Photo: f11photo/Shutterstock

7 Mistakes to Avoid During DC’s Cherry Blossom Festival

Washington, D. C. Festivals
by Kelly Magyarics Mar 19, 2024

When the long-awaited blooming of the cherry blossom trees signals the arrival of spring, Washington, DC, becomes awash in tones of dreamy pink, white, and fuchsia. Each year, 4,000 trees first planted in 1912 as a gift from Japan to the people of the US come alive, bursting into tens of thousands of spectacular petals that attract a staggering one million visitors.

And each year, the nation’s capital hosts the National Cherry Blossom Festival, a must-do if you’re visiting the city in the spring. However, without some smart planning, trying to see the colorful trees can turn into a nightmare of crowds, long walks, and bad weather. With no preparation, attending the DC cherry blossom festival can go from fun to full hassle as quickly as one of the withering blooms.

Don’t let the flowers turn you sour — avoid these common mistakes visitors make when attending the festival.

About the DC Cherry Blossom Festival

dc cherry blossom festival parade

The Cherry Blossom Parade is one of many major events held during the spring festival. Photo: Vsevolod33/Shutterstock

The National Cherry Blossom Festival is a four-week celebration from roughly late March to mid-April, with the exact dates depending on when the cherry blossoms peak. The peak bloom is typically around the first week of April, but it can vary depending on the weather. Festival events include the massive cherry blossom parade, a kite festival, the Sakura Matsuri Japanese street fair, and a fireworks display. There are a lot of family and kid-friendly events, too, as DC is generally a pretty kid-friendly city.

Private businesses, restaurants, and stores often do their own events as part of the festival as well, from pop-up Japanese restaurant menus to themed fashion shows to special gallery displays and limited-edition teas and coffees at local coffee shops.

The 2024 National Cherry Blossom Festival is scheduled for March 20-April 14, though it’s usually possible to see the blooms for a week or so on either side of that window.

Mistake one: not checking the forecast

dc cherry blossoms covered in snow

Snow during the cherry blossom festival is unlikely, but possible. Photo: Yaya Ernst/Shutterstock

The cherry blossoms are already fleeting and fickle enough without adding uncontrollable variables from Mother Nature. Weather events can change everything on a dime; a late frost can kill the buds before they even bloom, while a windy day or heavy rainstorm can quickly pull off petals, leaving behind nothing but bare branches and disappointed sightseers.

Check the Capital Weather Gang, the meteorology team of The Washington Post, and the official Cherry Blossom Watch, for the latest information about the state of the blooms and peak times. Speaking of the latter, though: don’t get too caught up in arriving exactly at “peak bloom time”. Barring any crazy weather, it’s perfectly fine to visit a few days before or after, as the blooms will still look dramatic. Most of the trees around the tidal basin are Yoshino cherry trees (Prunus × yedoensis), with white or pale pink blooms, and tend to bloom first. Those are usually followed a few weeks later by the Kwanzan trees (Prunus kanzan), recognizable by their bright pink, fluffy, and crepe paper-esque flowers.

Mistake two: planning on find street parking

washington dc street parking

Street parking is difficult in DC, even durning non-busy periods. Photo: Lissandra Melo/Shutterstock

Even if you visit on a weekday, you most likely won’t be lucky enough to snag a parking spot on the street – and you may also be contending with rush-hour traffic, which is the second-worst in the country).

If you insist on driving, prepare for gridlock during the busiest times (especially 6 AM-9 AM, and 3 PM-6 PM), and don’t come without reserving a parking spot in advance through a site like SpotHero. Of course, if you’re staying overnight, your hotel might offer nightly parking (for a fee). Another option for day trippers, especially those staying in the suburbs, is to park at a Metro station with a large parking lot and take the Metro; Innovation Station and Wiehle-Reston East in Virginia and Glenmont and Shady Grove in Maryland all have ample capacity.

Mistake three: not understanding Metro

dc cherry blossom festival crowds

DC gets very crowded during the festival, especially on weekends. Photo: Nicole Glass Photography/Shutterstock

Speaking of the Metro, there are a few ways to hack it to prevent headaches. Unlike the New York City Subway, the Metro requires you to swipe payment as you enter and exit at turnstile to figure out your fare, since fees are based on distance and time of day. Luckily, though, you can add a SmartTrip pass to Google Wallet or Apple Pay on your phone, so gone are the days of tourists standing at ticket machines scratching their heads, struggling with purchases and adding funds to their cards.

The most important tip for using the Metro during the DC Cherry Blossom Festival is to avoid the stations all the other festival-goers use. That means avoid the Smithsonian stop on the Orange/Blue/Silver lines like the plague. The Metro platform gets so packed that riders exiting the train can’t even make it to the escalator to exit the station before the next train arrives and dumps thousands more tourists. Leaving can be even worse, as Metro officials will sometimes close the escalators to control how many riders can enter the station at a time.

