No sign signals the arrival of Spring in a more iconic fashion than the blossoming of the cherry trees in D.C.. Thousands of trees that line the Potomac and dot the cityscape burst forth in shades of blush and bashful. These pink ladies draw nearly 1.5 million visitors a year. If you’re planning to see them you could do with some insider tips for visiting the National Cherry Blossom Festival.
On a sunny day in late March of 1912 First Lady Helen Herron Taft and Viscountess Chinda, wife of the Japanese ambassador, planted two ornamental cherry trees along the north bank of the Potomac Tidal Basin. A gift to the city from Tokyo Mayor Yukio Ozaki those two trees would be joined by 2,998 of their arboreal relatives to comprise a stunning work of natural art that renews itself each spring.
The National Cherry Blossom Festival that has sprung up around these beauties is a celebration of not only the trees themselves but the cultural connection they symbolize. The nearly month-long event also features musical and theatrical performances, art exhibits, food, fun and even a kite festival! Plus those bloomin’ trees make for great photos.
When we moved here over a decade ago I couldn’t wait to go see the cherry blossoms. Naively as I was, I simply packed up the brood on a Saturday and headed for the trees. Traffic and parking, and crowds… oh, my! We ended up driving by the Tidal Basin for about an hour pointing at the trees in Griswoldian fashion, “Look kids, cherry trees, the Jefferson Memorial. Look kids, cherry trees, the Jefferson Memorial. Look kids… ”
Here are some of the insider tips for visiting the National Cherry Blossom Festival that I’ve picked up since.
insider tips: visiting the national cherry blossom festival
getting there – to drive or not to drive
Leave the car at home if you can. I’m pretty sure the ten parking spots that exist in all of D.C. shrink to two during the festival. Both MARC and Amtrak trains will get you there from Baltimore but can be a ride that takes up to an hour. We’ve actually found that driving to Bethesda, parking there, taking the metro in and hopping off at the Smithsonian, is a less expensive and time consuming option.
If you do have to drive in, try using a site like Parking Panda to secure your parking spot in advance. You’ll likely still have a walk if you’re planning to hit the Tidal Basin but you won’t have a parking-induced headache to schlep along with ya.
where to go – beyond the basin
There are some great things about strolling around the Tidal Basin where most of the iconic trees are; ice cream on the steps of the Jefferson Memorial, browsing the shopping tents and watching the stage shows at the official festival site. Not so great is the fact that thousands of other people are doing the same thing at the same time. Getting off the crowded path can help you get the most of your visit.
Hains Point is home to one-hundred of the original 1912 trees and it’s a great spot for a picnic. One of our favorite spots to chill under the cherries is up on the grounds of the Washington Monument.
Try getting a whole new point of view from a water taxi or one of the short cruises that float along the Potomac. You won’t get all the way down into the basin this way but you’ll still get gorgeous views and the kids will be stoked to be on a boat.
Hit the museums in the area, almost all of them will be hosting some sort of blossom-themed activities. The National Building Museum has an entire day dedicated to cherry blossoms and families. Crowded but lots of hands-on edutainment!
when to go – the early bird gets the best blossoms
Understandably weekends during the festival are the busiest. That said, the earlier you can get there the better. Two years ago I packed a picnic breakfast and we headed out just after 7:00 am. Ignoring my own advice, we drove in. The traffic was minimal, we found parking, and only had to share bagels with squirrels and a handful of people.
If you can make it in on a weekday, your best bet is going after 10:00am to avoid the workday rush. Big bonus to going on a weekday is a cornucopia of food trucks to choose from in the area and along the mall.
things to do – beyond the blossoms
Even a plethora of perfectly pink petals gets old after a bit – especially if you’re a kid. Lucky for us there are lots of things going on beyond the blossoms. Go fly a kite! Hundreds of kites from the homemade one we brought to ornate works of flying art soar into the sky surrounding the Washington Monument during the kite festival.
Every good festival must have a parade, this one is no exception. The 2016 parade includes performances by the cast of Jersey Boys, marching bands and for you kids of the 80s, Tiffany. This year’s festival also includes: fireworks displays, a Japanese street festival and more.
When the kids get bored, a visit to the Smithsonian and/or the carousel, may be in order. Both are just under a mile to walk from the Tidal Basin. If you aren’t up for hoofing it, you could grab tickets for the hop-on-hop off bus tours in the area. This is a great option if you have very little littles in tow.
the details – dates and more
Estimated Peak Bloom Dates | NOW – March 31st
National Cherry Blossom Festival | March 20th-April 17th various places in DC | website
Family Day | March 26th | 9:00am – 5:00pm at the National Building Museum | FREE | website
Kite Festival | April 2nd | 10:00am – 4:30pm | FREE | website
Fireworks Festival | April 9th | 1:00pm – 9:00pm | FREE | website
Cherry Blossom Parade | April 16th | 10:00am – 12:00pm | grandstand tickets start at $20 | website
Water Taxi/Cruise | website
Old Town Trolley Hop-on Hop-off Bus | website
Photo courtesy of Nicole Barr.