Twinkling Christmas trees on the White House lawn. Ice skating over a glittering wharf. Sipping a martini in an igloo at the Watergate Hotel. Winter in Washington DC is a snowy playground of politicians, partisans, and spies. It’s as full of history and intrigue as it is culture and inspiration – and holiday cheer, of course.
Along Washington DC’s storied and historic streets you’ll discover remnants of the United States’ colorful and chaotic history. There’s the largest museum complex in the world, which houses everything from dinosaur bones to the moon rocks to the Star Spangled Banner. The long, grassy National Mall is the beating heart of the democractic experiment, showcasing America’s most famous historical monuments including the Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument, and the U.S. Capitol.
But more than that, Washington DC is a place where people from around the world have forged a community, dining and drinking in the shadow of monuments.
Washington DC is a federal district at the center of American democracy, but it’s a bit of a conundrum: it’s technically neither considered a state nor a city. Instead, it’s sort of a weird, confusing in-between that also happens to be the most important not-city, not-state in the country.
The idea for this weirdly defined federal capital comes directly from the Constitution: the founding fathers wanted a place for governing to happen that was isolated from state politics. But it took seven years of impassioned debate before they settled what this nebulous “federal district” should entail – and where it should be located. (Hamilton fans: yep, we’re talking about what happened in “The Room Where it Happens.”)
In the end, President George Washington chose a strategic location along the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers (where Maryland and Virginia meet today) meant to serve as a bridge between northern and southern states, protected from attack along the coast while connected to major waterways. Washington DC was officially founded in 1790.
Christmas in Washington DC is the most magical time of the year, when the city is covered in twinkling lights and Christmas decorations! We tapped a local to give us the inside scoop: Rebecca Fachner is a historian and tour guide based in Washington DC, with over a decade’s experience guiding visitors around the Nation’s Capital. Take it away, Rebecca!
Table of Contents
Psst: Looking for more wintery travel inspiration? Take a look at some of our other blog posts:
- 43 Cozy Things to do in Chicago in the Winter (A Local’s Guide)
- 9 Things to Do in Jackson Hole, Wyoming in the Winter
- How to Plan an Amazing Lake Tahoe Winter Trip
- 25 Essentials for Cold Weather Travel: Winter Travel Packing List
We also have another local’s guide to things to do in Washington DC!
Psst: Planning a New England road trip? We’ve created a free, printable version of this itinerary! Plus, we’ll also send you our favorite tips to help you plan your road trip. Just sign up below.
Washington D.C. Winter Travel Tips
Only in DC can you take in the holiday lights on the National Mall or ice skate with a view of the Washington Monument.
Washington DC is worth a visit at any time of year, but in winter, off-season visitors of DC will find milder weather, shorter lines, and less expensive attractions. Here are a few frequently asked questions and tips to make the most of your visit to Washington DC in winter:
- How cold is Washington DC’s winter?
Washington DC winters are fairly mild: daily highs are usually in the upper 30s to low 40s and the daytime is usually quite pleasant. Nighttime is going to average about 10 degrees cooler, but while we do have the occasional cold snaps, Washington DC is a great wintertime destination.
We do get about 2 to 3 decent snowfalls a year, but it doesn’t linger – and we are too far south for some of the most inhospitable weather!
- How to get around Washington DC?
Washington DC has excellent public transportation, so driving is not recommended. DC is a great walking city, our metro is both safe and clean, and car services are plentiful – so driving in the city is somewhere between unnecessary and a hindrance.
The website for the metro is a good place to plan your trips and scout out which metro stops are nearest to the destination you want to visit. Metro costs about $2 per trip (more during the peak weekday commuter hours 5-9:30am, 3-7pm) and you will have to purchase a metro card. That said, if you do decide to drive, you won’t need snow tires or chains, but you will need to watch street signs for parking hours and limitations.
- What’s up with DC’s street layout?
Washington DC has a unique grid layout which is often extremely frustrating for visitors. The city is laid out in quadrants centered on the US Capitol, and this shows up in the addresses you’ll see around the city.
Addresses in the district look like this: 101 Any Street, NW. The NW means that you are heading to the northwest quadrant, as opposed to SW for southwest, NE for northeast and SE for southeast. You’ll want to make sure when planning your route that you have all your NW’s and your SW’s straight or you might end up in a very different spot than you intended!
Fun Fact: DC’s unique grid system was designed by Pierre Charles L’Enfant, a French-born engineer and designer, as well as Benjamin Banneker, a self-educated African-American surveyor who was also a published author, skilled astronomer, farmer, and racial equality advocate. The Capitol is positioned at the grid’s center with grand boulevards crisscrossing the “city,” each named after states. The result is a tidy little representation of the entire US.
- What is security like in Washington DC?
Washington DC is very security conscious, and you will be subject to metal detectors and security at almost every major indoor attraction. Special spots like the Capitol have more intense security (…January 2021 notwithstanding, *ahem*) but for the most part the security is fairly routine. The one thing it does take up is time, so it’s best to add 10-15 minutes onto your visits to account for security when planning your trip or visiting attractions.
What to pack for Washington DC in winter?
Layers, layers, layers! A winter coat, winter boots, and gloves are a must – and a scarf and hat will be useful too. But make sure to have a layer or two that you can remove in the daytime sun, and then add back on for your evening frolics around town.
