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Here’s our expert guide on the best things to do in Washington DC in winter!
There’s something extra special about Washington DC in the winter as it’s transformed by beautiful, wintery landscapes and festive celebrations.
In addition, the country’s Capitol Building and America’s most celebrated monuments look stunning under a blanket of freshly fallen snow.
In this post, we’ll guide you to the best winter activities in Washington DC as well as fill you in on tips for surviving Washington DC’s winter weather.
Look no further for a complete guide on the best things to do in Washington DC in winter!
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Winter in Washington DC FAQS
A family trip to Washington DC is a US bucket list destination for many families, but you probably have some questions about visiting Washington DC in the winter.
Namely, “Am I going to freeze to death?”, “Are all of the popular Washington DC tourist attractions open in the winter”, and, “Are there any holiday activities in Washington DC that I should check out?”.
Those are all reasonable inquiries, so here’s what I can tell you…
How cold is Washington DC in the winter?
Winter in Washington DC lasts from the beginning of December to March 1st and is known to be very cold and snowy.
Washington DC’s winter temperatures range from highs of 48°F and sometimes drop to below 30°F.
The coldest month of the year in Washington DC is January, with an average low of 25°F and a high of 43°F.
In terms of snowfall, Washington DC averages 14 inches of snow per year (the US average is 28 inches of snow per year), with 75% of the city’s snow falling in January.
With that said, winter weather is hard to predict and it is crucial to be prepared with proper cold-weather clothing, including base layers and windproof/waterproof outer layers (more on what to wear in Washington DC during winter at the end of the post).
What Washington DC tourist attractions are open in the winter?
Generally speaking, all of Washington DC’s major tourist attractions are open every day in the winter, with the exception of being closed on December 25th (Christmas Day).
The National Mall (home of Washington DC’s monuments and memorials) is open to the public every day of the year, 24 hours a day.
Park rangers are on duty at monument and memorial sites from approximately 9 AM to 11 PM daily, except on December 25th.
The Smithsonian museums are open every day, except for December 25th, as well as the U.S. Capitol Building which is open every day except for Christmas and New Year’s Day.
Additional planning tip: DC tends to be unequipped to deal with large amounts of snow, so be prepared that certain transportation options and/or attractions may be closed due to inclement weather.
What holiday events are held in Washington DC?
There are multiple holiday activities held in Washington DC that you should check out if they match up with your visit!
Christmas in Washington DC welcomes The National Christmas Tree, holiday markets, one-of-a-kind light displays, and seasonal celebrations at Washington DCs most coveted attractions.
Here are some of the best ways to experience the holidays in Washington DC.
Things to Do In Washington DC In Winter
If you’re planning a winter visit to Washington DC, there’s no limit on fun, winter activities available for the whole family to enjoy!
Washington DC transforms into a winter wonderland each year with lights, festivals, and family-friendly activities.
Make the most of your winter vacation with these 25 seasonal activities to enjoy in Washington DC!
*Along with discovering the best things to do in Washington DC in winter, check out our complete 7-day Washington DC family vacation itinerary that will help you plan your trip!
Looking for more winter travel content? Check out these related posts:
- Things to Do in Estes Park in Winter (Adventures for the Whole Family!)
- Best Warm Winter Vacations in the USA That You’ll Love
- Chicago in Winter (Best Things to Do + 3-Day Itinerary!)
- The Ultimate Winter Road Trip Packing List
1. Visit the U.S. Capitol Christmas tree
Each year, a different National Forest is selected to provide a 60-80 foot tree to appear on the west lawn of the U.S. Capitol building for the holiday season.
Beginning on varying dates in November, the tree’s journey can be tracked in real-time online at capitoltreetracker.com as it makes its way to the Capitol Building.
Often referred to as “The People’s Tree”, the annual lighting of the U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree is a time-honored tradition of more than 50 years.
Along with its dazzling lights, the tree is decorated with thousands of handmade ornaments from people of the state in which the tree came from.
The tree is lit from nightfall until 11 PM each evening through January 1st.
2. Go ice skating
One of my favorite things to do in Washington DC in winter is to visit a local ice skating rink for some nostalgic outdoor fun!
