Thanks to Jim D. for this question:
What is the best way to see the Cherry Blossom Festival?
For those that don't know already, Japan sent us a whole bunch (technically, I believe it was a crapload) of flowering cherry trees in 1912 to honor the continued close relationship between Japan and the United States. Obviously, we wouldn't let that stand so we retaliated with some dogwood trees a couple of years later, and ever since we've offloaded our surplus trees on each other. In 1935, the trees became so popular and iconic of DC, that the National Cherry Blossom Festival was started to help commemorate the close friendship between the Japanese and American peoples. Of course, we took a break for a few years in the 1940s as we tried to kill each other in numbers the world had never seen before, but we're back on now. So that's good.
The cherry tree, which naturally is a different species from the tree that produces cherries, has pale pink or white blossoms that bloom in a stunning manner, look beautiful for a few days, and then fall like snow about the ground. The Japanese, of course, view this as symbolic of the transient nature of life but then again, what don't they view as such? Viewing the blossoms in Japan is quite a popular activity, with whole families picnicking under the trees and enjoying plum sake. Sadly, our National Park Service isn't as enlightened about the sake and our customs have diverged from the Japanese.
There still is quite a lot of fun to be had here in DC, the wet blankets of the NPS notwithstanding. My main recommendation is to not get wrapped around the axle about catching the blossoms in their prime. Check out the schedule of events to find activities that interest you and plan your trip around that. Officially, the Festival is March 28th to April 12th. The ephemeral nature of the blossoms makes timing a visit specifically to see the Peak Bloom Date a frustrating experience. Why I remember back in aught seven, a stout wind blew all of the blossoms off the tree a scant three days after they bloomed. And as is almost traditional, there were no blooms out during the final Cherry Blossom Parade that year. Again, my advice, come to see DC and the Festival and regard the seeing of the blossoms themselves as a bonus.
So what do I like? Besides the ever popular picnic at the Tidal Basin (do not look in my brown bag)? Here's a non-exclusive selection:
1. Smithsonian Kite Festival - DO NOT MISS the Rokkaku Kite Battle at 3 pm. It's kite flying as God intended.
2. Lantern Lighting Ceremony - There's a 350+ stone lantern Japan gave us near the FDR Memorial. I just like this ceremony because it's the only time you get to see it lit.
3. Blessing of the Fleets - Just a little shout out for the Navy Memorial. Neat ceremony, only tangentially related to the Cherry Blossom Festival
4. Sakura Matsuri - Japanese Street Festival - I'm a sucker for a street festival.
Lots of other great options there. If you live around here or are a Cherry Blossom veteran, let me know your favorites.