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First timer's guide to the National Cherry Blossom Festival

The true sign that spring has sprung in Washington, D.C., is the bloom of thousands of cherry trees sprinkled across the National Mall. A gift from Japan in 1912, the 3,020 trees were planted around the Tidal Basin and East Potomac Park.

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The cascade of blooms inspired a three-week festival, drawing more than 1.5 million visitors to Washington each year. The 2017 National Cherry Blossom Festival takes place from March 15 until April 16, with peak bloom (the day when 70 percent of the trees around the Tidal Basin have opened their buds) predicted for March 14 to 17. The festival is filled with a variety of signature events, including Opening Ceremony on March 25 at Warner Theater, the Blossom Kite Festival on April 1 and the National Cherry Blossom Festival Parade on April 8.

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Trip tips

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A trip to the nation's capital for the National Cherry Blossom Festival is an item on many bucket lists, but navigating the city when it swells with fellow tourists can be overwhelming. Narrowing down what to pack, where to spot the blooms, where to stay and where to park is no small task.

Although items like great walking shoes and a camera are a must, there are a few other things you'll want to toss in your suitcase. The pollen count surges during peak bloom, so bring Claritin or any other non-drowsy allergy medicine if you have pollen allergies, along with extra tissues and eye drops. Non-perishable snacks like trail mix and dried fruit are also good to have on hand since prices at food carts and stands along the National Mall go up during the festival.

To see the flowers and avoid major crowds, take a self-guided tour of the United States National Arboretum, home to 76 varieties of cherry trees. Cherry blooms are also found in Anacostia Park along the Anacostia River; the Japanese-style garden at Hillwood Estate, Museum & GardensRock Creek Park and Tudor Place in Georgetown.

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Where to stay

Cherry blossom fever takes over nearly every aspect of the city, reflected by special hotel packages and menu items at area restaurants and bars. Make memories at Capella Washington, D.C., Georgetown, where the Cherry Blossom Bloom package combines a full breakfast and accommodations in a superior room, with a private Segway tour through downtown and a professional photography session among cherry blooms. The hotel will bid farewell with your framed photography upon checkout. The Drink in the Blossoms Package at The Donovan gifts guests with two cocktails from hotel restaurant Zentan, two sachets of Organic Cherry Blossom Rose tea and a postcard featuring artwork inspired by the cherry blossoms from local artist Jamie Langhoff. Finally, families will love a stay at Avenue Suites Georgetown, where each suite has a fully-equipped kitchen, allowing guests to take advantage of the property's Stock The Fridge program with Trader Joe's. Not one to miss out on cherry blossom fun, the Your Avenue to the Cherry Blossoms package includes a personalized walking map of the Tidal Basin, guaranteed parking and a complimentary drink at the on-site A Bar lounge.

Getting around

Finding parking is notoriously difficult in Washington, so take the efficient and comprehensive Metrorail system. If your trip is three days or more, leave your car overnight in the daily parking lot at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport and take the metro (located within the airport) to downtown. Metro Center, Federal Triangle, Smithsonian, Archives and L'Enfant Plaza stops all are within walking distance from the Tidal Basin cherry trees.

If driving is a must, there are free parking spaces on the National Mall along Madison and Jefferson Drives near the Smithsonian Museum, and a free parking lot at East Potomac Park, but spots fill quickly. Additionally, free on-street parking is available throughout downtown but generally restricted to two hours. Apps like SpotHero and Parking Panda, and BestParking.com allow users to find a parking space, compare rates and reserve a space at a discounted price. At all costs, avoid parking at a hotel, where rates are much higher than public lots, and office building garages.

Getting there

Washington, D.C., is serviced by three major area airports: Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA); Dulles International Airport (IAD); and Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Airport (BWI). DCA is the only airport directly connected to the Metrorail system via the yellow and blue lines, but IAD and BWI Airport are accessible via Metrobus and Metrorail. Various flight carriers offer nonstop flights to all three airports from Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.

For more information on the National Cherry Blossom Festival, visit www.nationalcherryblossomfestival.org/ and for more information about Washington, D.C., visit washington.org/.

This story has been updated to reflect the 2017 National Cherry Blossom Festival. A previous version was written for the 2016 event.

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