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Why You Should Go to Washington, D.C. This Winter

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Head to Nationals ballpark for the world’s largest light maze and holiday market.

Courtesy of Enchant

Head to Nationals ballpark for the world’s largest light maze and holiday market.

A massive light maze, a major museum closing, a boundary-pushing restaurant, and two new hotels mean you should head to the capital now.

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Everyone goes to Washington, D.C. in the spring to see the cherry blossoms, but the city is arguably even more appealing in the winter.

The colder months bring outdoor skating rinks, holiday markets, and festive performances to our nation’s capital, putting visitors squarely in the spirit as they stroll from monument to museum. This year, travelers can even get lost in the world’s largest Christmas light maze or sip holiday-themed cocktails at several new bars.

If you’re more of a Grinch, you should still make your way to the District this winter to check out the Newseum before it closes for good on December 31 or to try the latest restaurant from celebrated chef Enrique Limardo. Come early 2020, there will even be a few stylish new hotels to stay in, making it easier than ever to visit this constantly evolving city.

Get in the holiday spirit around town

Until December 29, D.C. plays host to Enchant, which bills itself as the world’s largest Christmas light maze and market. Housed at Nationals ballpark, the 90,000-square-foot attraction boasts beautiful arches, towering sculptures, and a 100-foot-tall pine tree, all covered in twinkling bulbs. Go on a scavenger hunt through the maze to find all of Santa’s reindeer, or take to the ice-skating trail through the lights. Afterward, hit the market, where more than 40 local artisans sell everything from art and jewelry to candles and fine tea; you can warm up with a custom chili dish from Ben’s Chili Bowl or a glass of mulled wine from the Ice Bar and Lounge.

Shop for jewelry, pottery, art, and more at the Downtown Holiday Market.

For even more shopping, head to the 15th annual Downtown Holiday Market, which sits at the intersection of Eighth and F Streets NW until December 23. Focused on ethically produced goods, the market features 60 exhibitors each day, selling jewelry, pottery, paintings, textiles, and more. Visitors can also look forward to festive snacks and live seasonal entertainment.

The Ice Rink at the Wharf is D.C.’s only skating rink on a pier.

If you’re done with your list, go instead to the Ice Rink at the Wharf, open through late February for skating in view of the Washington Channel, or buy tickets to Washington Ballet’s beloved production of The Nutcracker, which runs through December 29. 

Tiki TNT is serving hot pineapple cider in Santa mugs for the holiday season.

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Come 5 o’clock, sip a Mezcal Toddy at Calico, or a Santa mug of hot pineapple cider at Tiki TNT, which is currently done up in hundreds of lights, a two-foot-tall Santa sporting beachwear, and an oversized tree hung from the ceiling. There’s also the Miracle on 7th pop-up bar, home to the famous “Nog Shots” made with homemade eggnog, and the new Après Ski on the Terrace at the Conrad hotel, where you can down hot buttered rum around an outdoor firepit.

Escape the cold at the city’s best museums

After more than 11 years and nearly 10 million visitors, D.C.’s Newseum will close for good on December 31. Get there while you still can to tour renowned exhibits about 9/11, the FBI, and the Berlin Wall, or browse the Front Pages Gallery, where up to 80 newspapers from around the world are displayed each day. Make sure to also visit the Ethics Center to tackle real-life reporting dilemmas, and the Interactive Newsroom to try your hand at being a reporter or photographer. And don’t miss the chance to pose for a picture on the terrace, which overlooks Pennsylvania Avenue and the Capitol Building.

See pastels by Degas, Whistler, and more at the National Gallery’s Touch of Color exhibit.

Over at the National Gallery of Art, The Touch of Color: Pastels exhibit is on view until January 25, tracing the history of pastels from the Renaissance to the 21st century with works by Degas, Whistler, and others. Because pastel is such a fragile medium, many of the pieces in the show have seldom, if ever, been exhibited. Also worth seeing is Marcel Duchamp: The Barbara and Aaron Levine Collection, which debuted at the Hirshhorn Museum in November. The show includes an unparalleled selection of artworks acquired over two decades, offering a rare view of the entire arc of Duchamp’s career. Look for several of the artist’s famous “readymades” as well as a number of special drawings and prints.

If you happen to be in D.C. on the third Thursday of the month, make a beeline for the Freer Sackler Gallery and see the famed Peacock Room in natural light. The room—James McNeill Whistler’s only surviving decorative interior—opened back in May for the first time in more than a century, after being restored to its original appearance from when it was part of the London home of shipping magnate Frederick Leyland in the 1800s. Once a month, the museum opens the shutters to reveal hidden details, colors, and textures in Whistler’s intricate paint job, which resembles peacock plumage in brilliant shades of Prussian blue and gold.

Give back at an exciting new eatery

The new Immigrant Food offers delicious food and a chance to give back to immigrants in need.

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Just opened in November, Immigrant Food is the latest from Enrique Limardo, the Venezuelan chef behind D.C.’s wildly popular Seven Reasons. A block from the White House, the fast-casual spot is committed to fighting intolerance in America through both food and philanthropy. The menu features fusion bowls and dairy-free “mylks” that combine the flavors of D.C.’s biggest immigrant populations (the Columbia Road bowl has Ethiopian lentils and Salvadoran cheese), as well as instructions for how to give back. After ordering, diners can choose to donate to various causes, volunteer at a local nonprofit, or sign a petition to help immigrants in need. The restaurant also has a second-floor space that NGOs can use for free to hold meetings and services like English classes, legal clinics, and job fairs.

When dinner time rolls around, head to Limardo’s other restaurant, Seven Reasons, which was just named the best new restaurant in the country by Esquire. It also earned the top spot in Washington Post critic Tom Sietsema’s fall dining guide for its bold, Latin American–inspired dishes, such as lamb loin palo-a-pique with coconut curry and Venezuelan hot sauce.

Stay at a hot new hotel

Rooms at the Thompson feature subtle nautical elements in a nod to the surrounding Navy Yard neighborhood.

Early 2020 will see the debut of two major properties, adding to D.C.’s already impressive hotel scene. First up is the Thompson Washington D.C., opening in the emerging Capitol Riverfront neighborhood near the Wharf on January 8. Guest rooms and suites showcase subtle nautical details, floor-to-ceiling windows with views of the Anacostia River, and minibars stocked with local goods like Snacklins chips and Atlas Brew Works beer. Guests can also look forward to an on-site restaurant and rooftop bar from Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group. Maialino Mare will focus on seafood pastas and fish, while the bar will serve cocktails and sweeping views of the city.

The Corinthian columns in the café at the Riggs hotel are original to the historic building.

In February, the Riggs Washington DC will open its doors in Penn Quarter in a historic building once home to Riggs National Bank. The design preserves several original architectural features, like the barrel-vaulted lobby and Corinthian columns in the café, while the 181 guest rooms include four “First Lady” suites inspired by the eccentricities of women like Ida McKinley and Angelica van Buren. In the building’s original subterranean vault, guests will also find Silver Lyan, the first U.S. venture from world-renowned mixologist Ryan Chetiyawardana, who made his name at London’s famed Dandelyan bar.

>>Next: Plan Your Trip With AFAR’s Travel Guide to Washington, D.C.

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