[Note: This was originally written in 2011 (hence, the now very outdated Lost reference) and has been updated every year since.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 more minor updates.]
Taking the family to the National Mall to see some pretty flowers sounds easy enough. If only it actually was. The cherry blossom peak, now predicted to occur March 18-23 this year, 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.
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 guaranteed 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 blossoms. *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 or take a shuttle ($1/person) to the Tidal Basin. There is also a parking garage at L’Enfant Plaza. Your best bet, though, might be to find a garage in the downtown or Penn Quarter area, then walk or Metro to the National Mall.
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 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 several years ago 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, the Blossom Kite Festival, Southwest Waterfront Fireworks, National Cherry Blossom Parade, and Sakura Matsuri among them. Most events take place close by the blossoms or an easy Metro ride away. See this post for dates and details on the best events for families.
5. Get a new view of the blossoms and enjoy a fun activity from the comfort of a cruise on the Potomac. Several companies offer boat rides along the river, many of them specifically for the season when the cherry trees are in bloom. Capitol River Cruises, Potomac Riverboat Company, and Odyssey Cruises are a few to check out. Though before you go straight to the websites, look for a deal on Goldstar, Groupon, LivingSocial, or Certifikid. We’ve gotten great offers that way. You can also opt for a paddle boat excursion on the Tidal Basin and navigate the waters yourself.
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 I 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, peaceful environment in which to view them in bloom. For even more suggestions for cherry blossoms minus the crowds, check out this Washington Post feature from a couple of years ago.
7. Have your camera ready to take advantage of some of the best photo ops DC offers. The peak colors plus the monuments are about as iconic as you can get when photographing Washington. 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.