It's just about time for more than 1.5 million visitors to swarm Washington, D.C. What's the occasion? It's the National Cherry Blossom Festival, which runs from March 17 to April 15. Though the 3,000-plus cherry blossom trees are the star of the festival, there are dozens of events around the district that celebrate and honor Japanese culture and the everlasting friendship between the U.S. and Japan. After all, it was Tokyo Mayor Yukio Ozaki who first gifted the trees to the city back in 1912. To help you navigate the festival and the city, U.S. News spoke with the festival's president, Diana Mayhew. She offered tips on can't-miss events, top-notch photo spots and the best times to visit the iconic cherry blossom trees.
Keep Your Eye on the Calendar
Many visitors are concerned with peak bloom, or the point at which 70 percent of the blossoms of the Yoshino cherry trees are open. According to the National Park Service, peak bloom for 2018 is expected to take place from April 8 to 12. But if you've planned your visit outside those dates, don't fret. "The blossoms are beautiful when they first start coming out to the very end," Mayhew says, reminding visitors that the blooming period, when 20 percent of the blossoms are open before the petals and leaves fall, can span 14 days depending on weather conditions. To keep an eye on the blossoms, Mayhew suggests using the Bloom Watch tool on the festival's website for the most up-to-date information about where the trees are in the blooming cycle. "You can still enjoy the days before and after peak bloom; there's so much to take advantage of," Mayhew says.
It's no secret that the trees along the Tidal Basin in West Potomac Park are crowd magnets. If you're hoping to avoid the masses, you'll need to time your visit accordingly. "Avoiding rush hour on the metro can make for a more pleasant experience overall," Mayhew says, advising travelers arrive at the Tidal Basin before dawn if they are intent on beating the rush. Early risers can also take advantage of optimal photo conditions. "The photographs taken at dawn and dusk are so spectacular," Mayhew says.
Use Public Transportation
The district's extensive public transportation system makes it easy and affordable to reach the Tidal Basin without a car. The DC Circulator offers six routes throughout the city, including one that travels the perimeter of the National Mall, with stops at the Washington Monument and the Thomas Jefferson Memorial. Plus, rides cost just $1. Meanwhile, the Metro's Blue, Orange and Silver lines also provide easy access to the National Mall. If you exit at the Smithsonian Metro stop, it's a quick 10- to 15-minute walk to the Tidal Basin Welcome Area at 1501 Maine Ave. SW, which is staffed by festival volunteers and National Park Service rangers.
You can also take in the views from the water. DC Water Taxi offers looped, narrated cruises between Georgetown and the Tidal Basin, while the free Wharf Jitney allows visitors to access Hains Point, located at the southern tip of East Potomac Park. Once on the island, travelers can bike or walk the 4-mile Hains Point Loop Trail, which is home to a variety of cherry blossom species, according to the National Park Service. You'll find Hains Point much quieter than the Tidal Basin (perfect for crowd-free photo ops).
If you must drive, Mayhew suggests you use a parking app, such as SpotHero, to help secure a spot. With the app, drivers can reserve and pay for parking spots in advance, which Mayhew says alleviates the amount of circulating vehicles around the National Mall.
Explore Beyond the Tidal Basin
After you've had your fill of the Tidal Basin, take advantage of events around the district. "We're hoping to take the celebration and energy around the Tidal Basin and spread that throughout the city," Mayhew says, referencing the various events throughout the festival. What's more, many of the events and activities are free. Among the signature events are the Blossom Kite Festival, Petalpalooza (a daylong music and arts festival and evening fireworks show) and the National Cherry Blossom Festival Parade. Plus, this year the festival partnered with iHeartRadio for the inaugural Blossom Bash concert on April 6 at The Anthem at The Wharf.
As you traverse the city, consider visiting some under-the-radar spots if you want to snap the perfect picture of the blooms without fighting the crowds. The U.S. National Arboretum, which sits less than 10 miles northeast of the Tidal Basin, is home to 40 different types of cherry blossom trees. Meanwhile, the aptly named Cherry Hill at the Dumbarton Oaks estate in Georgetown boasts a variety of species. If you want to stick closer to the National Mall, Lower Senate Park and the Japanese American Memorial to Patriotism During World War II are your best bet.
Take Advantage of Themed Packages and Events
Cherry blossom season in the district isn't isolated to the National Mall. All over the city, travelers can take advantage of promotional deals and packages, especially at some of the area's best hotels. For instance, the Rosewood Washington, D.C. offers a package that includes a customized picture frame, a catered bicycle tour and cherry blossom-inspired welcome cocktails, including the Gyoiko, named for the cherry trees found on the White House grounds, according to Pascal Forotti, the hotel's managing director. Meanwhile, The Willard InterContinental hosts an afternoon tea, among other events, that serves a selection of teas and Japanese-inspired savories and pastries, such as teriyaki-cured salmon tea sandwiches and matcha green tea scones. Even if visitors aren't taking advantage of The Willard's cherry blossom package, they may want to stop by to see the hotel's lobby, which is adorned with cherry blossom "trees" made out of 1,200 pounds of cherry blossom branches.
Foodies should plan to dine at the restaurants participating in the annual Cherry Picks program, which encourages area dining establishments to incorporate cherry blossom-themed food and drinks into their spring menus. Participating eateries include Jaleo, which is offering a cherry blossom wine dinner that includes a dessert of chilled cherry soup, and Farmers Fishers Bakers, where diners can enjoy specials, such as a smoked blossom sushi tasting plate and a cocktail made with sour cherries, vanilla, cinnamon and tequila blanco. For a quick bite, head to District Doughnut for its Cherry Blossom – a yeast doughnut with cherry pie filling, cream cheese glaze and pie crust crumble.
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