That said, if you’ve got all that covered, long underwear is probably not necessary (unless you’re visiting from somewhere that considers 50 degrees to be freezing cold – lookin’ at you, California and Florida!)
Here are a few specific suggestions for our favorite tried and tested winter travel gear:
- Winter Boots: I recommend boots that can withstand ice or snow, are weatherproof and waterproof, and are comfortable enough to walk in. My favorite winter boots are made from waterproof leather and with a thermal insole to keep your toes toasty warm, and they’re extremely lightweight and foldable so you can stuff them in your bag when you travel. You can read more about them in this round-up of the best travel shoes for women. Note: If you’re bringing along a pair of boots you already own, you can buy the thermal insoles separately. After taking these to the Arctic and snowshoeing in Canada, I swear by them!
- Wool Socks: Make sure you don’t just have run-of-the-mill acrylic socks for Washington DC – they won’t keep your feet warm while you’re out in the cold! Instead, bring socks that are primarily made of soft, heat-regulating wool, like these or these, and don’t be afraid to double up.
- Travel Jeans: My favorite travel jeans have six enormous pockets, are super stretchy and buttery soft, dry quickly even after walking through the snow. They’re even cozy enough to wear on a plane – and they’re super cute! You can get a pair on the Aviator USA website.
- Lined Leggings: There is nothing cozier than a pair of leggings lined with merino wool. Pair them under a cozy sweater or a warm dress!
- Warm Hat: You want a hat that will stay on your head when it’s windy wind and keep your ears nice and warm – bonus points if it’s lined.
- Warm Coat and Packable Down Jacket: Your outerwear is arguably the most important thing you’ll bring to Washington DC in the winter other than your shoes. It has a big job – namely, keeping you warm but not sweaty, allowing you to actually move your arms, and letting you explore for hours without feeling heavy or restrictive. Plus, it’s gonna be in almost all of your photos! I bring this cozy fleece-lined coat with me, as well as a lightweight, travel-friendly packable down jacket.
- Gloves: Don’t go outside in Washington DC in the winter without gloves on! I have these wool gloves that work with touchscreens because I have a hard enough time using my phone without wearing gloves. On especially cold days I layer on a thicker pair that’s waterproof (you know, for snowball making and such).
- Sunscreen: Bring sunscreen for sunny days, especially if you plan to spend a lot of time outside exploring! Winter sun reflecting off snow is no joke. Don’t forget to pack sunscreen for your lips too.
That should keep you warm and toasty. For more winter travel packing tips, head over to our Cold Weather Packing Guide.
Where to Stay in Washington D.C.
If you want to stay in the District, there are a couple of great neighborhoods to consider, all near metro lines that will take you where you want to go. I recommend staying in one of these historic, walkable Washington DC neighborhoods:
Staying in this area of the city offers visitors the chance to walk to the White House, admire the Christmas tree and stop by the Willard Hotel for a drink at the famous Round Robin bar where the Mint Julep was introduced by Kentucky Senator Henry Clay.
- Where to Stay in Metro Center: This area has a lot of hotel chains; instead, we recommend staying in a VRBO. This Penthouse VRBO with rooftop access provides an entire apartment to call home base as you explore downtown Washington DC. It’s bright and clean, retro-chic, and did we mention it’s under a half-mile walk to the White House?! You’ll be able to explore the National Mall and DC’s most iconic monuments by foot from this comfortable VRBO.
We recommend booking directly through VRBO because it has fewer fees and more flexible cancellation policies than Airbnb – also, we’re not fans of Airbnb’s unethical track record and lax security.
Another favorite is Dupont Circle, which has smaller hotel options like the super quirky Tabard Inn, America’s first museum of modern art (The Phillips Collection), plenty of famed gay-owned businesses, and the neoclassical Dupont Circle Fountain.
This is the original gayborhood in Washington DC, and has been the epicenter of the gay liberation movement in Washington since the 1960s (thanks in part to local Dupont heroes like Frank Kameney, the first openly gay candidate for the US Congress, and the establishment of the first LGBTQ bookstore in the district).
Dupont Circle became known for its gay nightlife scene as early as the 1960s, with places like JR’s, Cobalt, and Larry’s Lounge, and is still the site of the annual 17th Street High Heel Race and the Capital Pride Parade. This area is also the beginning of Embassy Row, so it’s a great way to see how the different embassies decorate for the holidays!
- Where to Stay in Dupont Circle: This super charming VRBO is located in the heart of DuPont Circle. Not only is it roomy, bright, and colorfully decorated, but you’ll be close to the metro station, the DuPont Circle Fountain, and everything this fabulous neighborhood has to offer.
The stunning Georgetown area is the perfect blend of history and modernity, with cobblestone sidewalks winding by fine art galleries and the C&O canal (how European!) lined with historic 18th and 19th century mansions (and the one-time homes of JFK and Julia Child).
Fun fact: Georgetown actually predates the capital city by 40 years and has always maintained its own distinct character, separate and apart from the capital! Take in gorgeous views of the Potomac River at the Georgetown Waterfront Park in the city’s oldest neighborhood!
Although the nearest metro station is about a half an hour walk away, the Circulator bus will take you straight from Georgetown to many of the best things to do in Washington DC!
- Where to Stay in Georgetown: This ultra-modern Georgetown apartment has floor-to-ceiling windows, midcentury modern furniture, and two bedrooms with their own private bathrooms, perfect for traveling with friends or family. Besides the gorgeous interior that looks like it belongs in a 60s sci-f film, this apartment is just steps away from the Potomac River, the canal, and all the best restaurants and hot spots Georgetown has to offer.
