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Know Before You Go: Visiting Washington DC in Winter

Winter sightseeing in the capital is hard to beat—especially once you’ve prepped with our insider tips and recommendations.

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Hi, I'm Claire!

Claire Bullen is an award-winning food, drinks, and travel writer and editor who has lived and worked in Chicago, Philadelphia, New York, Paris, and London. She is the author of The Beer Lover's Table: Seasonal Recipes and Modern Beer Pairings, and the editor at GoodBeerHunting.com. Her writing has also appeared in Time Out New York, The Daily Meal, Pellicle Magazine, and beyond.

The nation’s capital always makes an impressive sight—especially when its world-famous monuments, memorials, and museums are covered in a pretty dusting of snow. While winter may not be primetime for Washington DC tourism, those who brave the weather will be rewarded with quieter attractions, festive events, extra-cozy restaurants and bars (with easier-to-book reservations), and the chance to see the city at its softest and most magical. Convinced? Make your plans now—and then brush up on these essential Washington DC winter travel tips.

When does winter begin and end in Washington DC?

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Foto: Yaya Ernst / Shutterstock

December, January, and February are reliably chilly.

According to the meteorological calendar, winter in the Northern Hemisphere encompasses the months of December, January, and February (though you can also choose to follow the astrological calendar, which places it between the winter solstice in late December and the spring equinox in late March). As for Washington DC, you can count on classically cold weather from late November or early December through February. The nation’s capital is farther south and generally warmer than other East Coast hubs like New York City and Boston, so temperatures tend to warm up a little earlier here—typically by early March.

How should I dress for winter in Washington DC?

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Foto: Andriy Blokhin / Shutterstock

Layers and classic winter pieces are your friends.

Washington DC is a well-dressed city. Whether it’s the university students serving East Coast prep chic or the politicos who never leave the house in anything other than a perfectly tailored ensemble, the nation’s capital puts a premium on style. That’s no less true in the chilly months when winter fashion in Washington DC takes center stage. To prepare for whatever variable weather the season throws your way, pack a range of warm layers and smart (but street-ready) footwear—and don’t forget your upscale winter classics, like a brushed wool coat, cashmere scarf, and leather gloves.

Does it snow in Washington DC in the winter?

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Taking to the ice over the holidays is a popular pastime in Washington DC.Foto: Orhan Cam / Shutterstock

It does—but it’s not guaranteed every year.

Snow has long been a staple of winters in the nation’s capital—and when it arrives, it makes the landmarks of the National Mall, as well as iconic buildings like the White House and US Capitol, positively sparkle. On average, the city sees just over 1 foot (30 centimeters) of snowfall yearly, although climate change is causing yearly accumulation to decline precipitously. If you want to see the city and its national monuments in winter, aim to visit in January and February, when snowfall is most likely.

What should I do during the holidays in Washington DC?

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Foto: Orhan Cam / Shutterstock

Give yourself chance to warm up.From festive lights to pop-up holiday markets, there's so much to choose from.

Washington DC is a city that takes its celebrations seriously—visit anytime from late November to early January, and you’ll encounter dazzling holiday events in the capital. The National Zoo’s ZooLights event is an only-in-DC holiday essential, as is visiting all three of the city’s Christmas trees: the National Christmas Tree in President’s Park, the U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree, and the CityCenterDC Christmas Tree. Then there are the holiday markets in Downtown and Dupont Circle, the National Menorah Lighting on the White House Ellipse, and candlelit tours of Mount Vernon. To make exploring even easier, book a holiday lights tour to see displays across town.

Insider tip: Don’t miss the District’s Holiday Boat Parade. A beloved annual tradition, the early December event sees dozens of decorated boats trawl the Potomac River after dark and is free to attend.

Where should I go outside in Washington DC in the winter?

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Foto: Robert A. Powell / Shutterstock

Admire the capital’s frosty splendor in its public parks and gardens.

If you don’t mind a touch of frost, then a walk in Washington DC is one of the best things to do in DC in the winter. It helps that the nation’s capital has a wealth of public parks and gardens to explore. To get away from the hustle and bustle, head to Rock Creek Park—the country’s third-oldest national park—which offers a wealth of forested and riverside hiking trails. Alternatively, make a day of it at nearby nature destinations like Seneca Creek State Park in Maryland.

Insider tip: If you’re starved for some greenery, venture to the United States Botanic Garden, which is open year-round and whose humid greenhouses provide some out-of-season warmth.

What are the top sights in Washington DC in the winter?

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Foto: Kamira / Shutterstock

When the weather outside is frightful—head inside.

Once you’ve had your fill of winter wonderland, the next best thing to do in DC in the winter? Get nice and cozy indoors. There’s no better time to take advantage of the city’s dozens of blockbuster museums, especially since they’ll be blessedly free of peak summertime crowds. Book a private guided tour of Smithsonian essentials like the Museum of Natural History, the Museum of American History, and the Air and Space Museum. To continue the cultural experience, venture to art museums like the Hirshhorn Museum—or even catch a performance at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, a one-stop shop for opera, ballet, theater, orchestral music, and more.

What are Washington DC’s top winter events?

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Foto: TJ Brown / Shutterstock

The fun doesn’t stop once the holiday season winds down.

Sure, January can feel like a letdown—but not in Washington DC. The nation’s capital knows how to make the most of winter, whether that means practicing your pirouettes on its outdoor skating rinks (at the Washington Harbour or National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden) or even taking part in its annual snowball fight, a beloved local tradition for 15 years and counting. Martin Luther King Jr Day, held on the third Monday of January, is an excellent time to pay tribute at his National Mall memorial and attend the Let Freedom Ring concert at The Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage, while the Lunar New Year brings celebrations to Chinatown and the Smithsonian National Museum of Asian Art.

Insider tip: Once every four years, following the US presidential election in November, the Inauguration occurs on or around Jan. 20. It’s a fascinating time to be in the city—but if you like your winter visit free of crowds, you may wish to steer clear.

What’s the best way to get around Washington DC in the winter?

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Foto: r Lux Blue / Shutterstock

Public transit is a good bet.

Washington DC has a wealth of transit options. If you’re visiting in winter sans snow, you should have no trouble getting around the city as usual, whether by public transit, car, taxi, or rideshare services. However, snowfall—especially significant snowfall that sticks—is a different story. In that case, it’s advised to take the Metro, whose underground portions generally run reliably during inclemen

Frequently asked questions

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Foto: S.Borisov / Shutterstock

Everything you need to know about visiting Washington DC in winter.

  • What is the average temperature in Washington DC in winter? The average high winter temperature in Washington DC is around 48°F (9°C), and the average low is around 34°F (1°C). That makes the nation’s capital slightly warmer than other northerly East Coast cities.

  • Does it snow in Washington DC around Christmas? If you were set on a white Christmas, DC may not be your place. Historically, there’s only about a 10% chance of snowfall on the holiday.

  • What is the coldest month in Washington DC? January is the coldest month of the year in the nation’s capital. In the first month of the year, average daily low temperatures can dip to 28°F (-2°C), making snowfall more likely.

  • Is Washington DC colder than New York City? No—Washington DC generally experiences slightly warmer and milder winters than New York City. The nation’s capital is around 226 miles (364 kilometers) southwest of the Big Apple, and its winters are, on average, less frosty.

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