3 Days in Washington DC: The Ultimate Cherry Blossom Festival Itinerary

Washington DC is one of the best destinations to visit in April largely due to the National Cherry Blossom Festival. This itinerary for 3 days in Washington DC will point you to the best blooms, world-class museums, and top-notch food and drink for a spring long weekend ideal for solo female travelers.

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When to See Cherry Blossoms in Washington DC

Cherry blossom season in Washington DC spans late March to mid-April. The exact dates of peak bloom vary a bit from year to year depending on weather. Keep an eye on the National Park Services’ forecast. If you can spend more than 3 days in Washington D.C., all the better since you’ll have time to arrive early in the season and wait for peak bloom, which can last from four to seven days. If you miss peak bloom, though, never fear — you will still get to see blossoms because there are two types of cherry trees on the Tidal Basin, one of which blooms two weeks after the first.

In 2021, the National Cherry Blossom Festival is scheduled for March 20 through April 11, though due to the ongoing pandemic, the parade has been cancelled and visitors to the National Mall are expected to observe social distancing. Peak bloom for cherry blossom season 2021 is expected to be the first weekend in April — April 2 through 5.

How to Get to Washington DC

There are several airports serving the Washington area.

Ronald Reagan Airport (DCA) is the closest to the city center, but only serves domestic flights plus a couple routes to Canada, so if you are not already in North America, you’ll need another port of entry. To get from Ronald Reagan Airport to the city center, take the yellow line of the Metro to L’Enfant Plaza. It’s about a 10 minute ride.

Dulles Airport (IAD) is the largest international airport in the area and unfortunately one of the worst connected to the city. To get from Dulles Airport to Washington DC city center, you’ll have to take the Silverline Express Bus to Wiehle-Reston, then get on the Metro’s Silver Line to Metro Center or L’Enfant Plaza. The bus leaves from Arrivals Level Door 4 and does not accept SmartTrip cards — you must pay $5 by cash or credit card for the 15-minute ride to Wiehle-Reston. The Metro ride to Metro Center Station will then take another 40 minutes.

Baltimore Washington Airport (BWI) is further out, but one of my favorite airports to fly into because of its ample budget flight options for international routes and the relative ease of connecting to the city center. Take the MARC suburban commuter train straight to Union Station in about 35 minutes, or take a free shuttle to BWI Marshall Amtrak station to catch a train to Union Station there. Amtrak is a little faster, clocking in at 20- to 30-minute rides, but MARC is much cheaper, costing only $7 one-way compared to Amtrak’s $15-45 prices.

An important note about all Washington DC-area airports: none of them have storage or showers, so it is best to time your arrival close to the check-in time at your accommodations, if possible.

If you are already in the US, you can also reach Washington DC by train. Union Station is served by 10 Amtrak routes with  connections to Baltimore, Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Chicago, Richmond, Raleigh, Atlanta, New Orleans, Charleston, Orlando, and Miami. Union Station is within walking distance of the Capitol building and National Mall, and is on the Red Line of the DC Metro. 

Getting Around Washington DC

Washington DC has a fairly simple Metro system with six lines identified by a color code. The Orange and Silver Lines run east to west and form important connections to suburbs in Maryland and Virginia, most notably the Rosslyn and Clarendon neighborhoods in Arlington. The Blue Line overlaps with the Silver line until crossing the river into Virginia – it branches off to reach Arlington National Cemetery, the Pentagon and Ronald Reagan Airport. The Smithsonian metro stop is on the Blue, Orange and Silver lines. The Yellow and Green lines cut straight through the heart of the District, running north to south through U Street, Chinatown and the National Mall. The Red line connects stops in the north and center of the District, including Georgetown and Union Station.

You will need a SmarTrip card for the Metro. You can buy a SmarTrip card online or at a Metro station. For 3 days in Washington DC, you’ll want to purchase a 3 Day Unlimited Pass for $30.

Where to Stay for 3 Days in Washington DC

There are a handful of hostels in Washington DC of varying quality. Hostels haven’t caught on in the US the way hey have in Europe and elsewhere in the world. Your best bet for any American hostel is one that is part of the Hostelling International chain. HI Washington DC is very highly rated and a short distance from the National Mall on K Street. Another highly rated hostel in Washington DC is Highroad Hostel DC, which is about a 15-minute walk from the National Zoo. Both cost about $40 per night for an all-female dorm.

The other budget-friendly option for accommodations in Washington DC is Airbnb. Airbnb is legal in Washington DC, but has fairly strict regulations and, as with any major city, you must do your due diligence in selecting a host. I always check my prospective host’s profile to make sure they are sharing their own home, not selling several listings for tourists and creating the affordable housing crises that plague most major cities with Airbnb. In DC, it’s best to book only a private room in a shared apartment, rather than an entire apartment or house to yourself. You shouldn’t have any trouble finding a room for less than $100 a night in a convenient location. I recommend staying near Dupont Circle if you can – it’s a great neighborhood for DC nightlife.