Things to Do in Washington DC in the Winter
Soak Up Christmas in Washington DC
Washington DC is a great place to visit in the winter time: imagine walking around the Washington Monument and seeing the Capitol Christmas tree and the White House Christmas tree twinkling in the distance. Talk about feeling like you’re in a Christmas special!
Since the winters are fairly mild, it is still possible to be outdoors and be comfortable, especially during the daylight hours, but there are plenty of places to grab a festive drink, check out a Christmas window display, and warm up among the holiday shoppers.
The city goes all out for the holidays, from the White House Christmas tree lighting ceremony to the annual Holiday Market! Here are the highlights of Christmas in Washington DC:
- White House Christmas Tree: The White House Christmas tree is not just one tree, it’s an experience! There is the main tree, which has a ceremonial lighting led by the president (you can get tickets to this, but the lottery for tix closes in October!) and then there are 54 smaller trees, one for each U.S. state and territory. These smaller trees surround the main tree and are decorated by children from that state. As you wander through the trees, the scent of pine and the sounds of the miniature train running around you will put you properly in the holiday spirit. Warm your hands over the burning Yule Log, pause in front of the World’s Largest Menorah and don’t forget to visit the stage where musicians perform throughout the month of December. Best of all, this event is free and open to all.
- Georgetown GLOW: The Georgetown GLOW features 11 light installations created by local artists to highlight the oldest part of the Nation’s Capital. They are not considered specifically Christmas lights, but rather individual artistic installations, each with a separate history. For example, last year there was an interactive installation involving competing bicycles designed to promote green energy and transportation. You can take a guided tour which encompasses the history of the GLOW and the individual installations, or just grab a cup of hot cocoa and take a walk along the waterfront to marvel at the lights. This is also budget friendly: it’s completely free!
- Enchant DC: Enchant DC is a holiday light show/Christmas market extravaganza that takes place at the baseball stadium, Nationals Park. Guests can wander through the twinkling blue, white, purple, and yellow lights of the Christmas town, enjoying Christmas treats like Gluhwein (German mulled wine) and roasted chestnuts while you shop the local artisan vendors for candles, jewelry or just the right scotch glass! There’s also an ice skating rink and plenty of places to snap the perfect holiday photo. Just be sure to pick up a ticket before you go.
- Downtown Holiday Market: The main holiday market (there are a few others, including an authentic German market) in Washington is right in front of the National Portrait Gallery in the heart of the Historic Penn Quarter (which is home to celebrity chefs, the Shakespeare theater, and the home to Washington DC’s hockey and basketball teams). At the market you will find dozens of local vendors peddling art, crafts, clothes, jewelry, and antiques, meaning it’s not just a place to shop for your friends but for yourself (hey, you deserve it!). While you shop, you can listen to local musician’s takes on holiday classics, as well as drink hot cocoa and eat some donuts or fried empanadas (hey, you deserve this too!). This market is free and open to everyone.
- Zoolights: Every December the 163-acre National Zoo becomes a winter wonderland filled with Christmas lights, train rides, and most importantly light-up lanterns that look like real zoo animals! While a visit to one of the world’s oldest zoos during daylight hours will let you see animals like pandas, cheetahs, oranguatangs, and elephants, a visit once the sun goes down affords you a chance to see your favorite animals depicted in sparkling lights! Zoolights is free throughout the month of December.
Learn Washington DC’s History & Stories
The best way to get to know a city is to take a tour, and no one knows a place better than a local.
Washington DC especially is not a place you want to skip out on insider information: for example, which DC mansion housed the Hope Diamond, and who is the only former president buried in the Nation’s Capital? (Answers: The McLean Mansion off of Dupont Circle and Woodrow Wilson who is buried at National Cathedral!).
Wintertime is a perfect time to take a tour, fewer guests on tour means more personal attention, more stories and more answers to your questions.
- Washington DC Night Tour: The best part of taking a night tour of DC is that you not only get to see all the monuments lit up, but all the twinkling Christmas lights as well! This 3-hour guided tour shuttles you on a warm bus between the most iconic sights of DC: the White House, US Capitol Building, Lincoln Memorial, Iwo Jima, etc. As you hop off the bus to explore each stop, you’ll take in dramatic views and capture memorable photos of the capital city. This small group tour offers a more personal experience, so you can not only get bucket loads of history but your questions answered as well!
- Washington DC Ghost Walking Tour: If you’re going to be touring the city at night, why not look for a ghost or two? This 1-hour walking tour takes you to eight haunted locations, such as the Hay-Adams Hotel, where you can still hear the cries of Henry Adam’s wife and learn about her tragic death, and the White House, where Lincoln’s ghost alleged greets each incoming President as they take office. You’ll also have the chance to ask the guide more about the ghosts, and take photos to see if anything comes up in your photos… is that chill up your spine just the chilly winter wind, or could it be something more sinister?
- Lincoln Assassination Walking Tour: Speaking of Abraham Lincoln, did you know that you can take a tour dedicated solely to Lincoln’s last day alive? This 2-hour walking tour allows the guest to relive one of the most important nights in American history as you make stops at St. John’s Church, Lafayette Square Park, and finally Ford’s Theatre, all while learning about the mystery and betrayal that lead to Lincoln’s death.
