Anyone who grew up in the suburbs can remember that one house on the block that would go all out with their holiday decorations. The anticipation of this once-a-year spectacle would generate excitement and serve as a marker of the season. Recapture that delight at one of the free light installations in the District. No matter what you’re looking for, you can find something to fit the bill at ZooLights, Georgetown Glow or Light Yards.
The National Zoo you know by day has been made over into a festive walk covered with on-theme lights displays at night. Don’t expect to see any animals — the indoor exhibits are closed — but you will see lit up interpretations of flamingos, elephants, pandas and more. Jukebox hits, fog machines and strings of colorful lights lining the trees add to the cheerful vibe. Other attractions include a laser light show outside the Elephant Community Center, nightly choral performances and the new Gingerbread Village, which offers props and backdrops for photos. Grab a hot chocolate or even, yes, beer or wine to take along your walk around the zoo.
Best for: Families, thanks to the charming decorations and designated kids’ farm and rides.
Good to know: Parking can be a hassle. If you’re taking Metro, exit at the Cleveland Park station on your way to the zoo to avoid walking uphill. On the way home, head downhill to the Woodley Park stop.
Make a night of it: Head to Sababa in Cleveland Park for Israeli small plates, or just across the street from the zoo’s main entrance, stop at Duke’s Counter for one of the District’s best burgers in a British pub setting.
Open daily from 5 to 9 p.m. through Jan. 1. (Closed Dec. 24, 25 and 31.) National Zoo, 3001 Connecticut Ave. NW. Free.
For a modern twist on seasonal lights, follow the path of yellow dots through the heart of Georgetown and see the art installations that make up the fifth installment of Georgetown Glow. At night, the neighborhood becomes refreshingly quiet, making it easier to navigate the 11 commissioned works ranging from colorful projections to neon lights — you’ll run into the same faces as you make your way along the path.
Start near the Francis Scott Key Memorial park to see “Social Sparkles,” which reacts to your movements as you walk around columns. Make your way toward the opposite end of M Street NW; at Meigs Park, peek inside “The Twilight Antiques and Thrift.” Artists Rhonda Weppler and Trevor Mahovsky created a vacant, ominous-looking shop, with glowing props that all have a D.C. connection. When the exhibition closes on Jan. 6, visitors will be able to enter the store and take one of the props home.
Best for: The young adult or adult crowd, since the artwork tends to lean toward the modern and geometric — tailor-made for social media.
Good to know: Most of the art is clustered south of M Street NW and near the waterfront, but two pieces (“Faces and Places” and “Rainbow Friends”) are located up Wisconsin Avenue.
Make a night of it: Food, drinks and, of course, shopping couldn’t be more accessible along this pathway. If you want to stick with a holiday theme, head to Martin’s Tavern, where every corner of the cozy pub has been decked out in seasonal decorations.
Open daily from 5 to 10 p.m. through Jan. 6. Locations throughout Georgetown; go to georgetownglowdc.com for a map. Free.
For its fourth year, Light Yards is back with two eye-catching and photo-friendly installations. “The Pool,” by New York-based Jen Lewin Studio, feels like an oversize arcade dance game, in which you hop around circular leaping pads and watch how the glowing steps react to the movement. Pose in front of “Angels of Freedom,” by Israel-based OGE Group, which features life-size angel wings and a fluorescent halo.
Best for: All ages, although kids (and pets) will especially get a kick out of seeing of the bright colors responding to their steps.
Good to know: You can get through the two installations fairly quickly, so plan for dinner or drinks in the area to make the most of your trip to Navy Yard.
Make a night of it: The Salt Line, the waterfront oyster bar, has been decorated for the holidays. Seasonal cocktails including hot toddies have been added to the menu. Save room for Ice Cream Jubilee and one of its rotating creative flavors such as apple butter oatmeal cookies or sweet potato molasses candy.
Open daily from 6 to 10 p.m. through Jan. 4. Yards Park, 385 Water St. SE. Free.