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Free Hot Chocolate at the Ritz! {and Other Free and Cheap Holiday Fun for Families in Washington, D.C.}

Holidays Things to Do DC/MD/VA
National Christmas Tree IIP Photo Archive Washington, DC, USA [CC BY 2.0] via Wikipedia Commons National Christmas Tree IIP Photo Archive Washington, DC, USA [CC BY 2.0] via Wikipedia Commons

The holidays are a magical time in our Nation’s Capital with many special and unique seasonal events, festivals and activities set against the backdrop of the landmarks of this historic city. Celebrate the season with our top picks for free and affordable fun that are sure to get your whole family in the holiday spirit – yes, even those hard-to-please teens!  

1     The National Christmas Tree and Menorah – FREE
The Ellipse near the White House is the scene of one of D.C.’s most beloved holiday traditions (and required pilgrimage for our family every December). The National Christmas Tree and surrounding Pathway of Peace, featuring 56 state and territory trees with handmade ornaments, light up from dusk to 10 p.m. each night. Located nearby is the National Menorah – the world’s largest! Free nightly music and dance performances take place on the Ellipse stage from Dec. 5th – 22nd (excluding Mondays). Visit the National Park Service website for more information.

2     Season’s Greenings at the United States Botanic Garden – FREE
If you have a train lover in your family, then a visit to the United States Botanic Garden’s Season’s Greenings holiday train exhibit is a must! This year’s theme is All Aboard! In the model train room, explore plant-based creations of classic stations like New York City's Grand Central Terminal, St. Louis' Union Station and many more. In addition to the train portion of the exhibit, a collection of D.C. landmarks made from plant materials and two of the largest decorated indoor trees are displayed in the Garden Court. Season’s Greenings runs from Nov. 22nd – Jan. 1st. The Conservatory is open every day from 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. and select Tuesdays and Thursdays in December until 8 p.m. The best time to visit to avoid the crowds are weekdays early in December.

Season's Greenings at the United States Botanic Gardens

3     U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree – FREE
After visiting Season's Greenings, be sure to stroll over to the nearby U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree, located on the West Lawn of the Capitol Grounds. This year's tree, a 80-foot Noble Fir from Willamette National Forest, will be decorated with thousands of handcrafted ornaments from communities across Oregon. The tree will be lit from nightfall until 11 p.m. each evening from Dec. 5th – Jan 1st. The majestic backdrop of the Capitol Building always makes for a great photo op.

U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree National Mall

4     Downtown Holiday Market – FREE Admission
Located on the F Street sidewalk across from the Verizon Center, the Downtown Holiday Market offers a unique outdoor seasonal shopping and dining experience featuring a wide variety of regional artisans, crafters, boutique businesses and specialty food vendors. Shop for gift items for everyone on your list while getting in the holiday spirit with live music and entertainment. The Downtown Holiday Market is open Nov. 23th – Dec. 23rd from Noon – 8 p.m. daily.

Downtown Holiday Market
Photo Courtesy of Downtown Holiday Market

5     The Nutcracker
For many of us, the holidays are not complete without attending a performance of this beloved ballet that’s as much fun for adults as it is for the kids. The Washington Ballet puts a unique D.C. twist on their rendition by Septime Weber, transporting us back in time to historic Washington, D.C. with waltzing cherry blossoms and starring George Washington as the Nutcracker! 

The Washington Ballet Nutcracker
Photo credit: "Esmiana Jani" by Dean Alexander. "The Washington Ballet" by media4artists Theo Kossenas.

6     Georgetown GLOW Light Art Exhibition – FREE
The Georgetown Business Improvement District invites you to “re-imagine the season of light” at Georgetown GLOW, the region’s only curated exhibition of outdoor public light art installations. Located throughout the Georgetown commercial district (click HERE for a map), GLOW returns for its fifth year with works lit from 5 p.m. – 10 p.m. nightly from Dec. 1st – Jan. 6th. 

Georgetown Glow Light Installation Washington, D.C.

