Time Out’s Washington, DC events calendar is your one-stop shop for things to do year-round in the National Capital. And believe us, there’s loads on offer, with festivals, cultural celebrations, street parties, parades and more popping up all annually over the city—and in the midst of some of its most iconic sights and attractions. So whether you’re looking for Easter egg hunts at the White House in spring, Independence Day concerts at the Capitol in summer, national book festivals in fall or Holiday fun in winter, we’ve got you covered. Read on for the best events and things to do in Washington, DC in spring, summer, fall and winter.
National Christmas Tree Lighting
The President kicks off the holiday season by switching on the lights on the giant National Christmas Tree. (There’s a National Menorah, too, which gets lit on the appropriate night.) For a seat in the enclosure, you’ll need a ticket: apply at least six weeks in advance as they run out fast. The ticketless, though, can usually get a glimpse from the other side of the fence. The ceremony begins at 5pm; arrive early. After the tree lighting, until New Year’s Day, the Ellipse hosts Christmas performances as part of the annual Pageant of Peace.
Transport: Federal Triangle Metro.
Events around town range from relatively inexpensive celebrations at the Kennedy Center (music and dancing in the Grand Foyer) to dinners at some of the area’s more upscale dining establishments costing hundreds of dollars. Restaurants and clubs often offer jazz, dinner and a champagne toast for a fixed but generally substantial price (most start taking reservations early); check ads in the Washington City Paper and the Washington Post.Read more
Martin Luther King Day celebrations
A birthday celebration is held on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, where Dr. King gave his famous “I have a dream” speech in 1963. That’s just one of many, many commemorations in DC. Among others: the Washington Performing Arts Society (WPAS) hosts an annual children’s concert with Sweet Honey in the Rock, which combines gospel, African rhythms and rap into a cappella combinations. A tremendous show.
Chinese New Year
Celebrations kick off with a bang—dancers, dragons, firecrackers and parades—and continue, a bit more muted, for ten days. Look out for details near the time or contact the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (1-703 851 5685).
Transport: Gallery Place-Chinatown Metro.
Black History Month
The Smithsonian Institution holds special events, exhibitions and cultural programs throughout the month. For more information on the activities on offer, check newspaper listings or contact the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library.
A celebration of Abe Lincoln’s birthday (February 12) is held at the Lincoln Memorial; Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is read and a wreath is laid. For hardcore history buffs only. George Washington’s birthday celebration, with a patriotic military program and a George Washington impersonator, is held (on the third Monday in February) at Mount Vernon, Virginia. The Frederick Douglass birthday tribute is held on or near February 14 at the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site, 1411 W Street, SE, at 14th Street, Anacostia.
(Information: Lincoln 202 426 6841, Washington 703 780 2000, Douglass 202 426 5960.)
St. Patrick’s Day Celebrations
Washington’s St. Patrick’s Day revelries draw the crowds with a parade of dancers, bands, bagpipes and floats along Constitution Avenue. In true Irish style, the partying continues well into the night in pubs around the city. When March 17 doesn’t fall on a Sunday, the festivities take place on the previous Sunday. St. Patrick’s Day celebrations are also held in Alexandria, VA, where they’re organized by a charity called Ballyshaners.
www.dcstpatsparade.com. Transport: Smithsonian, Federal Triangle, L’Enfant Plaza or Archives–Navy Memorial Metro.
Annual White House Easter Egg Roll
Since 1878, when Congress kicked them off the Capitol lawn, kids aged three to six have been invited to hunt Easter eggs—the egg count is up to 24,000 plus these days—hidden on the South Lawn of the Executive Mansion. A festival on the Ellipse features storytelling, children’s authors, even astronauts sometimes—and, crucially for cranky parents, food. The event kicks off at the Southeast Gate at the corner of East Executive Avenue and E Street; it gets very crowded, so arrive early. Make sure the kids are with you around 7–7:30am, when the tickets are handed out (though the actual festivities run from 10am to 2pm).
www.whitehouse.gov/eastereggroll. Transport: McPherson Square Metro.
