Beyond the White House, Capitol and politics of the District is a thriving city. The real DC isn't like an episode of House of Cards, it is so much more. It is a city filled with a rich history, the sounds of go-go, the taste of mumbo and residents from all around the world.
And while I believe DC is a city worth being on everyone's bucket list, she really lights up over the holiday season. With decorated storefronts and twinkling Christmas trees the monuments tend to glow a little brighter at night this time of year.
Whether you live here or are hosting out of town guests over the holidays I am sure this list will help you enjoy the season to the fullest.
CHRISTMAS TREE HUNTING
December 2020 holiday activities were significantly reduced and I was trying to find safe creative ways to enjoy the season while a friend was visiting. This resulted in us going on an unofficial tour of DC Christmas trees all over the city. If you are looking for an outdoor activity to enjoy with the family may I suggest a Christmas tree tour led by you! Use my guide to some of the best trees in the city.
For the second year in a row Nationals Park is hosting, Enchant Christmas a magical Christmas light maze, with ice skating, holiday treats, a visit with Santa, and more. If possible try to snag a weeknight ticket as weekends can be fairly crowded.
When: Nov. 26-Jan. 2
Where: Nationals Park 1500 S. Capitol St. SE, Washington, DC 20003
DOWNTOWN HOLIDAY MARKET
Celebrating its 17th year, DC's downtown holiday market is open daily from noon November 19 - December 23, 2021. Located in front of the National Portrait Gallery, the market features multiple vendors, hot beverages, sweets, and a calendar of holiday performances.
Plan a day outing starting at the National Portrait Gallery followed by a stroll through the holiday market. I recommend grabbing a churro and hot chocolate to enjoy while browsing, if the line is too long try XX donuts instead.
Want to continue the holiday fun in this area? Head to Urban Roast located just a block away for s'mores and cocktails. Reservations required.
Looking for a hearty meal to warm up with after the holiday market? Head to two of the best ramen shops in DC just a few blocks away. Daikaya (1st floor) for ramen or next door Bantam King. You will have to put your name in for either and can expect a long wait on a busy weekend. If you have your heart set on this plan I suggest stopping by here first to inquire how long the wait is and putting down your name for the waitlist while you explore the holiday market. Waits can sometimes be as long as 90+ minutes.
CITY CENTER DECORATIONS
City Center really knows how to bring the holiday cheer to DC. This downtown area has seasonal decor year-round but they go all out for the holiday season. This impressive 75-foot tree is one of the largest in the city, decorated with more than 150,000 lights and 4,500 ornaments.
Just a few blocks away from the downtown holiday market make your way over here to enjoy the decor and perhaps stay for dinner. I recommend Centrolina, Fig and Olive, or recently reopened DBGB for one of the best burgers I've had. Or try next door's Michelin starred Cranes.
U.S. BOTANICAL GARDENS
Although the inside will be closed for the 2021 season, there is still a lot to enjoy at US Botanic Gardens. This year will feature an outdoor train display with festive holiday adornments and lights throughout the garden from November 24, 2021, through January 2, 2022. The train display can be visited in the gated outdoor gardens between 10:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. Tickets are not required.
Make sure to check out the Conservatory windows which will also be decorated for the holidays featuring thousands of colorful poinsettias and some collections of D.C. monuments and landmarks made from plant materials. The display is truly impressive and can be enjoyed later at night if you can't make it to the trains before 5:00pm.
Just a 20-minute drive from DC this waterfront area in Maryland has lots to offer during the holiday season.
To enjoy an outing here for just a few hours I recommend the following. Arrive around 4:30pm and take a stroll down to the water to snap a picture in front of the Christmas tree. Then make your way over to the lookout right in front of Grace's Mandarin to enjoy the sunset with a view overlooking the water and the iconic Ferris wheel lit up.
You might be feeling a little chilly by now depending on how windy it may be down by the water. So it's time to warm up with a holiday cocktail. Head over to the latest holiday pop up bar, the Gumdrop Tavern, where you can enjoy the festive decor and creative cocktails.
Want to make the evening a little more special? Book a VIP reservation next to the outdoor fire pit with s'more kits included.
December 23, 2021 - January 9th, 2022
Thursday - Friday: 4pm - 9pm
Saturday - Sunday: 1pm - 9pm
Next up it's time to make your way over to the Gaylord National Hotel for the free #LIT light show in the lobby of the hotel. A high-energy, celebratory show with thousands of dancing lights, lasers, and music at 7:30pm, 8:45pm and 9:15pm
CHRISTMAS AT THE GAYLORD NATIONAL HOTEL
There are many ways to celebrate the holidays at National Harbor and the Gaylord National Hotel offers plenty. Here you can see the extensive list of activities they offer.
