immersive art gallery
Artechouse create immersive and experiential art exhibits through innovative technology. PHOTOGRAPH BY ARTECHOUSE DC

The capital is blooming with revitalised neighbourhoods and new attractions, from the culinary to the cultural — and there’s no better time to visit than spring, when it lets loose for all things cherry blossom

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The eyes of the world are often trained on Washington’s political dealings, but for a few weeks each spring, state affairs fade into the background as the city succumbs to something uncharacteristically frivolous: cherry blossom fever. In the century since Japan gifted the capital 2,000 of its iconic sakura trees, the US capital has layered spectacle after spectacle onto the annual bloom; America, after all, doesn’t do things by halves.    

I arrive in April, just in time for the grand finale of the National Cherry Blossom Festival, where local bands perform on pink stages and pink fireworks dazzle over the Anacostia River. It’s a taste of the frenzy that’s swept the city for the past fortnight: parades, a pink-tie ball, a kite festival and the crowning of a cherry blossom queen are just a fraction of the events in the calendar. And, as I continue to explore over the following days, the mania shows no signs of subsiding. Fake blossom boughs adorn brunch spots and cherry blossom stickers are plastered across the metros. Every mixologist worth their salt, it seems, has a signature sakura cocktail on offer.

“I was doing cherry blossom products long before the festival became this big,” Kim Downes tells me at her stall of pink candles and pink bath bombs in Eastern Market, a 150-year-old hub for produce-growers and artisans in Capitol Hill. She’s dressed the part: pink trousers and accessories to match her pink hair. “They make perfect souvenirs if you’re visiting for the blossom,” she says of the display. “The funny thing people don’t realise is that cherry blossoms don’t have any scent, so I’ve created one using hyacinth!” 

Keen to better understand the collective craze, I hire a bicycle and head down to Tidal Basin, where most of the cherry trees are planted, weaving between the monuments, memorials and museums of National Mall park. This is the DC of postcards and first-timers’ travel guides — the Washington Monument at one end, the Lincoln Memorial at the other — but it’s by no means the city’s only attraction. In the five years since I last visited, revitalised neighbourhoods including NoMa, The Wharf and Southwest have come into their own, with new galleries, serious gastronomy and a young, hip energy drawing it all together. 

Nevertheless, I’m pleased to be pedalling through the most famous of DC’s 683 parks in the springtime sunshine, and it’s not long before I spot a profusion of frothy blossoms. This tree is one of the last still in bloom, and, as I get closer, its delicate, candy-pink buds have an unexpected effect on me. A breeze stirs a flurry of petals into the warm air, and I realise I’m converted. Cherry blossom parades, cocktails and bath bombs? Sign me up. 

What to see and do in Washington, D.C.

1. Artechouse
A shock of the irreverent and cutting-edge amid a sea of venerable institutions, Artechouse (an elision of ‘art’, ‘tech’ and ‘house’) creates immersive digital installations in the bowels of a once-derelict theatre near The Wharf. The company have been merging art and art spaces here since 2017, collaborating with digital architects to one-up themselves year-on-year, even partnering with NASA on one of their latest projects. 

2. Monuments & Memorials Bike Tour
This three-hour, two-wheeled city tour from Unlimited Biking is a particularly comprehensive option. It whisks riders down the National Mall and around the Tidal Basin, taking in as many landmarks and photo opportunities as the crowds allow. To have the Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial and others to yourself, opt for the night-time tour. 

3. Rubell Museum
Don and Mera Rubell are contemporary art power players: the octogenarians have collected over 7,000 pieces since they married in 1964 and show no sign of stopping. Artists such as Keith Haring and Kehinde Wiley address searing issues here at their second museum, which opened in 2022 in the capital’s southwest — poignantly close to the country’s legislative seat.

4. Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum
The most popular of DC’s 17 free-to-enter Smithsonian museums, this temple to American engineering reopened in late 2022 with phase one of a vast renovation that is due to conclude in 2025. Launch yourself into the history of flight and space exploration with a collection — the largest of its kind in the world — showcasing planes, rockets and curiosities, including the original 1903 Wright brothers flying machine and Neil Armstrong’s Apollo 11 spacesuit.

5. National Museum of Women in the Arts
A two-year renovation saw the world’s first major institution dedicated to women artists reopen in October with super-swish, expanded galleries and a busy schedule of public programming, from workshops to talks with artists and educators. Standouts include works by Frida Kahlo and Mary Cassatt; discover them with the free collection tour held each Friday.

6. Key Bridge Boathouse
Georgetown, the capital’s oldest and most charming neighbourhood, is on the Potomac waterfront, and you could easily spend a day bouncing between its high-end boutiques and fashionable restaurants. Instead, pack a picnic, rent a kayak and take to the river to unlock natural treasures such as Roosevelt Island or C&O Canal.

