CHERRY BLOSSOMS IN WASHINGTON DC
Washington D.C. is so much more than just the capital of USA, so much more than just the Presidential memorials, the carefully curated art in the Smithsonians and the political buzz that hangs thick in the air. It’s so much more than students and tourists pouring in for their school history tour or selfie mania at the National Mall and a lot more interesting things than the White House or the Capitol. We visited D.C. chasing the cherry blossoms that come to full bloom in early Spring and transform the Tidal Basin to a floral wonderland, but left behind with so much more. People go crazy for the urban bustle and magnificence of the nearby Big Apple, but I left a piece of my heart in D.C. So here is a lowdown of what we did in Washington D.C. (and what we couldn’t fit in those three days) to inspire you to pick D.C. as your next travel destination. A beautiful city, with understated charm, D.C. will win you over for sure!
SEE CHERRY BLOSSOMS: WHERE TO STAY IN WASHINGTON DC
Once again, we opted for AirBnB for lodging and stayed in the Mount Vernon Triangle neighborhood, a bustling urban neighborhood close to the Convention center and with many trendy cafes and restaurants nearby and within walking distance to the National Mall. Someone once expressed concern about sharing bathrooms with strangers if opting for an Airbnb lodging, the solution to which is renting either the whole house or apartment (more expensive option but worth the privacy and convenience that it offers) or a single room with its own bathroom. Barring one last minute booking, all our AirBnb stays have been very pleasant and we’ve found it way more economical than staying at expensive hotels which charge everything from breakfast to wifi.
CHERRY BLOSSOM VIEWING SPOTS
A) Tidal Basin
Tidal Basin is a D.C. is a partial artificial water reservoir between the Potomac River and the Washington channel and serves as the hub for the National Cherry blossom festival every year since it comes to life with the rows of cherry blossom trees blooming in early spring, which is one of the most beautiful natural spectacles to behold and is as breathtaking as witnessing the Hanami in Spain. Since we had hauled our tushes all the way from California to see this grand specter, and also because the weather predicted rain for the very next day (Thanks a ton D.C. for nothing), we made a mad dash towards the basin the minute we landed to get a view of the delicate blossoms. As luck would have had it, full bloom (designated as the time when at least 70% of the trees are in bloom) had already happened a week ago, and thus only a few trees welcomed us with their blooms. Being the sturdy Californians that we are, we made the most of it by me going dizzy running around them like kids in a Candy store and both of us going shutter crazy. The whites and the pinks were a sight to behold. I staunchly believe that I live on the best coast, but this heavenly sight made me a wee bit jealous of east coasters. Do keep an eye out for the predictions (a very arduous task indeed) which tend to get more accurate as the weather patterns become more definitive as spring approaches at this Cherry Blossom Watch website and National Cherry Blossom Festival Bloom watch here and plan accordingly. Irrespective of the pollen and crazy tourists with their selfie sticks, the jaw dropping beauty of nature, i.e. the blooms all around, will transport you to a state of nirvana and happiness like no other (clue: see me smiling ear to ear after a 51/2 hr flight). We visited the tidal basin twice, and the blossoms were just as spectacular in broad daylight as they were in the golden hour of dusk.
Commonly referred to simply as “the mall”, this extended patch of green encompassing the tidal basin (where you go to see the cherry blossoms) at one end, is the heart of DC with all the presidential memorials/monuments, war memorials and many of the Smithsonian museums located in this region. Obviously, tourists flock to this area to see the cherry blossoms and your best bet would be to just put those stubs to good use and keep on walking. We started off with the Lincoln Memorial and made our way up to the Jefferson Memorial, with stops in between for the Washington Monument, WWII memorial (one of the many sites to commemorate the anniversary of D-day) Korean War veterans memorial, Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial and finally the Jefferson Memorial. My personal favorite remains the FDR memorial because of the statue of Fala, FDR’s pooch and loyal friend. All these memorials featured the powerful words, quotes and excerpts from the speeches of these visionaries and presidents, words and ideas which helped shape and lead the nation, words that were inspiring, evocative and extremely thought provoking. I humbly request you to read the inscriptions on the memorial walls if you get a chance, even if that costs you a few selfies. As commoners, we often forget the ideas and vision that shaped the country whose fruits of success we enjoy, we forget the endless toils and tribulations the founding fathers had to go through to get us to this point and a slice of their revolutionary ideas, now permanently carved out on the memorials, can be quite a revelation as it informs us about the past and how far we have progressed as a nation.
