Washington's Top 100 Events of 2011

These annual gatherings make a big impact on their respective industries and communities (and on the city) while innovating to stay on top.

By Brendan Spiegel December 23, 2011, 8:30 AM EST

National Trust for Mall

Photo: ImagLink Photos

While Washington catches the world’s attention a few times each year—the State of the Union, White House Correspondents’ dinner, and of course, Election Day—locals know there are many more events that make this city pop night after night. Yes, there are the must-attend political gatherings, but also lavish charity galas like the Opera Ball, trade shows that bring in tens of thousands, and high-energy celebrations like Capital Pride and the National Black Family Reunion. In that spirit, here’s our annual list of Washington’s Top 100 Events. Plus: Recognizing that the city’s event scene is ever-changing, for the first time we’ve included five events to watch in future years.

Sporting Events
1. Legg Mason Classic This men’s tennis tournament brings in some of the world’s top players and features a surrounding week of parties, exhibitions, and charity events. Summer

2. Up From 3 Marine Corps Marathon “The people’s marathon” draws more participants than any D.C. sports event, with this year’s 30,000 spots selling out in a record 28 hours. October 30

3. Washington Kastles Tennis A new temporary stadium welcomed 20,000 fans to the southwest waterfront for this year’s three-week season, when the World Team Tennis champion Kastles logged a perfect 16-0 season. July

4. Preakness Stakes Some 107,000 spectators took to Maryland’s Pimlico race course this spring for one of horse racing’s biggest events, plus performances by Train and Bruno Mars at the InfieldFest. May 19

5. New to the List The Nation’s Triathlon With 7,000 participants, last year’s race became the largest distance triathlon in the U.S. and raised $3 million for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. September

6. SunTrust Rock ’N’ Roll USA Marathon In 2012, this seven-year-old road race will become part of the 26-city Rock ’N’ Roll Marathon Series, known for lining the course with live music. March 17

One to Watch: AT&T Nation’s Football Classic This inaugural event in 2011 renewed the historic rivalry between Howard University and Morehouse College. The two teams have committed to return to R.F.K. Stadium through at least 2013. September 1

Food & Restaurant Industry Events
1. Rammy Awards Gala The Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington hands out the District’s most prestigious restaurant awards at a gala ceremony and dinner for 1,600. June

2. Up From 3 Metropolitan Cooking & Entertaining Show The fifth annual outing of this consumer expo brought a record 25,000 foodies, including Paula Deen and second lady Jill Biden, to the Washington Convention Center in 2010. November 5-6

3. New to the List Fancy Food Show After 25 years in New York, the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade moved their 57th Summer Fancy Food Show to D.C. this year, due to ongoing construction at the Javits Convention Center. A sold-out stable of 2,400 exhibitors attracted 18,000 attendees to the Washington Convention Center, where the show will return in 2012. June 17-19

4. Washington, D.C. International Wine & Food Festival After expanding to four days in 2010, the festival scaled back to two this year, but still reeled in 4,000 consumers and 1,500 trade representatives. February 11-12

5. Share Our Strength Taste of the Nation Nearly 1,500 people sampled treats from 80 restaurants at this 23rd annual fund-raiser, bringing in $200,000. Spring

6. Up From 7 Safeway BBQ Battle This 19th annual Pennsylvania Avenue cook-off featured 50 chefs from around the nation competing for $40,000 in cash prizes. June

7. National Harbor Wine and Food Festival More than 100 exhibitors from across the Chesapeake region participated in this fourth annual event in 2011. Spring

Political & Press Events
1. State of the Union Address In an effort to break up the partisan atmosphere on this lone night when the entire government gathers in one place, lawmakers set a new tradition this year by sitting with members of the opposing party. January or February

2. White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner The annual schmooze-fest surrounding the dinner, held annually at the Washington Hilton, continues to grow, with a weekend of parties that attract both politicians and celebs like Sean Penn and Scarlett Johansson. April 28

3. Washington Press Club Foundation's Congressional Dinner A more Hill-centric crowd of 1,000 turns out for this fund-raising dinner, hosted in 2011 by MSNBC’s Chris Matthews and featuring roasts from many members of Congress. February 8