7     Holiday Trains & Planes at College Park Aviation Museum – FREE with Admission
From Dec. 15th – 23rd, the College Park Aviation Museum features a holiday-themed display of model railroads from the National Capital Trackers. Miniature trains, villages, tunnels, and depots spark the imagination as they bring history to life. Exhibit is FREE with admission. Admission for a family of four is only $8 with this deal (Save 43%)

8     ZooLights at Smithsonian’s National Zoo – FREE
One of the best free family destinations year-round, the National Zoo has extra special fun for the holidays. Their ZooLights event features more than 500,000 LED lights that turn the Zoo into a winter wonderland of zoological proportions, complete with dazzling light show set to music. New this year: Gingerbread Village, Reindeer Games Fun Zone, and Symphony of Lights. Be sure to visit the European-style GRUMP holiday market that takes place Dec. 7th - 9th from 5 - 9 p.m. ZooLights runs from Nov. 23th – Jan. 1st (Closed Dec. 24, 25 and 31). 

Zoolights National Zoo Smithsonian D.C.
Photo Credit: Jim Jenkins, Smithsonian's National Zoo

9     Festival of Lights at the Washington D.C. LDS Temple –  FREE
A D.C. area tradition in its 41st year, come see the majestic LDS Temple (or, as my daughter calls it, “The Castle!”) adorned with over 650,000 lights. The festival also includes an exhibit of crèches from around the world, a life-sized outdoor nativity, and Christmas trees decorated in international themes. Admission to the grounds is free. Tickets are required for nightly indoor musical performances. Located in Kensington, Maryland about 10 miles outside of D.C., Festival of Lights runs from Nov. 29th – Jan. 1st from 10 a.m. – 10 p.m. daily.

10     Alexandria Waterskiing Santa – FREE
This is one my kids never want to miss! Since 1986, every Christmas Eve, Santa, his band of Crazy Elves, and the jet skiing Grinch take to the water along the historic Old Town Alexandria waterfront and ski from Founders to Waterfront Park. After the show, Santa and his friends greet families in the pavilion on the waterfront and behind the Torpedo Factory. Santa hits the chilly Potomac at 1 p.m. on Dec. 24th! Click HERE for more information.

Santa Waterskiing
Photo Credit: Waterskiing Santa

11     Family Christmas Service at Washington National Cathedral – FREE
The site of many significant national events and services, including presidential inaugurations, funerals and memorials, the Washington National Cathedral is a special place to celebrate the season for Catholics and non-Catholics alike. On December 24th, the Cathedral hosts a special Children's Christmas Service with Christmas carols and the Nativity story, including live animals! Children are encouraged to come dressed up as angels, animals and shepherds to be part of the story.

12     Holiday Activities at Mount Vernon – FREE with Admission
Celebrate the season at one of the most beautiful spots on the Potomac River, George Washington's Mount Vernon. Mount Vernon features special family-friendly holiday activities from Nov. 23rd - Dec. 31st. included FREE with admission. Meet Aladdin the Christmas camel, see chocolate-making and holiday pie making demonstrations and more. Mount Vernon is located just 15 miles from Washington, D.C. across the Potomac River and is open 365 days a year, including Thanksgiving and Christmas. 

Mount Vernon Christmas
Photo of Aladin the Christmas Camel Courtesty of George Washington's Mount Vernon

13     Holiday Fun at National Harbor – FREE
One of the newer venues in the D.C. area, the National Harbor has quickly become a holiday tradition for many area families. The holiday fun kicked off on November 16th with the lighting of the giant National Harbor Christmas tree and continues through January 1st with special seasonal fun, including free holiday movies on the plaza every Saturday. Get your holiday shopping done while strolling the waterfront boutiques, grab a bite at one of the many delicious restaurants, and check out the jaw-dropping holiday decorations at Gaylord National Resort. This is an outing the whole family will love.

14     Holiday Musical Performances and Sing-Alongs
There are many opportunities to enjoy free live holiday musical performances in beautiful, historic and unique settings around our Nation’s Capital. Here are just a few of our favorites:

National Gallery of Art - FREE: Local chorale groups perform Christmas carols in the Rotunda the weekends of December 8th/9th and 15th/16th. Other free holiday performances are offered in the West Garden Court of the West Building on December 16th, 28th and 30th. Click HERE for performance times.

