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 no matter where you're staying in the city, you're sure to be surrounded by holiday cheer.
In Washington, DC
The nation's capital gets decked out for the holidays and offers seasonal lights with a patriotic twist. Besides light displays, there are plenty of other holiday events throughout December to enjoy in Washington.
- ZooLights at the Smithsonian's National Zoo: Animal lovers of all ages flock to the National Zoo for this annual, critter-themed light display. However, the National Zoo is closed throughout 2020 and presents ZooLights Express, instead. On Fridays and Saturdays from November 27 to December 19, 2020, the ZooLights Express Truck visits a different D.C. ward each night to bring the holidays to the community.
- 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 Street off of Maine Avenue. The parade is canceled in 2020.
All of Maryland is within easy driving distance from Washington, D.C., and there are holiday light displays across the state that you can enjoy for some festive cheer.
- 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 it's amplified during December when it's decorated with 450,000 lights. The free display is open to the public from December 11–28, 2020, as a drive-through event.
- 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. Pre-purchase your ticket online and you can see them from November 27 through December 31, 2020.
- Winter Festival of Lights at Watkins Regional Park: Another drive-through light display is the one in Upper Marlboro at Watkins Regional Park. You can see thousands of lights shaped into all kinds of fun things (boats, trains, and Christmas trees). It starts on November 27, 2020, and ends after New Years Day. Get a discount by purchasing tickets online, otherwise, you can pay at the gate with cash.
- Garden of Lights at Brookside Gardens: The Garden Railway Exhibit is 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. The Garden of Lights is canceled in 2020.
- 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 and you can visit from November 25, 2020, through January 2, 2021.
- 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 usually has one of its own, but it's canceled in 2020.
- 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 20, 2020, and lasts through January 2, 2021. Tickets must be purchased online and in-advance.
- 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 27, 2020, and lasts until New Year's Day. Advance tickets are required.
In Northern Virginia
Venture into Northern Virginia to experience some of the Christmas events happening across the Potomac River. Many Washington, D.C., suburbs in Virginia host their own holiday light displays.
- Bull Run Festival of Lights: This drive-through festive holiday display features illuminated penguins, snowmen, candy canes, and Santa Claus. While you can see the lights, the usual Holiday Village with carnival rides is canceled in 2020. Festival of Lights is happening from November 6, 2020, through January 10, 2021. Save time when you arrive by purchasing tickets online.
- Winter Walk of Lights at Meadowlark Gardens: Meadowlark Gardens offers a half-mile walking tour through nature-themed light displays and a Gingerbread Village. It runs from November 11, 2020, through January 3, 2021, and only a limited number of visitors are allowed each night. Buy tickets online in order to reserve your spot.