Washington D.C. Area Holiday Bucket List

Published on November 21, 2019 - Updated on December 11, 2019

Holiday enthusiasm is plentiful in the DMV, and it generally starts early. Many of our favorite traditions run throughout the season, and we encourage you to pack in all the fun you can! Keep an eye on our weekend roundup for special events, but check back here for our selection of continuously running family favorites that are guaranteed to lift your spirits, even on the coldest days.

The 15th Annual Downtown Holiday Market in Penn Quarter returns on November 22nd and runs until December 23rd daily from noon to 8pm. This free festive outdoor village includes entertainment and food in addition to more than 60 rotating exhibits by over 150 regional artisans and businesses, offering a variety of great gift ideas. Located in front of the American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery, it will operate rain or shine. Wander over after ice skating at the nearby Sculpture Garden for a memorable afternoon.

Located at 100 Maryland Avenue, SW, the U.S. Botanic Garden is open free of charge every day of the year from 10am - 5pm. Starting on Thanksgiving Day, the USBG’s annual holiday exhibit will be revealed. This year is titled, Season’s Greetings: American Gardens, exploring botanic gardens from Hawaii to Maine. In addition to the incredible plant-based recreations, eight model trains will light up the imagination of every child, and the West Gallery will also feature a model train moving around a 26-feet-tall decorated tree.

Beginning on November 29th, The National Zoo’s annual holiday tradition reopens. The very popular exhibit, ZooLights, is available through January 1st (except for December 24th, 25th and 31st). From holiday shopping to live music and tasty treats there is much to take in during this memorable winter celebration, in addition to the over 500,000 lights that light up the Zoo. While admission is free, parking is not, so consider public transportation when making your way to 3001 Connecticut Avenue, NW, or incorporate this HAF endorsed stroller run that culminates at The Zoo and plan a ride back to your car for later.

As if Georgetown isn’t captivating enough during the holiday season, 11 light art installations amp up the neighborhood’s already energetic holiday spirit during Georgetown GLOW, from December 6th through January 5th until 10pm nightly. This free curated exhibition in the Georgetown commercial district will be accompanied by other special features, including Ice Skating on the Washington Harbour all season long, and the popular Swedish Christmas Bazaar on December 7th.

On December 9th, the over 90 year tradition of lighting the National Christmas Tree will take place on The White House Ellipse. The lottery for tickets closed October 21st, so if you did not procure a ticket, watch it from a distance, and visit The Pathway of Peace site any time through January 1st.  The general public is welcome to stroll this walkway surrounding the tree from 10am - 10pm Sunday through Thursday, and 10am - 11pm on Fridays and Saturdays, and examine the 56 additional state and territory trees uniquely decorated with handmade ornaments along the way.

From November 15th - January 6th, a new winter wonderland opens at Cameron Run Regional Park. Transforming the existing waterpark, Ice & Lights: The Winter Village, features an ice rink beautifully lit photo ops, fire pits, music, food and more. While the ice rink will remain open through February, up until January 6th the winter village will be open nightly from 5 - 10pm at 5400 Ox Road in Fairfax Station, Virginia. General admission is $5 and skating is $8, plus $4 for skate rentals if needed.

The Meadowlark Botanical Gardens 8th Annual Winter Walk of Lights in Vienna, Virginia reopened on November 8th. This festive half-mile walk through past favorites and brand new displays transforms the garden, and is a family favorite, so buy your tickets online in advance starting at $8. Your walk will culminate near the S’More Snacks Shop, where you can purchase hot beverages and end your tour roasting marshmallows. The Winter Walk is open nightly at 5:30pm - 10pm (last admission at 9:15pm) through January 5th, even on holidays.

The Festival of Lights Holiday Drive-Through reopens at Bull Run Regional Park on November 22nd. This popular attraction spans 2.5 miles of light displays and features a holiday village open on select nights with rides, refreshments and photos with Santa. Available through the 5th of January from 5:30 - 9pm (10pm Fridays - Sundays and holidays) at 7700 Bull Run Drive in Centreville, Virginia, the event ranges from $20-$25 per car.

Brookside Gardens at 1800 Glenallan Avenue in Wheaton, Maryland presents a magical winter wonderland with over one million lights. The Garden of Lights runs from November 22nd through December 31st. After strolling through the gardens, visit the model trains at the Conservatory before dropping by the Visitor Center for nightly live music and hot cocoa. Admission is $25-$30 per car or van. The exhibit will be closed on select dates, so be sure to check the website.