- African American History Tour: This 4-hour tour highlights the rich and untold history of African American’s in the nation’s capital. Taking a bus to different parts of the city where African American leaders resided and created history, you’ll visit places like the home of the famous freed slave and abolitionist Fredrick Douglass. You’ll also travel to U Street, which was home to the largest urban African-American community in the United States in the early 1900s (which even created its own “Black Broadway“). The White House and the Martin Luther King, Jr, Memorial are also on the agenda, and by the end you’ll be aware of the countless African Americans who have helped shape the face of America and civil rights.
Explore Local Neighborhoods
Washington DC is so much more than its monuments, and taking a stroll through the neighborhoods will give you a taste of the many cultures that make up the city.
The neighborhoods especially sparkle in the wintertime, when the streets are lined with lights and decorations. Spend an afternoon bundled up with a pastry and a good cup of coffee, hunting for local treasures along Washington DC’s storied streets.
Georgetown (M Street)
Georgetown was founded in 1751, and though it’s considered a neighborhood of Washington DC today, it actually predates the capital city by 40 years.
Since the neighborhood is very old by U.S. standards, it may be one of the cutest neighborhoods in all of America. This is the perfect place to stroll down cobblestone streets lined with 18th and 19th century mansions, stroll along a charming historic canal, and marvel at the beauty of Martha Washington’s historic home. It truly has an identity completely its own!
Spend a day exploring these historic landmarks:
- Chesapeake & Ohio Canal: Instantly transport yourself back to 1831 along this scenic canal, tucked behind trees, arched bridges and historic row houses. The original 184-mile canal was dug over 100 years ago as a means to transport tobacco, but what remains today is a picturesque reminder of the past and a most relaxing spot to take a stroll and capture an incredible photo.
- Tudor Place Historic House and Garden: This Historic Landmark was owned by Martha Custis Peter and Thomas Peter (Martha was the granddaughter of Martha Washington and step-granddaughter of George Washington), and was home to six generations of Martha Washington’s descendants from 1805 to 1983. You can tour this historic home, which includes learning about the enslaved people who kept this estate running, a difficult but important part of the house’s history. This “Federal, American style” home sits on 5.5 acres of lush gardens, and during the holiday season they have their “Merry & Bright illumination,” a way to see the gardens all aglow!
- Take a John F. Kennedy Self-Guided Walking Tour: If Georgetown has anything, it’s history, so why not follow in the footsteps of one of the most beloved Presidents? Since both Jacqueline and John lived in this neighborhood throughout their lives, you can see the place where JFK lived before they met, where he proposed to Jackie (at Martin’s Tavern), where they lived after they married and after JFK’s election, among many other homes their lives touched.
Capitol Hill and Barracks Row
Capitol Hill, and the adjoining micro-neighborhood Barracks Row, is where you can find democracy in action. Here you can see the U.S. Capitol Building (where Congress meets), the Supreme Court Building, as well as many Hill staffers and MoC’s (that’s Member of Congress to you).
In addition to some of the most important buildings in the country, you’ll wander down streets lined with 19th and early 20th-century row houses – think turrets, ornate stained glass, and ironwork – all decorated for the holidays in colorful twinkling lights. Spend the afternoon perusing antique books, reading Shakespeare’s First Folio, and surrounding yourself with tropical flowers in the middle of winter! Don’t miss these cozy stops:
- Capitol Hill Books: While this Washington DC staple has plenty of newly published books to choose from, the real star here is the impressive collection of used books, including rare books and first editions. You can spend hours in the tightly-packed rooms, working your way through a maze of reading material feeling a bit like Alice in Wonderland. This place will provide you reading material for months, maybe years!
- Folger Shakespeare Library: If you happen to pick up an antique edition of Hamlet at Capitol Hill Books, take a walk over to the Folger Shakespeare Library! Home to the world’s largest collection of Shakespeare’s works, you can look at one of the many editions of the First Folio they have on display, peruse the stately Beaux Arts library room with green carpets, stained glass and ornate woodwork, see a play and maybe finally answer the age-old question: to be or not to be?
- United States Botanical Garden: Described as a “living plant museum”, the United States Botanical garden was established by the U.S. Congress in 1820, making it the continually operating botanic garden in the United States. Under the white iron and clear glass of the 93-foot tall indoor conservatory, you can visit the tropics all year round, including a corpse flower named for its putrid smell (I mean, gross, but cool), the desert, and even a room devoted only to colorful orchids! Best of all, the botanical garden is free!
U Street/14th Street
The U Street/14th Street area (aka Cardozo/Shaw neighborhood) has been the center of African American culture in Washington ever since freed slaves moved en masse to this area after the Civil War, and has helped give Washington DC the nickname the “Chocolate City.”
U Street was the epicenter of DC during the Jazz Age, known as Black Broadway and home to both Duke Ellington and poet Langston Hughes. U Street was devastated after the 1968 riots following the assassination. of Martin Luther King JR., but has rebuilt and retained its identity. Today, its vibrant streets are adorned with murals depicting Black icons such as President Obama and Prince.
Here are a few of the must-see stops in this neighborhood:
- The African American Civil War Memorial and Museum: The African American Civil War Memorial was dedicated in 1998 to the 209,145 “United States Colored Troops” who served in the Civil war and whose contributions to ending slavery were largely ignored. The bronze statue depicts several African American soldiers who fought in the war, and all 209,145 are listed on the surrounding wall. The Museum uses a rich collection of artifacts, documents, primary sources and technology to tell the story of these troops, as well as bring to life the devastating effects of the 1968 riots on U Street.
