When Christmastime rolls around, Washington, D.C.'s many historical buildings become a brilliant spectacle. This city bedecks every bit of space—from urban landscapes to residential neighborhoods and even the Potomac—in holiday lights and decor.
The capital's embellished quarters, boat parades, and light festivals are scattered around the city center, spilling into the residential neighborhoods of Maryland and Virginia, so matter where you're staying in the city, you're sure to be surrounded by holiday cheer.
In Washington, D.C.
- ZooLights at the Smithsonian's National Zoo: Animal lovers of all ages flock to the National Zoo for this annual, critter-themed light display. Thousands of LED lights make up the interactive art exhibit that is Entre Les Rangs and you can see it for free from November 29 to January 1.
- Holiday Boat Parade of Lights: Watch dozens of decorated boats light up the Potomac River as they sail from Alexandria's waterfront to Washington's Channel at Water St. off of Maine Avenue. The parade and pre-events take place on December 7 at 6 p.m.
- Festival of Lights at the Mormon Temple: Washington, D.C.'s Mormon Temple (the third largest in the world) is a year-round spectacle, but its amplified during December, when it's decorated with 450,000 lights. The display is open to the public from dusk to 10 p.m., all for free, and there are musical performances nightly.
- Winter Lights at Seneca Creek State Park: The Winter Lights Festival in Gaithersburg is a combination of more than 450 magical displays along a 3.5-mile drive through Seneca Creek State Park. You can see them from November 29 through December 31, 2019.
- Winter Festival of Lights at Watkins Regional Park: Another drive-through light display is the one in Upper Marlboro at Watkins Regional Park. For $10 per car, you can see thousands of lights shaped into all kinds of fun things (boats, trains, and Christmas trees). It starts on November 29 and ends after New Years Day.
- Garden of Lights at Brookside Gardens: The Garden Railway Exhibit is open daily from November 22 to December 31 in the South Conservatory. It includes miniature trains and trollies amidst a landscape of town and country scenes and models of the Brookside Gardens Conservatories, the Dentzel Carousel, and the Chautauqua Tower of Glen Echo Park.
- Merriweather Symphony of Lights in Columbia: Symphony of Lights is a spectacular drive-through display of more than 75 animated and stationary holiday lights. All proceeds benefit the services of Howard County General Hospital. Visit from November 27 through January 1, 2020.
- Eastport Yacht Club Lights Parade: If you didn't already know, boat parades are a thing during the holidays in Washington, D.C. The Eastport Yacht Club in Annapolis has one of its own on December 14, and it's free.
- Lights on the Bay at Sandy Point State Park: Drive along the shore of the Chesapeake Bay and see more than 60 animated and stationary displays illuminating the roadway. This display kicks off on November 24 and lasts through New Year's Day.
- Annmarie Garden in Lights: A walking tour of this wooded wonderland takes visitors on a spectacular stroll through handmade, one-of-a-kind Christmas light sculptures depicting mythical beasts, wild animals, pirates, and more. It starts on November 29 and ends on January 1.
In Northern Virginia
- Bull Run Festival of Lights: This festive holiday display features illuminated penguins, snowmen, candy canes, and Santa Claus. After you've had enough of these animated "shows" (even set to music), you can explore the Winter Wonderland Holiday Village and Carnival for amusement rides, ice skating, shopping, contests, food, and more. Festival of Lights is happening from November 22 through January 5.
- Winter Walk of Lights at Meadowlark Gardens: Meadowlark Gardens offers a half-mile walking tour through nature-themed light displays and a Gingerbread Village. After visiting the display, running from November 8 through January 5, step inside the Visitor Center to warm up with some refreshments.