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Think of flowering cherry trees, and you might think of Japan. The delicate, fleeting white-pink blossoms (“sakura” in Japanese) represent all at once hope and renewal alongside impermanence and death.
Sakura have become an enduring symbol of Japan, but can be found all around the world now – including in Washington, DC.
Cherry trees were first planted near DC experimentally in 1906 by U.S. Department of Agriculture official Dr. David Fairchild on his private property in Chevy Chase, Maryland. The trees flourished, and plans were made to plant more of the flowering trees around the capital.
In 1912, after one failed attempt at sending 2000 cherry trees to the US, the City of Tokyo gifted 3,020 cherry trees to the United States. The trees – mostly of the Somei-Yoshino variety – were planted around Washington, DC in the following years. The National Cherry Blossom Festival eventually grew from this gift. (Read more about the history here.)
What is the National Cherry Blossom Festival?
Celebrating the delicate and fleeting blooms of cherry trees is not something unique to Washington, DC. The Japanese love to celebrate the cherry blossoms, too, traveling and hosting “flower watching” parties during peak bloom in Japan each year.
The National Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington, DC began in 1935, and has evolved into a 4-week celebration each spring. The festival features events like a parade, a kite festival, special art exhibits, and more.
In 2023, the National Cherry Blossom Festival runs from March 20-April 16.
When do cherry blossoms bloom in DC?
The Cherry Blossom Festival runs for almost 4 weeks in DC – but the cherry blossoms themselves typically only last for 1-2 weeks.
*When* exactly the cherry trees will display their blooms depends on several factors, including the weather during both winter and spring.
Peak bloom in DC can happen any time between mid-March and late April, but usually falls within the 4 weeks of the Cherry Blossom Festival. (And “peak bloom” here is defined as when 70% of the blossoms on the Yoshino cherry trees around the Tidal Basin are open.)
The National Park Service tracks the progress of the cherry blossoms each winter/spring, and makes predictions about when peak bloom will happen. The predictions get more and more precise the closer to peak bloom that we get, and you can generally trust their forecast a couple weeks out (though of course nothing in nature is guaranteed!).
Want to see what the blooms look like right now? Check out the DC BloomCam.
In 2022, peak bloom happened around March 22nd. My husband Elliot and I live within driving distance of DC, and planned a last-minute trip to coincide with peak bloom once the NPS was fairly certain on the dates.
If you need to plan further ahead (which most people do!), you can usually bank on being able to see at least some cherry blossoms the last week of March and sometimes into the first week of April.
Not every single cherry tree in Washington, DC will bloom at the exact same time, but the famous ones around the Tidal Basin all tend to peak within a couple days of each other.
Once the cherry trees start blooming, the delicate flowers can last anywhere from 1-3 weeks (though 1-2 weeks is most common). The longer the trees are in bloom, the more fragile the blossoms become.
Wind, rain, frost, and hot weather can all shorten the life of the blossoms, so the closer to peak you can visit, the better! (In 2022, for example, strong winds and rain stripped most of the trees of their blooms in less than a week after peak.)
Things to do in DC during cherry blossom season
Of course seeing thousands of cherry trees in bloom is the top thing you’ll want to do in DC during cherry blossom season, but there are lots of other fun things to do, too!
1. See cherry blossoms around Washington, DC
The top places to see lots and lots of cherry blossoms in DC include:
a. Cherry blossoms at the Tidal Basin
The thousands of cherry trees planted around the Tidal Basin are the most famous; this is where you see most of the photos from, with the fluffy pinkish-white Yoshino cherry blooms framing things like the Washington Monument and Jefferson Memorial.
It IS truly a sight to behold, with blooming trees in all directions.
But the Tidal Basin is also the most popular spot for blossom-spotting in Washington, DC. So while the photos you see from here may look dreamy and romantic when facing the water, know that there are hundreds if not thousands of people milling about behind that view. (But thankfully it’s really easy to get photos here without people immediately in them.)
The trail around the entire Tidal Basin is about 2 miles, so walking the whole thing is a slight commitment. BUT, I do think it’s worth it, as you are bound to find areas that are less crowded than the spots closest to the National Mall.
My favorite areas to take cherry blossom photos around the Tidal Basin include:
- Near the Japanese Lantern – This is a great spot for shots that include the cherry blossoms and the Washington Monument, or the blooms and the Jefferson Memorial across the basin.
- Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial – It’s usually busy here, but still a nice spot.
- Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial – Take the trail through this memorial park that’s not right on the edge of the basin, and you’ll find lots of cherry trees and likely fewer people.
- Near the Japanese Pagoda – I liked the view of the Jefferson Memorial here through some cherry tree branches.
Another must-do at the Tidal Basin (if the weather allows) is renting a pedal boat to see all the blooms from the water. Boats can be rented by the hour from the boat house just off Maine Ave on the east side of the Tidal Basin.
The boat house doesn’t open for the season until March, but keep checking Boating in DC for when they open up reservations.
b. Cherry blossoms around the Washington Monument
There are also cherry trees planted around the Washington Monument (especially on the southern and eastern sides), so if you’re at the Tidal Basin it’s an easy walk over to see these.
c. Cherry blossoms at East Potomac Park
My second-favorite spot to see lots of cherry trees in DC is at East Potomac Park, just on the other side of I-395 from the Tidal Basin. The park is anchored by a golf course, but the scenic 3-mile drive around the park is lined with thousands of cherry trees of different varieties.
The Yoshino cherry trees at East Potomac Park bloom at the same time as the ones around the Tidal Basin, but this area is usually not as crowded. You can park at Hains Point, or anywhere along the one-way road to enjoy them.
As a bonus, East Potomac Park also has a lot of Kwanzan cherry trees, too, which bloom with darker pink blossoms usually 2 weeks after the Yoshinos peak. So if you miss the “main” bloom, you still have a chance to see these!
Other places to see cherry blossoms in DC
The vast majority of people will stick to the Tidal Basin and maybe wander into East Potomac Park since those places are free to visit and have a large concentration of cherry trees. If you want to visit a quieter spot (with fewer trees), though, you can also check out:
- National Arboretum – They have a variety of cherry trees here, as well as magnolias that usually bloom around the same time. The Yoshino trees at the Arboretum bloom slightly earlier than the ones at the Tidal Basin. The Arboretum is huge, and usually not very crowded. (Plus, visiting and parking are both free!)
- Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception – This beautiful church has about 150+ cherry trees planted outside.
- Dumbarton Oaks – This museum in Georgetown has a lovely garden with a section called Cherry Hill with beautiful cherry trees. (They also have several other types of flowering trees to enjoy.) The gardens are open 2-6:00 p.m. Tuesday–Sunday, and beginning on March 15 they do charge an admission fee, which helps with cherry blossom crowds.
- Local cemeteries – If you enjoy visiting cemeteries, both the Congressional Cemetery in DC and the Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown have lanes/walkways lines with cherry trees.
There are also lots of smaller parks and neighborhoods in and surrounding DC where you’re likely to see cherry blossoms; they really are just about everywhere!
In nearby Maryland, Kenmore in Bethesda is the most popular neighborhood to go blossom-peeping – but know that you’re NOT allowed to park on the street here, so either plan to view the trees from your car, or find parking outside the neighborhood if you want to go for a stroll.
2. Enjoy National Cherry Blossom Festival events
The National Cherry Blossom Festival runs for nearly four weeks (March 20-April 16 in 2023), so chances are whenever you’re in DC, there will be something unique going on.
A few stand-out events to watch out for include:
- Festival Opening Ceremony – March 25, 2023, 5 p.m. – This opening event celebrates the longstanding friendship between Japan and the United States. It will feature special performances from acclaimed artists with ties to both countries. Tickets are $5 and can be claimed starting in late February.
- Blossom Kite Festival – March 25, 2023, 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m. – A family-favorite event, the Kite Festival takes place on the Washington Monument grounds and surrounding Mall. Come fly a kite among the cherry blossom trees! (Or just stop by to watch; it’s quite the sight!)
- Petalpalooza – April 8, 2023, 1-9 p.m. – This free all-day event at Capitol Riverfront along the banks of the Anacostia River features live music on multiple outdoor stages, interactive art installations, family-friendly activities, and more. It all culminates in the Official National Cherry Blossom Festival Fireworks Show set to music starting at 8:30 p.m.
- National Cherry Blossom Festival Parade – April 15, 2023, 10 a.m. – Enjoy elaborate floats, giant parade balloons, marching bands, celebrity performers, and more in this parade that celebrates spring in Washington, DC. Grandstand seats cost $25-40, but the section of parade route along Constitution Ave between 9th and 15th streets is free to access (just get there early).