There are several public ice skating rinks that can be found in various neighborhoods throughout Washington DC, all of which provide rentals if you don’t have your own ice skates.
Here is a list of places to go ice skating in Washington DC:
- National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden Ice Rink
- Washington Harbour Ice Rink
- The Wharf Ice Rink
Washington DC’s outdoor ice skating rinks are open from late November until early March.
3. Experience Zoolights!
ZooLights is a free, ticketed event held at Washington DC’s Smithsonian Zoo from late November through the end of December.
It includes festive experiences such as live music performances, winter treats, and holiday shopping opportunities.
Plus, the zoo itself is illuminated in environmentally friendly LED lights and dozens of glowing animal lanterns making it feel like a true winter wonderland.
Do know, however, that ZooLights does not feature the zoo’s animals.
All indoor animal exhibits are closed to allow the animals to get a full night’s rest.
Additional planning tip: There is a flat-rate parking fee of $30/vehicle.
4. Admire The National Christmas Tree
The National Christmas tree is an actual, living tree planted in a 52-acre park called the Ellipse, located south of the White House. (This park is nicknamed President’s Park.)
Over the holiday season, this tree is decorated and a whole holiday extravaganza is set up around it including 56 smaller trees dedicated to each U.S. state and territory.
There is also a Santa’s workshop open at various times during the holiday season, as well as featured musical performances.
Another annual event, this one celebrating its 100th year, is the National Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony.
Free tickets to attend the National Christmas Tree Lighting in person are awarded through an online ticket lottery, however, it is also broadcasted on national television.
Visit The National Christmas Tree Lighting website for more information.
5. Visit the U.S. Botanic Garden
The United States Botanic Garden has beautiful exhibits year-round, though their holiday offerings are extra spectacular, in my opinion.
From late November to January 2nd, visit their “Season’s Greenings” holiday exhibit for gorgeous poinsettia displays, circling model trains, and spectacular holiday decor.
Additional planning tip: The gardens get extremely busy on weekends throughout the holidays.
For fewer crowds and a more tranquil experience, try visiting on a weekday.
6. Have an epic snowball fight
The Washington DC Snowball Fight is a hilarious tradition that takes place at random times throughout the winter on the lawn of the National Mall.
Put on by the Washington DC Snowball Fight Association, locals and tourists gather for a huge snowball fight with fun and competitive spirit as a common theme.
Additional planning tip: Check out the Washington DC Snowball Fight Association on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter for their organized events as they do not have a website.
7. Visit the Smithsonian’s
If you’re looking for warm, indoor activities when visiting Washington DC in winter, be sure to explore one or more of Washington DC’s (always free!) Smithsonian Museums.
Open every day of the year, except for Christmas, this world-renowned museum and research complex consists of 17 museums and galleries in Washington, DC, including the National Zoo.
Each year, Smithsonian Gardens’ staff designs and installs gorgeous trees and holiday decorations for the museums in true holiday fashion.
For additional entertainment, head to the National Museum of American History the first weekend in December to attend the Smithsonian Holiday Festival.
Here, visitors can enjoy free live music, food history demonstrations, book signings, and holiday treats.
8. Shop at holiday markets
There are plenty of opportunities to buy unique, handcrafted gifts at one of Washington DC’s Christmas markets.
Located in front of the Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery building, the Downtown Holiday Market is a great place to start in finding unique treasures and holiday treats.
If you’re not all shopped out, head over to the Dupont Circle Chriskindlmarkt to browse their unique, artisan-made goods.
This German-style Christmas market is a must-do if visiting Washington DC in the winter!
Other Washington DC Christmas markets (many of which are only held for a weekend or two) include:
- Van Ness Holiday Pop-Up Shop (normally held the 2nd weekend in December)
- GRUMP Holiday Market at the National Zoo (normally held the 1st weekend in December)
- Four Seasons Holiday Market (every Friday-Sunday in December)
- Upshur Street Craft Fair (normally held the 2nd weekend in December)
6. Experience DC Winter Restaurant Week
DC Winter Restaurant Week, which is typically held in January, is an awesome way to sample local restaurants.
Visiting patrons can enjoy multi-course set menus, wine pairings, take-out options, and more at some of the district’s most beloved restaurants.