4. Conservative Political Action Conference Despite a boycott over the participation of gay-rights group GOProud, this year’s CPAC attracted a record 11,000 conservative activists, including presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Michele Bachmann. February 9-11

5. AIPAC Policy Conference Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, House Speaker John Boehner, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were among the 10,000 attendees at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s gathering. March 4-6

6. Up From 10 Gridiron Club Black Tie Dinner In 2011, President Obama joined the crowd of 650 attending this 126-year-old organization’s signature event for the first time. March

7. Africare Bishop John T. Walker Memorial Dinner Former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was honored at this 1,500-person gala, which has previously feted world leaders like Nelson Mandela and Bill Clinton. November 9

8. Alfalfa Club Dinner While President Obama skipped this black-tie event the past two years, it still attracted boldface names like George W. Bush, Warren Buffett, and Michael Bloomberg. January or February

9. Human Rights Campaign National Dinner More than 3,000 gay-rights supporters attend this 15-year-old fund-raiser, which has welcomed President Obama, Al Gore, and Hillary Clinton in recent years. October 1

10. Congressional Correspondents’ Dinner Formerly known as the Radio and Television Correspondents’ Dinner, this 67th annual event featured comedic speeches from politicians like Representative Anthony Weiner and Senator Rand Paul. Spring           

11. Congressional Black Caucus Foundation Annual Legislative Conference This annual gathering of 10,000 African American leaders honored Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., following the unveiling of his memorial on the National Mall. September

12. National Association of Broadcasters Education Foundation Celebration of Service to America Award Oscar-winning actor Jeff Bridges was honored for his work fighting childhood hunger at this 13th annual gala in 2011. June

13. New to the List International Women of Courage Awards The Department of State’s five-year-old honor for global women’s rights activists has taken on a higher profile in recent years, as Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton present the awards. March

14. Atlantic Council’s Dinner Awards Vice President Joe Biden was the keynote speaker at the 2011 outing of this event celebrating the transatlantic relationship. Spring

15. National Governors Association Winter Meeting Bill Gates spoke to 46 of the nation’s governors at the 2011 edition of this annual gathering. February

16. U.S. Conference of Mayors Winter Meeting President Obama and Nancy Pelosi spoke to the most recent meeting of America’s mayors, which marks its 80th year in 2012. January 18-20

17. Take Back the American Dream Conference The Campaign for America’s Future teamed up with the “Rebuild the Dream” organization in 2011 for this newly renamed gathering of progressive leaders. October 3-5

18. New to the List Campus Progress National Conference Bill Clinton spoke to more than 10,000 student activists at this seventh annual gathering of student activists. July

One to Watch: FedTalks This second annual summit of 1,000 government and tech industry thinkers brought Silicon Valley bigwigs like Craig Newmark and Steve Case to D.C. this fall. October 11

Holiday Events
1. Christmas in Washington Mariah Carey performed and Ellen DeGeneres hosted this nationally televised holiday celebration in 2010. Traditionally attended by the first family, Christmas in Washington marks its 30th anniversary this year. December

2. White House Easter Egg Roll In 2011 some 30,000 people filled the White House lawn for this 133-year-old Easter Monday tradition. April 9

3. A Capitol Fourth Steve Martin and Little Richard performed at the 31st annual Independence Day concert and fireworks show in 2011. July 4

4. Pageant of Peace/Lighting of the National Christmas Tree Following a tradition dating back to 1923, President Obama looked on as B.B. King, Maroon 5, and Common performed at the tree lighting ceremony in 2010. December

5. National Memorial Day Concert For the past 22 years, this free concert has honored the nation’s veterans on the west lawn of the U.S. Capitol. May 27

Parades, Walks & Festivals
1. National Cherry Blossom Festival Celebrating the 100th anniversary of Tokyo’s 3,000-tree gift to D.C., the 2012 festival will draw one million people for 150 cultural performances among the blossoms. March 20-April 27

2. Smithsonian American Folklife Festival More than one million people visit the National Mall for this cultural fest, which explored Colombia, the Peace Corps, and rhythm and blues this year. June 27-July 8

