Paddle boaters fill the Tidal Basin during cherry blossom season. (Courtesy Destination DC)
If you’ve never visited the nation’s capital in the spring, you’re in for a treat. This season is synonymous with the National Cherry Blossom Festival, a nearly century-old tradition that celebrates the blooming of cherry trees all over town, with most blossoms concentrated around the Tidal Basin. It’s a time that’s steeped in history and rich in fanfare with a number of events throughout D.C.
No matter how many stunning postcards or social media selfies you’ve ogled, nothing can prepare you for actually experiencing the capital in its springtime prime. During this hopeful season, pink petals burst onto the scene with gusto, before flitting from branches like confetti—departing almost as quickly as they arrived.
In early March, NPS horticulturists predict the blossoms’ “peak” bloom date, when about 70 percent of flowers are open. Their prediction is based on decades of experience plus a mix of historical data, weather observations and forecasts. Blooms have occurred as early as March 15 and as late as April 18, according to the National Park Service.
For 2017, the NPS predicts the trees will be at their peak March 19-22. To accommodate, the 2017 festival now starts on March 15—five days earlier than previously planned—and continues as scheduled through April 16. Although the blossoms only remain in full bloom for a few days, the festival features four weekends of events plus daily programming to celebrate the arts, nature and community spirit.
So how do you enjoy the exquisite trees among throngs of fellow admirers? We’ve gathered some logistical info and insider’s secrets to ensure a “blooming” good time.
In 1912, Tokyo Mayor Yukio Ozaki presented more than 3,000 cherry trees to Washington, D.C., inspiring the National Cherry Blossom Festival. From the original three-day event, the festival has expanded into a weeks-long extravaganza, drawing more than 1.5 million people.
Fest goers find helpful tools at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center and at Visit Fairfax in Tysons Corner, Virginia. Refreshments and festival merchandise can also be found at the Tidal Basin Welcome Center, located in the Paddle Boat parking lot. For the most up-to-date details, visit the festival’s website.
DC Visitor Information Center, Walter E. Washington Convention Center, 801 Mt. Vernon Place NW, 202.789.7000, Metro: Mt. Vernon Sq.
Visit Fairfax Information Center, Tysons Corner Center (Nordstrom, second level), 1961 Chain Bridge Road, McLean, VA 22102, 703.752.9500
Tidal Basin Welcome Center, 1501 Maine Ave. SW (paddle boat parking lot)
The northeast side of the Tidal Basin near the paddle boats and Jefferson Memorial often gets especially clogged. So after snapping that iconic shot from the steps of the Jefferson, consider moving toward the FDR Memorial and beyond. Although the Tidal Basin is a stunning and concentrated hub of majestic trees, remember that farther-flung spots around the city are idyllic for gazing, too. For example, picnic under the cherry branches of the National Arboretum, Hains Point and West Potomac Park.
Parking during the festival is nearly impossible, especially during peak bloom days. We recommend arriving on foot, by bike or via public transportation.
In any case, bring along a large dose of patience because navigating paths near and around the Tidal Basin will be incredibly slow. Although arriving early or late—at sunrise or twilight—can help, prepare for crowds at most any time of day.
Wear comfortable shoes, as a full day of blossom hunting can result in an impressively high number of steps (Fitbit wearers, rejoice!). The Tidal Basin measures 1.8 miles in circumference, the Hains Point loop is approximately four miles, and the distance between the Lincoln Memorial and U.S. Capitol Building is two miles.
Parking is available in three lots along Ohio Drive SW, although the volume of traffic far exceeds the number of slots. Those with good parking karma consider a search along Ohio Drive SW between the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials. Limited parking for disabled visitors exists near the memorials.
Online reservation services like Parking Panda and Parkmobile can help by tracking space availability (by date) at garages located near festival events. Ride sharing services like Lyft and Uber can also help you get around.
The closest Metro station to the Tidal Basin (about half a mile) is Smithsonian (Orange/Blue lines), which gets particularly packed. If you’re up for a bit of a walk, we recommend getting off instead at L’Enfant Plaza, Federal Triangle or Foggy Bottom. Use the WMATA Trip Planner to map your route and calculate fares.
By Bike or Shuttle
Capital Bikeshare provides several bike stations at convenient locations, including Ohio Drive and the Jefferson Memorial. Refer to the company’s website to find rental locations and to see how many bikes are available at any given time. DC Circulator will be operating shuttles around Hains Point for $1 per person/per ride.
Consider leaving the navigating up to the experts by hopping on tours that allow you to experience the blossoms by land or by water. Here are a few of our favorites.
Big Bus: Open-top, hop-on-and-off tours with informative and entertaining commentary (in eight languages) on selected loops
Bike and Roll DC: Scenic cycling and Segway tours from the National Mall and Alexandria, Virginia
Carpe DC Food Tours: Telling the stories of iconic neighborhoods through their culinary scenes
City Sights: Hop-on, hop-off tours on double-decker buses plus excursions on bikes and boats, too
DC Cruises: Leaving from Georgetown these one-hour tours pass by the blossoms, memorials and monuments with cash bars serving cherry margaritas.
Entertainment Cruises: Brunch, lunch or dinner (with fireworks during the SW Waterfront Fireworks Festival) aboard the Odyssey or the Spirit of Washington. On charter yachts, 45-minute Elite Cherry Blossom Sightseeing Cruises around Hains Point.
National Pedicabs: From the Smithsonian Metro stop, customized, environment-friendly tours narrated in seven languages
Potomac Riverboat Company: Water taxi to the National Mall with easy access to the Tidal Basin, cherry trees, monuments and festival activities, plus sightseeing cruises
Washington Photo Safari: Sunrise and daytime classes; nighttime outings for building illuminations and fireworks