The event encourages locals and tourists alike to sample the best food that DC has to offer – so you know that participating restaurants are going to pull out all the stops to create amazing dining experiences.
10. Visit important U.S. landmarks
Part of what makes Washington DC so interesting is all of the historic monuments that honor American history.
Even if visiting Washington DC in winter, be sure to spend time on the National Mall visiting some of the most important landmarks in the United States. (Just be sure to bundle up when doing so, as they are all outside.)
Some must-see landmarks include:
- National Mall
- Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial
- Korean War Veterans Memorial
- Lincoln Memorial
- Jefferson Memorial
- WWII Memorial
- Capitol Hill
- Library of Congress
- United States Capitol
- Washington Monument
11. Enjoy a boat cruise
Celebrate the season on the water with a holiday boat cruise.
DC has several boat tours and cruises available, like the Winter Lights Dinner Cruise.
View sparkling holiday lights amongst the district’s most famous landmarks on a cruise down the Potomac River.
12. Attend winter events at The Wharf
The Wharf is filled with holiday cheer each December with plenty of events to keep the whole family busy.
Go skating at their seasonal ice rink, watch the lighting of the Christmas tree, or view the district’s annual Holiday Boat Parade.
13. Experience Mount Vernon by candlelight
A trip to George Washington’s Mount Vernon is well worth the drive, especially during the holidays.
Here, guests will enjoy a candlelit tour of the residence while learning about holiday traditions of the past in 18th-century Virginia.
You’ll enjoy fresh-baked bread, spiced cider, holiday carols, and more along this very special tour.
Something about Christmas is so nostalgic and celebrating it in this little time capsule seems appropriate.
14. Be enchanted!
If you’re looking for a completely immersive holiday experience, be sure to visit Washington DC’s Enchant Christmas.
This event, where you can explore an amazing, story-themed light maze with lighted tunnels and Christmas trees, is held at Nationals Park (Washington DC’s major league baseball stadium).
There is also ice skating through the lights (skates provided!) and a huge Christmas village for you to tour.
In The Village, you’ll find Christmas crafts, holiday food, and lots of festive spirits!
Kids will love meeting Santa, playing at the Little Elves Play Place, and listening to live music.
15. Brunch with Santa
Visit the Kennedy Center for their annual Brunch with Santa event!
Families can celebrate the Christmas season with brunch at The Roof Terrace Restaurant.
Here, enjoy yummy eats amongst gorgeous holiday decor and jazz music.
Kids will get to meet Santa and pose for a sweet photo memento.
Additional planning tip: Brunch with Santa is a reservation-only event, so make sure to plan ahead!
16. Explore CityCenterDC
DC’s cosmopolitan downtown neighborhood, called CityCenter DC, offers a mix of exciting restaurant options, high-end shopping, and plenty of must-see museums.
It’s the perfect spot for an afternoon of shopping and exploration.
This winter, enjoy City Center events, including live music and sugary pop-ups!
17. Experience ICE!
Visitors of ICE! at the Gaylord Resort will be transported into the world of “A Christmas Story” with their life-sized ice sculpture exhibit.
Enjoy 10 scenes from this Christmas classic created from over 2 million pounds of ice!
18. See a live holiday performance
If you’re interested in making a really special holiday memory on your trip to Washington DC, I recommend that you see a live show!
Get tickets for the Washington Ballet’s Nutcracker or A Christmas Carol at Ford’s Theater for Christmas entertainment you will never forget.
This is one of the top things to do in Washington DC in winter because it’s both nostalgic and festive.
19. Enjoy the Chinese New Year Parade
Lunar New Year, a celebration known in China as the “Spring Festival,” begins on February 1st.
On January 22nd, you can watch the DC Chinese New Year Parade to celebrate the Lunar New Year!
The parade includes a spectacular collection of performances, colors, and booming drums for an experience you won’t forget.
There are also several other ways to celebrate the Lunar New Year happening around the city.
Find a full list of activities here.
20. Celebrate Freedom’s Eve
This December, celebrate Freedom’s Eve with the African American History Museum.
On December 31st, the museum celebrates the 1862 Emancipation Proclamation with educational activities.
