Celebrating Independence Day in the nation's capital is an unforgettable experience. Washington knows how to throw a birthday party, and despite the city's sometimes stifling summer heat and humidity, thousands of people don red, white, and blue and join in the festivities. This year the Fourth falls on a Sunday, but the whole weekend is packed with events, and many of them are free. Head to the Mall from Thursday through Monday for the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, which showcases traditional music, food, and costumes. This year's event highlights Asian Pacific American cultures and Mexican heritage. Pay homage to freedom with a visit to the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and the Bill of Rights at the National Archives. Or swing by the White House Visitor Center on Sunday for free exhibits, games, crafts, and the chance to participate in a mock signing of the Declaration of Independence.
On Sunday the Fourth, the fun kicks off at around 11:45 am with a parade along Constitution Avenue (between 7th and 17th streets). Later in the afternoon and evening catch a free concert—Freedom Plaza (Pennsylvania Ave. between 9th and 14th streets) usually hosts a free jazz performance, the Washington Monument will have a musical guest perform (6 pm), and the famous A Capitol Fourth concert hosted by PBS features a show by the National Symphony on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol (8 pm, gates open at 3 pm). The weekend's main event, of course, is the fireworks display over the monuments. You'll get good views from almost anywhere on the Mall, but get here early—you'll be competing with scores of fellow patriots for a spot to watch.
Who Should Go
Anyone ready to handle large crowds, high temperatures and humidity, and long waits. As long as you're prepared for these factors, it's almost impossible not to catch the patriotic spirit. History buffs will love the thematic exhibits at the Smithsonian museums. The spectacular fireworks show makes both kids and adults ooh and ah, but if you're traveling with the young ones you might prefer to avoid the hectic Mall and check out a less crowded viewing location.
Planning Your Trip
The influx of visitors for Washington's Fourth of July celebration makes getting around more difficult than usual. Hotel rooms fill up quickly so book in advance. For more affordable rates, check out the lodging options in suburban Virginia and Maryland. Don't try to drive or find parking around the Mall; this is difficult enough on non-holiday weekends, and crowds and parade closures make it nearly impossible on the Fourth. The Metro runs on a special July Fourth schedule and is a good way to get downtown. Keep in mind the Smithsonian stop is usually closed on the Fourth (at this writing the Metro schedules for the Fourth of July were not available; check www.wmata.com for updates). Finally, wear comfy shoes and be prepared to do a lot of walking.
Other Places to Watch the Fireworks
Iwo Jima Memorial. The views from this elevated memorial across the Potomac in Arlington are lovely. It's a short walk from the Rosslyn Metro station.
Potomac River Cruise. It really doesn't get better than watching fireworks burst over the monuments as you sip a cocktail and drift along the Potomac. You'll skip the crowds and have a guaranteed view, but it comes at a price—fireworks cruises can be quite expensive. They're also incredibly popular, so book well in advance. Most tours include dinner and an open bar. See the Boat Tours section in our Destination Guide for more details.
Washington National Cathedral. Perched high above the Mall in Washington's Upper Northwest neighborhood, the National Cathedral offers great views from the grassy space on its south side. Get here at 2 pm to hear the annual Independence Day Organ recital.
Photo credit: Nitin Sanil