How to Have a Magical Holiday Season in Washington DC

The ultimate guide to the best festive events, pop-up bars, and holiday markets in DC this season.

The most wonderful time of year is finally here and with it, a calendar full of festive events throughout DC. From Christmas tree and menorah lighting ceremonies, to live performances of ballet and step dancing, there are plenty of ways to dive deep into seasonal cheer in America's capital. Along with supporting cool local businesses, here are the best holiday markets in DC and more ways to celebrate the holidays.

Holiday Markets in DC
Downtown Holiday Market | Photo courtesy of Downtown Holiday Market

Holiday Events in DC

November 17–December 23
Holiday markets in DC are an iconic part of the festive season and strolling around at least a few needs to be on your to-do list. Make sure to check out the Downtown Holiday Market. As always, it will take over two downtown blocks and feature dozens of vendors, festive decorations, music, and some worth-the-stop mini-doughnuts and hot beverages.

November 25
Citywide, Prices Vary
Small businesses form the backbone of our city and there’s no better time to show your support than the Saturday after Thanksgiving. You may get some great deals, discover new favorite shops, and definitely walk off that still-full-from-Thanksgiving feeling. Need some ideas of where to start? Here are thirteen local spots to shop.

Classic Holiday Movie Screenings

Starting November 29
Various Location, $7 and up
The holidays just aren’t the holidays without some nostalgia, and nothing serves that up more than a classic film. The Angelika Pop-Up in Union Station and The Miracle Theater in Capitol Hill, have all your classic holiday movie screenings covered. They’ll be playing gems like the black-and-white 1946 film, It’s A Wonderful Life; the ridiculously charming, Elf; the rom-com classic, The Holiday: and much more.

Starting November 30
White House
You’ll have to try your luck at the lottery for a ticket to attend this ceremony to illuminate the National Christmas Tree. The lighting of a giant tree, placed near the White House for all to see, has been an American tradition for over one hundred years. The ceremony itself will take place on November 30, but don’t fret if you don’t snag a ticket, the tree will be on view until January 2nd.

December 2–30
Various Locations
Yes, you’ve probably seen it before—maybe you’re seen it dozens of times before—but The Nutcracker ballet is a classic holiday tradition that deserves to be revisited every few years (or maybe every year). The Washington Ballet’s will dance the work at the Town Hall Education Arts Recreation Campus (TheArc) in Anacostia over Thanksgiving Weekend and in Downtown DC at the Warner Theater from December 2–30.

December 7
The National Mall, Free
Each December, Jewish people around the world light menorahs as symbols of hope and peace. The National Menorah—the largest menorah in the world—will be lit on December 7, beginning its eight-day residency on the Ellipse, just across from the White House. The special event is viewed by millions across the world, and for those who attend IRL, an extra-special way to begin the holiday.

December 8–17
The Wharf
Step Afrika!
is returning to the Arena Stage with their Magical Musical Holiday Step Show, the first holiday show in the world devoted solely to the African American art of stepping. Annually considered one of the most vibrant and joyful holiday celebrations in town, you won’t want to miss it.

Various Locations, $35 and up
You've probably seen this elegant setting illuminated by hundreds of candles trending on Instagram, and now you can take part in the magic at the handful of candle-lit holiday concerts planned around town. Live string ensembles will play selections from The Nutcracker as well as pop-holiday hits at venues including The Miracle Theater in Capitol Hill, The Howard Theater in Shaw, and St. Francis Hall in Brookland.

December 30
The National Mall
Head to the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture to celebrate and learn about Kwanzaa.! Kwanzaa & Watch Night at the museum will have activities that honor the holidays three core principles: Imani (faith), Nia (purpose), and Kuumba (creativity), and will also give visitors the chance to learn about Watch Night and the essential role Black soldiers played in the American Civil War.

Holiday Markets in DC
Season's Greenings at U.S. Botanic Garden | Photo courtesy of U.S. Botanic Garden

Family-Friendly Events in DC

Starting November 23 (closed December 25)
United States Botanic Garden, Free
Nothing conjures up holiday nostalgia and joy quite like a model train show and lucky for us, the United States Botanic Garden hosts one of the best. The beloved experience—Seasons Greenings—is for kids of all ages (and all the kids at heart). From Thanksgiving Day to New Year’s Day, the garden’s conservatory and manicured grounds transform into a wonderland of poinsettias, festive holiday decor, and DC landmarks. The model trains running through the displays are the cherries on top. The garden is open daily from 10 am to 5 pm, but will stay open to 8 pm on December 14, 21, and 28.

December 15–16, 5:30 pm–8:30 pm
Mount Vernon, $36 and up
Mount Vernon, the former home of George Washington, puts on quite the display for the holidays. Their annual Christmas Illuminations opens the grounds of the sprawling estate after dark, welcoming food vendors, a holiday market with historical crafters, recreations of an 18th century winter encampments, tours of the house, a visit from George himself, and, most notably, a fireworks show over the Potomac.

Holiday Markets in DC
Cocktail Ski Chalets at Dirty Habit | Photo credit: NOM Digital

Holiday Food and Drink Events in DC

Holiday Afternoon Tea

Various Locations
Holiday afternoon tea is a big deal in the district (iykyk). Hotels and restaurants across the city open coveted reservations for set menus of delicately prepared tea sandwiches, pastries, and scones, along with cups of tea (of course), and the occasional flute of champagne. Teas can range from a casual festive affair to an experience that will set you back over $100. Take part in the city’s tradition and book a seating for a fun and indulgent afternoon. Some favorites include the holiday teas at The Willard Hotel, Hillwood Estate, the St. Regis, and Centrolina.

Starting November 18
Penn Quarter
Dirty Habit, one of Downtown’s most hidden and stylish restaurants and bars, puts its best foot forward during the holidays with their seasonal pop-up Ski Chalets. Inspired by the best of the apres-ski life, they’re the perfect spot to enjoy a boozy holiday hot toddy. Head to Dirty Habit’s open-air courtyard to enjoy a cozy cocktail like the Dirty Habit Old Fashioned or a glass of bubbly from Argyle, Oregon’s preeminent sparkingling vineyard served frequently at the White House, in your chalet or warm up by the fire pits or under a blanket.

Starting November 24
Adams Morgan
While classics like eggnog and hot toddies are a must, the holidays also call for something special outside of the routine of your neighborhood bar. To toast the season in style, head to the Miracle cocktail bar at the swanky Death Punch Bar in the Reede-Cook neighborhood of Adams Morgan. Miracle, which pops-up every holiday season in over 150 locations around the world, will take over Death Punch’s moody, atmospheric space and transforms it in full Christmas regalia. Order a Marshmallows & Unicorns gin and cherry based cocktail or the Christmas Criquet, a tequila and minty take evocative of Christmas in the tropics.

Penn Quarter, Prices Vary
DC’s bars and restaurants really put on the charm and sparkle for the season, and one of the most festive places to enjoy some bubbles or eggnog throughout December is Café Riggs. Located in what was once the soaring lobby of the Riggs Bank (now the hotel Riggs), the spot has its own impressively large 18-foot tree. This year’s tree is designed and decorated by cheeky cashmere brand, Lingua Franca. True to the brand’s cashmere goods, the Riggs tree is adorned with embroidery, sparkles, and crocheted ornaments that pay homage to women leaders.

Want more Thrillist? Follow us on InstagramTikTokTwitterFacebookPinterest, and YouTube.

Madeline Weinfield is a Thrillist contributor.