- Stroll Through Malcolm X Park: Technically named Meridian Hill Park, most locals call it Malcolm X Park since many the civil rights protests were held at the park in the 1960s. The park is famous for its Italian-inspired cascading fountain, the longest in North America, which flows down 13 basins in sheer, ornate beauty. The park also features some statues, including a couple from the 1920s such as Dante and Joan of Arc.
- MuralsDC U Street Walking Tour: This self-guided walking tour will take you through the most art-filled corridors of DC. Some of the most influential African Americans are depicted in these larger-than-life and ultra-colorful murals, such as Barack Obama and Harriet Tubman, as well as local legends like saxophonist Roger Wendell “Buck” Hill and Mr. and Mrs. William and Winifred Lee, who opened one of the oldest African-American owned establishments in Washington DC (a flower shop) in 1945. Strolling through this neighborhood brings the “chocolate city” alive in vibrant color!
Go Ice Skating
What Washington DC lacks in terms of traditional winter sports (there are no mountains for skiing in the Nation’s Capital!), it makes up for in terms of ice skating! There are so many great places to lace up and go for a twirl in DC, many of them surrounded by fantastic views of our amazing monuments.
Here are some of Washington DC’s most iconic (and brand new) skating locations:
- National Gallery of Art’s Sculpture Garden Ice Skating Rink: There is not a more iconic place in Washington DC to go for a winter skate than in the National Gallery’s Sculpture Garden. You will literally be doing effortless triple lutz jumps (individual results may vary) in the midst of some of DC’s greatest art. This can get crowded on the weekends, so a weekday visit might be a better bet here.
- Washington Harbor Ice Skating Rink: Before or after you go shopping in Georgetown or check out the Georgetown GLOW in December, take a spin around the harbor’s lovely ice skating rink. Located within view of the Potomac River, it’s a magical option for the ice skater who wants a view of the turbulent and twisty river to go with their winter fun.
- Canal Park Ice Rink: Shhh, this one is a local favorite, and therefore is a little less crowded than some of the other options for outdoor skating! One of the newest developed areas of the city, this is super close to lots of great food, like our local pizza favorite Wiseguy Pizza or The Big Stick, a rustic sports bar complete with a fireplace and sausage specialties. You can also get some fantastic local brews at Bluejacket Brewery and District Winery, which is known for their rosé, but… maybe save the drinks for after you skate – no one’s ice skating ever improved with alcohol!
- The Wharf Ice Rink: The Wharf ice rink is not your typical ice skating rink, but DC’s only over-water ice skating: yes, it’s floating on the wharf! Stationed, er, floating in DC’s newest neighborhood, you can expect unparalleled views of the water and monuments, all while being inches away from some of the hippest eateries (like Mi Vida for Mexican food , or Kaliwa for authentic Southeast Asian food). When you’ve had your fill of twirling on the ice floating above the wharf, sip a classic root beer float at the SW Soda Pop Shop or pop next door to Camp Wharf At the Firepit, a cozy airstream trailer with a woodburning stove and all the fixins for s’mores (yes really!).
Take in the View
Washington DC has a deliberately low skyline; there are no skyscrapers per city ordinance! When the city was created, skyscrapers did not exist yet, but as they came to dominate the skylines of other cities, DC wanted to keep the lower profile similar to European capitals.
While the monuments do give the city an iconic skyline, the lack of tall buildings means that some of the best places to see the city are actually outside of the city. Below are several fantastic spots to catch gorgeous views both in and out of city limits, including the best places to grab a drink with a stunning view of Washington DC.
- Washington Monument: This world famous obelisk dedicated to our first president, George Washington, is THE signature site in Washington. Made of marble and extending 55 stories into the air, there is no more iconic spot in DC than the Washington Monument. If you look closely at the Monument, you will notice the marble is 2 different colors; it’s not an optical illusion, funding issues during construction forced them to use marble from 2 different quarries! The view from the top is so spectacular, on a clear day you can see for up to 2 miles, including the White House, the Lincoln Memorial, and the Capitol in the foreground. Farther away you can spot the Potomac River, Arlington National Cemetery and the Pentagon. Tickets are free, but required.
- Watergate Hotel: There are few more famous addresses than the Watergate, home of the eponymous Nixon era scandal, where members of Nixon’s reelection committee (appropriately named CREeP, the Committee to ReElect the President) broke into the Democratic Party HQ in the Watergate complex to steal top-secret campaign documents and install secret listening devices. Few people know it’s also a hotel and a luxury apartment complex; Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg lived here until her death (RIP). The outdoor rooftop bar at the hotel is amazing: in the winter they have fire pits and igloos, allowing guests to sip their handcrafted gimlet in warmth and comfort while they gaze at the sunset over the Potomac River.
- The POV bar at the W hotel: Just one block away from the White House, POV overlooks both the White House and the National Mall beyond it. Sip a signature ‘Bi-Partisan’ cocktail (it comes in red and blue!) while staring out the floor to ceiling windows at the Secret Service agents walking around on the roof of the White House. POV is truly a unique Washington DC experience. Plan to arrive early though, the bar can get crowded.