This holiday season my family and I enjoyed the I Love Christmas Movies experience. Where we were able to walk through the movie set of five iconic christmas films: The Polar Express™, Elf™, National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation™, A Christmas Story™, and The Year Without A Santa Claus™.
We were really impressed by the friendly staff and their enforcement of mask-wearing and spacing out guests in small timed groups. The experience is catered to children but enjoyable for the childhood spirit in all of us as well.
Throughout the hotel there were several vendors with delicious treats. A personal favorite was the Holiday Sweet Shoppe offering spiked hot cocoa and eggnog. Let me tell you, bourbon hot chocolate hits different.
MOVIES ON THE POTOMAC
If you are brave enough to bare the cold consider an outdoor movie screening in front of the Potomac river. Bring your own chairs and snacks, sit back and enjoy.
December 19: National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation December 26: Polar Express January 2: It’s a Wonderful Life
SPEND A DAY AT THE WHARF
Light Up the Wharf, kicks off the holiday season at The District the Saturday after Thanksgiving. The waterfront transforms into a winter wonderland with thousands of twinkling lights.
Plan an entire evening of holiday fun with a stroll to admire all the holiday decor including Jack Daniel’s twenty-five-foot-tall whiskey barrel tree on Market Pier. Carry on the evening with a visit to the Terrazza at Officina for dinner and drinks and end your evening with a s'more around the campfire with the magnificent Christmas tree in the background.
You can also enjoy the ice rink from November 24, 2021 through February 2022.
Youth (12 & Under): $9
Skate Rental: $6
You won't find me on skates, but this classic holiday pastime can be enjoyed in Washington, D.C. with some epic backdrops, like the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden, the Washington Harbor in Georgetown, or down at the Wharf.
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS
If the weather is too cold may I suggest a visit to the Library of Congress.
Next to the Capitol sits the largest library in the world, where more than 500 miles of bookshelves house books, photos, and maps and it's FREE to visit.
This is a great holiday outing. Step into a historic building to enjoy its stunning architecture, rotating exhibits, and end with a photo op in front of the indoor Christmas tree. This spectacular tree is decorated with hand-painted wooden books representing every state.
You must book a timed reservation ahead of time.
STROLL THROUGH GEORGETOWN
DC’s most historic neighborhood lights up during the holidays in a month-long celebration with outdoor works of art, an ice skating rink by the water, and wreaths hanging on lanterns. Wander around the charming residential streets of this historic neighborhood and peep the decor before making your way down to the waterfront.
A holiday favorite in the neighborhood is the famous Filomena. For over three decades this restaurant has been filling the residents of the nation's capital hearts and bellies with giant plates of pasta. Filomena goes all out with its holiday decor. The food is delicious, the atmosphere feels like a family dining room and the portions are dangerously big so keep in mind when ordering. Make sure to wave hello through the glass to the woman making fresh pasta as you head down into the restaurant.
AFTERNOON TEA AT THE WILLARD
Many hotels in the district put on a show for the holidays but no one does it quite like this iconic hotel. The Willard goes all out for the holidays and should be at the top of your list.
When it comes to feeling pampered, an afternoon tea always does the trick. As soon as the tiered tray of delights is set on the table and hot tea begins to pour into my delicate patterned teacup I am instantly transported to my own personal Downton Abbey fantasy.
Book a spot at the Willard's red-carpeted Peacock Alley lined with Christmas trees and enjoy the British tradition of scones, clotted cream, and jam accompanied by the sounds of a live harpist.
Afternoon Tea is offered every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday in December (excluding December 31) with seatings at 1:00 p.m. and at 4:00 p.m. (reservations are currently fully booked check for waiting list). This year due to increasing demand afternoon tea has now been extended into the Crystal Room as well.
Price: $79 per adult, or $89 with a glass of champagne $49 per child (5-12 years of age). Children under five dine at no charge.
If you are unable to get a reservation here consider enjoying a warm beverage at Cafe du parc and admiring the Christmas decor around the hotel. Tea or no tea the Willard will get you in the Christmas spirit.
Bonus: step into the elegantly decorated lobby of Willard InterContinental between December 1-23, 2021 from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m., to enjoy complimentary caroling performances.
800 16th St NW, Washington, DC 20006
The Willard gets a special shout out on this list due to its iconic holiday decor but for afternoon tea the Hay Adams is a personal favorite year-round. I have an entire blog post with the details for an afternoon tea with the most iconic view of the White House. The Hay Adams will be sure to impress any out-of-town guests.
