March 20, also known as the spring equinox, marks the day when the sun crosses the equator and heads north. For those of us living in the Northern Hemisphere, that means lots to look forward to: longer hours of serotonin-boosting sunshine, warmer temperatures, and nature budding back to life.
Few cities undergo this seasonal transformation more beautifully and dramatically than Washington, D.C., with its 3,000-plus cherry blossom trees. Gifted to the nation’s capital by Tokyo’s mayor, Yukio Ozaki, back in 1912, they remain a visually striking symbol of renewal, hope, and friendship.
The natural phenomenon is so cherished that there’s an annual National Cherry Blossom Festival (this year’s event is being held in person from March 20 through April 17) that reportedly draws more than 1.5 million people. As for the best time to see the blooms? The National Park Service (NPS) made an official announcement at the Mandarin Oriental on March 1, predicting peak blooms from March 22 to 25.
But because the window to view the cherry blossoms is so fleeting, here’s a handy guide to help you strategize and make the most of a trip to Washington, D.C. this spring.
The most photographed site during cherry blossom season, this 10-foot-deep reservoir bordered by the Potomac River and Washington Channel casts a positively pretty effect with nearly 4,000 Yoshino cherry trees that entice the senses with their soft, whitish-pink hue and delicate almond scent. The Tidal Basin also provides terrific photo ops near the Thomas Jefferson Memorial, Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, and the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial.
But with such wide appeal comes visitors — and lots of them. If you want to steer clear of the crowds, drop by early in the morning when the natural light illuminates everything, including the water, with a warm, flattering glow.
A smarter option? Book a room the Mandarin Oriental. Opened in 2004, the stately property is the only one in town to boast unfettered views of the Tidal Basin. Plus, it’s within easy walking distance. Given its unique address, the hotel goes all out celebrating the season with a Sakura Pink Afternoon Tea, Mandarin Oriental in Bloom spa treatment, and the Cherry Blossoms Getaway package.
U.S. National Arboretum
Situated in the eastern edge of the nation’s capital, the U.S. National Arboretum maintains a wonderfully hushed vibe all year round. How? Because the best way to get here is by driving. Stretched across 446 acres, this nature and preservation center boasts more than 70 types of cherry trees. Also worth scoping out is the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum, which displays nearly 150 diminutive, meticulously pruned specimens.
For some of the city’s top locally owned restaurants, hop back in the car and head to the H Street Corridor. The buzzy neighborhood’s most exciting newcomer, The Little Grand, serves up cocktails and pizzas by beloved New York chef Bobby Hellen in a stylish, discreet setting, while Daru turns out delicious riffs on classic Indian dishes. (The black daal with burrata is a knockout.)
Regardless of the time of year, another popular stop for visitors is the National Mall. But to peep the puffy blossoms, head just northwest of the Lincoln Memorial and to the Washington Monument, where you’ll spot little clusters of trees.
For a bite nearby — and since you’ll already on your feet — stroll over to Old Ebbitt Grill, a beloved city institution that was founded in 1856 and is known for its raw bar, crab cakes, and burgers. Another terrific option is Immigrant Food. Founded by chef Enrique Limardo, the visionary concept celebrates the rich culinary contributions of America’s immigrants in a vibrant, colorful setting.
Dumbarton Oaks Gardens
The Dumbarton Oaks Gardens, encompassing 16 acres and home to the aptly named Cherry Hill, is open every day except for Monday
Come springtime, the slope transforms into a cascading sea of pink with various types of trees, including Sargent’s cherry and Edo higan. You can also spot other resplendent blooms (magnolias, forsythias, and tulips) around this time of year.
Afterward, treat yourself to a well-crafted drink. Lead bartender Engidawork “Engi” Alebachew is shaking up original libations for the occasion, like the Ups Only (Japanese dry gin, sake vermouth, orgeat syrup, yuzu) at Bourbon Steak in the Four Seasons hotel. And at Fitzgerald’s, a swanky lounge steps away from the Georgetown University campus, you can pair elevated bar snacks (Korean chicken wings, American Wagyu tartare) with some Japanese whisky from the extensive collection.
Hains Point Loop Trail
Prefer to explore the city via bike? Check out Hains Point Loop Trail in East Potomac Park. The flat, 3.5-mile cycling route offers scenic views of local bodies of water (Potomac River, Anacostia River, and the Washington Channel), iconic monuments, and, of course, plenty of cherry trees.
For a pit stop, visit Navy Yard, the waterfront district that’s boomed in recent years with noteworthy dining options. The Salt Line by Kyle Bailey specializes in sustainable seafood from New England to the Chesapeake Bay, while at Bammy’s, chefs Gerald Addison and Chris Morgan dish out Caribbean staples such as goat curry, escovitch, and their namesake bammy, a Jamaican cassava flatbread.