- Off the Record at the Hay Adams Hotel: The Hay Adams is full of politicians, journalists and hangers-on. It is one of the oldest hotels in the city and is very old-school DC; think inlaid wood, brandy snifters, very dry martinis; all while relaxing in ruby red booths and banquettes. This is your best spot for a White House view and a possible DC celeb sighting (please note: all DC’s celebrities are politicians).
- Kennedy Center Rooftop: Going to the Kennedy Center, the performing arts center in Wasington DC, is a must do for any number of reasons; it’s a presidential memorial as well as the home of the National Symphony, the National Opera and the Kennedy Center Ballet. However, one of the best reasons to visit is the amazing wrap around roof deck that offers a killer 360 degree view of the downtown monuments, the Georgetown Riverscape, Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Island and even Georgetown University in the distance. While you are there for your sunset views, check out their free indoor concert every day at 6PM at Millennium Stage, (tickets not required).
- The View Of DC: Outside of Washington DC you can take advantage of the sky scrapers to overlook the entire city. Right across the river in Rosslyn, VA (and conveniently right above the Rosslyn Metro stop!) is a spectacular 360 degree viewing platform. From here you can see the Marine Corps Memorial, Arlington National Cemetery, Georgetown University and track the planes landing at Reagan Airport while looking at pictures of what the area used to look like so that you can compare and contrast.
Visit Washington DC’s Amazing Museums
For the museum goer, Washington DC is unparalleled. With one of the largest and best museum institutions in the world, the Smithsonian Institution, there are so many museums in Washington that even the residents have trouble keeping up! There are 19 Smithsonian museums in Washington DC, and they are all amazing.
DC’s bounty of museums are especially great in the winter: they offer a tempting diversion in case of inclement weather, and should be much less crowded than in the summertime.
Below are some of the most popular Smithsonian museums; however, they are the most visited for a reason: you can see monumental moments in American history in a tangible form. They are also all free, although some of them have timed entry tickets. Here’s where to warm up and learn stuff on a Washington DC winter day:
- National Museum of American History: Often lovingly described as America’s attic, the NMAH is home to such gems as Abraham Lincoln’s top hat, the First Ladies Dress Collection, Dorothy’s Ruby Slippers, Julia Child’s kitchen, the Batmobile and even a ticket booth from the original Yankee Stadium. A must for any history nerd.
- National Air and Space Museum: This is the place to visit for all things related to the sky! You can get up close and personal with real space suits, the Lunar Rover, the first plane to fly across the Atlantic ocean, one of Amelia Earhart’s planes, the Wright Brothers Flyer and war planes from World War 1 and 2. There is a reason this is the most popular museum in the world! (In 2017, NASM eclipsed the Louvre for most visitors!)
- National Museum of Natural History: For the science enthusiast, there’s no museum that will make you feel more in touch with the Earth and its incredible creations. The newly renovated fossil exhibit alone is worth it, but this museum is home to the Hope Diamond, a Butterfly Exhibit, Egyptian Mummies and a rare white rhino.
- National Museum of African American History and Culture: Explore the newest Smithsonian museum dedicated to the African American experience in the United States. The history portion of the museum is below ground, starting in the slave ships of Africa and then funneling visitors through exhibits that slope upward through the Civil Rights movement towards the fight for equality. The museum combines the awful truths about slavery and inequality with inspiring contributions made by African Americans, making this museum timely and ultimately hopeful.
- United States Holocaust Memorial Museum: Just off of the National Mall is one of the most vital and visited museums in Washington DC. This carefully curated museum tells the story of the evils of the Holocaust and the millions of Jewish people who were eradicated under Hitler’s reign. It is a sobering but important reminder of the persistence of evil but the ultimate triumph of good.
- International Spy Museum: At this museum, you will learn about real spycraft and real spies like Harriet Tubman, the Rosenberg’s (Soviet spies who handed over US nuclear secrets to the Russians), as well as fictional spies like James Bond. This museum is also very interactive: you can try your luck at code-breaking, receive your own covert identity, and also learn the best place to hide a transmitter (spoiler: the heel of your shoe) or how a lipstick can be made into a pistol.
- National Archives: Inside a cavernous rotunda, under an enormous dome (created by the same architect that designed the Jefferson Memorial’s iconic dome) are housed the most important documents in American history, the Charters of Freedom: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. All reside in separate cases, under bulletproof glass with a special gas piped in to preserve the precious charters of liberty. Here you can also visit exhibits about American Presidents (each one since Herbert Hoover) in the Presidential libraries.
- Arlington National Cemetery: While it is not a traditional museum, Arlington National Cemetery is a unique and somber way to contemplate American history and the final resting place of some of America’s greatest heroes. Here you can see where two presidents are buried: John F. Kennedy (and his eternal flame) and William Howard Taft, whose claim to fame is that he got stuck in the White House bathtub (he didn’t). Other residents include astronauts like John Glenn, WW2 heroes like Audie Murphy and Jimmy Doolittle, civil rights pioneer Medgar Evers, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, as well as thousands of unsung heroes from every single American conflict.
Stuff Your Face at Washington DC’s Best Restaurants
While Washington DC does have great restaurants and renowned chefs, DC is unique in that it does not really have its own food specialties. As both the Nation’s capital and an international city, DC prefers to borrow other cuisines and put their own spin on food from all over the world!
As Washington DC is a microcosm of our melting pot of a country, you’ll find a selection of eateries from all over the world in DC. In fact, one of DC’s chief claims to culinary fame is that we have the largest number of Ethiopian restaurants outside of Addis Ababa!