Tips for Solo Female Travelers in Washington DC

Washington DC is a large city with a lot of commuters and a lot of tourists. Stay vigilant, particularly when walking by yourself at night. Dupont Circle, Georgetown, Arlington and Alexandria are all safe places to stay for solo female travelers in Washington DC. Stick close to tourist areas and avoid the northeast part of the city.

The city is easy to navigate and has plenty to do. There are also restaurants and bars that are friendly to solo travelers, and it’s not too difficult to meet people in bars. Just be prepared for lots of questions, especially ones that focus on what you do for a living and what your background is.

Your biggest risk as a solo female traveler in Washington DC is theft. Crime rates in the District are high, but if you exercise common sense, it can still be perfectly safe to visit DC alone. I have been to DC several times throughout most of my life, oftentimes by myself, and have never had any safety issues. Keep an eye on your belongings, particularly on the Metro. I prefer carrying a cross-body anti-theft bag as a day bag. 

What to Pack for 3 Days in Washington DC

For a full list of everything I travel with, read my complete packing list for solo female travelers. These are a few items I consider must-haves for Washington DC.

Trade your backpack in for a cross-body bag you can keep an eye on during crowded Metro rides.

In an expensive city like DC, every penny counts. Save on bottled water and stay hydrated with a reusable water bottle.

Sunrise is the best time to avoid crowds and get great light for photographing the cherry blossoms. Make the most of the early morning light by using a sturdy, lightweight travel tripod.

Early morning temps in April can get a little chilly. Prana brand clothes are an investment but hold up well to heavy wear and travel. (I have one pair of leggings that are as soft now as they were 15 years ago!) Try a stylish zip hoodie for spring travel.

Day 1: Dinner at a Wine Bar or Beer at the Ballpark

Take your time arriving, navigating the Metro and getting settled at your accommodations. Your 3 days in Washington DC start in earnest with a stroll through Chinatown and dinner at one of the city’s great wine bars. Flight is heavy on the atmosphere and very friendly to solo diners. They serve flights of wine, as the name suggests, and I highly recommend trying one that features Virginia wines. Washington DC is just an hour or two from a burgeoning wine region where you can find quality Bordeaux-style blends, dry Provencal-style roses, and full-bodied whites like Chardonnay and Viognier. If you prefer something more tried and true, you’ll be spoiled for choice. Flight’s bottle list has over 600 labels! The dinner menu has a mix of small plates and entrees, mostly American dishes with a little Mediterranean flair. Wine flights are $18 and entrees range from $12-24, so this is a splurge, but a worthwhile one.

If wine bars aren’t to your taste, and you’re lucky enough for your travel dates to line up with a home game, trade Flight in for Top of the Yard. This rooftop bar overlooks Nationals Park, the playing field of the Washington Nationals baseball team. The 2020 regular season kicks off Thursday, April 2 against the Mets. The bar serves brats, burgers and classic bar appetizers. Pour a cold one and enjoy a deeply American springtime tradition.

Day 1: Monuments & Memorials

Whether it’s your first time in the nation’s capital, or you’ve been countless times and want a fresh perspective, one of the best things to do in Washington DC is see the city’s monuments and memorials lit up after dark. The 3-hour Washington Under the Stars tour is a great way to fit in some classic sightseeing after an early dinner. It’s the perfect way to squeeze the sights into just 3 days. You’ll see the city’s top highlights including the Capitol building, the White House, the Washington Monument, the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial, the Franklin D. Roosevelt memorial, the Vietnam War memorial, and the Lincoln Memorial. The tour is a mix of bus travel and walking.

Day 2: View Cherry Blossoms on Tidal Basin

No need to wait any longer for the main event of your 3 days in Washington DC! There are plenty of tours available for viewing cherry blossoms, but with most of the trees forming a scenic path around Tidal Basin near the National Mall, you don’t need a guide. Seeing cherry blossoms is one of the best free things to do in Washington DC. You’ll want to get there as early as you can manage to avoid the crowds. Cherry blossom season in Washington DC is one of the busiest times of year in the city, and crowds will pick up at Tidal Basin by 10am. The light just after sunrise is best for getting that classic shot of the Jefferson Memorial framed by cherry blossoms.

Be prepared to stop regularly and take pictures of your fellow travelers! If people see you taking one picture, they will practically form a line. Solo female travelers are seen as very approachable in DC and most couples, families and groups are more likely to ask solo travelers for pictures than they are to interrupt another family or group.

Bear in mind cherry blossoms can be very delicate so you should never climb a tree for pictures.

To get to Tidal Basin, take the Silver, Orange, or Blue Line of the Metro to the Smithsonian stop, then walk toward the Washington Monument.

Other spots to see cherry blossoms in Washington DC include the US National Arboretum, Upper Senate Park by the Capitol building, Stanton Park in the Capitol Hill neighborhood, and the Japanese-American Memorial on Louisiana Avenue.

Day 2: Visit a Smithsonian Museum (or a Few!)

Spending 3 days in Washington DC, especially during the immensely popular cherry blossom season, can be an expensive undertaking when it comes to dining and accommodations. The wealth of free things to do in Washington DC is what will balance your budget. The Smithsonian Institution operates 20 museums and galleries, as well as the National Zoo, all with free admission.

