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Free Fireside S'Mores 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!  

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. The lighting ceremony will take place on December 5th this year (tickets required). Free nightly music and dance performances will take place on the Ellipse stage from December 11th – 22nd (excluding Mondays). Visit the National Park Service website for more information. Located nearby is the National Menorah – the world’s largest! The National Menorah lighting ceremony will take place this year on Sunday, December 22nd at 4 p.m. 

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 America's Gardens. In the model train room, explore plant-based creations of botanic gardens across the U.S. from Hawaii to Maine, like Brooklyn Botanic Garden's vibrant red Japanese torii gate, Franklin Park Conservatory and Botanical Gardens' flamingo topiaries, and Huntsville Botanical Garden's Rocket Garden featuring NASA space nodes and rockets! 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 November 28th - January 5th. 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 U.S. Botanic Garden

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, sponsored by the New Mexico Congressional Delegation led by U.S. Senator Tom Udall, was chosen from the Carson National Forest and will be decorated with thousands of handcrafted ornaments from the people of New Mexico. The tree will be lit by Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, on Wednesday, December 4th at 5 p.m., and will be illuminated from nightfall until 11 p.m. each evening thereafter through January 1st. The majestic backdrop of the Capitol Building always makes for a great photo op.

U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree National Mall

Downtown Holiday Market – FREE Admission

Located on the F Street sidewalk in front of the Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery, the Downtown Holiday Market is celebrating its 15th year in 2019! This unique outdoor seasonal shopping and dining experience brings more than 150 regional artisans, crafters, boutique businesses and specialty food vendors to the heart of downtown D.C. 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 November 22nd through December 23rd from Noon – 8 p.m. daily.

Downtown Holiday Market
Photo Courtesy of Downtown Holiday Market

The Nutcracker - Save up to 30% Off Tickets!

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, transporting us back in time to historic Washington, D.C. with waltzing cherry blossoms and starring George Washington as the Nutcracker! Check out this CertifiKID Deal to save 20% off tickets for select performances, December 6th - 22nd. 

Bonus: On Saturday, December 7th at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, your family can get a unique, behind-the-scenes peek about how the Washington Ballet puts on their annual performance of this beloved Christmas classic, and enjoy watching dancers perform highlights. Kids can also make a winter-themed craft or go on a scavenger hunt! The Nutcracker Ballet Family Day at the American Art Museum is FREE and will take place in the Kogod Courtyard from 11:30 a.m. - 3 p.m.

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

Other money-saving options for experiencing a performance of The Nutcracker in the Washington, D.C. area:

  • The Northern Virginia Ballet's performances on November 23rd and 30th at Hylton Performing Arts Center in Manassas. Save 30% off tickets.
  • The Moscow Ballet's Great Russian Nutcracker, which is being performed locally in Fairfax, Virginia and Bethesda and Baltimore, Maryland. Save 20% off tickets with Code: GLEE.
  • Cirque Nutcracker at The Music Center at Strathmore in Bethesda on December 12th. This unique twist on Tchaikovsky's holiday classic features acrobats, jugglers and high-flying aerialists from LA-based Troupe Vertigo performing to live music from the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Save up to 41% off tickets.
  • Olney Ballet Theatre's rendition at Olney Theatre Center in Olney, Maryland from December 13th - 24th. Save 29% off tickets.
  • The Fairfax Ballet's performances at the George Mason Center for the Arts in Fairfax, Virginia, December 21st and 22nd. Save up to 30% off tickets.

The District's Holiday Boat Parade and Other Holiday Fun at The Wharf - FREE

Celebrate the holidays by watching beautiful light-bedazzled boats pass by The Wharf on the evening of December 7th. While waiting for the boats to arrive, guests are invited to meet Santa at the lighted Christmas tree, imbibe at the waterfront beer and wine garden, go ice skating, decorate ornaments, warm up by the Camp Wharf fire pit while making a s'more, and more. The boat parade will be followed by a fireworks salute at 8 p.m.

District Holiday Boat Parade Wharf
Holiday Boat Parade Photo Courtesy of The Wharf - Washington, D.C.

The Wharf is also the scene of lots of other holiday fun this season, which kicks off on the evening of November 30th when they officially light their Christmas tree and transform the waterfront into a winter wonderland with thousands of twinkling lights. Other holiday events include a pop-up holiday market complete with live music and a hot drinks bar the weekend of December 13th - 15th, Christmas caroling and a meet-and-greet with Santa and one of his elves on December 21st.

Christmas Tree Lighting The Wharf D.C.
Photo Courtesy of The Wharf - Washington, D.C.

Georgetown GLOW Light Art Exhibition – FREE

The Georgetown Business Improvement District invites you to “re-imagine the season of light” at the 6th edition of 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 this year with works lit from 5 p.m. – 10 p.m. nightly from December 6th – January 5th. 