The Kennedy Center Millennium Stage - FREE: The Millennium Stage hosts free concerts every evening at 6 p.m. year-round – no tickets required. December is filled with special seasonal performances you don’t want to miss. Some highlights include Target Family Night: Honors Week Tribute - Hamilton Sing-Along on November 30th, MERRY TUBACHRISTMAS! on December 10th, Messiah Sing-Along on December 23rd, and the 20th annual All-Star Christmas Day Jazz Jam on December 25th. Click HERE for a complete schedule. 

The Willard Hotel - FREE: Located two blocks from the White House, this historic and iconic D.C. landmark hosts free holiday concerts from 5:30 p.m. – 7:30 p.m. nightly throughout December. For a list of performance click HERE.

United States Air Force Band at DAR Constitution Hall - FREE: The USAF Band performs several holiday concerts at historic DAR Constitution Hall from Friday, Dec. 7th – Sunday, Dec. 9th. Concerts are free, but tickets are required. They will perform a special Holiday Matinee for Kids on Friday, December 7th at 10:30 a.m. Click HERE for more information and link to ticket information.

U.S. Botanic Garden - FREE: The Conservatory stays open late select Tuesdays and Thursdays in December until 8 p.m. for live seasonal music concerts in the Garden Court. Performances include jazz, Irish rock, Russian folk a cappella and more. Click HERE for the full concert schedule.

CityCenterDC Sounds of the Holidays - FREE: Delight in musical performances playing in The Plaza at CityCenter from Dec. 1st and 15th from 1 p.m. – 3 p.m. 

The Choral Arts Society of Washington Holiday Concerts - $15+: The Choral Arts Society of Washington always puts on unforgettable holiday performances that are a treat for the whole family.  

The Washington Chorus Holiday Concerts - $16.50+: Sing along to your favorite holiday tunes with The Washington Chorus! A Candlelight Christmas at the Strathmore in Bethesda, MD and a Family Christmas Holiday Sing-Along at George Mason Center for the Arts in Fairfax, VA.

15     Winter In Washington CityCenterDC –  FREE
Located in the heart of the District at 10th & H St, NW, CityCenterDC is home to many fabulous shops and eateries, and their seasonal decorations never disappoint. In addition to a dazzling 75-foot decked out holiday tree, two 25-foot reindeer, and an overhead holiday display on Palmer Alley. CityCenterDC will unveil a 12-foot high snowy scenic view of D.C.'s most beautiful monuments made of 50,000 pounds of ice! The Winter In Washington exhibit opens on December 7th at 4 p.m. – 9 p.m. and will be open to the public December 8th and 9th from 10 a.m. – 9 p.m. (closed to public from 2 p.m. – 4 p.m. each day for chilling repairs).

Winter in Washington CityCenterDC Christmas
Photo credit: Courtesy of CityCenterDC

16     Light Festivals in the D.C. Suburbs 
The nearby D.C. suburbs in Maryland and Virginia are home to many dazzling light displays. Here are some of our favorites with links to save you up to 50% off admission.

Meadowlark Gardens Winter Walk of Lights

Meadowlark Gardens Winter Walk of Lights in Vienna, VA:  Walk through more than a half mile of paved trail adorned with lighted trees, nature displays and holiday themes. Some of my daughter’s favorites include the jumping fish, butterfly garden, and Lakeside Lights - an animated light show with over 40,000 lights set to music! If you need warming up after your stroll, stop by the large roaring fire before heading out and grab some S’more kits and hot chocolate for the kids. 

Bull Run Festival of Lights in Centreville, VA:  For 15 years, the Bull Run Festival of Lights at Bull Run Regional Park has drawn thousands of visitors from hundreds of miles away to Centreville, Virginia, just outside D.C. After enjoying two and a half miles of light displays, don’t forget to stop at the Holiday Village! Complete with bonfires, s’mores, holiday merchandise, and free children’s activities. The Holiday Village is fun for the whole family. Don’t forget to get your photo taken with Santa! 

Gaithersburg Winter Lights Festival in Gaithersburg, MD:  This 3.5-mile drive-through light display nestled in Seneca Creek State Park takes you past sparkling wrapped trees, more than 380 illuminated displays, and 60 animated vignettes that light up the night. Drive slowly past a world of wonder that includes themed areas like Teddy Bear Land, Winter Woods, a Victorian Village, a Fantasy Castle, the North Pole, and more. For more information click HERE.

