There’s more than one place in the Washington DC area with cherry blossoms, but by far the most famous, and the one you will have seen in all the iconic photos, is the Tidal Basin. It looks like a lake, has thousands of cherry trees lining its waterline, and also has several important monuments around it. If you’re coming to DC to see the cherry blossoms, chances are that’s where you’re aiming to go.
The good news it’s very easy to find. It’s right next to the National Mall, the area famous for landmarks like the Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument, Smithsonian museums, and the White House. Once you’re at the Mall, it’s an easy walk to the Tidal Basin.
So whether you’re staying at a hotel close in or commuting from further out, you basically want to aim for the National Mall. If you get really lost, head to the Washington Monument (the large needle-like structure that towers over the National Mall). From there, face the Lincoln Memorial and the Tidal Basin is about 30 degrees to your left.
In recent years, the National Park Service has also installed helpful signs around the National Mall. If you follow signs to the FDR Memorial, MLK Memorial, or Jefferson Memorial, you’ll end up right amongst the trees–all of those are on the banks of the Tidal Basin.
To find out whether they’re currently in bloom, check out the Cherry Blossom Watch updates on the front page.
Overall, this is the best way to get to the Tidal Basin from pretty much anywhere in the region. There isn’t a stop right at the Tidal Basin itself, but there are several within easy walking distance.
The closest station is Smithsonian (Orange, Silver, and Blue lines). If you’re on the Yellow or Green lines, L’Enfant Plaza is also close. A number of other stations are also easily walkable, and most of the walks are quite scenic. Here’s the Metro route map.
The Metro is the nation’s second busiest subway system, and it gets crowded during the morning and afternoon rush hours with local commuters. So it’s best to try to travel outside of those times (fares can also be cheaper). And because of a massive (and much-needed) program of renovations and upgrades there are often some line closures on weekends. You can find scheduled weekend service adjustments here.
The DC Metro train system is very easy to use. You can buy passes at automated kiosks at any Metro station. If you’re unsure, here’s information on using Metrorail, including information on frequency, accessibility, and fares.
Washington Metro has a handy trip planner for getting from A to B by Metro rail and bus, which you can find here.
Local Tip: On Metro station escalators (when they’re working!), please stand on the right to allow people to pass by on the left.
Another Local Tip: Metro runs both 6- and 8-car trains. It’s indicated which each train will be on the “next trains” boards on the platforms and in the stations. The trains always go to the very end of the platform at the front of the train, but only the 8-car trains extend the full length of the platform at the back. Often (but not always), the first and last cars can be a bit less crowded.
Yet Another Local Tip: There are some handy smartphone apps that give you information like when the next train is arriving and where it’s going, Metro maps, and trip planners. Here’s one example for iPhone, and here’s one for Android.
The Tidal Basin is an easy walk from the National Mall. If you’re at the Lincoln Memorial, Second World War Memorial, or Washington Monument, it’s about a 5-minute walk (< 0.5 mile). It’s about 20-minute walk (1.2 miles) across Memorial Bridge from Arlington National Cemetery.
Follow the NPS signs to the MLK Memorial, FDR Memorial, or the Jefferson Memorial. To get your bearings on the Mall, if you’re facing the Lincoln Memorial near the Reflecting Pool or Second World War Memorial with the Washington Monument behind you, the Tidal Basin will be on your left.
There’s a pedestrian walkway circuit that runs around the entire rim of the Tidal Basin. It’s about 1.8 miles.
Local Tip: Take water with you. Bottled water isn’t always easy to come by around the Tidal Basin (there is a snack kiosk by the paddle boats), and it can get quite hot even in spring. But please use the trash cans provided. When the crowds descend on the area for the cherry blossoms, trash can become a real problem.
By Car / Parking Information
There is a lot of free parking around West Potomac Park and Hains Point, but there are also many people trying to use those spots. And then there are long lines of tour buses taking even more space. At the height of the bloom, there can be a lot of competition for parking spots, especially on weekends.
Special one-way traffic patterns also go into effect around Ohio Drive during the busy period.
If you end up parking around East Potomac Park/Hains Point a long way from the Tidal Basin, there’s a Circulate Bus that serves as a de facto parking shuttle.
Please note that the parking lot on the northeast corner of the Tidal Basin at Maine Ave SW (near the paddle boats) is closed off during the festival for temporary festival tents and facilities.
If you drive, be very careful to look for the parking signs–many of the usual parking restrictions have temporary overrides during the busy period. The city’s legion of parking inspectors swarm the area and rack up some serious numbers. 155,636 parking tickets were issued during the 26 days of the 2013 National Cherry Blossom Festival (although not all of those were around the Tidal Basin). That’s about 6,000 a day. (DC parking fines generate about $92 million a year.)
There is disabled parking next to the FDR Memorial and Ohio Drive heading south.
