Why Zoolights is a Great DC Winter Tradition


One of the best things about living in DC is that there are a ton of free activities, many of them offered through the Smithsonian Institution. My favorite out of all of these is the National Zoo, located between the Cleveland Park and Woodley Park neighborhoods. The National Zoo is an especially great destination during the holiday season, when it comes alive at night for its annual Zoolights celebration.

Zoolights runs until January 2 (except December 24, 25 and 31) from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. each day. So there’s still a week or so to enjoy this spectacle before it wraps up. It makes for a nice (and cheap) post- or pre-dinner event or as a low-key way to enjoy the early winter weather.

Zoolights is exactly what it sounds like. Once the sun goes down and the animals retire for the evening, the zoo grounds are brightened with festive light displays in all shapes and sizes, from elephants to sea creatures and birds. Trees are strung with ornaments and strands of colorful bulbs and projections light up buildings and pathways.

There’s other entertainment as well, if wandering gets boring. Adults and children can check out the animal carousel or zoo “tubing.” Smaller kids can take a ride on the age-appropriate train ride.

Oh, and animal lovers don’t have to worry. It’s not all light fixtures. There are some actual animals to view during Zoolights, too. Big cats like lions and tigers roam their enclosures, though you may have to peer into the darkness to see them. There are also indoor buildings with everything from reptiles to primates and even naked mole rats.

Another fun feature of Zoolights is that you can eat and drink outdoors. There are vendors selling seasonal beverages like beer and wine as well as cider and coffee that can be spiked with liquor like spiced rum or Irish cream. The first main building is a good spot to grab a hot drink before making the journey into the zoo.

For food, pick up a bag of Santa-themed cookies or chocolate-covered pretzels. Or grab a sweet s’more, roasted nuts or holiday kettle corn. The zoo also has a few vendors offering more substantial meals, though they’re not great.

If eating and drinking is on your radar, the better bet is to venture off to a restaurant nearby.

Zoo Bar Cafe is the closest option, and there is typically some live music happening during the events. Open City DC is a local favorite and a good to start as far as Woodley Park goes. It serves breakfast all day with tons of choices and also has a full menu of sandwiches, pizzas and entrees. The in-house bakery turns out quality coffees, teas and pastries. For a more upscale experience, try the Italian food at Bar Civita. Ambitious walkers can also opt to make the 20-minute trek to Adams Morgan, which has a number of solid bars and restaurants.

In Cleveland Park, St. Arnold’s Mussel Bar is a convivial bar serving up bowls of mussels and other Belgian dinners like herb-roasted chicken, beer stew and sausage sandwiches. And of course there are lots of European and U.S. beers to choose from, so grab a liter and raise a toast. Medium Rare serves up a pre-fixed menu of steak and fries, bread and salad for around $20 a plate.

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