Traveler’s guide to the D.C. Cherry Blossom Festival

Robert Thomson
Columnist March 16, 2012

How big is this cherry blossom thing? It’s so big that the transit authority’s track work program, the safety effort so urgent that Metro has inconvenienced hundreds of thousands of riders to advance it aggressively, is going on spring break.

If D.C. commuters take this badly, they’ll see this as just one more reason not to warn the tourists that the rail car doors don’t bounce back. So here’s our annual guide to how we can all just get along and enjoy the season.

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post’s “Dr. Gridlock.” He answers travelers’ questions, listens to their complaints and shares their pain on the roads, trains and buses in the Washington region. View Archive
Events

This really is big. Because it’s the 100th anniversary of Tokyo’s gift of the cherry trees to D.C., the National Cherry Blossom Festival will continue for an extraordinary five weeks, starting Tuesday and continuing through April 27. (Activities sponsored by the National Park Service start next Saturday, March 24, and continue through April 15.) Here are a few events that are likely to be popular.

1. March 25: While some events begin earlier, the official opening ceremony is scheduled for next Sunday, 5 to 6:30 p.m., at the Washington Convention Center. The free event is open to 6,000 people, but online registration is required. The nearest Metrorail station is Mount Vernon Square, on the Green and Yellow lines.

2. March 31: The Blossom Kite Festival is scheduled to run from 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on the Washington Monument grounds. (Rain date is April 1.) The nearest Metro station is Smithsonian, on the Blue and Orange lines.

3. April 3: The Washington Nationals open the regular season on the road this year, but will play an exhibition game at Nationals Park at 3:05 p.m. Tuesday, April 3, against the Red Sox. The nearest Metro station is Navy Yard. Metro does a good job of limiting crowding on the platform, but watch out for the rail transfer stations at L’Enfant Plaza and Gallery Place.

4. April 7: The fireworks show is scheduled for 8:30 p.m. over the Washington Channel on the Southwest Washington Waterfront (Water Street). The nearest Metrorail station is Waterfront , on the Green Line.

3. April 12: The Nationals play their home opener at 1:05 p.m. Thursday, April 12, against the Cincinnati Reds.

5. April 14: The National Cherry Blossom Festival Parade is Saturday, April 14, from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. It draws a large crowd to Constitution Avenue NW, from Seventh to 17th streets. The grandstand (a $20 seat) is between 15th and 17th streets. Nearby are the Archives and Federal Triangle Metro stations.

Tips for travelers

Circulator/Metrobus changes. The D.C. Circulators, the distinctive red, black and silver buses with the $1 fares, help tourists get around, but several routes have changed. The District dropped the Convention Center-Waterfront route. Metrobus Route 74 covers much the same ground, for a higher fare. It’s $1.50 with a SmarTrip card and $1.75 with cash.

The Georgetown-Union Station and Union Station-Navy Yard routes no longer stop inside the Union Station garage. Look for them now on the east side of Columbus Circle, which is in front of the station. On April 1, the Union Station-Navy Yard route will extend its evening hours to 9 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays.

Metro service. The transit authority notes that ridership can spike by 15 percent during blossom season. If the weather is good, the weekend ridership can reach weekday levels. Metro says it will operate more eight-car trains during off-peak hours and on weekends to accommodate crowds.

Starting next Saturday, Metro will suspend the weekend maintenance program until 10 p.m. Friday, April 20. Weekday maintenance won’t begin until 10 p.m. from March 26 through April 13.

Taking transit. It beats driving and parking, but visitors should try whenever possible to avoid the extreme crowding of rush hours. It’s cheaper to ride during off-peak hours. Buy a One-Day Pass for $9, good for unlimited travel after 9:30 on weekdays and all day on weekends. On the escalators, do as we do: Stand to the right, walk on the left.

You may have heard Metro is considering raising the fares. Any changes will not take effect while travelers are in D.C. for the blossoms.

Parking is free on weekends at the lots and garages operated by Metro. Drivers who park and ride on weekdays will need to have a Metro SmarTrip card to pay at the exits of most parking areas. Use them to ride the the trains and buses, too, rather than using the paper Farecards. They cost $5 but save money on the fares.

New shuttle. Tourmobile is gone. A new bus service operated by ANC Tours has begun running on a loop connecting the Union Station bus garage with the World War II Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial, Arlington National Cemetery, the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial and the Smithsonian Metro station for $5 per boarding. Hours are 9 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.

Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial. If you can make it to the Tidal Basin, head to the new King Memorial, which opened last summer just off the path on the northwest side of the basin. That’s the best side for viewing the statue.

Walking. Smithsonian is the Metro station closest to the Tidal Basin, but it’s jammed at blossom time. If that’s bothersome, and you’re up for a little more walking, get off at L’Enfant Plaza, Federal Triangle or Foggy Bottom. Only slightly more ambitious: Get off the Blue Line at Arlington Cemetery station and walk over the Potomac River on the Memorial Bridge past the Lincoln Memorial to the Tidal Basin.

Try to avoid transferring from one Metro line to another. The transfer stations at Metro Center, L’Enfant Plaza and Gallery Place will be very crowded, and the transfer may save only a little walking time.

Biking. Several Capital Bikeshare stations are around the National Mall. You can sign up to be a member for 24 hours, three days, a month or a year, then take a bike from any station. The first 30 minutes of each trip are free, then riders pay an additional fee for every 30 minute period thereafter.

Riding around the National Mall and East Potomac Park is delightful, but the bike parking is limited. There’s some near the Washington Monument and Jefferson Memorial. Bring a bike lock. And don’t expect to cruise around the Tidal Basin during blossom season — Crowds are shoulder to shoulder.

Parking. Parking near the Tidal Basin during blossom time is extremely scarce and traffic is heavy. Drivers can park at Hains Point and take a shuttle. Very limited parking for disabled people is available near the memorials.

Red top meters. The District has a new system of parking for people with disabilities. Everybody must pay at all meters. The red top meters are reserved for vehicles displaying valid disability placards or license plates. D.C. recognizes those from other jurisdictions. Until April 17, those with valid permits can park at any D.C. meter for twice the normal time. But from then on, double-time parking is permitted only at the red tops.

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