The National Cherry Blossom Festival is one of the largest spring festivals in the United States and the most prominent in Washington, D.C. The festival lasts for nearly one month, starting in mid-March and culminating in a massive parade in Mid-April. The National Cherry Blossom Festival is meant as a celebration of these beautiful blooming trees and the coming of spring. More significantly, the festival celebrates the United States' lasting relationship with Japan, which is signified by the gift of 3,000 cherry trees to our nation's capital in 1912 from Tokyo's mayor Yukio Ozaki. In return, the U.S. gifted flowering dogwood trees to Japan, and in 1981, the U.S. symbolically gave clippings of the cherry blossom trees to Japanese horticulturalists to replace some that a flood had killed.
The National Cherry Blossom Festival was instituted in 1927, and then again by businesses in 1935. Today, it has become a major draw to the nation’s capital in the spring, attracting more than 1.5 million visitors to D.C. for the festival each year. Visiting art and culture rich D.C. is also a great excuse to visit our nation's capital and its many historic buildings, monuments and museums.
The peak blooming period depends on the variety of cherry blossom tree, but it is generally defined by the Yoshino species, and the Peak Bloom Date is when 70 percent of this species' blooms are open in the Tidal Basin area. The blooming period often lasts for up to two weeks, as defined by when at least 20 percent of blossoms are open at any given time. Visit the Bloom Watch website by the National Parks Service before visiting for info on the optimal time to see the blossoms in their fullest splendor!
Most events at this community festival are free-of-charge and open to the public. However, interested guests can purchase the Petal Pass, which allows them access to exclusive deals during the festival and special offers at some local businesses. One annual event that does require tickets is the Pink Tie Party, a fundraiser benefiting the National Cherry Blossom Festival, Inc., the nonprofit that hosts the festival each year. Pink Tie Party is a cocktail affair with food, drink, silent auctions, games, and a chance to strut your style down the pink carpet.
The kickoff to the festival each year is the opening ceremony, which always features live music from current artists as well as traditional Japanese performances. The opening ceremony is always free, but it does require securing your tickets in advance to make sure the space isn't overcrowded. If you can't get a ticket, you can still try to go as a walk-in. Line up, because 15 minutes before the show, walk-ins will be let in based on available space due to no-shows.
The National Cherry Blossom Festival Parade serves as a closing ceremony of sorts, though it's actually the day before the final day of the festival. The parade runs along Constitution Avenue from 7th to 17th streets. The parade is a truly unique event - expect an explosion of singing, dancing, music, confetti, and pink gliding past some of the nation's most important monuments and structures! The juxtaposition is really something amazing.
The parade is free to attend and open to the public between 9th and 15th Streets. However, there are also grandstand seating options for prime viewing along the route, tickets for which can be purchased online. Starting in 2014, the National Cherry Blossom Festival Parade will be broadcast around the country with a nationally syndicated telecast sponsored by Events DC.
Some of the most unique events that take place during the Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington D.C. are those that celebrate Japanese culture. Sakura Matsuri is a Japanese street festival that has coincided with the Cherry Blossom Festival for more than 50 years. Sakura Matsuri is a series of performances, food events, and a parade, and it's the largest Japanese festival in the United States, incorporating the efforts of nearly 4,000 vendors, performers, exhibitors, and volunteers to pull off this spectacular cultural event. There are traditional dance and musical performances, and a special stage for Japanese pop artist, of “J-Pop” performances as well as one for the feats of more than 200 martial artists.
Adults must purchase tickets, but children 12 and under can enter free of charge. Sakura Matsuri also features a Taste of Japan event with more than 20 local restaurants participating, as well as a Kirin Beer Station, which showcases one of Japan's best draft beers with roots tracing to 1870. Don't forget to also try one of Japan's most famous sakes at the Hakutsuru Sake Tasting Pavilion!
Another must-try event, if you like sake and don't mind paying the hefty entrance fee, is the Grand Sake Tasting. The event features 20 master brewers who have traveled from Japan to offer tastes of their rare sake, schochu and beer. Tastings are complemented with hors d'oeuvres from some of the top Japanese restaurants in the D.C. metro area, and Japanese performers will top off the night with traditional song and dance.
Music and Film
As it's celebrating both cherry blossoms and Japan, the festival is also ripe for film and music events that touch on both environmental and cultural topics.
The DC Environmental Film Festival often has a free showing of one of its films at the Cherry Blossom Festival. In 2014, the group will be showing two short films are focused on the Sustainable DC initiative to make the District "the greenest, healthiest and most livable city in the nation." The films are free and open to the public.
Each year, the Cherry Blossom Festival features tours of some of D.C.'s best art collections. For example, in 2014, The Philips Collection -- the first museum of modern art in the U.S., established in 1921 -- hosts guided tours of important works in the permanent collection. Come here to see works by van Gogh, Renoir, Rothko, O'Keeffe, Bonnard, and several other famous artists and their well-known works. By purchasing the Petal Pass, you'll get a discount on admission to many of the art museums during the festival.
Learn about the Blossoms
Let's not forget the stars of the show. There are many possible options to tour the grounds and learn about the cherry blossoms at this festival. If you want to get out on the water, take a Cherry Blossom Cruise on the Potomac River via Capital Yacht Charters. You can ride on a fancy chartered yacht with a narrated tour and see the 10 different cherry blossom varieties along the banks of the Potomac. Or liven things up with a booze cruise - a 4 p.m. tour of the blossoms and monuments that is narrated and features cherry margaritas to celebrate the season. The cruises are an hour long and are offered by DC Cruises in a fun, relaxed environment.
If you'd rather see the beautiful blossoms up-close-and-personal -- on land -- consider taking a tour with Bike and Roll. You can take a two hour, Blossoms by Bike tour, or amp it up with a three-hour River Ride, that, as the name implies, winds around the river. It starts in Old Town Alexandria on the Mount Vernon Trail and stretches a total of 15 miles. It's a great way to get some exercise and see more of the area than you can on either foot or by bike.
However, if you prefer to keep your two feet firmly planted, there are still several options for you. On of our favorites is the guided tram tour that is led by researchers and horticulturalists and makes a few stops off the beaten path. This tour is for the serious amateur botanist and offers a scenic and highly educational look at the cherry blossom species in the National Arboretum just east of downtown Washington, D.C. This 446-acre site is one of the best spots to go behind the scenes during the National Cherry Blossom Festival.
Where to Stay
During the National Cherry Blossom Festival, hotels are sure to be booked to the maximum. Luckily, Washington, D.C., is packed with excellent bed and breakfasts - unique alternatives that allow you to live comfortably while experiencing all that the capital and the Cherry Blossom Festival have to offer.
We recommend staying in Embassy Circle Guesthouse - a beautiful brick colonial built in 1902 that has very spacious rooms filled with light and elegant antiques. The home's common spaces are airy and bright, with wonderful touches like intricate arches, cornices, and chandeliers. Embassy Circle Guesthouse is located on R Street in downtown D.C., within walking distance of many of the festival's venues.
Or, there are the Eastern Market Suites on Capitol Hill, which offer a stunning, modern place to rest your head and use as a base camp for festival activities. These posh suites are good if you prefer privacy and want to have a full kitchen and home-like feel for your stay. As the name suggests, they are located only a minute's walk from Eastern Market, which has food, antiques, arts and crafts, and just about everything in between. The Eastern Market Suites are also a short walk to the Mall, which is the location of the stunning Gothic Smithsonian Castle and several other interesting sights.