Tips for celebrating the 4th of July in Washington DC

Will you be in our nation’s capital for Independence Day? We were there last year, and it was one of the memorable holidays we’ve celebrated while traveling! The number of activities, programs, and performances, as well as the sheer number of people, can be intimidating, so we’ve compiled our top tips for celebrating the 4th of July in Washington DC:


1. Book a hotel within walking distance of the National Mall:

No matter what you decide to do on the 4th, it will probably happen on or around the Mall. And trust me, you don’t want to have to park a car anywhere in the vicinity on July 4th. Taking a cab is tricky too, since so many road closures are in effect (your fare could be high as cabbies take detours). When we visited, we took  the Metro to the Mall on the 4th of July to save our feet from extra mileage, but walked back when the festivities were over. When we passed the first two Metro stations en route, the line to simply access the escalators spanned almost a block! Be in walking distance and you’ll be happier for it!


2. Take an afternoon siesta:

If you start your Independence Day watching the parade down Constitution Avenue and end it with the firework display and Capitol 4th concert, you’re looking at a 14-16 hour day. Opt to focus on the morning activities or evening activities, or, if you must do both, take an afternoon break. We spent 3 pm to 6 pm at our hotel, resting, watching TV, and snacking. If you can’t make it back to your accommodations, rest on a blanket in the shade or take an extended break in a museum cafe, enjoying the A/C.


3. ‘Preview’ the parade:

Don’t want to stake your claim curbside on Constitution Avenue by 7 am to watch the parade? Neither did we. Instead, we arrived on the Mall around 10 am, and headed to the Smithsonian museums (they’re all open on the 4th). During our walk along the Mall from the Smithsonian Metro stop, we viewed a good number of the inflatables, floats, and bands queuing up for their position in the parade. We were happy with this sneak peek and even heard bands warming up. The museums were quiet and uncrowded until the parade wrapped up around 1 pm. If you’re not a ‘parade person’, this is the way to go!


4. Watch the Capitol 4th dress rehearsal:

Likewise, if the idea of crowding onto the Capitol lawn with 200,000 close friends on the 4th doesn’t suit you, go to the dress rehearsal of this top tier outdoor concert on July 3rd. It starts at 8 pm, and is free and open to the public. Unlike for the real deal, there’s no need to get there earlier than 7 pm.  Bring a picnic or grab hot dogs from street side vendors, and enjoy a patriotic evening…a day early.

5. Plan your fireworks location with views and kids in mind:


We were told there’s no reason to go snag a spot to watch the fireworks until approximately 6:30 pm (fireworks start at 9:10 pm). We doubted this advice, and got to a spot just under the Washington Monument by 5:30 pm. We should have listened…the lawn didn’t fill up until about 7 pm. Before arriving, we could have eaten a relaxed meal at our hotel or spent more time in the museums. Here’s a rundown of the best fireworks viewing locations in DC (and their pros and cons):


  • Washington Monument: This is where we ended up, and we loved this location. It’s in one of the security-controlled areas, which means you go through security at one of (I believe) four entrances along this part of the Mall. There’s no alcohol allowed, and of course no firearms or other weapons. We felt very safe. Security didn’t take long to go through (people stagger their arrival), and by setting up our spot on the hillside just under the monument, we had unobstructed views of the Lincoln Memorial and Reflecting Pool (where the fireworks are set off). Limited food vendors are located inside the secure area (overpriced hot dogs, funnel cakes, and sandwiches).
  • Lincoln Memorial: We heard this is a fun place to be, but also more crowded, and less comfortable (you’re sitting on the steps if you get there early enough, and sitting on the sides if not).
  • On the Mall in front of the Smithsonian museums: This is another secure area (as is Lincoln) and offers lots of entertainment while you wait. Your views of the fireworks will be against the backdrop of the Washington Monument (you won’t see the Lincoln Memorial or Reflecting Pool). During the day, we enjoyed playing pick-up soccer games on the grass, and checking out the Smithsonian Folk Festival. As evening descends, these entertaining options give way to blankets and lawn chairs. You’re closer to more food options here. Tip: to get healthier food, we went into the National Museum of Natural History’s cafe, and got sandwiches, salads, and trail mix to go. It was still expensive, but much higher quality than the food vendors onsite. From our Washington Monument location, it was a hike to get this food, but worth it.
  • On the White House lawn: I was tempted by this secure location simply for the novelty of it (you can sit in the Ellipse area), but in the end, it was a smaller space with more trees, and we didn’t like the view as much.
  • At the Capitol: This is ground zero for the concert, and where you’ll want to be if you didn’t see the dress rehearsal and wanted to stay late to listen. The concert starts at 8 pm. It’s also one of the most crowded locations.

celebrating the 4th of July

Throughout the day on the 4th, impromptu concerts, bands, festivals, and games pop up all over the Mall, so try to stay as spontaneous as possible. Enjoy your Independence Day in the nation’s capitol!