Visiting Washington, D.C. with Kids During the Holidays

Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day is an amazing time to visit Washington, D.C. with kids. You have the advantage of much smaller crowds than during the peak tourist season, and there are some unique exhibits that can only be seen during this time of year. The worst winter storms are often after New Year’s Day, so the weather, while a bit cold, will often still allow you to get around easily. Here’s a three-day itinerary for visiting Washington, D.C. with kids during the winter holidays.

Day 1

10 AM
Start your day with a visit to the Conservatory at the U.S. Botanic Garden. The U.S. Botanic Garden has two amazing displays every holiday season. In the Garden Court are miniature replicas of many of the famous monuments and buildings in Washington, D.C., but they’re all made out of natural plant materials. As you look closer, you can see that the Capitol is comprised of gourds and acorns and vines, and toy trains wind their way through the buildings and holiday flowers. Next to the Garden Court is the train display, but don’t imagine that this is just any train display. These trains chug through an Enchanted Forest, again made with all natural plant materials with exquisite detail.

For the smallest crowds, arrive just before the building opens at 10 am and preferably on a weekday; street parking is easily available at this time if traveling by car. Make sure to line up at the door for the train display; you can enter the rest of the building first, but you’ll need to exit to line up for the train display, so it’s generally best to see the train display first when the crowds are smaller.

The Lincoln Memorial made from plant materials at the US Botanic Garden
The Lincoln Memorial made from plant materials at the U.S. Botanic Garden.

12 PM
Next door to the Conservatory is the National Museum of the American Indian, a beautiful golden-color museum, built to look like natural rock formations. After viewing the holiday display at the U.S. Botanic Garden, we love to stop by the Mitsitam Café in the museum. The Café has some of the best food on the National Mall, featuring native foods from throughout the Americas. Don’t worry if you have non-adventurous eaters; there is a small section devoted to hamburgers and fries, but it shouldn’t be hard to convince a picky eater to try one of the tacos. Take some time to see the museum after lunch; it is generally less crowded than other Smithsonian museums and has beautiful stories, artwork, and hands on activities for kids.

Sculpture at the National Museum of the American Indian
Sculpture at the National Museum of the American Indian.

2 PM
Cross the National Mall and walk west about one block, where you’ll find the Sculpture Garden of the National Gallery of Art. This is an especially appealing sculpture garden for kids, even more so in the winter when the fountain is transformed into an ice skating rink. Where else can you skate with a giant typewriter eraser in the background?

4 PM
Just a few more blocks west will bring you to the Ellipse near the White House where you can see both the National Chanukah Menorah and the National Christmas Tree display. The National Christmas Tree is surrounded by smaller trees representing all 50 states, D.C., and U.S. territories, each of which is decorated with handmade ornaments representative of their location. There is also a train display around the base of the tree.

Day 2

10 AM
Your second day begins with a visit to the National Cathedral. This is an amazing building to see, and offers very good activities for kids, including a self-guided Darth Vader tour. During the winter holidays, they also present the Creche Exhibition, which features nativity scenes from many different countries and cultures.

1 PM
The Smithsonian’s National Zoo is only a little over a mile east of the cathedral. There are several restaurants around the zoo where you can grab something before heading in to see the animals. The National Zoo is always fun to visit, but during the winter holidays, you can also have fun at ZooLights, a holiday festival. It officially starts at 5 PM each night, but after an afternoon of enjoying the animals, you should be able to catch the beginning of ZooLights before the kids are wiped out.

See our other article for tips on visiting the National Zoo.

Day 3
If you have more time in town, consider a day trip to Mount Vernon, George Washington’s home. It is decorated in traditional style for the holidays, and for a few days during the holiday season, special candlelight tours are held, with special activities throughout the property.

If you’re spending Christmas Eve in Washington, D.C., then you’re in luck and can see the water skiing Santa. Every year on the afternoon of Christmas Eve, Santa heads out on the Potomac River and puts on a show on water skis. He’s joined by elves, the Grinch and Frosty the Snowman. The water skiing Santa appears at the National Harbor, which hosts many special activities during the holidays. The possibilities are endless when visiting Washington with kids during the holiday season!

Looking for a place to stay? Washington Hilton is near the National Zoo and Capital Hilton is within walking distance of the White House.

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Know Before You Go

  • Many of the monuments and memorials surrounding the National Mall are open 24 hours a day!
  • Driving through the city isn’t recommended – walking or taking the Washington Metro are great ways to navigate the city.
  • Be prepared for numerous security checks if you are visiting any government buildings!

This post was written by Hilton Suggests Team Member, Andrea L. Are you interested in traveling to Washington DC? Let us know if we can help you with any other recommendations. Tweet us for more great local travel tips!

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