Throughout the month of December, life shines a little more brightly in the DC area. Cars line up at regional parks to drive through stellar Christmas light displays. Theaters and symphony halls host annual performances of the Nutcracker and Handel’s Messiah. Even the White House gets in on the holiday action as home to the National Christmas Tree!
But when a quick jolt of holiday cheer just won’t do, consider heading to one of these destinations — my top picks for the merriest places to celebrate the holidays near DC.
National Harbor, Maryland
When it comes to decking the halls for the holidays, few local destinations do it better than the National Harbor. Located in Oxen Hill, Maryland, the 300 acre-development features hotels, restaurants, shops and the sleek, eye-catching Capital Wheel ferris wheel. But from late November through December is when the Harbor shines the brightest, with spectacular decorations, attractions and event for holiday-lovers of all ages during the Christmas on the Potomac event.
Start at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center at ICE, a 9-degree ice sculpture display featuring 2 million pounds of hand-carved ice. This year’s ICE features scenes from the classic television special, “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town.” Slide down one of ICE’s 2-story ice slides then warm up at the Gaylord’s “Village of the North Pole” with hot chocolate and gingerbread house decorating. Make sure to stay for the nightly lighting of the Gaylord Christmas Tree and indoor snowfall (on the hour at 6, 7, 8 and 9 pm). Then head outside to marvel at the National Harbor’s own illuminated 64-foot Christmas tree and the Capital Wheel lit up at night.
Brandywine Valley, Delaware
Nestled amongst the rolling hills between Wilmington, Delaware and Philadelphia lies the picturesque Brandywine Valley. With gorgeous du Pont family estates and more than 3,000 acres of landscaped gardens, it’s a region best known for being a flower-lover’s paradise. But holidays are a spectacular time in the Brandywine Valley, with elaborate and festive displays at the region’s most popular attractions.
Du Pont family mansions-turned-museums Winterthur and Nemours are both elaborately decorated for the season with trees, lights, decorations and fresh flowers, allowing for an inimate glimpse into how an American dynasty celebrated the holidays. The Brandywine River Museum, a restored 19th century grist mill that houses three generation of Wyeth family art, features the annual “A Brandywine Christmas” event (running from after Thanksgiving to early January) features caroling, the immensely popular “critter sale” ornament event and perhaps the greatest model train display you will ever see. Finally, Longwood Gardens shines during the holiday season, where thousands of twinkling lights adorn the outdoor pathways, leading visitors to the 4-acre glass conservatory, decked out from top to bottom in festive flower displays.
A favorite local spot to get in the holiday spirit is in the heart of hunt country—Middleburg, Virginia. The 18th century town has been kicking off the holiday season in style during its annual “Christmas in Middleburg” event the first weekend in December for over a hundred years!
The highlight of Middleburg’s festivities this year is on Saturday, December 5th with the “Hunt and Hounds Review” featuring hounds trotting down the main Washington Street alongside mounted foxhunt riders. But the fun doesn’t stop there! Other holiday activities include a greens sale, craft fair, caroling, a holiday concert, a traditional parade with floats and—my favorite!— a progressive food/ wine/ cider/ spirits tasting throughout town.
34th Street in Baltimore
In the heart of Baltimore’s hipster Hampden neighborhood—pronounced “Ham-den”, hon!—lies a local gem that frequently gets national attention during this time of year. Along a single block of the aptly named 34th Street, row houses have banded together for 69 years to create a kitschy Christmas light extravaganza elaborate enough to rival the brightest holiday display.
Each house on the “Christmas Street” block has it’s own theme, but the one constant is the lights– whether the decorations feature snapping Maryland crabs, a winking Natty Boh logo or hub cap Christmas trees, you can expect everything to be merry and bright. Some extra-committed residents have displays that even continue inside, so while cars line up to drive down the street, this is one experience best observed by foot. (Then, hit the “Avenue” — aka 36th Street — for shopping, dining and nightlife options.)