Below is a great collection of local favorites, hidden gems and both of Washington DC’s iconic food markets:
- Ben’s Chili Bowl: If Washington DC were to have a signature dish, it would be the Half Smoke and no one does it better than Ben’s. For the uninitiated, a Half Smoke is a supersized spicy version of a hot dog (half pork, half beef) served on a warm steamed bun with mustard, onions and Ben’s spicy homemade chili sauce. The original location on U Street is a DC institution, the family-owned and operated joint has been serving chili and dogs for over 60 years (since 1958!), using their original secret recipe. They have now branched out to several locations, but the U Street original is still the place to be and has been a neighborhood anchor for decades.
- Martin’s Tavern: If you like good food with a side serving of history, Martin’s is an absolute must. A favorite spot of both JFK and Jackie, you can sit in the iconic booth where he reportedly proposed! The Trumans, Johnsons and Nixons all loved to dine here. Richard Nixon loved their meatloaf, their house specialty, which they douse with mushroom gravy and serve with green beans and garlic mashed potatoes. Their food is classic American, and in the winter they are particularly known for their savory stews and filling Shepherd’s Pie.
- Zenebech Restaurant: Ethiopian cuisine is one of Washington DC’s sneaky specialties, thanks to a significant Ethiopian immigrant population in the area – the city is home to the largest concentration of Ethiopia-born people outside of Africa, partly due to the proximity to universities and the region’s large African-American population. Zenebech may look like a hole in the wall, but inside it packs a major spicy punch of flavor. Try one of their veggie combo platters with veggies like red lentils, shiro (chickpeas stew) and collard greens, served on Injera, a flat spongy bread that is served with almost all Ethiopian dishes. While there are plenty of Ethiopian restaurants in the area, this family-owned business is sure to warm you up from the cold with its abundance of spice and friendly atmosphere!
Visit Washington DC’s Food Markets
Washington DC has two historic food markets, where you can walk through the stalls and create your own feast. Many of our most iconic food purveyors; District Doughnuts, RavenHook Bakehouse, Rappahannock Oyster Co. have outposts at one of the markets, so they are definitely worth checking out.
The modern Union Market was completed in 1963, and looks like a big box with UNION MARKET in unmistakably large letters on top. Behind the giant letters you will also find one of DC’s largest rooftop greenspaces with picnic tables and astroturf to initiate your very own picnic.
Inside you can taste a highly-curated selection of wines at Vitis Fine Wines and Spirits, see the gorgeously fresh fish at The District Fish Wife, hear the sizzle of the dough at District Doughnut, smell the savory lentils and spicy curry at DC Dosa and feel the electric atmosphere all around you.
There are a couple of icons in Union Market you should check out:
- Rappahannock Oyster Co.: Michelin Guide, as well as the Wall Street Journal, cited Rappahannock Oyster Co. as one of the best oyster bars in America. Here you can indulge on briny local oysters, pungent little neck clams and creamy delicious chowder. It doesn’t get much fresher than this!
- Buffalo and Bergen: Slide up to the old fashioned soda fountain and enjoy Jewish comfort food: refreshing egg cream (basically a carbonated chocolate milk), homemade knish (seasoned dough with fillings), matzo ball soup (known as Jewish penicillin for its curative powers) and freshly-baked bagels.
Eastern Market, completed in 1873, is one of the oldest food purveyors in the city. Housed in a stately brick building, the market has seen some tough times (a fire in 2007!) but is back with style.
The indoor market will overwhelm you with its smells of fresh fish, cheese, meat and more. On weekends, they expand to an outdoor farmers market with farm fresh produce, and gorgeous local jewelry and art. Make sure to bring cash, since many purveyors don’t take cards.
Here’s a couple excellent spots to grab some food at Eastern Market:
- RavenHook Bakehouse: As the name suggests, RavenHook Bakehouse specializes in serving fresh European-style breads and pastries. Try their seasonal Chocolate Cherry Bread, their most requested decadent sweet loaf, or their special focaccia that has seasonal, rotating toppings (like tomato and basil or Spinach and Feta).
- Puddin’: The best way to warm up is with some southern comfort food and a little spice! Pop over for some savory Chicken Sausage Gumbo, with ground smoked shrimp, seasonal veggies and okra, or maybe the southern favorite Etouffee, with crawfish or shrimp smothered in a creamy Louisiana stew and served with rice.
Travel Tip: The neighborhoods surrounding each of these markets are charming and lovely to explore! We’ve included a section on exploring Washington DC’s cutest neighborhoods down below.
Indulge Your Sweet Tooth
Wasington DC has a massive sweet tooth. In fact, this city loves cupcakes so much there is a Sharks and Jets style rivalry between the several shops and most DC residents have chosen a (delicious) side. There is so much hype about our cupcakes that there was even a TV show about one of the cupcakeries listed below!
From gooey cupcakes to scrumptious macaroons, DC likes a sweet treat that you can enjoy on the go. Here are a few places around town that you can indulge your cravings for something sweet.
- Baked and Wired: The cupcakes here (called cake cups) are the size of your head. Seriously. Half coffee shop, half bakery, if this place doesn’t have it, you probably don’t need it. There are 15 varieties of cupcake as well as various other goodies, pay particular attention to the melt-in-your-mouth Oh My God bars, their homemade fluffy marshmallows, and 7 layer magic bars. For cake cups, the Razmanian Devil (lemon cake filled with raspberry jam and topped with a swirl of lemon buttercream), Pretty Bitchin’ (chocolate cake with a crunchy peanut butter frosting) and Karen’s Birthday (moist chocolate cake with a vanilla buttercream frosting) are outstanding.
