I did it. I finally mustered up the courage to bury myself into the crowds of Washington, D.C.’s busiest time: the National Cherry Blossom Festival. As you know by my frequent writings, I have visited Washington numerous times. I have also lived in one of its suburbs and worked for a federal government agency right in the heart of D.C. for a handful of years. Yet I had never been near the National Mall and Tidal Basin area during the Cherrry Blossom Festival. In fact, one of the first things you’re told when you become a local is to avoid it as much as you can.
Still, I did it. I did it for you, dear readers. During the weekend of April 1-3, 2016 I waited in line at the museums, avoided getting hit by a myriad of tour buses, and walked under the trees while tourists took selfies. It was amusing, tiring, and occasionally frustrating, but I believe I learned some things from it that I can pass along to you.
In short, the National Cherry Blossom Festival is a month-long celebration centered around the trees that were gifted from Japan in 1912. The festival corresponds roughly with the blooming of the flowering trees, although the exact time of their peak bloom (when >70% are in full bloom) isn’t usually known until a few weeks (or days) before it happens. The peak bloom is important because the trees only flower for a few days, especially if there is a storm or high winds.
If you visit, however, don’t plan around the peak bloom date unless you can adjust your plans last-minute: the date is very mobile. This year, for instance, here is how the announcement of peak bloom went down:
- March 2 — National Park Service announces peak bloom as occurring between March 31 and April 3
- March 8 — due to warm weather, peak bloom is moved up to March 18-23
- March 15 — because of a cold snap, peak bloom is expected to occur on either March 23 or 24
- March 23 — National Park Service officially marks today, March 23, as a peak bloom
So you see, you would have needed to change your plans a couple of times due to these fickle flowers. There are, of course, other events going on, which you can read about in my Cherry Blossom preview post.
Before I go any further, I need to mention the weather, which was not exactly perfect. I simply couldn’t be there during the peak bloom weekend due to family obligations, so I went during the following weekend. I knew I would miss many of the pretty little white flowers, but there wasn’t a better option this year.
Unfortunately, the weather decided that, after a very mild winter, it would turn cold and windy for a few days. Saturday started rainy and brisk although it ended partly sunny but Sunday brought freezing temperatures and heavy winds–up to 50 MPH! While I certainly think the weather adjusted the crowds somewhat (which I’ll get to), I don’t believe it tempered it much. There were probably some that decided to stay home, but many had plans that they presumably could not change on a whim and a storm.
Crowds at the Museums
It may not seem the logical place to start since there are no cherry blossoms in any museums, but boy were they crowded. This is where I believe the weather played into it: the rain, then cold and wind kept many visitors inside and the museums is where they headed. I walked (and walked, and walked) around the museums that border the National Mall all weekend to judge what the crowds were like.
The National Museum of American History (a.k.a. American History) was the standout busiest. Some of this was because of the large amount of high school and college-aged tour groups in town that visit that museum more than the others (or so it seems). Second was the National Museum of Natural History, which is very close to American History. In fact, it seemed that the further away one got from the monument area (the west side of the Mall), the lighter the crowds. Even the usually very busy Air & Space Museum was not as busy as the two History museums. If you went to the lesser-known museums, the cavernous National Gallery of Art, or the further afield spots like the American Art Museum (only a few blocks north) it was no worse than any other weekend.
To attempt to keep this reasonably brief and readable, here’s some quick hits about what I found:
- Crowds developed immediately — Just about all of the museums open at 10am, late enough that crowds can be there for the opening time. Unless you’re okay with waiting for 30 minutes plus to get through security you’re going to need to be there before 10.
- Getting there 15-20 minutes early is much different than 5-10 minutes — Arriving at the American History museum at 9:40am meant I was around 60th in line and I was in the building and through security by 10:06am. By 9:50am there were triple the number of people behind me…and then the buses showed up. Somewhere between 10 and 5 minutes to 10, several buses full of tour groups pulled up and they made the lines terrifyingly long. If you plan to be there around 10, you need to beat those buses.
- Once you get in, it’s pretty nice for a while — The good news is that crowds really disperse once inside. Even those tour groups generally take a while getting around since they move slow and re-group a lot. If you are one of the first in, you will have a lot of space for the first 30-60 minutes. Much like visiting Disney World parks, that gives you enough time to see the most popular things without much hassle.
- Check both entrances — Many of the museums on the Mall, and all of the major ones, have two entrances–one on the Mall side and one on the opposite side. If you check one entrance and the line seems prohibitive, check the other one. It may be the same, but there were a few times where one side (usually the Mall side) was about half what the other one was.
- If there are later hours, go then — Most days during the summer, holidays, and busy periods some combination of the American History, Natural History, and Air & Space museums are open until 7:30pm rather than the usual 5:30pm. On Saturday I visited both Natural and Air & Space (American wasn’t open late that day) “after hours” and the change was stark. The more popular exhibits were manageable and the less popular ones were practically empty.
- Visit places not on the Mall — there are other museums, as well as lots of other stuff, that is not on the National Mall. When the crowds of tourists descend on the city, they tend to focus on the Mall and it’s immediate surroundings. If you wander away from it, you often leave the crowds behind.
Crowds at the Monuments
Since some monuments such as the Jefferson Memorial, FDR Memorial, and MLK Memorial sit around the Tidal Basin and among the Cherry Trees you would expect the crowds to be there. For at least this particular weekend that was not the case. I know it was an anomaly–the flowers were mostly wilted and the weather wasn’t great–but I still expected there to be more people around when the sun was out.
I didn’t bother doing a lap of the monuments on Saturday morning because I figured the rain was keeping people away anyway. I did, however visit the Tidal Basin and western side of the Mall (where the Lincoln Memorial is) on Saturday afternoon, Sunday morning, and Sunday afternoon. At no time was the crowd unmanageable, in fact it seemed like a fairly normal summer crowd. I know it’s different when all the trees are in bloom, but it’s such a large area that you can still maneuver. One thing I definitely noticed: if you do find a flowering tree (and there were some) it will be surrounded by people taking close-up photos and selfies (as evidenced in the photo below). Same goes for basically any pretty plant.
Here are my tips and advice for touring the monuments in crowds:
- Go early or late — Seriously, as early as you can. When I was there the sun was coming up around 6:45am. At that time, the monuments were almost empty. At 7:30am, there was a light crowd at the major ones and they grew from there. I know most people won’t be getting up at 6 to go visit the Jefferson Memorial, but the earlier you do, the fewer people you’ll see. Conversely, going later at night also means lighter crowds as well as seeing some of the wonderful lighting. The monuments technically never close.
- Enjoy the details — Other than going early or late, there isn’t really another way to avoid crowds at the popular monuments. So, rather than focus on the people, look at the wonderful details in and around each monument.
- Bask in the grandeur — Another great way to enjoy the monuments of D.C. is to step back, find a bench or a grassy knoll and take in the scenery that is unlike any other American city.
Is the Festival Worth Going To?
After experiencing the Cherry Blossom Festival I still find it hard to recommend. If you really want to see the trees in bloom, and you can be there when they are, you should absolutely go. Other than that, everything is exactly the same as it will be in late-April or May, but the crowds will be lighter then.
Most of my specific tips are listed above, but I’d boil it down to these two pieces of advice:
- Visit monuments early and museums late
- Get away from the Mall
Follow these tips and you’ll enjoy yourself, even with all the other visitors.