Big events are a Washington DC specialty, and the city handles huge influxes of visitors very well. Whether it’s millions of people for a presidential inauguration, large international conferences, or the Fourth of July fireworks, DC takes them all in its stride.
The area has a lot of hotels and very good public transportation. But the area is also notorious for its traffic, so if you can stay off the roads it might save you a lot of aggravation.
Here are some suggestions on where to stay if you’re coming into town to see the cherry blossoms and don’t have friends or family you can crash with. Before I moved to DC, I visited many times over the years and stayed in quite a few the area’s hotels. While I don’t recommend specific hotels or chains–people have a wide range of expectations and budgets–here’s some local information from the perspective of a frequent traveler that relates specifically about choosing a hotel for a visit to the cherry blossoms and other Washington DC sights. I hope it might be helpful in planning your visit.
Spring is the start of the Washington tourist season, and the cherry blossoms draw large crowds from out of town. Hotels can and do fill up, so if you can, it’s worth making reservations well in advance. Of course, that means taking the chance of an educated guess as to when the cherry blossoms will come out to play.
Downtown DC / Northwest DC
“Downtown DC” is actually made up of several smaller pockets. There are lot of hotels here across the entire spectrum, from high end luxury of the Willard, Hay-Adams, and Jefferson to the family- and budget-friendly Hotel Harrington.
If you’re looking to rub shoulders with Washington power brokers, take a morning stroll by the White House, or looking for the best all-round access to the Smithsonians and monuments on the National Mall, downtown DC is a great choice.
But it comes with downsides. Because of demand and location, quite a few of the hotels around here can be expensive, especially as the time gets closer. They can also fill up, so it’s worth booking well in advance. If you’re driving, make sure to ask about parking options. Most of the hotels in DC will charge extra (sometimes quite a lot extra) for parking, and on-street parking can be a real hassle. Some streets can also be a bit lifeless at night, although that varies by the specific area.
Foggy Bottom’s location is pretty much ideal for walking to the cherry blossoms and the rest of the National Mall area. It’s a buzzing neighborhood with a mix of residential and work blocks. The hotels also fill up, because there’s a lot going on around this area with George Washington University, the State Department, and a bunch of other government departments based in the area. There’s also easy Metro access.
Depending on where in the neighborhood your hotel is, it’s about a 1.2 mile walk, give or take, to the Tidal Basin, across the National Mall. You can also get the metro from Foggy Bottom to Smithsonian (5th stop on Orange, Blue, or Silver lines), which shortens the walk to the Tidal Basin a little.
Dupont Circle/Adams Morgan
Dupont Circle/Adams Morgan has some very good hotels, with a mix of large conference-style hotels like the Washington Hilton and Park Hyatt to smaller boutique hotels and Kimpton Hotels.
It is possible to walk to the cherry blossoms from these neighborhoods, although it’s a significantly longer walk. From Dupont Circle, it’s about 1.7 miles to the Tidal Basin. From Adams Morgan it’s about 2.5 miles. There’s easy access to the Metro from Dupont Circle and slightly less convenient access from Adams Morgan. The restaurant/bar options around here are excellent. And if you have a hankering to see the pandas, Adams Morgan is close to the Smithsonian Zoo.
Many of the hotels classed as being in Capitol Hill are clustered around Union Station. There’s excellent Metro access here and it’s walkable to the cherry blossoms (about 2 miles, mostly along the National Mall). Unfortunately, the area immediately around Union Station where most of the hotels are clustered isn’t especially interesting, although things look up quite a bit when you head west a few blocks across to the Penn Quarter restaurants and museums.
Georgetown is famous as a favorite of Washington’s DC’s dinner-party set. It’s a neighborhood with historic row houses, many shopping options, and many excellent dining options. It’s a very pretty area and a great place to spend some time. It’s adjacent to Foggy Bottom, just a little around the bed of the Potomac.
The downside is that Georgetown’s public transport is pretty woeful. There’s no Metro, and the streets get clogged with traffic. It is possible to walk around the bend of the Potomac to the cherry blossoms; it’s about 2.2 miles. Most hotels will charge extra for parking, sometimes quite a lot extra. Another transport option from Georgetown is by boat, although the service is limited to preset schedules. You can find more information on that here.
Because of the area’s unusually placed state and district borders, parts of Northern Virginia back right up to the Potomac. In some cases, you only have to walk across a bridge to get to the cherry blossoms.
Arlington is right across the river from the Tidal Basin. It’s also a pretty big county with a large range of hotel options. In terms of being close to the cherry blossoms, Rosslyn, Crystal City, and the Pentagon areas are your best bets. While these areas don’t have the historic charms of Georgetown or the city buzz of Dupont Circle/Adams Morgan, they’re also less frenetic, there’s more parking, and hotel prices can be more reasonable. They are, in other words, very good jumping off points for exploring DC. A few stops further out along the Metro’s Orange Line, the Ballston neighborhood has several large hotels close to the Ballston metro stop.
The public transport options in this area for getting downtown are among the best in the region, with good coverage from buses and Metro rail (here’s a handy trip planner. It is also possible to walk from parts of these areas, although it can be a long walk in some cases (at least 2 miles). There are also excellent bike paths along the river and the Custis Trail if you’re inclined to rent a bike or bring your own.
