Millions of travelers visit Washington, D.C. every year, but far and away the busiest period is the National Cherry Blossom Festival, which is coming up later this month. Here’s a quick look at the festival and what it’s all about:
When Is The Cherry Blossom Festival?
There’s a simple and a complex answer for this. The easy one is that the official dates of the National Cherry Blossom Festival are March 20 through April 17, 2016.
And here comes the tricky part: The actual blooming of the Cherry Blossom trees is highly variable and dependent on weather. The mild winter and warm spring this year mean that the trees are expected to flower earlier than they have in 15 years. Specifically, March 18 is the date of “Peak Bloom.” The National Park Service considers the bloom to be “peak” when 70 percent of the trees are flowering.
The reason the peak bloom date is important is because the pesky Cherry Blossom trees only bloom for 4-5 days. If you’re putting that math together, that means that this year the peak bloom will just barely last into the start of the official festival. Luckily not all the trees bloom at exactly the same time so there will still be some flowering into April, but the end of this year’s festival may not see many blooming blossoms.
What’s The Story Behind These Trees?
I’ve mentioned the Cherry Blossoms a lot, but it’s probably a good idea to brush on what they are and why we make such a big deal over them.
The actual trees are Japanese flowering plants. The vast majority of them (over 70%) are Yoshino Cherry trees although there are around a dozen different varietals within the 3,800 total trees. The Cherry Blossom, “Sakura” in Japanese, is a revered plant and symbol of human beauty and transformation. Therefore, the gift of these particular trees from Japan was a mighty one.
The trees were first gifted to the people of the United States from the people of Japan in 1912, although the first shipment of 2,000 trees were found to be diseased and were subsequently destroyed. Not to be deterred, a second shipment–this time containing 3,020 trees–was sent a mere 2 1/2 months later.
On March 27, 1912 First Lady Helen Herron Taft and Viscountess Chinda–wife of the Japanese Ambassador–planted two trees on the northern bank of the Tidal Basin. The First Lady presented a bouquet of “American Beauty” roses, a ceremony that, like those two trees, is still around.
The Cherry Blossom Festival was begun in 1935 and life for the trees has gone generally as smoothly as these things go. There were a few damaged in 1941 after the attack on Pearl Harbor, but much of that was allayed by the simple action of calling the plants “Oriental” until after the war (really).
What Events Are There?
While the trees are beautiful and their flowers are rare, that is not reason enough for an entire festival–especially one that is much longer than the bloom schedule. Therefore, Washington, the National Park Service, and the National Cherry Blossom Festival organization schedule many, many events that show off D.C. and often have a link to Japanese culture.
The full events list is found on the National Cherry Blossom Festival website, but here are some highlights for 2016:
- Opening Ceremony – March 26 – A combination of Japanese singers and performers entertain guests at the Warner Theater for only a $5 registration fee. Tickets are currently sold out, but walk-ins will be accepted at 4:45pm on the day.
- Blossom Kite Festival – April 2 – The Washington Monument is the backdrop for the 6th annual kite festival. The public is allowed to bring kits and there is a children’s activity station for them to make their own. There is also demonstrations by expert fliers between 10am and 4:30pm.
- Southwest Waterfront Fireworks Festival – April 9 – Fireworks will be the star at 8:30pm on the Southwest Waterfront, but music and entertainment starts at 1:00pm.
- National Cherry Blossom Festival Parade – April 16 – Starring giant helium balloons, floats, and marching bands, this parade runs for 10 blocks along Constitution Avenue starting at 10:00am.
Other events include Japanese silent comedy, a Freedom Walk, a rugby tournament, a 10-mile run, and several concerts. Regardless of the dates of your visit, you are likely to find a special event.
Not totally, no, but there is a way to minimize your contact and potential annoyance with them. The Cherry Blossoms and all of the nearby monuments (Thomas Jefferson, FDR, and MLK Memorials) will be mobbed with crowds, especially during the weekend afternoons. Luckily, these are all outdoor things with no closing times. If you are willing to get up early and walk the Tidal Basin at 8:00 am rather than 10, you will see far fewer other tourists.
Where crowds are harder to avoid is at the popular museums. The vast majority of people attending the Cherry Blossom Festival are tourists (the first rule of being a local is ‘avoid the Cherry Blossom Festival’), so they also want to see the National Museum of American History and the Air & Space Museum while they’re in town. If you also want to see those things, you should go precisely at 10:00am, when they open. It will still be very busy, but not as bad as it will be in the afternoon. If you are a frequent visitor to D.C. (or plan to be), the Cherry Blossom Festival is a good time to visit the smaller, less well-known museums rather than the big boys.
Much like we recommend with Walt Disney World, do everything you can as early as you can. Then you can eat a nice relaxing lunch (away from the Mall, which is very iffy and crowded food-wise) and go back to your hotel for the afternoon. Following that, you can take another twilight stroll around the Tidal Basin, smiling at the people who are melting down from fighting crowds all afternoon.