There are also things to do anytime throughout the festival. For example, keep an eye out for houses that will decorate “Petal Porches” throughout DC. (You can find a map of all participating houses here; just select Petal Porches in the checklist.)
3. Go to a cherry blossom afternoon tea
I’m a big fan of themed afternoon teas, so I was delighted to learn that there are a few you can enjoy in DC during cherry blossom season!
Elliot and I opted for the one at the (former) Mandarin Oriental, which usually runs for several weeks and is absolutely gorgeous (I mean, the have dedicated cherry blossom tableware and everything!)*.
DC hotels that usually offer fancy cherry blossom afternoon teas include:
- St. Regis DC
- The Willard (InterContinental)
- Fairmont Washington DC
(Note that menus/reservations aren’t usually available until closer to cherry blossom season.)
The majority of these afternoon teas are taking place inside luxury 5-star hotels, so you can expect the price to reflect that; you’ll find prices ranging from $75-$125 per person for these specialty teas. But it’s a unique way to celebrate the season inside a hotel you might not otherwise stay at!
*The Mandarin Oriental was bought out and rebranded as the Salamander DC in late 2022. Hopefully they’ll still host their cherry blossom afternoon tea in the spring!
4. Have cherry blossom treats and drinks
Cherry blossom season is truly a *season* in Washington, DC, so you can expect local restaurants, cocktail bars, bakeries, and everything in between to come out with themed treats, drinks, and menus in celebration.
For example, in 2022 Elliot and I enjoyed cherry blossom-themed cocktails at the VUE rooftop bar inside Hotel Washington, along with cherry blossom donuts from Astro Doughnuts.
DC cherry blossom viewing tips
If you’re planning to visit Washington, DC during cherry blossom season (and especially during peak bloom), then there are some things you need to know in order to enjoy the experience to the fullest:
- Accept that it WILL be busy. There’s no way around it; “peak” cherry blossom blooms are fleeting, and everyone wants to see them at the same time. It WILL be very crowded around the Tidal Basin and major monuments. Museums will be packed. Hotels may sell out. You will need restaurant reservations for meals. Just accept it, and plan accordingly.
- Visit during the week. I know it’s not always possible because of work schedules and when the cherry blossoms decide to bloom, but generally speaking the busiest days during the festival are the weekend(s) during peak bloom. If you can visit on weekdays, things will be slightly less crazy.
- Wake up early. It won’t be “quiet” by any means, but if you can get up for sunrise one morning, the Tidal Basin and other prime viewing locations will be slightly less crowded.
- Avoid driving if possible. Parking in DC is already at a premium, so if you can avoid driving into the city, do it! We drove into DC, but then left our car parked at our hotel all weekend (with the exception of driving over to East Potomac Park). Use other modes of transport when possible, like the Metro, DC Circulator buses, bike share, or just simply walking.
- Wear good walking shoes. Seriously. The trail around the Tidal Basin alone is more than 2 miles long, so expect to really get your steps in along with your cherry blossom peeping.
- Prepare for any weather. Check the weather a few days before your trip, but even then pack a rain coat or umbrella and layers. Late March/early April weather can vary in DC, but you can generally expect mild temperatures (in the 50s-60s F is normal) during the day. It was cloudy and windy almost the whole time we visited in 2022, but luckily didn’t rain much.
Where to stay in Washington, DC for cherry blossoms
As I mentioned above, Elliot and I planned our cherry blossom getaway at the last minute – but thankfully we still had some hotel options available to us.
I knew I wanted to stay within walking distance to the Tidal Basin and Washington Monument (the main sites I knew I wanted to visit around sunrise), and there are really only a few options.
The closest hotels to the Tidal Basin include:
- Salamander Washington DC (formerly the Mandarin Oriental)
- InterContinental Washington D.C. – The Wharf
- Hilton National Mall The Wharf
We opted to stay a little further away, closer to the White House (but still within walking distance to everything). Options around Pershing Park include Hotel Washington, InterContinental the Willard, and the JW Marriott Washington DC.
We ended up booking Hotel Washington because it was the cheapest of those three hotels, PLUS it’s the same venue as the VUE rooftop bar. As a surprise bonus, our room even had a cherry tree painted on the wall! (Read reviews here | Book a room here)
Find more DC cherry blossom hotels here.