10 Things to Do in Washington DC in Winter

Despite the harshness of winter in Washington, the capital of the United States offers much to those travelers who decide to visit during the coldest months of the year.

Carlos Bleda

Carlos Bleda

9 min read

10 Things to Do in Washington DC in Winter

Jefferson Memorial at sunset | ©John Brighenti

Winter brings out the beauty of Washington and offers a different perspective of the city. In addition, in the winter months there are many plans especially suitable for the season. In a city where snow is often the main feature at this time of year, plans to take shelter from the cold are always the most recommended. Christmas also dominates much of the calendar and there are other very important holidays. In this post I share with you 10 perfect plans to get to know Washington DC in winter.

1. Inaugurate the winter with the Potomac light boat parade

Light Boats on the Potomac| ©Nelly
Light Boats on the Potomac| ©Nelly

On December 4, to celebrate the arrival of winter, a very special parade is held in Washington, with very Christmas tints in which a multitude of boats decorated with lights ply the waters of the Potomac River, which crosses the capital.

It is a totally free activity that is used to set up dozens of stalls from the waterfront in Alexandria, Virginia to the dock where the parade ends. In these stalls you can taste all kinds of hot food typical of these dates, in addition to other stalls where winter activities are made or typical products are sold.

But if you are not in the U.S. capital on that date, I present another plan that can also fit you: hire a cruise in Washington in which you will sail the waters of the Potomac River sailing through Alexandria and contemplating places like the Washington Monument, the Reagan National Airport or the Old Town Alexandria while listening to the captain's stories. Oh, and this plan also includes a buffet lunch - super appetizing!

Book a lunch cruise in Washington

2. Join Martin Luther King Day Celebrations

Dr. King Memorial on the National Mall| ©Daniel Lobo
Dr. King Memorial on the National Mall| ©Daniel Lobo

After Christmas, Martin Luther King Day is the most important holiday in the United States in winter. It is celebrated on the third Monday in January, around January 15, Luther King's birthday, to honor one of the most important figures in the civil rights struggle of the African-American community in the U.S.

There are usually marches or the annual "Let Freedom Ring" concert held each year at the John F. Kennedy Center for the perfoming arts and the arts. Kennedy Center for the perfoming arts and in Washington the date is especially marked, because in the capital is the Martin Luther King Jr. monument-memorial that becomes a place of worship in this celebration.

Did you know that it was in Washington where Martin Luther King gave his famous speech "I have a dream"? You can learn all this and much more if you book the African American history tour in Washington, where you will have preferential admission to the National Museum of African American History and Culture and visit other points linked to African American culture such as, of course, the Martin Luther King Memorial.

Book the Washington African American History Tour

3. See the National Christmas Tree

National Christmas Tree.| ©Geoff Livingston
National Christmas Tree.| ©Geoff Livingston

Christmas is always one of the main attractions of winter in Washington. Washington is one of those special cities that are transformed for the Christmas season, and also the capital of the United States has one of the symbols par excellence of these holidays not only for the city, but also for the whole nation: the national Christmas tree.

It is a huge conifer that is installed in front of the White House and decorated with handmade ornaments from all states of the country, and around which are held endless activities that make it the star of the country. Throughout the month and until the end of Christmas there is a small daily lighting display from 4:30 in the afternoon until 10:00 at night, totally free of charge.

One way to discover it without getting cold is by hiring a 3-hour night bus tour of Washington that, among other emblematic places, passes by the White House. Take advantage and tour DC comfortably and warmly while you contemplate the Christmas lights!

Book a night bus tour of Washington DC

4. Enjoy the Zoo Lights in December

Smithsonian National Zoo| ©Kaemat
Smithsonian National Zoo| ©Kaemat

The Smithsonian National Zoo is one of the most important zoos in the United States and on the planet. Famous are, for example, its panda bears, which attract more than 2 million visitors a year.

Since winter is not very inviting to go to the zoo, the zoo itself organizes special events and activities to attract people and one of them is the ZooLights in which the zoo is illuminated in a special way and some of the nocturnal animal enclosures remain open.

By the way, if you are interested in Natural History you should not miss to book tickets for the Smithsonian National Museum. You will be able to contemplate more than 146 million specimens of flora, fauna, minerals, etc. and, of course, you will do it in the cold.

Information of interest

  • Price: Free of charge
  • Hours: From 9:00 p.m.
  • Location: Smithsonian National Zoo, Connecticut Avenue

Reserve tickets for the Smithsonian National Museum

5. Tour the Downtown Washington Christmas Market

Downtown Christmas Market| ©Ricardo R
Downtown Christmas Market| ©Ricardo R

Another winter and holiday attraction of the U.S. capital is its Christmas markets. The most popular is undoubtedly the downtown Christmas market, composed of more than 100 stalls of crafts, food and all kinds of Christmas products, which also hosts many children's activities. This plan is, therefore, especially recommended if you are traveling to Washington with children.

Can I tell you how I would organize myself? I would hire a seat on the Washington Big Bus and take a tour aboard this tourist bus, which passes through the most emblematic places of the city. Afterwards, I would get off at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, which is right next to the Christmas market, and take a stroll to buy some gifts and have a hot drink. Are you in?