Georgetown GLOW

Annual Holiday Card Workshop at the National Postal Museum - FREE

During the weekend of December 7th and 8th, the National Postal Museum will supply everything you need to create beautiful handmade cards for everyone on your list, including pretty papers, vintage stamps from around the world, and other supplies to inspire your creativity. Then, you can take your cards directly to the Museum's stamp store to send the cards to your loved ones with the special Postal Museum postmark! Holiday cards = DONE. This event is free and fun for all ages. Click HERE for more information.

Holiday Card Making Workshop at the National Postal Museum
Photo Courtesy of the National Postal Museum

Santa Fly-In and Holiday Trains & Planes at College Park Aviation Museum – FREE with Admission

Blow the minds of your mini-mes as you watch Santa fly into historic College Park Airport on December 7th around 12:30 p.m. with some help from local aviators. Move on to making holiday-themed arts and craft and enjoying other holiday activities before taking photos with Santa. From December 20th through 22nd, the College Park Aviation Museum will also feature their annual holiday-themed display of model railroads from the National Capital Trackers. Miniature trains, villages, tunnels, and depots spark the imagination as they bring the holidays and history to life. Both the Santa Fly-In and Holiday Trains Exhibit are FREE with admission. Admission for a family of four is only $8 with this deal (Save 43%)

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, powered by Pepco, features more than 500,000 environmentally friendly LED lights that turn the Zoo into a winter wonderland of zoological proportions, complete with dazzling light show set to music. New this year: enjoy dozens of large, glowing animal lanterns and stroll through thousands of reflecting lights as part of the interactive ⁠— and highly Instagrammable — art exhibit called "Entre Les Rangs." The European-style GRUMP holiday market, which will be double the size this year, will take place December 6th - 8th from 5 - 9 p.m. ZooLights runs from November 29th through January 1st (Closed Dec. 24, 25 and 31). 

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

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

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. Two services will be held this year at 9:30 a.m. and 12 p.m. Passes are required and can be reserved here

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 included FREE with admission. Meet Aladdin the Christmas camel, tour the mansion and hear stories of Christmases past, see how 18th century chocolate was made, participate in children's activities and more. On Saturdays and Sundays from November 30th through December 22nd, you can even commemorate your holiday visit by taking a festive selfie with a character from Mount Vernon! 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. Save 25% off admission to Mount Vernon through January 6th.

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

Holiday Fun at National Harbor – FREE + Save up to 37% Off!

One of the newer venues in the D.C. area, the National Harbor has quickly become a holiday tradition for many area families. 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!

Capital Wheel and Carousel National Harbor

The holiday fun kicks off on November 16th with the lighting of the giant National Harbor Christmas tree and continues through January 4th with special seasonal fun, including free holiday movies on the plaza and fireworks on Saturdays. Santa will even ride The Capital Wheel with families on Saturdays between 12 p.m. - 4 p.m. from November 30th through December 21st! There is no additional cost, but it is first come, first served. Save up to 37% off admission to The Capital Wheel and Carousel plus fun extras with this CertifiKID Deal.

Reindeer Rush Tubing at Gaylord National Resort

Experience "Christmas on the Potomac" at National Harbor's Gaylord National Resort, featuring their signature holiday event, ICE!, a walk-through, experiential winter wonderland featuring scenes from the Dr. Seuss Classic, "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" carved from more than two million pounds of ice! New this year, Gaylord National will also offer ice tubing on their new two-story tall, four-lane Reindeer Rush Ice Tubing hill! Save 30% off Reindeer Rush Ice Tubing.

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 their own music and lead the audience in Christmas carols in the West Building Rotunda on Saturdays, December 7th and 14th at 1:30 and 2:30 p.m. Other free holiday performances are offered in the West Garden Court of the West Building on December 15th and 21st at 3:30 p.m. Click HERE for more information on all of the free holiday fun at the National Gallery of Art.

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 family-friendly highlights include: Honors Week Tribute - Sesame Street Sing-Along on December 7th, MERRY TUBACHRISTMAS! on December 9th, Handel, Hamilton, and Holiday Songs on December 13th, Hanukkah Show: Shayna Blast on December 18th, Third Thursday featuring a night of holiday songs presented by D.C.'s Listen Local First (LLF) initiative on December 19th, Messiah Sing-Along on December 23rd, the 21st annual All-Star Christmas Day Jazz Jam on December 25th, and Boys & Girls Club of Greater Washington presents: Holiday Sing on December 28th. Click HERE for a complete schedule. 

The National Portrait Gallery - FREE: On Sunday, December 8th at noon, join in a family-friendly sing-along with the Choral Arts Society of Washington in the Kogod Courtyard. Click HERE for more information.

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 performances 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, December 13th – Sunday, December 15th. Concerts are free, but tickets are required. They will perform a special Holiday Matinee for Kids on Friday, December 13th 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. Click HERE for the full concert schedule.

The Choral Arts Society of Washington Holiday Concerts: The Choral Arts Society of Washington always puts on unforgettable holiday performances that are a treat for the whole family. Experience A Family Christmas concert at Schlesinger Concert Hall in Alexandria, Virginia on December 23rd or at the Kennedy Center on December 24th.

