For those of us in the northern hemisphere, the vernal equinox has just marked the beginning of spring! Let’s take a look at the best cities around the world for catching some spectacular cherry blossom this season
Cherry blossoms coming into bloom is one of the most incredible sights of spring. They pop their candy-pink petals to tell the world that the sun is finally here again, causing a beautiful blizzard just a few days later, and every person caught up in it suddenly becomes a serious photographer. Cherry blossom-viewing, or hanami (literally “flower watch”) is a huge springtime custom in Japan, where the beauty of the sakura is celebrated and the cycle of life is contemplated. Sure enough, it can be a universally-gratifying experience; people around the world halt in their busy lives just for a little while, to gaze in wonder at cherry blossom. These are the best cities in the northern hemisphere for joining in on just this.
Although the possibility of traveling to the country is still extremely limited due to the Covid-19 pandemic, we can’t not begin with Japan. Nowhere in the world can compete with Kyoto’s sakura. As winter turns to spring, the blossoms bloom and the former capital is inundated under a sea of pink. The monkey-filled hills surrounding the city erupt, the parks and gardens of the 1,600 temples and shrines fill with people partaking in hanami, and the Philosopher’s Path turns into a blizzard of petals. It is a magical experience in a breathtaking city.
The Japanese take hanami so seriously that their meteorological office provides predictions on when the sakura will pop. In theory, one can catch the blooming throughout the country, from south to north, by taking the train with a special tourist railcard that is exceptionally good value.
Of course, Japan holds two spots on this list, and the second has to be Tokyo. Simultaneously ultra-modern and traditional, it’s home to vast parks, rivers and temples where hanami opportunities are plentiful. Yoyogi Park, with its stunning temple and views of the city, is full of hipster-types escaping the madness of Harajuku to play music and dance under the cherry blossom. There are over 10,000 trees in Shinjuku Gyoen, many of which bloom late in the season; and Ueno Park — probably the most crowded — sees the fall begin a few days ahead of the rest. Meguro River has become one of the most iconic spots in the city for Instagrammers and the huge gardens of the Imperial Palace are simply incredible.
Changwon, South Korea
Gunhangje is the Korean name for cherry blossom-viewing, and the best festivities take place in Jinhae, a district of Changwon. Although it’s canceled this year in light of the pandemic, in normal times, some one million visitors descend on the city every spring for one of the country’s largest celebrations. The rivers, temples and even the railroads are lined with blossom, which is still an absolute spectacle, even without the party.
Buffalo, New York, US
Buffalo’s Delaware Park holds a Japanese garden full of cherry blossom trees. Every year, against a backdrop of classical architecture and lanterns, the volunteers who maintain the garden hold a festival to celebrate the coming of spring. It’s one of the best in North America, and there’s the whole of New York state’s second city’s beautiful neoclassical, beaux arts and art deco architecture to explore, too.
Macon, Georgia, US
Macon used to be a sleepy town in the deep south of the US until a local businessman discovered the beauty of the Yoshino cherry tree. On a business trip to Washington DC in 1952, William Fickling Sr. found the city to be full of trees similar to the one he had in his Georgia garden — the only cherry blossom in town. He taught himself how to care for and propagate the trees, and soon enough, Macon was full of them. Now, the Macon International Cherry Blossom Festival claims to be the best in the world — although I’m not sure what a Kyotoite would think of that.
Vancouver, one of the most relaxing cities in the world, is surely a fantastic place to take a walk through blizzards of pink petals. The city’s Cherry Blossom Festival runs for three weeks and includes formal balls, massive picnics and illuminations. They also run guided tours to explain the horticultural, historical and societal stories behind the trees.
Washington, DC, US
Washington DC’s cherry blossom trees have become an iconic part of the city since they were planted in 1912. The Tidal Basin in the shadows of the Martin Luther King and Thomas Jefferson Memorials is the place to go, where 1,800 of them stand, with even more in the East Potomac Park. A festival is held every year, and it’s an excellent chance to soak up some history at the same time.
In 1998, 63 sakura trees were planted in Stockholm’s King’s Garden — or Kungsträdgården — and a new Swedish tradition was born. Thousands of visitors come every year to see the blossoms fall. But it’s not the only place in the archipelagic city basking in cherry blossom. More than 10,000 trees have been planted along the streets of the city, so if you want to avoid the crowds, there are still plenty of opportunities to catch a cotton-candy blizzard.
Jerte Valley, Spain
The mountains of the Jerte Valley, near Madrid in Spain, are covered in cherry trees that awake every spring. The best ways to enjoy them are by hiking or riding a pony from the medieval city of Plasencia (which is full of Jewish, Muslim and Christian history) towards the Garganta de los Infiernos nature reserve. The route is full of tiny traditional villages, the ruins of Roman settlements and ancient monasteries. It’s not strictly one city, and it’s not really a festival, but it’s an experience like no other.
As if it needed anything else to bolster its romantic reputation, Paris is another city that heaves with blossom in the spring. A trip to the Eiffel Tower and the gardens of the Champs de Mars will guarantee a beautiful view. Many trees are also on the square that surrounds the Notre Dame cathedral, and Square Gabriel-Pierné is an excellent, more serene spot. Parc de Sceaux in the south of the city holds the most trees, and there’s a hanami festival in April.
Hamburg is a beautiful industrial city of canals, bridges and sin, but also of cherry blossoms. Its festival has the tongue twister of a name — Kirschblütenfest, and is one of the oldest in Europe — starting in 1968. Japan gifted the city some trees and they were planted along the banks of the Alster. Every year, there’s a huge firework display to celebrate hanami, best watched from a boat on the river.
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