Despite the blooming cherry blossoms, D.C. missed the memo that it is spring completely and so we were greeted with foul weather from almost immediately after we set foot. But all that torrential rain and even more rain mixed with snow (WTH, D.C.) could not deter us from doing our usual round of exploring and seeing our share of cherry blossoms. With the sun finally coming out of behind the gloom and doom of the grey clouds, we decided to head off to the National Arboretum in the hope of seeing some more cherry blossoms beyond the tidal basin as well as the famous bonsai garden. Alas, there too our hopes got cruelly dashed when the lady at the visitor center informed us that the cherry blossoms were all gone thanks to the hurricane from the previous week, that had washed the delicate blossoms away. We spent some time at the bonsai garden with rows and rows of miniature marvels greeting us as well as the ikebana (Japanese flower arrangement) exhibit and then stopped for some time to marvel the Capitol Columns looming over the landscape. The Arboretum is vast and just the right place if you love flora of all kinds. We had to cut our visit short due to the looming dark clouds and impending rain and thus made our way to seek refuge in the museums.
Washington D.C. is a paradise for the museum lovers (read this guide on top 10 fabulous museums in DC) since majority of the Smithsonian museums are free to the public and one is spoilt for choices, ranging from natural history to arts and culture to science and information. My favorite gallery, which I visited hurriedly when I was in D.C. for a very short stay, remains the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, a small yet beautiful arts gallery (free entry) featuring predominantly Asian art in its permanent collection. The gallery is across the African Arts Gallery and is surrounded by a beautiful garden as well as the Smithsonian Visitor Center. My favorite exhibit in the museum was hands down that by the Turquoise Mountain Foundation featuring the revival of traditional arts and crafts (carpet making, intricate wood work called “jail”, jewelry making, pottery) in Murad Khani, a cultural center of Kabul, Afghanistan, a country ravaged by war. It was so heart warming to see the war torn city crawl out of the destruction and revive itself through its traditional arts, the biography of the artists trying to pursue their passion against all odds and the audacity of hope to nurture beauty amidst chaos and instability. The adjacent Freer Art Gallery was closed for renovation and thus we could not visit it, what a bummer!
The second museum that we visited amidst another day of rain and snow and God knows what misery, was the locals favorite Renwick Gallery (part of the Smithsonians, no entry fee required), across from the White House. This is a classic interactive gallery where people are encouraged to engage in their tactile senses (i.e. allowed to touch many of the exhibits) and photograph as much as possible since the central theme, via nine unique exhibits, is to evoke wonder. Wonder is the human emotion that arises when one sees everyday objects being transformed into something so beautiful, so out of earth like, so different, that their mundanity gets lost in the surreality of the creations. We marveled at the different installations such as dead bugs glued to the pink walls in mosaic fashion which looked very pretty from afar, the famous rainbow projection and many other wondrous things. This gallery is for those who are not hardcore museum lovers but would still love an interactive experience. It was also a big hit with kids! Post the Renwick, we stopped outside the White house to take a few photos amidst lots of tourists kept at bay by the Secret Service and their dogs and then went on our way. We did not visit the visitor section but if you cannot arrange for a tour inside the White House (see rules here), then you might want to go to the Visitor section to see a history of USA’s most famous address.
You can never get the real feel of a city unless you’ve explored the neighborhoods and D.C. has plenty of interesting hoods that residents call home. So don’t give into the same old tourist traps but explore D.C. on foot in the hipster and trendy Adams Morgan (the stretch along 18th street with lots of good restaurants), the quiet yet beautiful Columbia Heights, the busy Dupont Circle and the best of all, Georgetown oozing with colonial charm, federal style buildings, history tucked in every corner, awesome restaurants and nifty boutiques. Read here about the fun food tour that we participated in Georgetown, which was a great way of exploring the neighborhood and its good eats.
Finally, the things that we missed out on due to lack of time and weather playing truant, but which I highly recommend are: a) catching a show at the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts, b) a trip to the Capitol (Capitol Hill) which comes alive in summer with concerts and other public events and c) the Newseum, the most fun museum ever with interactive exhibits. And that brings my cherry blossoms travelogue on DC to an end! Hope you enjoyed reading it and have started making your own list of things to do, see and eat! D.C. is a charming city oozing with history and beauty and is a must visit. It has a thriving food scene (you can read my DC dining guide here) and is a visitor’s delight. As usual, thank you so much for reading, now go get packing for that vacation of yours!
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