First Person: A First-Timer's Guide to Visiting Washington, D.C. in the Spring
Take in the cherry blossoms, museums, doughnuts and more.
I’m not sure how I missed the middle school field trip to our nation’s capital that it seems most of my peers took. But I was excited that my first time visiting Washington, D.C. a few weeks ago fell during one of the city’s most beautiful events – the National Cherry Blossom Festival.
Where to Stay
Since spring is a popular time for visitors, partly because of the festival, hotel prices start to rise in early March. You’ll likely pay $250+ for a quality hotel anywhere near the National Mall.
I knew I wanted to stay at The Avery Georgetown, a charming boutique hotel that opened in the heart of Georgetown in June 2016. It features 15 guest rooms, includes complimentary breakfast and is beautifully designed with vintage-meets-modern décor. The prices were pretty steep for Friday and Saturday night, so I opted to stay at an Airbnb in Takoma Park, Maryland for less than half the price Friday and Saturday and then stayed at The Avery Georgetown just for Sunday night.
Switching lodging locations mid-trip required me to consider checkout times, but The Avery gladly let me drop off my luggage early in the morning prior to my official 4 p.m. check-in so I wouldn’t have to carry my suitcase around all day or rent a storage locker. I loved The Avery, but had zero complaints about my Airbnb in Takoma Park too. The Airbnb was in a quiet residential neighborhood and only about a 25-minute Metro ride from downtown. In the end, I got a taste of two different neighborhoods and was able to experience an ideal boutique hotel without blowing my budget.
What to Do
If you’re lucky enough to visit during the National Cherry Blossom Festival, first and foremost, take in the blooms by walking around the Tidal Basin and National Mall. I was unsure if I would actually end up seeing the cherry blossoms because an unseasonably warm winter led to the blooms starting to appear in early March. They were on track to reach a record-breaking earliest-ever peak time. As a result, the festival even moved the official festival dates up to March 15 – April 15. But then an unexpected cold blast happened mid-March.
After the snow finally melted, the blossoms just started to open up around March 20, and the peak viewing day was March 25. They may not have bloomed as boldly as in past years, but they still looked pretty spectacular to this first-timer. If you can, make your first trip to D.C. during the spring.
Next, hit the museums. You could honestly spend weeks just visiting museums and monuments in D.C. Personally, I can get museum-ed out fairly quickly, especially after walking for hours, so I just visited a few.
At the top of my list was the African American Museum of Culture and History. Since opening in September as the 19th and newest museum of the Smithsonian Institute, more than one million people have visited. The popularity of the museum means limited passes. Passes to all Smithsonian museums are free, but you must have a timed pass to visit the African American Museum of Culture and History. You have three options for getting a timed pass: same-day online passes, walkups (weekdays only) and advance online passes. I visited on a weekend and didn’t reserve a pass a couple of months ago, so a same-day pass it was. Same-day passes are released every day at 6:30 a.m. and go very quickly. Thankfully, waking up at 6:29 a.m. on vacation paid off.
I made the rookie mistake of assuming since the museums are mostly all free, I could wait until I arrived in D.C. to research getting tickets. While I was lucky to score same-day tickets to the African American Museum of Culture and History, I wasn’t as lucky with passes for the Hirshhorn Museum due to the popularity of the Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors exhibit. If you’re unfamiliar with this exhibit, it showcases the work of the Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama’s sixty-five-year career. Visitors can experience six of her mesmerizing Infinity Mirror Rooms and a selection of her other key works. If you plan to visit, I highly suggest booking tickets in advance. If you miss the exhibit in D.C., you can see it in Seattle at the Seattle Art Museum from June 30 - Sep. 10 followed by the Broad in Los Angeles through September 17, the Art Gallery of Ontario and the Cleveland Museum of Art and Atlanta's High Museum of Art in 2018.
As a news junkie with a degree in journalism, I had to make time for the Newseum, too. This museum is one of the few that isn’t free – adult tickets cost $24.
Where to Eat and Drink
During my visit, I met up with a friend who works on Capitol Hill and she told me that people in D.C. work hard during the week and brunch hard on the weekend. (Yes, brunch is a verb). Founding Farmers was my favorite and Ted’s Bulletin in Capitol Hill was a close second.
If you’re a doughnut person, you have to visit Astro Doughnuts and District Doughnut. I tried both and you really can’t go wrong. Both had a crème brûlée flavor. While it was a close contest, I have to say, I enjoyed District’s slightly more because after they pull the yeast doughnut from the case, they torch the top seconds before handing it to you, resulting in a perfectly warm bite.
For a unique drinking experience, head to the Petworth neighborhood. Grab a drink at Petworth Citizen & Reading Room, where each week, the bartender selects a book to feature, reads the book and invents cocktail concoctions based on the chapters. The Reading Room has wall-to-wall bookshelves filled with donated books of all genres, which the waitress will inform you are up for the taking if you see something that strikes your fancy. I happened to sit next to a selection of travel books, so I came home with a London travel guide.