3. National Black Family Reunion Some 250,000 people were expected on the National Mall for this 26th annual gathering, which included a Faith Evans concert. September

4. Capital Pride In addition to the long-standing parade, this 12-day event now includes Pride Fest on Pennsylvania Avenue, an interfaith service, and an array of parties and performances. May 30-June 10

5. Susan G. Komen Global Race for the Cure Nearly 40,000 runners helped the foundation raise more than $5 million this year. June 2

6. Rolling Thunder The 24th annual “Ride for Freedom” brought 250,000 motorcyclists—including Sarah Palin—to D.C. this Memorial Day weekend. May 27

Arts & Entertainment Events
1. Kennedy Center Honors Oprah Winfrey and Paul McCartney were among the artists honored at this 33rd annual ceremony, which brought out A-list names like Julia Roberts, Alec Baldwin, and the Obamas. December 4

2. Ford’s Theatre Society Annual Gala Traditionally filmed in June and broadcast nationally over the July 4 weekend, Ford’s gala has been through several recent revamps. In 2007, ABC tried to attract a broader audience by going with a Christmas theme and saving the broadcast for December. When the theater closed for a 20-month renovation, the 2008 gala moved to the National Theatre. Then in 2009, it returned to Ford’s, but moved to February to coincide with the reopening. By 2011, things were back to the traditional format, with a June gala honoring Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Julie Andrews, although without the television broadcast. June

3. National Design Awards Luncheon Usually held in July, this year’s White House event, hosted by Michelle Obama, moved to September—creating a bit of a scheduling snafu as several honorees had to be in New York for Fashion Week. September

4. BET Honors Awards Ceremony This fourth annual event moved to the Warner Theatre this year, honoring Jamie Foxx and Herbie Hancock, among others. January 14

5. New to the List Kennedy Center Mark Twain Prize for American Humor This annual comedic salute has recently taken on a more contemporary tone, honoring Tina Fey in 2011 and Will Ferrell this year. October 23

6. Will on the Hill A bipartisan cast of politicians—including Senator Patrick Leahy and Representative Sue Myrick—put on their performing hats and helped raise $375,000 at this ninth annual Shakespeare Theatre Company benefit. Spring

7. Silverdocs Film Festival This 10-year-old documentary fest screens more than 100 films for some 27,000 attendees each year. June

8. New to the List DC Jazz Festival This seventh annual festival expanded in 2011 to more than 100 performances, including a gala at the French Embassy and a 30,000-person concert on the National Mall. June

9. Up From 10 Filmfest DC This 25th annual event drew some 24,000 people to 80 film screenings in 2011. April 12-22

10. Virgin Mobile FreeFest While significantly smaller than when it was introduced in 2006, this is still one of the area’s biggest music festivals, boasting Cee Lo Green and TV on the Radio this year. September

One to Watch: Sweetlife Festival This sustainable music fest sponsored by Washington eatery Sweetgreen grew from 750 people in the store’s parking lot last year to 16,000 people at Merriweather Post Pavilion in 2011. Spring

Literary & Publishing Events
1. National Book Festival This 11th annual event expanded to two days in 2011, with readings from more than 100 authors, including Dave Eggers, Toni Morrison, and David McCullough. September

2. Up From 3 Washingtonian’s Best of Party The magazine’s fete for the area’s best restaurants, bars, spas, clubs, and other businesses hosted 1,700 guests at the National Building Museum this year. July

3. Washington Life’s “The Young and the Guest List” Party This sixth annual celebration of movers and shakers in the under-40 set welcomed 350 people to Long View Gallery in 2011. TBA

4. The Week Opinion Awards Peggy Noonan was named columnist of the year at this eighth annual award ceremony for the nation’s best opinion writing. Spring

5. The PEN/Faulkner Foundation Gala Host Calvin Trillin, Andrew Sullivan, and James McBride were among the prominent authors reading at this black-tie event in 2011. September

6. Scripps National Spelling Bee This 85-year-old tradition brings 275 young brainiacs to Washington for the world’s most prestigious spell-off. May 27-June 1

