You might not think about the United States capital as a cold weather getaway, but you might be surprised: there are actually a lot of wonderful things to do in Washington DC in the winter. Besides being an accessible winter getaway for East Coast dwellers, there are also tons of activities that will surprise and delight even the most skeptical of locals. To help convince you to put on pants and explore Washington DC in the winter, we’ve compiled 35 amazing things you can do in DC between November and February.
Top Things to Do in Washington DC in Winter
Holiday Lights & Celebrations
1. Watch the National Tree Lighting Ceremony at the White House. This is an annual ceremony that happens in late November that officially kicks off all of the city’s holiday festivities.
(2018 National Tree Lighting Ceremony date: November 28)
2. …or enjoy the lighting of the National Menorah. Separately from the national tree, there’s also a national menorah that sits on the White House ellipse. There’s a lighting ceremony for this as well that typically occurs in early December.
(2018 Menorah Ceremony date: December 2)
3. Admire the various city holiday decorations. All around the city there are many different light exhibits to explore. The Botanical Garden, the Library of Congress, Union Station, and the Capitol all boast holiday decorations that will get you in the winter spirit.
4. Check out the holiday-themed international festivals around the city. You can travel around the world without leaving DC! For example, there’s a German Market, a Swedish Christmas Bazaar, and a Russian Winter Festival to enjoy, among many other smaller international celebrations.
5. Partake in the embassy holiday parties. All year round, there are events at the international embassies around the city, and YOU’RE INVITED! Check this page for events during the holiday season at the various embassies.
6. Enjoy the spectacle at the Holiday Boat Parade of Lights. Channel your inner seafarer and head to Alexandria for the annual Holiday Boat Parade of Lights, which is exactly what it sounds like: a fanfare of boats decked out in holiday lights.
7. Wander through ZooLights. What’s better than seeing animals AND lights at the same time? ZooLights, that’s what. It’s one of DC’s most romantic night time events during the winter, and trust me, it’s worth bundling up for.
Shopping and Neighborhood Activities
8. Head to charming Old Town Alexandria for the cutest winter area ever. Alexandria won #4 for most charming towns in the United States this year…need I say more?
9. Be dazzled by City Center’s gorgeous winter displays. City Center is one of DC’s most shiny and sleek walking areas, and during the winter, it’s decked out in all kinds of ornaments and sparkly goodness.
10. Window shop in Georgetown. No, we don’t have a Fifth Avenue in Washington DC, but the next best thing is Georgetown’s retail district, which becomes a fun and festive place to bundle up, grab a chai latte, and window shop in the wintertime.
11. Check out Georgetown GLOW. Alternatively, if you’re in Georgetown in the evening, head toward the canals for a beautiful, somewhat psychedelic winter light show.
12. Stroll through Georgetown University’s empty campus. One of the most beautiful campuses in the city, if not the country, is Georgetown’s. Usually, it’s teeming with students, but in December, you can find it almost completely empty as the students have gone home for the holidays. It’s eerie yet beautiful.
13. Take a day trip to one of the wonderful landmarks and sights nearby. There are tons of day trips you can do from DC to nearby sights and cities like Mount Vernon, Fredericksburg, or Annapolis.
14. Celebrate the New Year. New Years festivities in DC are a hoot, and you’d be missing out if you didn’t partake in any of them. Here’s a complete list of public Washington DC parties and events to celebrate the New Year.
15. Enjoy the cheer at the Downtown Holiday Market. Did you feel like you were missing out on the European-style holiday market cheer? DC’s got one of its own that’s ready to welcome you with cute stalls, warm drinks, pretty lights, and over-the-top festivities.
Escape the Cold (Awesome Indoor Activities)
16. Escape the cold at an indoor art gallery. There are several we’d recommend in DC, but our favorites are Artechouse, Dupont Underground, and Blind Whino.
17. Tour through Washington DC’s historic homes. There are many historic homes scattered throughout the city that you can visit during the wintertime. The Old Stone House, the Dumbarton House, and the Woodrow Wilson House are among the most fascinating homes that are open for visitors.
18. Save your skin from the winter chill at a local spa. DC is home to so many amazing spas, I’ll have to write a separate post about them. One of my favorites is the Argentta Spa in the Watergate Hotel – the massages are amazing and all services include an afternoon at their pool and sauna complex!
19. Duck into Kramer Books for a cozy afternoon of reading. This adorable bookstore-gone-cafe in Dupont Circle is the kind of place that sucks you in and keeps you until you realize you’ve spent WAAAAYYYY too much time there.
20. Watch The Nutcracker at the Kennedy Center. Everyone’s favorite Christmas ballet makes its way to the Kennedy Center each year, and there are few things more classy than dressing up in your favorite red, green, or gold evening attire and watching it live. Click here to see this year’s dates and show times.
21. Take a bus or trolley tour. There are several tours of DC that you can take to see the city without freezing in the chilly winter air. Try a city-wide hop-on hop-off trolley tour or a small bus tour to stay warm while seeing all of the city’s best sights.
