[Note: This was originally written in 2011 (hence, the now verrry outdated Lost reference) and has been updated every year since. But because the tips always apply, I’m re-posting yet again, just with a few minor updates applicable to this year’s bloom.]
Taking the family to the National Mall to see some pretty flowers sounds easy enough. If only it actually was. The cherry blossom peak, predicted to occur earlier than usual this year as some trees have already bloomed, is one of the best times to visit DC. The city is at its most beautiful, and the National Cherry Blossom Festival provides loads of fun activities to help enjoy it all. But viewing the famous blooms can also be a bit challenging without being aware of a few things. Here are seven recommendations to consider if seeing the cherry blossoms is on your family’s spring agenda. The National Park Service predicted the bloom to peak March 22-25 this year, but other experts have projected both earlier and later dates. Nevertheless, it’s a good time to get a head start on your planning for the peak. Happy viewing!
1. Don’t drive if you value your sanity. Take the Metro, ride the bus, bike, walk, jet pack. Get here however you can, just leave the car at home. Traffic is beyond frustrating during the cherry blossom peak, and your chances of finding decent parking are about as good as hitting the Powerball with Hurley’s numbers (okay, slight exaggeration, but it is hard). The masses descend on Washington, DC, this time of year, and way too many do so in their vehicles. Besides, kids love riding the Metro — it’s like an urban version of Hogwarts Express. The Smithsonian stop on the Blue/Orange Line is mere minutes from all of the blossom action, but it’s also likely to be crowded. Consider riding to L’Enfant on Yellow/Green, Federal Center on Blue/Orange, or even a stop downtown or in Penn Quarter and taking a nice stroll to the Tidal Basin for the blossom scene. Another good option is the bus — the DC Circulator runs between Eastern Market and L’Enfant Plaza, a convenient route with even more to do on both ends. And the 32, 34, and 36 routes of Metrobus stop at the National Mall close to the Washington Monument.
*If you absolutely must drive and need parking you might find a spot at Hains Point, where there is free and metered parking, then walk to the Thomas Jefferson Memorial at the Tidal Basin. There is also garage parking at L’Enfant Plaza, which is a short stroll to the blossoms as well. Your best bet, though, may be to find a garage in the downtown or Penn Quarter area, then walk or Metro to the National Mall. You can ensure yourself a spot with Spot Hero, an online parking reservation service that lets you search for and reserve garage spaces in advance.
2. Visit on a weekday if you have the flexibility. Crowds are significantly smaller from Monday to Friday, so you can stroll around the Tidal Basin at a nice pace, and public transportation won’t be nearly as packed (though it likely still will be more crowded than usual). But if the kids are in school or daycare during the week, think about going later in the day. The National Mall and monuments look beautiful at sunset, and the blossoms make it even more sublime. In the same vein, if you can go super early, the morning light on the Mall makes for quite a picturesque setting, too.
3. Consider using a child carrier instead of a stroller for little ones. This is especially applicable if you take Metro, since elevator lines can be very long and slow-going. I learned my lesson back in my kids’ baby days on a weekday and ended up taking my daughter out of the stroller and carrying both on the escalator, which was probably as unsafe as it was difficult. Even if you don’t take Metro, a carrier is still a wise option. Navigating crowded walkways while pushing a pram takes focus, and you could end up spending more time concentrating on not rolling over others’ heels than enjoying the sights you came to see. It’s a bonus for wee ones, too — perched on your back, your babe will get a better view of the blossoms.
4. Check the National Cherry Blossom Festival schedule, so you can plan your visit accordingly. Some of the city’s most anticipated events are part of the annual celebration that runs March 20 – April 16. The Blossom Kite Festival, National Cherry Blossom Parade, and Sakura Matsuri are among them, and there are some non-official festival happenings as well. This round-up has details on the best ones for families. Most events take place nearby the blossoms or an easy Metro ride away. Peak bloom is expected to occur just as the festival is starting, so you can enjoy some of the blossom-inspired activities and the efflorescent trees at the same time.
5. Get a new view of the blossoms and enjoy a fun activity. Several companies offer boat rides along the river, many of them specifically for the season when the cherry trees are in bloom. Potomac Water Taxi, City Cruises, and Boomerang Boat Tours are some to check out. You can also opt for a paddling excursion and navigate the waters yourself. Or go on a bike tour to easily cover more ground and experience the blossoms from two wheels.
6. Seek out other spots to see the cherry blossoms if you don’t want to deal with crowds and chaos around the Tidal Basin and National Mall. Several places around the DC-Metro area are well known for their annual cherry blossom displays. When I worked in Bethesda many years ago, it was an annual tradition for my colleagues and me to take a drive through Kenwood, a lovely neighborhood between Little Falls Parkway and River Road with cherry tree-lined streets. The National Arboretum also has a nice collection of the trees and offers a beautiful environment in which to view them in bloom. Dumbarton Oaks Gardens is one of the prettiest places in DC and its annual cherry blossoms only add to it. Stanton Park on Capitol Hill glows with the pink and white trees this time of year. Congressional Cemetery has some nice, cherry tree-lined paths (that have already starting to bloom). And Brookside Gardens in Wheaton, MD, has a nice collection of the trees, too.
7. Have your camera ready to take advantage of some of the best photo ops DC offers. The peak colors plus the memorials are about as iconic as you can get when photographing Washington, DC. Get your kids to sit still — or even let them run and play for a fun candid — and you’ve got this year’s holiday card.