Benefits & Galas
1. The Opera Ball Held for the first time at the chancery of the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China, this year’s Opera Ball hosted a record 800 people and boosted fund-raising by more than $1 million, for a total take of $2.6 million. June

2. Knock Out Abuse Gala and Fight Night This two-part, sex-separated event—Fight Night for men and the Knock Out Abuse Gala for Women—raised $2 million from 1,700 men and 685 women last year. November 10

3. Corcoran Ball The 56th annual benefit for the Corcoran Gallery of Art welcomed 800 people and boosted sponsorship dollars by 26 percent in 2011. April 20

4. Leukemia Ball Nearly 2,000 attendees helped the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society raise $2.8 million this year. March 31

5. John F. Kennedy Center for the Art’s Annual Spring Benefit Hosted by Smokey Robinson and featuring performances by Broadway stars like Audra McDonald and Brian Stokes Mitchell, this year’s gala hosted 1,500 at the Kennedy Center Opera House. May 6

6. Fight for Children’s School Night Benefit Co-chaired by Mayor Vincent Gray, the 2011 outing of School Night took in $700,000 to benefit education programs for low-income D.C. children. Spring

7. Prevent Cancer Foundation’s Annual Spring Gala Inspired by the principality of Monaco (the gala celebrates a different country each year), the 2011 event took in $1.2 million from 900 guests. March

8. National Italian American Foundation Gala A diverse array of notable Italian American names—from Nancy Pelosi to Samuel Alito to Danny DeVito—turned out for this 35th annual event last yet. October 29

9. Up From 14 Washington Ballet Jeté Society Dance Party Held at a secret location—which turned out to be an unfinished space in a new building at Washington Harbor—this young professionals party saw such demand for its 900 tickets that would-be attendees were trolling for them on craigslist. Winter

10. Up From 13 Trust for the National Mall Luncheon/Ball on the Mall In just four years, this fund-raiser—which started as a luncheon in 2008 and added the ball the following year—has become a fixture on the spring social calendar. In 2011, both elements saw increased attendance (to 950 for the luncheon and 900 for the ball), despite a scheduling snafu that had the ball taking the place the same night as the season’s benefit behemoth, the Opera Ball. Combined proceeds increased from $1.5 million to $1.8 million, and at this year’s luncheon it was announced that Laura Bush will co-chair the trust’s new $350 million fund-raising initiative. May 3 and 5

11. Gourmet Gala Benefiting St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital Some 700 guests sampled fare from 58 local restaurants at this 13th annual fund-raiser, which took in $475,000 for the hospital. February 21

12. Cystic Fibrosis Foundation Breath of Life Gala CBS Evening News anchor Scott Pelley served as M.C. at this 750-person party in 2011. November 12

13. Washington Ballet Spring Gala Held at the Embassy of the Russian Federation, this rock ’n’ roll-themed bash for 500 raised $340,000. May

14. Heart of America Foundation’s Sweet Charity Benefit Nearly 50 Washington chefs served cuisine to 800 guests this year, raising $150,000. Spring

15. Sibley Memorial Hospital Hope and Progress Gala This 11th annual benefit returns to the Sibley campus this year with a party in the newly built medical building. October 29

16. March of Dimes Gourmet Gala This benefit, featuring a cook-off among members of Congress, marks its 30th anniversary in 2012. April 25

17. Ambassador’s Ball This 33rd annual benefit for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society honored Senators Johnny Isakson and Kay Hagan and Representatives Barbara Lee and Kevin McCarthy. September

18. Up From 20 Meridian Ball After attending dinner parties at various embassies and diplomatic residencies, 800 guests gathered at the Meridian International Center to celebrate its 50th anniversary last year, with a ball designed by New York designer David Stark. October 14

19. Up From 25 Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater Gala This year, a record 830 guests helped the dance company raise $700,000 to send Washington dancers to the Ailey school in New York. Winter

20. Up From 22 Harman Center for the Arts Gala In 2010 this three-part gala included an award ceremony at the center for 700 guests, dinner and dancing at the National Building Museum for 500, and a young professionals after-party for 200. October 17