Garden of Lights at Brookside Gardens in Wheaton, MD:  Brookside Gardens is transformed into a magical winter wonderland illuminated with more than one million twinkling colorful LED lights shaped into hand-crafted original art forms of flowers, animals and other natural elements. Warm up inside the Conservatory watching miniature G-scale trains wind through a seasonal landscape, past one-of-a-kind models of the Brookside Gardens Conservatories, the Dentzel Carousel and the Chautauqua Tower of Glen Echo Park. For more information click HERE.

Lights on the Bay at Sandy Point Park in Annapolis, MD:  Enjoy the magic this season and treat the family to the 25th annual holiday light show. A scenic two-mile drive along the shore of the Chesapeake Bay with more than 70 spectacular animated and stationary displays illuminating the roadway. In addition to popular classics that visitors have enjoyed for years, guests will be treated to two new themes this year: North Pole Train Station and Penguins & Friends. 

17     Outdoor Ice Skating 
Ice skating is a fun, affordable family activity all year round, but there’s something especially magical about an outdoor rink, especially during the holidays. While perhaps nothing can top the experience of skating at Rockefeller Center in New York City, D.C. has some pretty unique venues of our own.

National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden Ice Rink

Sculpture Garden Ice Rink – 7th St. and Constitution Ave, NW: Skate in the middle of the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden on the National Mall while surrounded by extraordinary sculptures by contemporary artists, and with the National Archives as your backdrop. A truly unique D.C. experience! The rink is open Nov. 17th – March 10th, weather permitting. Click HERE for more information and daily hours. Admission starts at $8 + skate rental.

The Washington Harbour Ice Rink – 3000 & 3050 K Street NW in Georgetown:  Enjoy beautiful views of the Potomac River while skating at D.C.'s largest outdoor rink! The rink is open Nov. 17- March 1st. Click HERE for more information and daily hours. Admission starts at $9 + skate rental.

Canal Park Ice Rink – 2nd & M St. SE:  Located in the Capital Riverfront neighborhood near Nationals Park, the Canal Park Ice Rink offers a different experience in that skaters traverse around a track. This is an urban skating experience with city views around every turn. The rink opens on November 17th. Click HERE for more information and daily hours. Admission starts at $8 + skate rental.

District Wharf Ice Rink - 960 Wharf Street SW in DC: Enjoy amazing water views as you glide over the ice at Wharf Ice Rink. Located at Transit Pier right outside The Anthem. The rink is open December 2nd through late February. Click HERE for more information and daily hours. Admission starts at $8 + skate rental.

18     LightUp Fest at One Loudoun in Ashburn, VA 
While this technically falls in the "Light festivals in the D.C. Suburbs" category, it deserves its own special mention. NEW this year, the largest light display on the East Coast is at One Loudoun in Ashburn! Ten acres, over 1 million lights, 77 stunning artisan-crafted light displays. Need we say more? In addition to the dazzling light displays, experience daily performances by acrobats, dancers, and musicians; dine on international cuisine; and enjoy interactive arts and crafts. This event runs until January 2nd.  

LightUp Fest at One Loudoun in Ashburn
Photo Credit: LightUp Fest

19     Hot Chocolate by the Fire at The Ritz Carlton Georgetown – FREE
Escape the M Street shopping crowds and the cold temps and warm up and relax by the fire at The Ritz Carlton Georgetown. Located at 3100 South Street, N.W., The Ritz Carlton Georgetown offers complimentary artisan hot chocolate every evening in front of their wood-burning fireplace in the Living Room.

20      Hot Chocolate Happy Hour at The Hamilton Hotel Washington, D.C. - FREE
Back by popular demand, The Hamilton Hotel, will be serving up a special Caribbean Hot Chocolate – a nod to Alexander Hamilton’s hometown of Charlestown – along with a classic Creamy Hot Chocolate option as a special 12 Days of Christmas celebration. From December 6th - 21st, guests and locals can enjoy FREE hot chocolate in the lobby on weekdays from 4 p.m. – 6 p.m.

Giving experiences instead of things as gifts helps create lifelong memories. Check out our post on experience gifts for kids to learn more!

Tags: free cheap holiday christmas fun kids families Washington, DC


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