Goosebumps quickly replace numbness from the chilly night air as I tentatively make my way up the iconic steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC.
I realise I’m on the very spot that the civil rights leader Dr Martin Luther King Jnr made his famous speech 60 years ago, and feel his mighty presence about me.
Warming sunlight slowly edges above the horizon as the gospel singer Todd Dulaney breaks into song. I gaze out along the National Mall to the towering Washington Monument and US Capitol beyond, with sprinkles of pink from the flowering cherry trees adding to the sense of wonder.
I then glance behind me and am met by the knowing gaze of another great racial reformer, Abraham Lincoln, staring down from his 19ft marble frame from within his memorial temple.
I’ve made the flight to the US capital not only to walk in the footsteps of political giants, but to savour the beauty of the city’s annual cherry blossom extravaganza, and three-week spring festival.
DC (District of Columbia) ranks as second only to Japan for blossom displays, and it’s all thanks to the Land Of The Rising Sun.
Back in 1909, Tokyo’s mayor, Yukio Osaki, gifted 2,000 cherry trees to the city but they were infested with harmful insects and had to be destroyed.
No doubt mortified, Japan donated a further 3,000 trees, which were planted at the Tidal Basin opposite the huge neoclassical memorial to Thomas Jefferson, the third US President and principal author of America’s Declaration of Independence.
Many of those trees still remain while thousands of others have been added across this clean and elegant city, their delicate flowers attracting more than a million visitors every year.
Spring is my favourite of the seasons, a feeling clearly shared by countless others, judging by the number of pink and white balloons, stickers and other paraphernalia that adorns shops and businesses.
Many come for the cherry blossom parades, the kite festival and the Sakura – a Japanese street festival – which are all child-friendly, and all free of charge.
A festival website – nationalcheeryblossomfestival.org – tracks the blossoms through its Bloom Watch programme. On average, the peak bloom is April 2, but climate change has brought the date forward in recent years.
My base for a few days, the Hotel Washington offers a brilliant vantage point from its rooftop cocktail bar, including views directly – and surprisingly – into the White House.
I make a beeline for the annual Petalpalooza, a day-long celebration of music and art along the Anacostia River, having tucked into a cherry blossom punch, burger and fries at the popular Silver Diner Navy Yard, opposite the Washington Nationals Baseball Stadium.
It’s great fun, with jugglers and entertainers mixing among children of all ages, and the likes of the Blacc Print Experience and the high-tempo Go Go Gadjet providing music on outdoor platforms. It all builds towards a dazzling choreographed firework display, enjoyed by countless people along the river.
The following day I make my way to The Wharf, fresh from its multi-billion dollar makeover, for an altogether slower but no less impressive cherry blossom experience.
After ‘bottomless brunch’ at the Ambar (ambarrestaurant.com), a popular Balkan restaurant replete with cherry blossom ceiling, I enter the Artechouse DC – the country’s first innovative art destination – for their topical Pixelbloom exhibition.
I’m the first to admit some new art leaves me cold, but this is mesmerising. I only wish my one-year-old granddaughter was here to enjoy the immersive experience, with its kaleidoscope of colours, shapes and music.
A potent Fleeting Moment cocktail from its futuristic cocktail bar adds to the enjoyment.
Just around the corner, Unlimited Biking offers a brilliant way to visit the biggest and most impressive of the 100-or-so monuments and memorials that litter the capital through their cycling tours, all on relatively flat terrain.
Our guide, Josh, leads us along the National Mall and Tidal Basin to nine of the sites over three hours, including the World War Two, Vietnam and Korean War memorials, answering questions and allowing us time to soak in the history.
It’s a treat to visit the Smithsonian Castle and learn more about the British scientist James Smithson, who left $508,000 in his will – equivalent to £50 million in today’s money – to “provide an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge”, despite never having stepped foot in the US, never mind Washington, DC.
The scale of the Smithsonian Institute is breathtaking, with 155 million artworks, scientific specimens, artefacts and other objects, only 2% of which are on display at any given time.
I head for the popular National Air and Space Museum (airandspace.si.edu), which has recently undergone a multi-million dollar facelift, and pore over the many treasures, including the Wright brothers Orville and Wilbur’s original first plane and the Apollo 11 command module, Columbia.
I’m also captivated by the 25-minute planetarium show in the IMAX Theatre, which also gives my aching feet a welcome breather.
With so much to see in this awe-inspiring city, it’s tough to know what to prioritise, but I take a friend’s advice and opt for the Library of Congress, the largest library in the world with more than 164 million books.
It’s not so much the size of the place that strikes me as the beauty of the great hall, marble sculptures and mosaics.
As Lincoln once said: “Be sure you put your feet in the right place, then stand firm.”