The city’s peak seasons generally coincide with two activities: the sessions of Congress, and springtime—beginning with the appearance of the cherry blossoms.
Specifically, from about the second week in September until Thanksgiving, and again from about mid-January to June (when Congress is “in”), hotels are full of guests whose business takes them to Capitol Hill or to conferences. Mid-March through June is traditionally the most frenzied season, when families and school groups descend upon the city to see the cherry blossoms and enjoy Washington’s sensational spring. Hotel rooms are at a premium, and airfares tend to be higher. This is also a popular season for protest marches.
If crowds turn you off, consider visiting Washington at the end of August or in early September, when Congress is still “out” and families have returned home to get their children back to school, or between Thanksgiving and mid-January, when Congress leaves again and many people are busy with their own at-home holiday celebrations. Hotel rates are cheapest at this time, too, and many hotels offer attractive packages.
If you’re thinking of visiting in July and August, be forewarned: The weather is very hot and humid. Despite the heat, Independence Day (July 4th) in the capital is a spectacular celebration. Summer is also the season for outdoor concerts, festivals, parades, and other events. If you can deal with the weather, this is a good time to visit: Locals often go elsewhere on vacation, so the streets and attractions are somewhat less crowded. In addition, hotels tend to offer their best rates in July and August.
Season by season, here’s what you can expect of the weather in Washington:
Fall: This is my favorite season. The weather is often warm during the day—in fact, if you’re here in early fall, it may seem entirely too warm. But it cools off, and even gets a bit crisp, at night. By late October, Washington has traded its famous greenery for the brilliant colors of fall foliage.
Winter: People like to say that Washington winters are mild—and sure, if you’re from Minnesota, you’ll find Washington warmer, no doubt. But D.C. winters can be unpredictable: bitter cold one day, an ice storm the next, followed by a couple of days of sun and higher temperatures. The winter of 2009–2010 was especially severe, bringing record snows; 2010–2011’s was very mild and 2011–2012’s unremarkable; winter 2012–2013 was a mix, and 2013–2014’s was fre-e-e-ezing and very snowy! Pack with all possibilities in mind.
Spring: Early spring weather tends to be colder than most people expect. Cherry blossom season, late March to early April, can be iffy—and very often rainy and windy. As April slips into May, the weather usually mellows, and people’s moods with it. Late spring is especially lovely, with mild temperatures and intermittent days of sunshine, flowers, and trees colorfully erupting in gardens and parks all over town. Washingtonians sweep outdoors to stroll the National Mall, relax on park benches, or laze away the afternoon at outdoor cafes.
Summer: Anyone who has ever spent July and August in D.C. will tell you how hot and steamy it can be. Though the buildings are air-conditioned, many of Washington’s attractions, like the memorials and organized tours, are outdoors and unshaded, and the heat can quickly get to you. Make sure you stop frequently for drinks (vendors are plentiful), and wear a hat, sunglasses, and sunscreen.
Banks, government offices, post offices, and many stores, restaurants, and museums are closed on the following legal national holidays: January 1 (New Year’s Day), the third Monday in January (Martin Luther King, Jr. Day), the third Monday in February (Presidents’ Day), the last Monday in May (Memorial Day), July 4 (Independence Day), the first Monday in September (Labor Day), the second Monday in October (Columbus Day), November 11 (Veterans Day/Armistice Day), the fourth Thursday in November (Thanksgiving Day), and December 25 (Christmas).