Interesting information

  • Price: Free
  • Hours: 8:00 to 00:00, late November to late December
  • Location: on F Street NW, between 7th and 9th Streets NW

Reserve a spot on the Washington Big Bus

6. Winter sports near Washington

Bryce Mountain Resort in Basye| ©Politanvm
Bryce Mountain Resort in Basye| ©Politanvm

Washington has become a popular winter destination thanks in large part to the number of winter sports offerings in the surrounding area, perfect for a day trip there and back:

  • Whitetail Ski Resort, Mercersburg in Pennsylvania is just a couple of hours from the capital .
  • Two hours from Washington is also Bryce Mountain Resort in Basye, Virginia.
  • Washington itself, when it snows, becomes an impromptu sledding resort in hilly, steep places like Fort Reno Park, Battery Kemble Park and Book Hill Park.

And if you're not into sports but want to see it live, here are three options to enjoy the best American sport in the winter months. Take note!

Reserve tickets to see the Wizards

7. Experience the winter season at Capital One Theatres

Ford's Theatre| ©JGHowes
Ford's Theatre| ©JGHowes

Washington has a wide variety of theaters that offer a wide range of performances in the winter months. It is one of the most requested and recommended activities to protect you from the winter cold, in addition to the proliferation of Christmas plays at this time of year.

The historic Ford's Theatre, site of the assassination of President Lincoln, is, in addition to a tourist attraction in itself, one of the best places to enjoy this type of Christmas plays.

And if the theater is not your thing, the place itself is also a museum where you can learn all the history related to Lincoln and his assassination, something you can discover in depth by hiring the Lincoln assassination tour. Don't miss it!

Book the Lincoln Assassination Tour

8. Take shelter from the winter cold in a museum

Smithsonian Museum| ©Bobak Ha'Eri
Smithsonian Museum| ©Bobak Ha'Eri

Washington is the capital of museums par excellence:

The Smithsonian Museum, or rather the complex, as it consists of 17 museums, art galleries and a zoo, is the best known and one of the most important in the world. These places are the most popular in winter, since you have a huge offer of history, culture, science, art, etc.. And all this under cover and protected from the cold.

Book a guided tour of the Smithsonian National Museum

9. Take shelter in the warmth of The Wharf's bonfires

The Wharf| ©ArchiTexty
The Wharf| ©ArchiTexty

The Wharf is a district of Washington on the banks of the Potomac full of life and good atmosphere throughout the year, but in winter it has a particularity that attracts thousands of locals and tourists: throughout the area there are several bonfires around which the cultural and leisure life develops on winter days.

It is common to go to this area full of bars, restaurants, cocktail bars, pubs, hotels, theaters and a wide range of leisure and cultural offerings and end up at night having a drink in the heat of the fire of these particular bonfires. The Wharf is, without a doubt, the best place to enjoy the capital's leisure activities during the cold winter months.

10. Go ice skating at Washington Harbour Rink in Georgetown.

Washington Harbour Rink in Georgetown| ©CarDun78
Washington Harbour Rink in Georgetown| ©CarDun78

As they say, if you can't beat the enemy, join him. And that's what they do in Washington with the cold weather. They take advantage of the cold temperatures to, among other things, set up ice rinks all over the city of Washington.

The Washington Harbour rink in Georgetown is the largest and most important of them all. It is located next to the Potomac River and has the great advantage of being in an area full of restaurants and cafes, perfect to complete a day of skating with a hot chocolate or a good dinner to warm up.

Information of interest

  • Price: about $10
  • Hours: Sunday - Thursday: 11:30am - 9:00pm; Friday and Saturday: 11:30am - 11pm
  • Location: The Washington Harbour - 3000-3050 K St NW

Temperatures in Washington DC in winter

Winter Day in Washington| ©Greg Adams
Winter Day in Washington| ©Greg Adams

Winter is, logically, the coldest season in Washington and perhaps the harshest in terms of temperatures. In addition to the very low thermometer readings, snowfall is very frequent and often turns the city white.

On average, during December, January and February, temperatures range from a high of 8 degrees Celsius to a low of -3 degrees Celsius in January, the coldest month of the year.

Despite all this, the cold in Washington DC is a dry cold, so it can be easily combated with good warm clothing.

Book a night bus tour in Washington DC

Washington DC tourist crowds and prices in winter

Winter in Washington| ©VillageHero
Winter in Washington| ©VillageHero

If you are looking to visit the capital of the United States in its quietest season, winter is the season for you.

The cold weather is the main reason why the number of tourists is much lower than in the rest of the year, which translates into fewer lines at the main monuments of the city, less crowds and easier to find hotels or restaurants.

If we take as a reference the prices of European cities, we can say that Washington DC is an expensive city to visit. Even so, winter is the cheapest time to visit, given the lower demand for hotels and reservations.

What to bring in your suitcase to visit Washington DC in winter

Preparing your luggage| ©Marissa Grootes
Preparing your luggage| ©Marissa Grootes

Since we are traveling to another continent, and in winter, we must take into account what to bring in our luggage. Here is a list of the most essential items:

  • It is essential to take a good coat, well lined and waterproof. Better coats prepared for snow.
  • Take thermal T-shirts. They are the best allies for efficiency and comfort to combat the cold.
  • Do not forget accessories such as hats, gloves or scarves.
  • Take good, comfortable, waterproof shoes with good grip in case you find snowy roads.
  • Remember that the plugs in the U.S. are different from those in Europe, so you will need to bring an adapter.
  • It is always important to carry your passport and documentation, but in the USA it is even more important, especially when entering the country.

Book a seat on the Big Bus in Washington