21. Up From 23 Phillips Collection Spring Gala Marking the collection’s 90th anniversary, this year’s gala was larger than usual, with 400 guests gathering for dinner among the Phillips’ galleries, followed by an after-party at the Anderson House. Spring

22. Washington Humane Society Bark Ball Local television personalities like Allison Seymour of Fox 5 and Scott Thuman of ABC 7—and their dogs—were among those attending D.C.’s only black-tie ball for canines. June

23. Muscular Dystrophy Association’s Heartsongs Gala Local athletes, including Washington Redskins players and cheerleaders, helped raise $300,000 at this eighth annual gala in 2010. November 5

24. Washington Performing Arts Society Gala Roberta Flack performed at this 42nd annual benefit, helping raise more than $1 million. Spring

25. Artrageous The Smithsonian American Art Museum’s signature fund-raiser took a hiatus in 2011 due to ongoing renovations at the museum’s Kogod Courtyard, but will return in 2012. Winter

26. Folger Shakespeare Library Gala A record 350 guests helped raise a record haul—$650,000—at this year’s benefit. April 18

27. Capital Area Food Bank’s Blue Jeans Ball Some 500 guests walked the blue carpet at this decidedly non-black-tie event chaired by Mayor Vincent Gray. Spring

28. American Red Cross Fire & Ice Ball Traditionally held in fall, this year’s ball honoring servicemen, servicewomen, and their families moves to spring. May 12

One to Watch: Woodruff Foundation Washington Stand Up for Heroes Gala After four years hosting galas in New York, the Woodruff Foundation added a D.C. event in 2011, bringing out 750 guests for headlining acts Jon Stewart and the band Train. June

One to Watch: Arena Stage Season Opening Celebration The debut of the company’s striking new facility made this gala a hot ticket in 2010. This year, it returned with a benefit honoring actress Leslie Uggams. September

Fashion Events
1. Washington Humane Society Fashion for Paws Runway Show This fifth annual event moved to a larger venue, the National Building Museum, and still sold out, drawing 1,700 pet and fashion lovers. April 14

2. Nordstrom’s Fall Designer Preview Local fashionistas flock to Nordstrom of Tysons Corner for this annual runway show. June

3. DC Fashion Week This biannual spring and fall show includes events everywhere from the Embassy of France to the Washington Post Convention Center. February and September 

4.  New to the List Fashion’s Night Out in Georgetown This national celebration of shopping started in New York in 2009, expanded to D.C. in 2010, and featured 90 mini events across Georgetown in 2011. September

Trade Shows & Conventions
1. Washington Auto Show The 2011 show doubled its time frame to 10 days, showcasing more than 700 new makes and models from 42 manufacturers. January 27-February 5

2. NBC Health and Fitness Expo This 18th annual event is expected to attract close to 200 exhibitors and 87,000 attendees. January 14-15

3. Washington Home and Garden Show The 51st annual floral fest saw a 10 percent rise in exhibitors—to 250—and a 5 percent rise in attendees—to 23,000. March 9-11

4. Association of the United States Army Annual Meeting & Exposition Some 20,000 attendees attended the Army’s annual professional development meeting. October 10-12

5. Adventures in Travel Expo Attractions on tap at the region’s largest travel show include an 18,000-gallon scuba pool, an aerial zip line, and a presentation from the Travel Channel’s Samantha Brown. March 17-18

6. Smithsonian Washington Craft Show This 30th annual show, which features 120 juried artists each year, has raised more than $9 million for the Smithsonian Institution. April 19-22

7. Washington Craft Show Nearly 200 contemporary and traditional craft artists exhibited at this 24th annual event. December 2-4

8. Washington Winter Show Formerly known as the Antiques Show, this collectors’ show at American University will have a White House theme in 2012. January 6-8

9. Washington National Cathedral Flower Mart The 73rd annual edition of this flower show is expected to attract close to 10,000 people. May 4-5

10. Washington Boat Show After a recession-induced hiatus in 2011, the boat show returns to the Washington Convention Center in 2012. February 10-12

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