If you’re after old-world charm, Old Town Alexandria is a good bet. From cobblestone streets to historic buildings to quaint shops and very good bars and restaurants, it offers a slightly less frantic (and often less expensive) alternative to Georgetown and has some top notch hotel and dining options.
While it’s technically possible to walk to the cherry blossoms from here, that’s really only for die-hard walkers (approx. 6 miles each way). But it’s a very pleasant ride along a bike path that runs along the Potomac if you want to rent a bike, and there’s a Metro stop at the end of King Street.
Old Town offers two other good options for transportation to the cherry blossoms. One is the Old Town Trolley, a sightseeing bus that circulates through the tourist sites of DC and Arlington. You can find more information about its routes and ticket prices here. Another transportation option from Old Town is by boat. You can find more information on that here.
Be aware that Alexandria is a rather sprawling region that encompasses Old Town but also spread out for miles beyond of shopping malls and major highways. Unless you’re specifically looking for budget options further afield, staying in the general vicinity of Old Town is probably your best bet in terms of convenience, especially if you want to minimize driving.
There are, of course, many other lodging options in what is a very big and heavily populated region. Some, like Bethesda, McLean, or Fairfax offer a more residential feel.
In general, the further you move away from the National Mall, the more budget options open up. The flip side is that they probably involve longer trips to get downtown. Staying outside the ring-road known as the Beltway will mean that both morning and evening rush hours, each of which lasts a few hours, will factor heavily in your daily plans. If you’re driving, you could end up fighting some of the region’s notorious traffic all the way in and out.
Metro is by far the best way to get downtown from these areas, although not every area is equally well served by Metro. Some have good bike and walking trails that lead downtown, if you’re up for a bit of exercise.
Among the better options further afield is National Harbor in southern Maryland. It’s a relatively new development on the Potomac waterfront purpose-built for large hotels and restaurants. The catch is that most of its public transport options involve at least a bus and one or two metro rail transfers. It also offers some scheduled access to the cherry blossoms by boat, although you should confirm with the hotel that the boat services will be offered that year.
Getting To and From Your Hotel
If you’re coming by air, the DC region has three big airports: Dulles (airport code IAD), Baltimore-Washington (airport code BWI), and Reagan-National (airport code DCA).
The closest to central DC is Reagan-National–you can see a number of the monuments right from the airport, and if you’re lucky when you fly in you might fly low along the Potomac and pass right next to the cherry blossoms and get a spectacular view of the National Mall (a left-side window seat is best if the wind is in the right direction for an approach from the north). Reagan-National has its own Metro stop next to the terminal. Dulles and BWI are a bit further afield but work well. All have the usual assortment of transportation options from taxis to rental cars to ride-share vans. Quite a few hotels will offer some kind of shuttle service or can arrange for pickup–it’s best to ask in advance.
The two best options for getting from your hotel to the cherry blossoms from your hotel are to walk or to ride the Metro. You can find other options on my How to Get There page.
Metro. Washington’s version of the subway (although it’s not all underground) is called the Metro. Like most aging major public transport systems, it has its issues, and locals gripe for good reason about reliability issues during rush hours and the notorious unreliability of station escalators, but overall it’s pretty efficient and user-friendly system if you’re not worrying about arriving at the office late. If you choose a hotel near a Metro stop, you’re set. This handy trip planner lays out the options for getting from A to B. The morning rush hour can be pretty crowded, so it’s worth trying to delay your trip until after the crush if you can. And because of massive program of renovations and upgrades there are often some line closures on weekends. You can find scheduled weekend service adjustments here.
Taxis/Uber/Lyft. There are lots of taxis in the region, although they’re divided amongst dozens of companies and have certain restrictions on their service based on which district (or county) they’re based in. So, frustratingly, catching a cab in DC can sometimes end up being more complicated than it should be. All area cabs are now required to use a meter. Here’s a handy taxi fare calculator (although bear in mind that the roads around the Tidal Basin can become clogged at the height of the bloom, so actual fares might end up higher).
If you’re getting dropped off, the FDR Memorial, MLK Memorial, and Jefferson Memorial all have drop-off areas, but traffic can slow things down in getting to them. Your driver might recommend dropping you off somewhere nearby that’s a little less clogged with road traffic.
Getting To and From the Cherry Blossoms
I’ve put together a detailed post on the options for how to get there.
Visitor Guides for Washington DC
Here are some good online resources to help plan 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:
And if you’re trying to get kids excited about the visit, National Geographic has put together a popular book for kids on the cherry blossoms, Cherry Blossoms Say Spring.
If you’re just after a map, this 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 fold-out map. Around the Mall and Tidal Basin, the National Park Service has done a pretty good job of putting up signs that are also very helpful, so you can find your way pretty well without a map.
If you’re after information specifically about the cherry blossoms, these are good places to start (and also make very nice gifts):
- The Cherry Blossom Festival: Sakura Celebration
- Cherry Blossoms: The Official Book of the National Cherry Blossom Festival
Enjoy your visit!