Blossom Kite Festival
Kite-lovers of all ages proudly show off their handmade contraptions (and the serious ones even take part in competitions). There are also demonstrations with novelty and sport kites by “kite-making masters.” Usually held on the first day of the National Cherry Blossom Festival.
www.nationalcherryblossomfestival.org. Transport: Smithsonian Metro.
National Cherry Blossom Festival
Cherry blossom time is a big deal in Washington. In 1912, 3,000 cherry trees were donated to the city by Mayor Yukio Ozaki of Tokyo as a symbol of friendship between Japan and the United States. These original trees were planted along the Tidal Basin; today, the path that rings the basin becomes clogged with visitors during bloom time. The city has become famous for the immigrant blossoms, and celebrates them with near-pagan worship and a weekend of special events, including a National Cherry Blossom Festival Parade and the Sakuri Matsuri Street Festival, a celebration of Japanese art, food and culture held on 12th Street between Pennsylvania and Constitution Avenues. The atmosphere is congenial and the blossoms are truly glorious.
www.nationalcherryblossomfestival.org. Transport: Smithsonian Metro.
On the Sunday evening, the National Symphony Orchestra performs a free concert on the West Lawn of the Capitol (there’s another one on Labor Day in September; see www.kennedy-center.org/nso for info). On Monday, the presidential wreath-laying and memorial services take place at Arlington National Cemetery, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the US Navy Memorial. Rolling Thunder’s Ride for Freedom, a massive motorcycle parade on Sunday morning, remembers POWs/MIAs and honors servicemen who died in wars.
Memorial Day Jazz Festival
Quaint Old Town Alexandria is the location for this day-long affair, which features half a dozen or so jazz artists, plus food stalls.
www.alexandriava.gov/recreation. Transport: King Street Metro.
Washington’s LGBT community marks Capital Pride Week with parties, pageants, political forums, a Pennsylvania Avenue street festival, the inevitable parade—and even a mini film festival.
Fort Reno Summer Concert Series
Both up-and-coming and well-known bands take to the outdoor stage at Fort Reno Park, on a hill overlooking the city. Concerts are free and bands play for nothing; not surprisingly, long-term funding is a concern for the popular event. Come along, bring a picnic and soak up the music. No booze or glass bottles allowed.
www.fortreno.com. Transport: Tenleytown-AU Metro.
Marine Band’s Summer Concert Series & Evening Parades
“The President’s Own”—once led by John Phillip Sousa—performs free, twice-weekly outdoor concerts at the Capitol and/or on the Mall during the summer months; the band’s repertoire ranges from classical music to brass-band favorites, and the action starts at 8pm. (See the band’s website for days and locations.) On summer Fridays, the band is also a featured element of the showy Evening Parade, which includes impressive precision formation drills; it begins at 8:45pm on the manicured grounds of the Marine Barracks (8th & I Streets, SE), the corps’ oldest post. Reservations are required, though unclaimed seats are sometimes available at the time. The affiliated Commandant’s Own drum and bugle corps performs a weekly Sunset Parade at the Iwo Jima memorial statue, adjacent to Arlington National Cemetery; start time is 7pm and reservations are not required.
www.marineband.marines.mil. Transport: Rosslyn Metro.
Capital Jazz Fest
Billed as “the Woodstock of jazz festivals,” this outdoor extravaganza in Columbia, Maryland, serves up food, crafts, and, of course, some of the best jazz musicians around. Dave Koz, Eric Benét, Walter Beasley, David Benoit, Incognito and India Arie are among past headliners.
Dupont-Kalorama Museums Consortium Walk Weekend
Hidden-treasure museums and historically important houses in Dupont Circle and the neighbouring Kalorama area take part in an “off the Mall” museum day for the public. Free food, music, tours and crafts are added bonuses.
Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure
It’s said to be the biggest five-kilometer run/walk in the world. The Race for the Cure draws tens of thousands of participants to raise money for and awareness of breast cancer.
www.komen.org. Transport: Federal Triangle Metro.
A week of masterclasses culminates in a weekend festival celebrating African and African-American dance, with free outdoor performances, crafts and food, plus ticketed mainstage events indoors. Note that an admission price is charged for some events.
www.danceplace.org. Transport: Brookland-CUA Metro.
National Capital Barbecue Battle
For more than two decades, barbecue wizards have gathered to compete for titles that now, astonishingly, carry more than $40,000 in prize money. Tens of thousands throng the nation’s Main Street to sample glorious ribs, chicken and every other form of barbecue imaginable. Celebs, music, children’s activities and much more to go with the food.
http://bbqdc.com. Transport: Metro Archives-Navy Memorial.
Smithsonian Folklife Festival
This monster festival celebrates the arts, crafts and food of selected U.S. states and other countries. Food and demonstration booths stretch down the National Mall, and there are evening celebrations and music performances. The atmosphere is cheerful, the weather usually hot and sticky. The themes for 2013 were Hungarian heritage, endangered languages, and African-American dress and adornment.
www.folklife.si.edu. Transport: Smithsonian Metro.
Steer clear of this one if you hate crowds (nearly 700,000 people generally turn up), or if the now rather pervasive security makes you think of Mr. Orwell (the legacy of 9/11 means that Fourth of July revelers now enter a fenced-off National Mall via checkpoints). Official events begin at 10am at the National Archives, with a dramatic reading of the Declaration of Independence, demonstrations of colonial military manoeuvres, and more. Just before noon, the Independence Day parade starts to wind its way down Constitution Avenue (from the National Archives to 17th Street), and later (5–9:15pm) the grounds of the Washington Monument host entertainment—folk music, jazz, marching bands, military singers—and hordes of revelers. The National Symphony Orchestra performs a concert on the West Lawn of the Capitol building at 8pm, traditionally concluding with a battery of cannons assisting in the finale of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture; then, at roughly 9pm, a stupendous array of fireworks is set off over the Washington Monument. Logistical hassles aside, it’s a grand sight: The monuments are lovely in the summer dusk, and the barrages involve thousands of rounds of explosives. Walk to the festivities if you can: Fourth of July crowds eat up parking spots and test the limits of the public transportation system.
Adams Morgan Day
For over a quarter of a century, thousands of DC residents have come out to celebrate this community, home to large Latino, white, African and African American populations. Musicians, crafts and ethnic foods are in ample supply.
www.ammainstreet.org. Transport: Dupont Circle or Woodley Park Metro.
National Book Festival
Sponsored by the Library of Congress, the Book Festival features dozens of authors, illustrators, poets and storytellers, all reading, performing and signing in block after block of pavilions themed around “Fiction and Imagination,” “History and Biography,” “Mysteries and Thrillers” and so on. Admission is free.
www.loc.gov/bookfest. Transport: Archives-Naval Memorial or Federal Triangle Metro.
Annual High Heel Race
Dupont Circle residents and gawkers from across the city swarm to 17th Street to catch this ultimate drag race, which features outrageously costumed contestants promenading up and down—then sprinting down a two-block stretch in the heart of the capital’s gay ghetto. The event itself lasts only minutes, but the street-party atmosphere is festive and the scenery fabulous.
www.jrsbar-dc.com. Transport: Dupont Circle Metro.
Marine Corps Marathon
The “Marathon of Monuments” draws around 30,000 runners from around the world, and no wonder: The course winds along the banks of the Potomac, through Georgetown and Rock Creek Park, past the city’s most famous sites and monuments, finishing at the Iwo Jima memorial in Arlington. Spectators and supporters turn the route into a 26-mile street party. www.marinemarathon.com