut Your Own Tree in DC

Tree & Menorah Lighting Ceremonies near Washington, DC

Union Station Tree Lighting 
Nov. 28. The annual lighting of a 32-foot tree generously gifted by the Royal Norwegian Embassy features two local steel drum bands along with other musical acts. Event details.

U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree
Nov. 30. Forget Santa Trackers. This year, track a tree! Head to the U.S. Capitol’s site to track the Capitol tree as it makes its way from North Carolina to the Capitol’s West Lawn. The official lighting of this year’s 78-ft Red Spruce tree will take place at a public event on Nov. 30. Event details.

National Tree Lighting
Nov. 30. Presented by the National Park Service and National Park Foundation, this tree lighting marks the 100th anniversary of the annual event and features one large tree along with 56 smaller trees representing all of the 50 states, U.S. territories and the District of Columbia. Tickets to this event are distributed via a lottery system which has already occurred. If you didn’t score tickets to the actual lighting, you can still visit the National Tree and the surrounding smaller trees through Jan. 1. Event details.

Santa Lights Manassas
Dec. 2. Choo, choo! Santa coming through! Get hyped for the arrival of Santa by VRE train. Now a 27 year tradition, Santa arrives by rail to light the Manassas tree followed by a very special meet-and-greet.  There are plenty of holiday activities to make an evening out of this annual event. Go ice skating, take a wagon ride or get a jump on holiday shopping. Event details.

National Menorah Lighting
Dec. 18. The lighting of the world’s largest menorah is a tradition that dates back to 1979. Presidents, Vice Presidents and members of the Cabinet and Congress attend this annual tradition. Music, food and entertainment are a part of this free event. Tickets are required, so go online to get yours (seating is limited). Events details.

Holiday Trains near Washington, DC

West Chester Railroad’s Santa Express
Sat. & Sun., Nov. 19-Dec. 18. Spend 90 minutes with the Jolly Guy on this excursion that explores the Chester Creek Valley in PA. There are plenty of chances to fill your Instagram feed, from the historic station to candid meet-and-greet snaps on the rails. West Chester Railroad also offers a Christmas Tree Train on Nov. 27 and Dec. 4; hop aboard for a scenic trip to Wiggins Tree Farm for a unique pick-your-own tree experiences. Event details.

Strasburg’s Christmas Train Experiences
Select dates, Nov.19-Dec. 24. Share in this 60 year tradition on America’s oldest operating railroad. Choose from 4 different Christmas-themed experiences and then climb aboard a vintage rail car for a 45-minute journey. You can even hop aboard on Christmas Eve! Event details.

Walkersville’s Train Ride with Santa
Sat. & Sun., Nov.26-18. Get your camera ready for this Insta-worthy trip on the Walkersville Southern Railroad. Santa will make his way through rail cars, being sure to greet each passenger with his hearty signature welcome and a special small gift for all children. After the trip, be sure to grab your free hot chocolate and cookies in the museum. Event details.

B&O’s Polar Express
Select dates, Nov.-Dec. All aboard at the B&O Railroad Museum’s roundhouse, which, we might mention, is chock full of trains. The museum is open daily, but you can take a special trip on the Polar Express on select dates in Nov. and Dec. Character actors bring this beloved book to life through songs and interactions. Get you golden ticket punched while Chefs dance to the hot chocolate song and guests receive a special gift: a silver bell. Event details.

Outdoor Ice Skating near Washington, DC

The Sculpture Garden Ice Rink
Nov. 26-Mar. 5. This DC ice skating rink boasts “best back drop!” Ice skate among the grand architecture of national museums and contemporary large-scale sculptures in the Sculpture Garden Ice Rink. When you’ve had your fill of icy temperatures and skating, head to the Pavilion Cafe for a warm drink, bowl of soup or other tasty treat. There are also a variety of skate lessons to choose from for those less experienced. Event details.

Washington Harbour Ice rink
Nov. 18-Mar. 12. This winter, Washington Harbour Ice Rink morphs from fountain to ice skating rink until mid-March. Twirl and swirl in hour-and-a-half increments before the rink is closed for a quick cleaning and refresh before the next session. Rent a penguin for little skaters who aren’t yet steady on their blades. Event details.

Color Burst Ice Rink
Nov. 18-Feb. 28. Celebrate the reopening of The Color Burst Ice Rink at Merriweather District on Nov. 18 with holiday music, a Santa letter drive, hot chocolate, holiday stories, holiday photo ops and more. All season long, Color Burst offers 75 minute skate sessions in a family0-friendly setting. Event details.

Reston Town Center Ice Rink
Nov. 19-Jan. 1. This shopping and dining area turns its open-air pavilion into an ice rink every winter. The skate shop has more than 500 pairs of skates in figure skating and hockey styles, plus double-bladed, flat-edge skates for beginners. You can also reserve private ice time for your parties of up to 20 or 100 guests. Event details.

Pentagon Row Ice Skating Rink
Opens Nov. 17. This ice rink is a whopping 6,840 square feet – the largest outdoor rink in Northern Virginia and the second largest in the state. Little ones can grab a penguin aide, and youth skating and hockey lessons are available. Reservations are required and can be made up to two weeks in advance.  Event details.

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