22. Plan a staycation. There are sooo many cool hotels, inns, and hostels to treat yourself to in DC, even if you’re a local. Planning a staycation is one of the best things to do in Washington DC in winter because it’s the tourism off-season for the city, so accommodation prices in general will be cheaper (except for holidays).
23. Enjoy the snow! Even though DC may not be as snowy as some more northern states, we do get a few dustings from time to time. When it happens, take advantage by lacing up your boots and strolling through the National Mall, or simply watching it from the comfort of your home.
24. Go ice skating at the National Gallery of Art, the National Harbor, or the Watergate Hotel. There are a few wonderful places in the DC area to go ice skating during the winter season. The National Gallery of Art’s Sculpture Garden hosts a wonderful outdoor skating rink, as does the rooftop of the Watergate Hotel. Bundle up and take your pick!
25. Go for a weekend at the ski slopes. Despite some misconceptions about skiing on the East Coast, there are a few fabulous ski resorts within a few hours of DC’s city limits. Snowshoe Resort (WV) and Wintergreen Resort (VA) are all fantastic options for all levels of skiers.
26. Join a city-wide snowball fight. When the snow falls, you know the Washington DC Snowball Fight Association will be out and about! Check their Facebook page when it snows for opportunities to get involved!
Food & Drink
27. Pop into a holiday-themed pop-up bar. DC’s beloved Pop Up Bar in Shaw is the perfect place to get in the mood for any season, and the holidays are no different. Be sure to “pop” by their bar during the winter to see what the seasons greetings have in store!
28. Cozy up by a communal fireplace. There are a few outdoor patios that stay open in Washington, DC in the winter, where you can gather with friends under blankets and feel the warmth of outdoor fires while you dine or drink. Some of our favorite fireplace hangouts in the city include Barcelona, Masseria, and La Chaumiere.
29. Eat to your heart’s content during DC’s Winter Restaurant Week. Dozens of restaurants in Washington DC offer steep discounts on their finest dishes during Metropolitan Washington Restaurant Week, many of which rotate based on the season. Be sure to keep an eye on the participating restaurants and make your reservations early!
30. Participate in SantaCon. This Santa-themed crawl happens all over the United States, with the largest one in New York City. However, DC does its own spin on the Santa Con festivities, ”
31. Escape the cold at The Line’s high tea. Full of young professionals and relaxed waitstaff, The Line’s lobby bar, Brothers and Sisters, offers a great selection of high tea options. Or, if you’re feeling more laid-back, just hang out in their lobby with a cup of cappuccino from their all-day coffee bar and read a book.
32. …Or, if you’re feeling extra fancy, the St. Regis’ high tea… As one of the most lavish high teas in town, the St. Regis really knows their stuff. Petit fours on shiny tiered serving plates. An astounding variety of teas and other beverages. And top that all off with seats in what’s arguably DC’s most amazing hotel lobby. The St. Regis’ high tea will leave you feeling like royalty. (And yes, there’s a luxurious price tag to match.)
33. Warm up with DC’s best chai latte. I’ve spent over a year in Washington DC trying to solve a very important mystery: where the best chai latte in the city is hiding. While I haven’t been everywhere, I’d say for now it’s a tie between Compass Coffee and Tryst. Any objections?
34. Lay a wreath at Arlington Cemetery. Each year, hundreds of people head to Arlington Cemetery to honor our country’s fallen veterans at a Wreath Laying Ceremony. The Wreaths Across America organization organizes an annual wreath laying event that anyone can volunteer at – click here for dates and more information on how to get involved.
35. Volunteer to help the less fortunate. The holidays and the biting cold of winter can be tough for people who are less fortunate. Luckily, there are many ways to give back and spread the winter cheer, including volunteering at the Capital Area Food Bank, to help make sure everyone gets fed this holiday season. Even better: convince your friends and family to do it with you!
Travel Tips for Washington DC
Getting to Washington DC
There are three major airports in the Washington DC metropolitan area: Reagan National Airport (DCA), Dulles International Airport (IAD) , and Baltimore/Washington International Airport (BWI). All major airlines in the United States fly to at least one of these airports. The most accessible airport from the city is Reagan National, which is about 20 minutes from the city center on the blue or yellow metro lines.
By Ground Transportation
If you’re coming from somewhere else on the East Coast, there are trains and buses that will bring you from most major nearby cities to Union Station. Amtrak services the passenger trains, and prices vary greatly depending on where you’re coming from. Greyhound and MegaBus both operate several bus lines that arrive in Washington DC as well.
Where to Stay in Washington DC
The best and most beautiful hotel in town, hands down, is the St. Regis. Located just steps away from the White House, this beautiful and gold-embellished luxury hotel has a very classic feel. If you’re feeling extra snazzy, opt for one of their suites, and don’t forget to join the staff in the lobby for their daily evening champagne toast.
For mid-range travelers, The Line DC hotel in Adams Morgan offers chic, spacious rooms at a good price, and their lobby is one of the locals’ cool hangout spots.
Featured image by Zach Stern (Flickr CC)