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Free S'mores at the Ritz! [and Other Free and Cheap Holiday Fun for Families in Washington, D.C.]

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!  

National Christmas Tree Washington, DC

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. 6th – 21st. 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 Roadside Attractions. “Trains will chug around, below, through, and above plant-based recreations of iconic sights from across the United States.” In addition to the train portion of the exhibit, a collection of D.C. landmarks made from plant materials is displayed in the Garden Court. New addition this year: The National Museum of African American History and Culture. Season’s Greenings runs from Nov. 23rd – 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 79-foot Engelmann Spruce from Kootenai National Forest, will be decorated with thousands of handcrafted ornaments from communities across Montana. The majestic backdrop of the Capitol Building always makes for a great photo op.

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. 24th – Dec. 23rd from Noon – 8 p.m. daily.

5     The Nutcracker – Save up to 39% Off Local Performances
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! Tickets start at just $31 with this offer. Save up to 39% off other local Nutcracker performances.

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 fourth year with works lit from 5 p.m. – 10 p.m. nightly from Dec. 8th – Jan. 7th. 

7     Holiday Trains & Planes at College Park Aviation Museum – FREE with Admission
From Dec. 16th – 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 60%)

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: GlowZone, a glow-in-the-dark play zone for kids, and a European-style outdoor holiday market. ZooLights runs from Nov. 24th – Jan. 1st (Closed Dec. 24, 25 and 31).

National Zoo ZooLights Christmas

9     Festival of Lights at the Washington D.C. LDS Temple –  FREE
A D.C. area tradition in its 40th 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. 30th – Dec. 31st 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.

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 23rd, the Cathedral hosts a special Family 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 fun starting November 24th, including a meet a greet with Aladdin the Christmas camel and chocolate making experience and tastings – FREE with admission. Located just 15 miles from Washington, D.C. across the Potomac River, Mount Vernon is open 365 days a year, including Thanksgiving and Christmas. Save 40% on daytime admission with this deal, valid Nov. 1st – Jan. 7th (except Nov, 24th).

Mount Vernon Christmas

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 12th with the lighting of the giant National Harbor Christmas tree and continues throughout December 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     FREE Holiday Musical Performances
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: Local chorale groups perform Christmas carols in the Rotunda the weekends of December 9th/10th and 16th/17th. Click HERE for performance times.

The Kennedy Center Millennium Stage: 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 The Army Chorus on December 6th, Target Family Night: MERRY TUBACHRISTMAS! on December 12th, Holiday Vaudeville on December 13th, The United States Air Force Band’s Chamber Players on December 19th, and the 19th annual All-Star Christmas Day Jazz Jam on December 25th. Click HERE for a complete schedule. 

The Willard Hotel – 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.

United States Air Force Band at DAR Constitution Hall – The USAF Band performs several holiday concerts at historic DAR Constitution Hall from Friday, Dec, 8th – Sunday, Dec. 10th. Concerts are free, but tickets are required. They will perform a special Holiday Matinee for Kids on Friday, December 8th at 10:30 a.m. Click HERE for more information and link to ticket information.

U.S. Botanic Garden – 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 folk rock, a cappella, Jewish, Russian folk and more. Click HERE for the full concert schedule.

15     Life-Size Ice Lounge at 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 life-size igloo-style Ice Lounge made of 36,000 pounds of ice blocks this year. The Ice Lounge opens on December 1st at 4 p.m. – 8 p.m. and will also be open to the public December 2nd and 3rd from 10 a.m. – 6 p.m.

CityCenterDC Christmas

16     Light Festivals in the D.C. Suburbs – Save up to 50% Off Admission
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’mores kits and hot chocolate for the kids. Admission is $16 for one adult and one child with this offer (Save 31%).

Bull Run Festival of Lights in Centreville, VA:  For 14 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! Admission is $15 for one car with this offer (Save 27%).

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. $8 for admission for one car + two pair of prism glasses with this offer (Save 50%).

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. Admission is $20 for one car with this offer (Save 20%).

Lights on the Bay at Sandy Point Park in Annapolis, MD:  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 Village and Enchanted Fairy Tales. $13 for admission for one car + two pair of 3D glasses with this offer (Save 35%).

17     Outdoor Ice Skating – $8+/person + skate rental
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, 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. 18th – March 11th, 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 DC's largest outdoor rink at Washington Harbour in Georgetown. The rink is open mid-November through mid-March. 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 is open Nov. 17, 2017 – February, 2018. Click HERE for more information and daily hours. Admission starts at $8 + skate rental.

18     S’mores 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 S’mores every evening from 6:30 p.m. – 7 p.m. in front of their wood-burning fireplace in the Living Room.

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

CertifiKID was founded by a mom with a passion for helping parents provide the best experiences for their children on a budget. From outings to adventures, classes to camps, theatre to sporting events, amusement parks to getaways, CertifiKID provides the best family-friendly experiences at unbeatable prices. 

~ Kim

Tags: free cheap holiday fun kids families Washington, DC