Christmas at Mount Vernon never disappoints. Open daily, including Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, George Washington’s Estate home, at 3200 Mount Vernon Memorial Highway in Virginia, is an excellent place to create an annual tradition for your family. Children under five are free, and while there are very special events scattered throughout the holiday season, such as Christmas Illuminations and Mount Vernon by Candlelight, there are many ongoing ways to commemorate your holiday season visit at the plantation, starting on November 29th. Admission is $20 for adults and $12 for kids 6-11 years old.

Enchant: The Great Search will debut at Nationals Park on November 22nd and continue through the 29th of December. Santa will be on hand for photos, and your family can skate along an ice trail, take in a film at the Enchant Cinema, shop at the Christmas Market, enjoy live music and wander through a maze of sculptures and lights. Seasonally appropriate food and beverages elevate your holiday spirit further, and with the buzz of the World Series win still in the air, this magical experience is destined to create lasting memories for your family on every level. Tickets start at $20 for adults, $17 for ages 14-17 and $15 for kids from 4-13, and Enchant offers a 20% off discount for families on the event website.

The National Harbor Christmas kicked off on the 15th, with so many special events. Gaylord National brings to life ICE! Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas with 2 million tons of ice. Additionally, more than 2 million holiday lights will welcome you to the celebration, which includes ice skating, outdoor holiday movies, a Build-A-Bear Workshop, photos with Santa, and a Christmas Village featuring a train, carousel and much more. A brand new 15-foot high, four-lane Reindeer Rush Ice Tubing also premieres. The ICE! experience is priced at $25 for children and $33 for adults, but each additional activity runs at separate cost and it adds up, so consider the website’s option to bundle for 30% off.

The B&O Railroad Museum at 901 W. Pratt Street in Baltimore welcomes those ringing with Christmas spirit and those who need a little boost to experience the Polar Express Inspired Train Ride. Beginning on November 15th and running through December 1st on Saturdays and Sundays, with a bonus day of showings on Friday the 29th. Get your golden ticket punched, climb aboard and make this special experience an annual tradition for your family. There are various showtimes on each scheduled day, but this event is popular and does not run for long, so advance registration is recommended. Tickets run from $37-$57 for kids over 2 and $42-$67 for adults, and packages are available on the website.

On select days starting November 23rd, Six Flags America elevates the spirit of the season with the return of Holiday in the Park. The interactive winter wonderland features special rides and attractions, shows and unique foods, including Mrs. Claus’ Kitchen and fire pits for making S’Mores. Be sure to check the website before heading to 13710 Central Avenue in Mitchellville, Maryland, where all the select dates are clearly posted. Tickets are available for around $40, but there are great deals available on the website.

Ebenezer Scrooge will light up the stage at Ford’s Theatre, in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, starting on November 21st and running daily through January 1st. Recommended for children over five, this two hour show (with intermission) captivates audiences with the magic and music of the original holiday classic, lauded by The Washington Post as “Infectiously jolly!” Ford’s Theatre stands at 511 10th St. NW in the District. Tickets start around $36 and run up to $124 depending on seat selection and performance date.

The Washington Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker arrives at The Warner Theatre on Saturday, November 30th. This seasonal favorite is set in Georgetown and if it isn’t a treasured family tradition yet, it should be. Warner Theatre is located at 513 13th Street NW. The price range for tickets falls around $52-$87, also depending on attendance date and preferred seating.

For your convenience, we arranged our selections with cost in mind, beginning with free events and moving gradually toward our pricier suggestions. Whatever adventures you choose, please take a moment to share your family’s holiday season highlights by tagging us on instagram @happyactivefamily. The Happy Active Family mobile app is constantly growing, so download here for fast access to our weekend roundups, frequent blog content and all of our favorite activities, both locally and in many of our favorite communities and travel destinations across the country. Allow us to help you spend less time planning and more time playing, and always remember to create a great day!

Thoughtfully captured by:
Randi Banks
Randi (Betts) Banks grew up in New York and graduated from Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. She moved to Washington, D.C. more than thirteen years ago with her husband, Eaghmon, and they love to explore the area and seek out adventure, now with their two young children along for the ride. Growing up right near the beach, they are happiest when on or near the water, so exploring the rivers, lakes, and streams in the greater DC area is a favorite pastime for their family. In addition to serving as one of the Washington, DC area ambassadors, Randi is also the Editor in Chief and Co-founder of happyly.
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