Additional planning tip: Participation is free though registration is required.
21. Attend a Gingerbread Workshop
Tudor Place, a federal-style mansion previously owned by George Washington, hosts an annual gingerbread house workshop.
Guests get to enjoy a brief, kid-friendly tour of Tour Place before building their own house, cottage or mansion at the gingerbread workshop.
This event, along with the Tudor House Candlelight Tours, sells out fast, so do plan ahead.
22. Marvel at Georgetown’s GLOW
GLOW is a free, outdoor light art experience that is held annually from the end of November through the end of February.
Featuring national and international artists, GLOW features innovative light art installations that remain on display (for 8 weeks) throughout the Georgetown commercial district.
Cupid’s Undies Run is an annual 1-mile run/dancing party that raises money for people affected by NF, a genetic disorder that causes tumors to grow on nerve endings.
Join thousands of runners from all across the U.S. as they run in their undies to support this great cause.
24. Go sledding down Capitol Hill
Since 2016, families have been allowed to go sledding down Capitol Hill during daylight hours.
Opt for sleds that are easy to control and steer as the hill can get busy, so being able to control your sled is important.
Also, be sure to listen to any directions provided by the United States Capitol Police who are monitoring the snow activities on the hill.
25. Take a winter hike
Surprisingly still busy in the winter time, head to local Rock Creek Park for a gorgeous winter hike.
This park, managed by the National Park Service, is open from sunrise to sunset every single day of the year.
What to Pack for Washington DC in the Winter
Winter weather is notoriously unpredictable, and vacationing in Washington DC is no exception.
Strategic layering will ensure that you stay dry (or dry quickly) and protected from the wind and snow, while still being able to explore comfortably.
When visiting Washington DC in the winter, we recommend wearing a merino wool base layer underneath your clothing every day during your trip.
Avoid non-insulating fabrics like cotton, and remember that natural fibers are pretty much always better than manmade textiles like polyester.
After your base layer, you’ll need to add on at least 1 additional layer before your outerwear, like a pair of pants and a pullover or sweater.
Also, don’t forget the following items when visiting Washington DC in winter:
- Base layer (as mentioned above)
- Mid layers (i.e. fleece pullover, sweater)
- Warm winter coat
- Warm, waterproof walking boots
- Merino wool neck gaiter
- Warm winter gloves
- Warm hat or headband
Best Places to Stay in Washington DC in Winter
If you want to stay within the city and potentially avoid having to rent a car, I recommend staying in a hotel that is within walking distance of the National Mall.
Convenient, family-friendly hotels in Washington DC include:
- Residence Inn by Marriott at Washington, DC National Mall – 5-minute walk to the National Mall, indoor pool, kitchens with full-sized refrigerators/freezers and microwaves, complimentary evening reception, and complimentary buffet breakfast.
- Hampton Inn Washington DC/White House – 10-minute walk to the National Mall, complimentary breakfast and an indoor pool, and several dining options nearby.
- Holiday Inn Washington Capitol – 5-minute walk from the National Mall, outdoor rooftop pool, and an onsite convenience store.
- Washington Marriott at Metro Center – 10- minute walk to the National Mall, heated indoor pool, onsite restaurants, and a Starbucks.
If you’re open to staying outside of the city and taking the Metro into the heart of Washington DC, consider staying in its surrounding cities.
Hotels near Washington, DC in these areas sometimes have free parking and are usually more affordable than those downtown.
- Hotels in Alexandria, Virginia (Home of the free King Street Trolley)
- Hotels in Bethesda, Maryland
- Hotels in Crystal City, Arlington, Virginia
Conclusion: Things to do in Washington DC in winter
Winter is such a wonderful time to experience a new city because you get to enjoy festive celebrations that are only available during the chilly months.
The weather is also wonderful for celebrating wintertime because it’s fairly mild, with the chance for snow to upgrade your festive outings!
Exploring Washington DC in winter is an incredible winter holiday that you and your family will talk about for years to come!
What are you most looking forward to about your winter getaway to Washington DC?Jen
*Before leaving, be sure to check our Travel Resources Page to find exclusive travel discounts and to book hotels, rental cars, and guided tours.*