The Russian Winter Festival at Hillwood Estate, Museum and Gardens is a great opportunity to explore this Washington treasure that may not be an obvious choice for families. Hillwood holds about one activity a month designed to attract families. Its other major annual event is the Fabergé Egg Festival in April. However, Hillwood with its beautiful grounds and impressive collection of Fabergé items and French and Russian decorative art is a good place to visit at any time of the year.
The first performance we saw was Russian Folk Music by the Samovar Folk Music Ensemble. This lively group performed carols with traditional Russian stringed instruments and an accordion. The festively dressed performers actively engaged young children by giving them percussion instruments and teaching them a Russian dance. This show was a half hour and the audience could sit on banquettes.
Next we saw the colorfully dressed Kalinka Dance Ensemble perform traditional Russian folk dances accompanied by the St. Petersburg Trio. The high kicking finale with the male dancer was a real crowd pleaser. This show took place in the Adirondack Building, a short walk from the Visitor Center. The room was set up auditorium style. This show was also a half hour.
Finally, we saw Grandfather Frost (Russia’s Santa Claus) and his granddaughter the Snow Maiden perform a Russian folktale that explores Russian holiday traditions (20 minutes) also at the Adirondack Building. The rustic character of the building and the beautiful open window looking into the woods lent appropriate atmosphere to the show. The performers were available afterwards for photo opportunities. Everyone enjoyed all three shows. Our favorite was the Russian Folk Music. Every performance ran like clockwork; they started on time and ended on time.
We returned to the Visitor Center for the continuous craft workshop. Children could create hats worn by Russian nobility. The lady’s headdresses are called kokoshniks. The materials were beautiful and abundant. Each child was provided with a plastic hat to decorate with ribbons, decorative paper, beads, sequins, and even fake braids and fur. This craft fully involved our daughters for almost a half hour. It was one of those perfect crafts, where every product turns out beautiful and unique. There were also a few Russian costumes for children to try on in front of mirrors. Have your child pose in a traditional costume by the Christmas tree at the Visitor Center entrance for a perfect holiday photo.
In between the shows, we took a break for lunch. The regular Café was very crowded so we went to the Café Express, which had light fare of sandwiches, pastries, and salads. Our salads were good but a little pricey. Note: The Café Express does not presently take credit cards.
Finally, we were ready to explore the mansion and grounds. Note: Strollers must be parked outside the estate. Hillwood was founded by Marjorie Merriweather Post. When her father Charles William (C.W.) Post, founder of Postum Cereal Company, died, Marjorie became one of the wealthiest women in America. She started to collect French decorative arts soon after. When she lived in Russia with her third husband United States Ambassador Joseph E. Davies, she began collecting Russian Imperial Art as well. In 1955, she purchased Hillwood, a 25-acre estate in Northwest Washington.
You can obtain a free audio tour (either regular or family) from the Visitor Center. We chose the family version. You could pick a general room description or go into deeper descriptions of individual portraits or objects. The numbers to press are not listed on the rooms themselves; you have to refer to the Hillwood brochure. The entire audio tour is estimated at one and a half hours. My 10 year-old went through the entire tour; my six year-old gave up after a couple of rooms. She was, however, wildly enthusiastic about the mansion, especially Mrs. Post’s bedroom and pink bathroom and her ball gowns on the second floor. She wanted a home exactly like the estate. I know she will be disappointed.
The second floor had a continuously running 15-minute video about Hillwood in the Visitor Resource Center, which also had a selection of relevant books to peruse. You could sit at a long table or on the couch. The highlight of the first floor was the Icon Room with the two Fabergé Imperial eggs and Empress Alexandra’s Nuptial Crown. The estate was surprisingly kid friendly. There was none of the snootiness or over vigilant guards that you often find in similar places. Most children would be attracted to the Imperial eggs or the tiny Fabergé animals, not to mention the many plates and ceramic figurines. The mansion was especially attractive during the holidays with its festive decorations particularly in the main dining room. It is very nice that you have the freedom to go at your own pace through the mansion.
Since it was winter, we did not fully explore the beautiful grounds. The greenhouse had stunning orchids. My daughters loved the Japanese garden with its many stepping stones and bridges. They also were intrigued by the Pet Cemetery and its dog statuary. There is also a Rose Garden, putting green, and a French Parterre. An audio tour of the gardens is available at the Visitor Center and takes 60 minutes.
The Museum Shop in the Visitor Center is a great place for holiday shopping with many unusual items. It has an adjoining bookstore. There was a nice selection of postcards, jewelry, children’s books and games. A library and archives are open by appointment only.
The entire visit took about four and a half hours. I would recommend going on a nice day since the grounds are so spectacular. However, especially with the festival, there was plenty to see and do indoors.
Hours and Admission
The Estate is open February through December, Tuesday through Saturday from 10am to 5pm. It is closed on Mondays and most national holidays along with the entire month of January. Hillwood is also open select Sundays from 1 to 5pm.
Suggested donation is $12/public, $10/seniors, $7/college students, $5/children ages 6 to 18. Different rates may apply on Family Fun Days.
Restrooms and Refreshments
The Visitor Center has changing tables in both restrooms and a water fountain and coat check. The Café also has a changing table. The Adirondack Building had one restroom with no changing table. The mansion also had a free coat check.
The Café is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Entrees range from about $7 to 10. Everything looked good but it was a little expensive. Children’s specials were grilled cheese with carrots and dip for $7.50 and pizza with carrots and dip for $7.70. Afternoon tea (an assortment of tea, sandwiches, and pastries) is $15. The Café Express is only open for special events.
If you come by car, drive on Connecticut and you will see a sign on Tilden to go toward Hillwood. There is another sign that we missed on Linnean. Keep your eyes out.
Parking is ample and free. The nearest metro Van Ness on the Red Line is a mile away. The L1 and L2 buses stop at Tilden and Connecticut, miles away.