The Washington Chorus Holiday Concerts: Sing along to your favorite holiday tunes with The Washington Chorus! Experience A Candlelight Christmas at the Strathmore in Bethesda, Maryland on Saturday, December 19th or the Kennedy Center on December 15th or 22nd and their new signature holiday concert for the whole family,TWC Kids, Families + Friends Christmas at George Mason Center for the Arts in Fairfax, Virginia on December 23rd. Ugly sweaters are encouraged for a meet-n-greet with St. Nick!

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, you can get lost in this year’s Ice Maze. Built with 110,000 pounds of ice, this chilly challenge will a-MAZE everyone in your family. This majestic display will be open on December 13th from 4 p.m.-9 p.m. and then on December 14th from 10 a.m.-9 p.m. (closed from 2-4 p.m. each day for chilling repairs).

Winter in Washington CityCenterDC Christmas
Photo credit: Courtesy of CityCenterDC

Light Festivals in the D.C. Suburbs - Save up to 40% Off

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. Save 28% off admission select days in November and January

Bull Run Festival of Lights in Centreville, VA:  For 16 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. Save 31% off admission select days November 25th through December 12th.

Gaithersburg Winter Lights Festival in Gaithersburg, MD:  Back for its 24th season, 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. Open nightly November 29th through December 31st. 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 26th annual holiday light show, sponsored by the SPCA of Anne Arundel County. A tradition for many area families, Lights on the bay is a scenic two-mile drive along the shore of the Chesapeake Bay with more than 70 spectacular animated and stationary displays illuminating the roadway. This year's theme: Swashbuckling High Seas Adventure. Save 40% off admission plus 3D glasses to add to your viewing experience with this CertifiKID Deal

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 NYC, 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 November 15, 2019 – March 15, 2020, 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 November 15, 2019 through March 15, 2020. Click HERE for more information and daily hours. Admission starts at $9 + skate rental. Starting January 6th, you can save 50% off admission and skate rentals Mondays - Thursdays with this CertifiKID deal

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. 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 opening this year on November 26th and generally stays open through late February. Click HERE for more information and daily hours. Admission starts at $8 + skate rental. Note that the rink only accepts electronic payments (no cash), so plan accordingly.

NEW Ice & Lights Coming to Cameron Run Park in Alexandria, VA - Save 27% Off!

One part ice skating, one part lights, and all NEW, this one deserves it's own special mention! Cameron Run Regional Park will be transformed into a full-fledged winter village this year, featuring a real ice rink, beautifully lit trees and displays, fire pits for roasting marshmallows, heated igloos (!!), games and activities, and yummy food to enjoy. Ice & Lights will run nightly from 5 p.m. - 10 p.m., November 15, 2019 - January 5, 2020. The ice rink will continue operations through the end of February. Save up to 27% off ice skating and rentals with this CertifiKID deal. HURRY - the deal ends November 22nd, but you have until January 5th to use your voucher.

Ice & Lights at Cameron Run

NEW Enchant Christmas Coming to Nationals Park 

Perhaps the most anticipated holiday attraction of 2019, Enchant Christmas, featuring the world's largest Christmas light maze and market, opens at Nationals Park on November 22nd. The Park will be transformed into a winter wonderland with larger-than-life light sculptures, ice skating trail, Christmas market with over 60 local artisan vendors, delectable eats and treats, live entertainment, and more. The custom-designed light maze experience, entitled "The Great Search," invites guests to meander their way through the 90,000-square foot structure, complete with falling snow, with a mission of locating all nine of Santa's reindeer who have disappeared just before Christmas Eve. Enchant Christmas runs through December 29th. Adult ticket pricing starts at $19.99. Save 10% off admission to Enchant Christmas with this CertifiKID Deal.

Enchant Christmas
Photo Courtesy of Enchant Christmas

Celebrate Kwanzaa at the Anacostia Community Museum - FREE (RSVP Required)

Bring the family to the ACM for their annual Kwanzaa celebration on December 27th from 11 a.m. - 2 p.m. This audience participatory program includes dancers, drummers, singers, music, colorful costumes, and lively characters designed for young children and adults alike. Kids can also enjoy making Kwanzaa-inspired arts and crafts. This event is free, but RSVP is required. Register HERE

Kwanzaa Celebration at Anacostia Community Museum
Melvin Deal African Heritage Drummers & Dancers Photo Credit: P. Perry

S'Mores & Hot Cocoa 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 Fireside S'mores every evening from 5:30 - 6:30 p.m. in front of their wood-burning fireplace in the Living Room. On Saturdays and Sundays, they kick the chocolatey-fun up a notch by adding in a free artisan hot cocoa bar, complete with gourmet toppings and complimentary seasonal candies and treats. Consider staying overnight with the family and booking the "Deck the Halls" package where you have the option of having your one-bedroom suite already decked out with a pre-decorated tree or "decking the halls" yourselves with tree, lights, ornaments, and décor provided in your suite. This is definitely not free, but a worthwhile family holiday indulgence.

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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