A much better alternative is to use the L’Enfant Plaza station, about a 10-minute walk from the Smithsonian Station. It’s especially critical to use it when you’re leaving to beat the throngs of people getting on at Smithsonian — and if you’re lucky, you may even find a seat.

Mistake four: thinking you can only see the blooms on foot

pedal boat rentals on the tidal basin dc

Photo: Songquan Deng/Shutterstock

While a stroll around the Tidal Basin is the most popular way to attend the festival, there are alternatives. Operators including Unlimited Biking, Fat Tire Tours, and Pedego offer guided bike tours; the latter is on electric bikes and starts and ends in charming Old Town Alexandria. You can also take a small group tour on a Segway with Yonder Tours.

Keep in mind, though, that you’ll be riding through incredibly crowded areas, so if the thought of navigating on two wheels while dodging people, strollers, and dogs makes you nervous, this might not be the best idea.

You can also view the pink trees from the water during a paddleboat ride or a 45-minute cherry blossom cruise, which travels the Potomac River to Georgetown. You can explore for as long as you’d like, then grab a boat later in the day when it’s time to leave (there’s no Metro station in Georgetown). Or for something more active, you can rent a pedal boat on the Tidal Basin. Rentals usually open for the season before or in the first days of the festival.

Mistake five: following the masses

dc cherry blossom festival - national arboretum

Cherry blossoms at DC’s National Arboretum. Photo: misha617/Shuttrstock

The DC Cherry Blossom Festival is centered around the Tidal Basin. It has a flat, two-mile loop trail with around 4,000 cherry trees, from which you can also spot landmarks like the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial (one of the city’s most underrated), the Jefferson Memorial, and the Japanese Pagoda Lantern.

But it’s not the only place in DC to see cherry blossoms. The Hains Point Loop Trail in East Potomac Park can also get pretty busy, but has a four-mile loop trail with 500 late-blooming Kwanzan cherry trees, as well as Yoshinos. And the National Arboretum’s three-mile loop trail is accessible via car, bike or on foot, and has a variety of cherry tree species that stay in bloom longer than those around the basin. Helpful, there’s a self-guided tour available on the park app.

The gardens on the grounds of the Dumbarton Oaks Museum also have a section called “Cherry Hill” that’s seasonally pink, and the walled-in gardens at the Washington National Cathedral are serene and full of colorful trees each April.

Mistake six: underestimating the work it takes to get good photos

dc cherry blossom festival - good golden hour pic

Photo: Sean Pavone/Shutterstock

If you’re looking to take photos at the DC Cherry Blossom Festival for social media (or an actual frame), remember some basic photography tips. Come late in the day to catch the coveted “golden hour” early sunset lighting, rather than mid-day – bright sun will have your subjects squinting and the branches will leave weird shadows on their faces.

And though you might be tempted to wear a floral pattern to match the blossoms — don’t. Avoid bright or dark colors or clashing prints, sticking instead to neutral beiges, whites, or soft pastel lavenders and blues that will complement the flowers. Even if you detest selfie sticks or tripods, this will be the time to pull one out so you can angle your pictures to avoid capturing everyone else around you who is doing the same thing.

Mistake seven: spending all your time at the Tidal Basin


The Tidal Basin is the epicenter of the festivities, but you shouldn’t spend all your time there. Photo: Cvandyke/Shutterstock

Cherry-blossom season is serious business in DC, and chefs and bartenders get into the spirit with creatively concocted dishes and cocktails. Not only do the three locations of Balkan restaurant Ambar always offer libations made with cherry-blossom rakia (a Balkan brandy), but all three also adorn their ceilings and trellises with pink-and-white blooms.

Blue Duck Tavern at the Park Hyatt Hotel traditionally creates an annual cocktail for the festival, best enjoyed near the hotel’s blown-glass cherry blossom art in the lobby. And celebrity chef José Andrés’ hotspot Jaleo always has cherry-tinged takes on Spanish tapas, like cherry gazpacho with goat cheese pillows, and confit pork belly with a cherry demi-glace.

Where to stay in Washington, DC


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DC is divided into four quadrants with the US Capitol at the center, and most visitors stay in the biggest one, Northwest. That’s where you’ll find most of the city’s monuments (including those on the National Mall), most of the Smithsonian museums, and popular neighborhoods like Adams Morgan, Georgetown, and Woodley Park. However, the addition of the National Stadium in DC’s Southeast has made the Navy Yard area more popular, and it’s easy to stay in Maryland or northern Virginia and just take Metro into the city, too.

If you want to stay in DC, it can be fun to stay at a historical hotel like The Watergate or the Jefferson, and there are also lots of chic Airbnbs spread around the city’s many walkable neighborhoods.

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