HOW TO BOOK
Reservations are made by calling (202) 638-2570 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
ST REGIS HOTEL
Located steps away from the White House the St. Regis offers daily afternoon tea 2-5pm in the hotel’s grand lobby.
guests indulge in fancy pastries and seasonal tea sandwiches, along with Palais des Thés teas and optional Champagne. Reservations are required, and the price is $55 per person
This year, the hotel has partnered with the White House Historical Association to present special holiday afternoon tea inspired by the hotel’s iconic address. To commemorate the experience, each guest will receive an official 2021 White Hosue Christmas Ornament to take home. Reservations can be made online.
DRINKS AT A HOLIDAY BAR
I’m a sucker for an over priced cocktail in a Santa cup. The following round up of holiday bars is sure to help you celebrate the holiday season.
Mele Kalikimaka! Sippin’ Santa at Archipelago gives me all the tropical Christmas vibes a Caribbean gyal desires. Not into the cold? This fun tiki bar will transport you to warm beach destination.
At this spot the food is as good as the strong drinks that come in fun glassware. If there are a few of you I suggest the “Jingle Bowl” – which is a rum punch hot tub featuring Santa and his reindeer.
Open every Tuesday ‑ Sunday from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. Reservations are recommended and can be made online through Archipelago’s website. Bar seating is first come first serve.
• Hawaiian sliders
• Cold sesame noodles
• Egg rolls
MIRACLE AT DEATH PUNCH BAR
In its eighth year, Miracle is a global Christmas pop‑up franchise developed by Cocktail Kingdom and has grown to over 120 international locations. You may recall Miracle on 7th which is no longer open but luckily DC residents can now enjoy the same holiday excitement at Death Punch Bar. Open from now until December 31, 2021.
RESERVATION INFORMATION: Make sure to make your reservation at the ‘Miracle Pop up’ and not the sushi counter if you want to enjoy this space. A limited bar menu is available. The short rib skewer was delicious!
MAXWELL PARK NAVY YARD
Maxwell Park has transformed their wine bar into a festive, cozy Christmas bar. Looking for some distance? Their outdoor patio greenhouses are also decorated and have electric heaters and a bluetooth‑enabled speaker, so guests can play the holiday music of their choice. Walk-ins are accepted but greenhouses are reservation only. Keep in mind that with its growing popularity there can be a wait to get in. So I recommend getting there at opening. MENU HIGHLIGHTS • The truffle grilled cheese • “Reindeer Buzz” (a cold‑brew martini) • Eggnog shooter But the real star on the menu in the year round wine list. Bonus: Holiday cocktails are as low as $13! Which is much less than other holiday bars that offer cocktails starting from $16‑$20.
COLADA SHOP 14th ST
My favorite cafecito spot in town has transformed its 14th street location into a holiday celebration. Stop by here to warm up with a hot coffee or a seasonal holiday cocktail. If there is one food item you shouldn’t hesitate to order it’s the: FRIED CHICKEN CROQUETA SANDWICH. The holiday bar is upstairs and open Wednesday‑Sunday.
This spot goes all out with their decor year round and their Christmas setup will not disappoint. Book a reservation for hot drinks and s’mores around the fire pit. They have an extensive menu of hot chocolate and s’more options for you to enjoy. In a hurry? Just stop by and pick up a coffee to go and have a holiday photo up*. If you are hosting out of town guests this is a fun place to stop by for a warm cup of coffee after a visit to the Portrait Gallery located a block away. *As of recently, they expanded the to-go coffee orders to be separate from the main decorated area.
HI LAWN UNION MARKET
This is your best bet for a socially-distanced outdoor outing. Located on the rooftop of Union Market you can cozy up to the fire and roast s’mores. For now, you do not need a reservation and you can grab some food from the many vendors downstairs and bring it upstairs to enjoy with a cocktail by the fire.
Additionally, their 2500 sq. ft. heated tent is now open for walk-ins only. With cozy lounge seating, live music on Thursdays, mulled wine, and more.
This is more of a 'winter wonderland' and less "Christmas" but I had to include one of my favorite spots in DC. This beautiful space is one of my favorite restaurants in the city. The menu is updated by season to showcase fresh ingredients and well as their cocktail list.
CRISPY OXTAIL CROQUETES
LAMB RAGU PASTA
Bonus standouts the espresso martini and the basque cheesecake.
Please let me know if you make it to any of these spots this holiday season. Would love to hear about your visit! Tag me on Instagram @ontheroadwithcinn