Visiting this Maryland county will feel like stepping into a holiday card

Montgomery County’s festive shopping districts and seasonal activities offer D.C. families a quintessential wintertime experience—without the stress of long-distance travel.

The likelihood of someone taking a domestic vacation in the next six months reached 45% in October, a pandemic-era peak. Still, travelers are making some logistical adjustments to their trips, like choosing to drive rather than fly, stay closer to home and book shorter stays.

Rio in Gathersburg, Md. Photo Credit: Adam Brockett

So for D.C.-area families looking for a road trip this winter, Montgomery County, Md. may be the perfect choice. Though it’s always a great place for a holiday trip, this is the best possible year to pay it a visit. Located fewer than 30 miles away from the District, Montgomery envelops visitors in the holiday spirit without the hassle of flights, long car rides or crowds. And it’s brimming with attractions such as festive shopping districts, a drive-through light display and convivial local breweries, all of which have precautions in place to keep everyone safe. Which means travelers can actually relax during a trip to Montgomery—and spend their time enjoying themselves.

“The holidays are really a time to make memories with the people you love, and that has become more important than ever,” said Cory Van Horn, director of marketing for Visit Montgomery.

An ideal setting for quick trips and meaningful experiences  

This winter, many people will be traveling for the first time in months, and they’ll want to make the most of every moment. For these travelers, a shorter trip may actually be a boon—according to industry experts, each day of a brief getaway is more likely to stand out in the traveler’s mind than the blur of longer outings.

The Music Center at Strathmore in North Bethesda, Md.

Van Horn is expecting an uptick in weekend getaways and staycations. Couples and families can book a night or two in a hotel and enjoy simple activities that they might have previously taken for granted, like shopping for gifts and eating dinner at a restaurant. The MoCo Eats Guide provides updated restaurant listings, including whether an eatery offers pickup, delivery and/or outdoor seating. For a cultural night in, visitors can stream concerts through the website of The Music Center at Strathmore, located in North Bethesda, including Handel’s “Messiah” performed by the National Philharmonic Chorale.

D.C.-area residents who have family in Montgomery County may choose to make a vacation of their visit by staying in a hotel, and for them, there’s a variety of unique lodging options—the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal Quarters Program, for example, lets visitors rent historic lockhouses where lockkeepers once lived, some of which date to the 1830s. Guests have direct access to the canal towpath for leisurely strolls, or they can snowshoe through the C&O Canal National Historical Park, stopping at the Great Falls overlook for views of the Potomac River.

Canal Quarters Lockhouse 10. Photo Credit: The Canal Trust

Where to stay and explore for eclectic eats, unique gifts or family fun

Montgomery County has settings that will put every traveler in a festive mood. From traditionally decorated shopping districts to more modern neighborhoods featuring trendy eateries, each locale offers a special appeal. Excellent accommodations abound, and it’s easy to spend an afternoon or evening in a different county neighborhood from the location where you’ve chosen to stay.

Those seeking the “classic” holiday experience should head to the Bethesda Row district, where a stroll down the street “feels like walking through a holiday card,” said Jill McCarthy, a lifelong local resident and director of marketing for Federal Realty Investment Trust. Bethesda Row features a Christmas tree and menorah lighting each year and a mix of large retail stores and smaller local boutiques. Jewelry and accessories purveyor Lou Lou will have the perfect bauble for a last-minute gift, and shoppers can enjoy standout restaurants in the area, such as Mon Ami Gabi, serving French cuisine indoors at half-capacity, and Mussel Bar and Grille, where there’s a large outdoor tent for winter dining. Alternatively, bring carryout food to Bethesda Streetery, with seating in an area that’s been closed to traffic.

For a family-friendly atmosphere, Rockville Town Square is a top option. Its 7,200-square-foot outdoor ice-skating rink makes for an iconic holiday outing with families. (But tickets must be purchased in advance online.) Dinner at Sichuan Chinese restaurant Peter Chang is another holiday tradition for local families, according to McCarthy, who also recommends photogenic sweets like Purple Sweet Potato Crepe Layer Cake that can be had at nearby Kyoto Matcha Dessert. Families can also swing by VisArts gallery to purchase works by local artists and enjoy socially distanced holiday ornament workshops.

Canopy by Hilton at Pike & Rose in North Bethesda, Md.

If you’re not visiting Montgomery with kids in tow, the Pike & Rose downtown center in North Bethesda offers a more youthful scene. The area features trendy eateries, like Summer House Santa Monica, which serves California-style cuisine, and Julii, which focuses on Eastern Mediterranean and classic French dishes. And there are plenty of shops with special gifts, like Olive & Loom, which sells candles handcrafted by local refugees. There’s also a quarter-acre green space for outdoor gatherings and an enormous snowflake strung between buildings that help make Pike & Rose a place “where people want to go and celebrate,” McCarthy said.

Visiting local breweries and light displays

For a festive atmosphere beyond the county’s shopping and dining districts, visitors can explore the Tastemakers Trail. The route encompasses a total of 20 destinations, including craft breweries, distilleries, cideries, wineries and a coffee brewer—all of which can be explored safely via ridesharing, chartered bus or chauffeured transportation services. Montgomery County is especially suited to beer lovers, according to Brett Robison, co-founder of Silver Branch Brewing in Silver Spring, who said travelers should expect to “[have] different experiences from one [brewery] to the next.”

Silver Branch Brewing Company in Silver Spring, Md.

Silver Branch, which opened in 2019, was the only Maryland brewery to win a gold medal at the Great American Beer Festival this year. Its brewing inspiration draws on four major cultures—the Americas, Belgium, the British Isles and Central Europe—and there are plans for special holiday brews, including a chocolate-nut-coconut–flavored imperial stout and new Belgian Quadrupels, a malty high-alcohol beer. Latin American fare, such as tacos and ceviche, is also served, and guests can make online reservations for the outdoor biergarten or indoor taproom, where tables are distanced and bar seating is closed. Locals have expressed “a heightened sense of gratitude” for the brewery’s emphasis on gemütlichkeit, the German word for “a sense of coziness and camaraderie,” according to Robison said.

Winter Lights Festival in Gathersburg, Md. Photo Credit: City of Gaitherburg

When night falls, travelers can stay cozy in their cars as they drive through the Winter Lights Festival in Gaithersburg. The three-and-a-half-mile route features hundreds of colorfully lit displays, such as teddy bears and toys amid wintry scenery. And to celebrate its 25th anniversary, the festival has created a new fantasy-themed loop with a fire-breathing creature, mermaid lagoon and more. Two box offices will be open to keep staff socially distanced, but guests are encouraged to buy tickets online in advance.

Safety measures won’t interfere with the joyful spirit that surrounds this yearly showcase, said Carolyn Crosby, echoing the sentiment expressed by other residents and businesses around Montgomery County. Crosby, senior supervisor for cultural events and services for the City of Gaithersburg Department of Parks, Recreation and Culture, said that “people are longing to get out and go to something” this year. And she and the organizers behind the Winter Lights Festival intend to deliver.

“We think it’s always important to have things like this, [so] that people can go out as a family and make some really good memories,” she said.

Learn more about visiting Montgomery, MD this holiday season.