The Smithsonian Museums on the National Mall, listed in order of location from the Washington Monument to the Capitol building, include: 

  • African-American History and Culture Museum
  • American History Museum
  • Natural History Museum
  • Freer Gallery
  • Sackler Gallery
  • Smithsonian Castle and Gardens
  • African Art Museum
  • Arts and Industries Building (currently closed for renovations)
  • Hirshhorn Museum
  • Air and Space Museum
  • American Indian Museum

The classic top three museums to visit in Washington DC are the American History Museum, the Natural History Museum and the Air and Space Museum. The American Indian Museum and the African-American History and Culture Museum are amazing recent additions telling a more complete history of the United States. If you want to see the African-American History and Culture Museum, you’ll have to schedule your visit well in advance due to its popularity.

If you are a visual arts fan, the Hirshhorn Museum is a must-see for its modern and contemporary art collection and its excellent outdoor sculpture garden. The national Portrait Gallery and the American Art Museum are also very popular, but are not directly on the National Mall — they are located at 8th and F Streets.

Pick your favorite or visit several and break for lunch from an area food truck. Some high quality spots to look out for include Dogs on the Curb, PhoWheels, Swizzler, and CapMac. Download the Food Truck Fiesta app to see a map of food truck locations in DC, updated in real time.

Day 2: Attend a National Cherry Blossom Festival Event

There are many annual events that are part of the National Cherry Blossom Festival. Free events include a large parade down Constitution Avenue, a kite festival at Washington Monument, and Petalpaolooza, a day-long celebration with live music and fireworks on the Capitol Riverfront. See nationalcherryblossomfestival.org for dates and ticket info.

Day 2: Have a Cherry Blossom-Infused Drink

Sadly, the epic Cherry Blossom Pop-Up Bar on 7th Street — well-known for its cherry blossom flavored drinks and incredible cherry blossom decor — has permanently closed. While the long wait for a tipple under an impeccably designed canopy of fake blooms was worth it, there are still plenty of bars in the District that add seasonal drinks to their menus. Bars that have served cherry blossom drinks in the past include St. Regis at 16th and K Streets, La Vie in the Wharf neighborhood, and Ocean Prime on G Street. Keep an eye on their menus as the season approaches.

Day 3: Eat Your Way Down U Street

Washington DC is becoming more and more of a foodie destination every year, and the city is also home to some of the nation’s important black history. Carpe DC has an excellent Washington DC food tour that explores both these aspects fo the District using U Street as a lens. 

U Street is a historically black neighborhood that saw jazz greats in the 1920s and dangerous riots in the late ’60s. Carpe DC’s tour describes the critical history of this rapidly gentrifying neighborhood between mouthwatering tastes of old and new culinary hotspots.

Stops include Ben’s Chili Bowl (an institution since the 1950s), a traditional restaurant in Little Ethiopia, a secret speakeasy behind Capo Deli, and Calabash Tea & Tonic – a vegan bakery and tearoom on 7th Street.

Day 3: Test Your Espionage Skills

Thanks to the Smithsonian, most of the museums in Washington DC are free, but there are a couple that charge admission. The International Spy Museum is the perfect place to indulge your inner adolescent. Exhibits cover the history of espionage around the world, cool gadgets and tech, spies in pop culture and more with loads of engaging, interactive features. The museum recently moved from its location on F Street to a new building (twice the size!) at L’Enfant Plaza. Tickets are $25 but for one of the most unique and fun museums in the world, it’s worth every penny.

(Note: I would typically recommend the Newseum as an alternative interactive museum if you are more interested in journalists than spies, but it has closed as of December 31, 2019.)

What to Do with More Than 3 Days in Washington DC

Tour the Capitol & Supreme Court to learn more about the US government. Tickets for the Capitol must be booked in advance.

Explore the largest library in the world. Free tours of the Library of Congress are available at select times Monday through Saturday.

Spot a different set of flowers at the United States Botanic Garden.

Grab a sweet treat on a DIY walking tour of Georgetown.

Get out on the water. The Potomac River is one of Washington DC’s defining characteristics, cutting through the urban landscape. Stroll along The Wharf, explore National Harbor, join a group of kayakers or paddle-boarders, or take a paddle boat out on Tidal Basin for a different angle on the cherry blossoms.

 

Day Trips from Washington DC

Stroll the charming 18th-century old town of Alexandria, just minutes from the city center.

Tour Mount Vernon, the private home of George Washington.

Taste Virginia wines straight from the source in Loudoun County. My favorite wineries in northern Virginia horse coutry are Breaux Vineyards, Sunset Hills Vineyard, and Boxwood Estate.

Escape to the Blue Ridge Mountains in Charlottesville. This historic central Virginia town has great hiking, lots of wineries and craft breweries, and a bourgeoning art scene.

Experience a different slice of American history in Baltimore. Visit the National Aquarium, walk in Edgar Allan Poe’s footsteps, and have a crabcake at a restaurnt along the harbor.

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