Where to eat

1. Union Market
At the heart of revitalised NoMa is DC’s foremost food hub, a welcoming warehouse given over to 40 local culinary vendors, with ample outdoor seating. Diaspora cuisines are well represented: tuck into fragrant dumplings at Laoban; South Indian chutneys at DC Dosa; and dishes like Persian chicken salads or falafel bocadillo sandwiches at Immigrant Food, a start-up that advocates for immigration rights. 

2. Succotash
The city takes dining seriously, but there’s a playful indulgence to the Southern menu at chichi Succotash, which opened in 2017 in the historic Penn Quarter. Salads dressed in buttermilk, tomahawk steaks with shrimp, and family-style platters of chicken and waffles are just some of the treats from James Beard Award nominee chef Edward Lee, while the long bar serves up unmissable bourbon cocktails.

3. Causa
Located in Shaw, chef Carlos Delgado’s masterful ode to his native Peru is one of DC’s newest — and hottest — Michelin-starred joints. The ever-evolving, six-course prix fixe menu ($125/£100 per person) celebrates the Andean nation’s natural pantry and culinary traditions, with optional pisco flights or wine pairing.

Interior of restaurant and bar
Succotash brings southern cuisine to the capital with chicken and waffles and tomahawk steaks. PHOTOGRAPH BY RACHEL PARAOAN

Best places to stay

1. Union Market Hotel
A funky addition to the city’s hotel scene since 2022, the 106-room property is targeted at younger crowds with street art creeping up the outside brickwork and industrial-chic co-working spaces inside. Rooms are plush and stylish for the price tag, with upcycled furniture and whimsical pops of colour. 

2. The Line
Feeding off and into the fashionable vibe of Adams Morgan, home to some of DC’s best nightlife, this bolthole set in a former church dazzles with grown-up hipster style that stays just the right side of pretentious. Yoga classes and live podcasting events add buzz to the common areas, while, six years on from opening, the house restaurant is still a hot ticket.

3. Hotel Washington
Hotels don’t come more central than this four-star abutting the White House’s east wing. Dating back to 1917, it’s hosted a who’s who of diplomats over the years in its classically styled bedrooms and panoramic rooftop bar. Design touches include lifts decorated with constellations showing what the night sky looked like on key political dates, from the Declaration of Independence to Barack Obama’s inauguration.

Like a local

1. Drum circle at Meridian Hill Park
Held on Sundays at 3pm, this 60-year-old tradition is said to have begun as a response to the assassination of Malcolm X. It sees scores of rhythmic musicians — joined by jugglers, hula-hoopers and other street performers — strike up a free-to-all drum circle that offers uplift and catharsis for participants and viewers alike.

2. Busboys & Poets
Now with nine locations in the wider Washington metropolitan area, this chain of bookshop-restaurants started out with the venue at 14th and V Streets in 2005. It’s a hub for activists — or travellers looking for a bite, a political talk or both. A mural on the wall quotes poet (and former busboy) Langston Hughes: ‘Let America be America again / Let it be the dream it used to be.’ 

3. Municipal Fish Market
The nation’s longest-running open-air collection of seafood vendors dates back to 1805 and has been smartened up in the ongoing revitalisation of The Wharf neighbourhood. Barges selling fish, shrimp, crab, clams and oysters from the Chesapeake Bay float alongside the pier, with sellers including Jessie Taylor Seafood tossing your selection into boiling water, seasoning it and serving it there and then. 

After hours

1. 9:30 Club
Washington’s legendary concert venue got a new home at the eastern end of swinging U Street in 1996, but it still carries all the kudos gained during the 80s, nurturing emerging talent at 930 F Street NW. From sold-out shows by Bob Dylan and secret gigs by Radiohead to rising stars, this is the spot for a raucous crowd and electric sets.

2. Chicken & Whiskey
Prohibition has been out since 1933, but DC never stopped loving speakeasies. A fake freezer door at the back of this South American cafe conceals a casual cocktail bar with hand-carved ice cubes and over 60 types of whisky. The concept may not be unique, but the venue has become somewhat of an institution in the nightlife district around 14th Street.

3. Red Bear Brewing Co
America’s urban microbrewery boom hasn’t bypassed DC; there are more spots for a cold one here than weeks in a year. Among the best is this 100% gay-owned tap room in a former NoMa industrial space, with reclaimed wood benches and a board game library. To sample more craft beer bars, take a tour with City Brew Tours, featuring 16 tastings and behind-the-scenes access.  

This story was created with the support of Visit Washington, DC

When to go: 
The National Cherry Blossom Festival takes place from 20 March to 14 April 2024. The city can get humid; spring and autumn are the most comfortable times to visit. The average summer high is 31C, dropping to a low of -4C in winter.

More info: 
Washington DC
National Cherry Blossom Festival

Published in the Classic USA guide, distributed with the March 2024 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK).

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