- Georgetown Cupcake: As featured on TLC’s DC Cupcakes, Georgetown cupcake has been showing DC how it’s done cupcake-wise since 2008. With great seasonal offerings and a daily secret flavor (!) there are so many to choose from, but they are known for their signature the Red Velvet cupcake (a classic red velvet cupcake with a vanilla cream cheese frosting topped with a red fondant heart), but don’t miss their seasonal favorites like the Christmas Cookie (Madagascar Bourbon vanilla cupcake infused with almond and cinnamon and a fondant Christmas cookie). Of course, it’s best to conduct your own taste test to determine the best one.
- The Sweet Lobby: Another local fave with both macarons and cupcakes, they even have a Food-Network featured creation of their own called a MacTop that includes both! For macarons, in addition to the standard flavors they are super creative: their Blackberry Cabernet, Creole Cacao and Fig Balsamic creations are lucious, and anything with Salted Caramel in the name is worth it.
- Olivia Macaron: If macarons are your thing, and you want to visit somewhere where macarons is all they do, Olivia Macaron is the place! Here you’ll find unique flavors like charcoal Lemonade, Cinnamon Toast, Fruity Pebbles, Vanilla Bean, and Wedding Almond. These little french pastries are a work of art in their own right, and you’ll get lost in their rainbow displays!
- Pie Sisters: In case handheld desserts are not your thing, definitely check out this local gem owned by three sisters who bake like mama used to (or [insert good-baking relative here]). They have savory pies like chicken pot pie, but their sweet pies are where it’s at: Classic Apple, Bourbon Chocolate Pecan, S’mores, Salted Caramel Chocolate Cream and more, all available by the slice as well.
Take a Day Trip
Though Washington DC is crammed with history, the surrounding areas are also filled with historical sites, which makes sense as they are part of the Thirteen Colonies.
But the human history of the area extends at least 4,000 years before the arrival of Europeans – at least a dozen Native American nations have called the region home, including the Nacotchtank, Piscataway, and Pamunkey peoples. Fishing, agriculture, and the fur trade were important economic activities for the surrounding Indigenous nations and tribes given the rich natural resources of the surrounding Anacostia and Potomac River watersheds and the Chesapeake Bay area.
However, within just 40 years of the arrival of Europeans, only a quarter of the indigenous population was left. New diseases and land conflicts with the new European colonizers led to the decimation of many indigenous people, with survivors moving further inland and merging with larger tribes.
- Travel Tip: You can learn more about Indigenous peoples’ history, homelands, and contributions to Washington DC (including the historical and contemporary federal tribal policy developed in the city) by downloading PocketSights’ Guide to Indigenous DC tour map on your phone.
With the creation of the first colonies, the region around the future site of Washington D.C. became parts of Maryland and Virginia. Some of the most prominent European settlements in the area before Washington DC was established was the port of Georgetown founded in 1751 (later integrated into DC) and the city of Alexandria, which was founded in 1749. Alexandria is only a few miles from downtown DC and is well worth the visit with its beautifully preserved 18th- and 19th-century architecture.
Other great day trips to consider are:
- George Washington’s Mount Vernon: Located just 30 minutes south of Washington DC proper, Mount Vernon is George Washington’s Estate (and the most visited historic estate in America), which was built by his father in 1734. On this 500-acre estate, you can visit the white columned, 21-room mansion where George and Martha Washington lived, the tomb where they are buried, the sprawling gardens, the many structures that surround the estate, and a memorial dedicated to the enslaved people who lived and worked on the estate.
- Harpers Ferry National Park: A little over an hour northwest of Washington DC lies a historic hamlet, which is famous for an attempted abolitionist uprising led by John Brown. During the civil war, this Harpers Ferry was the northernmost Confederate-controlled territory, but today Harpers Ferry is a national park which sits at the convergence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers, surrounded by rolling, hikable hills. In the historically preserved lower town you can find museums dedicated to Black voices, John Brown, as well as the Civil War.
- Annapolis, Maryland: 45 minutes east of Washington DC, the maritime town of Annapolis sits on the Chesapeake Bay. Walk the streets lined with colonial architecture, which looks especially picturesque lit up for the holidays, and fill up on the freshest and richest seafood anywhere. On the bay, watch sailboats flutter by in the wind, since Annapolis is known as the sailing capital of the world (no surprise the United States Naval Academy is located here as well). They even do an event called Lights on the Bay, which features a two-mile scenic drive along the glittering Chesapeake Bay with over 70 animated displays illuminating the road!
Author Bio: Rebecca Fachner is a historian and tour guide based in Washington DC with over a decade’s experience guiding visitors around the Nation’s Capital. You can find her on Twitter at @Rebecca_Fachner and telling stories on her history podcast, Tour Guide Tell All.
Are you excited to plan a Washington DC winter trip? Did this post make you want to spend Christmas in Washington DC? Drop us a comment below!
Psst: Planning more trips along the East Coast? We have a few other posts to help you plan:
- The Ultimate Travel Guide to Washington, DC
- The Ultimate Weekend Itinerary for Boston, Massachusetts
- The Ultimate Self-Guided Walking Tour of Lower Manhattan
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