Another option is to use a paid lot in the built-up streets downtown or around L’Enfant Plaza.
Parking: There are some accessible parking spots next to the FDR Memorial, on West Basin Drive. There are also some next to the Jefferson Memorial. There are usually some in the Maine Ave parking lot (next to the paddle boats), but that lot is closed to parking during the cherry blossom festival. During busy times, of course, there’s no guarantee that the accessible spots won’t already be taken.
Dropoff Points: There are two good dropoff points. One is next to the MLK/FDR Memorials, along West Basin Drive. Another is out the back of the Jefferson Memorial. Both have room to safely load and unload, are within about 100 feet or so of the cherry blossoms, and have ramps to the water’s edge without any need to deal with steps.
Monuments: All of the monuments are accessible. The FDR and MLK Memorials are ground level, and the Jefferson Memorial has an elevator that you can access from entrances on the side of the building. The Tidal Basin walkway is a single level path, and you can go all the way around without need to get over steps. The MLK, FDR, and Jefferson Memorials have accessible restrooms.
Riding is a great way to get there, although once there it’s not recommended that you ride around the Tidal Basin pathway itself. It gets very crowded with pedestrian traffic, there are no railings along the water around much of it, and there are low-hanging branches to watch out for.
There are now some bike racks available near the Tidal Basin. There’s one across from the Capital Bikeshare rack near the FDR Memorial, at the corner of Ohio Drive SW and West Basin Dr SW.
DC has a very good bike sharing program: Capital Bikeshare. There are several stations near the Tidal Basin and National Mall. If you’re not already a member, you can join just for a day, if you like. And there are many stations in downtown DC, the Rosslyn-Clarendon-Ballston corridor, and Crystal City, so if you’re staying a hotel in any of those areas, chances are you can pick up a ride within a few blocks. Here’s the station map and here’s information on rates and how it works.
By DC Circulator
The DC Circulator is a relatively new service that provides a loop shuttle service around the National Mall and Tidal Basin area, stopping at several of the major sites and landmarks. Fares are just $1, and it runs every 10 minutes. You can find route maps, schedules, and other information on their website.
By Sightseeing Bus
Old Town Trolley Tours operates circulating trolley buses around DC’s major sites, including the Tidal Basin. These are hop-on/hop-off tours, and they can be an especially good option if you’re planning to explore more of the sights DC has to offer. Further information, including ticket prices, is available on their website.
If you get a taxi there, the best places to ask to be dropped off are at the MLK Memorial, Jefferson Memorial, or FDR Memorial. All have designated passenger drop-off areas next to them. Here’s a handy taxi fare calculator (although bear in mind that traffic can come to a standstill around the Tidal Basin at the height of the bloom).
Leaving by cab can be a bit tricker. There is a designated cab rank next to the MLK Memorial/FDR Memorial bend, and I’ve noticed that more cabs seem to be staking out a spot there. But when it gets busy you might also have quite a wait before the next cab happens to turn up. Otherwise, your best bet is to walk north towards the Mall and the downtown area.
Uber and Lyft are both very well represented in the area, although when things get really, really crowded on a weekend, it’s not unheard of (but it is rare) for the cell phone networks to actually get overwhelmed (presumably made worse by all the people taking photos of the cherry blossoms with their phones and sharing them on social media).
You can’t get on to the Tidal Basin with your own boat/kayak/etc, although once you’re there, you can hire a paddle boat. But you can cruise the Potomac around the outside of East Potomac Park/Hains Point where there are thousands of other cherry trees. Some private companies offer cruises around the Potomac.
During the Cherry Blossom Festival there’s a water taxi service running a scheduled route from National Harbor to Old Town Alexandria to a stop next to the National Mall. It pulls up to a landing point on the bank of the Potomac next to the FDR Memorial. Its schedule varies year to year, but I’ve confirmed directly that it will be running again in 2016. The schedule has not yet been announced, but I’ll update when it is. You can find more information on this boat service.
Buying Tickets to See the Cherry Blossoms
Once you’re at the Tidal Basin, you don’t need a ticket to visit the cherry blossoms or the Jefferson Memorial, MLK Memorial, or FDR Memorial. There’s no entry fee, and the area is open 24 hours.
Travel Guides for Washington DC
Here are some good online resources to help in planning your visit to Washington DC:
And if you’re after a guidebook for Washington DC with maps you can carry with you, here are some good ones:
If you’re just after a map, this laminated Streetwise one is good for the National Mall and surrounding area and includes a Metro map (the Metro is DC’s version of subway public transport). MapEasy makes a more traditional foldout map. Around the Mall and Tidal Basin, the National Park Service has done a good job of putting up signs that are also very helpful.
To gear your bearings, you can see the Washington Monument from just about anywhere. That stands in the middle of the National Mall.
While you’re at it, here are some other Washington DC sights to check out.
Enjoy your visit!