Are you thinking about spending the 4th of July in Washington D.C.?
It's a Bucket List experience.
Spending the 4th of July in Washington D.C. was a dream come true for me. I've been a history nerd my whole life and Washington D.C. is one of my favorite places. My kids were ages 12 and 9 – perfect for this trip. I couldn't wait to visit the city with my family.
When we found out that my husband had a work conference in Washington D.C. on July 6, it was like the stars had aligned. Not only were we going to Washington D.C., we could plan our trip around the most patriotic day of the year! I pinched myself all day long because I was so excited to be there.
There is a lot going on in Washington D.C. on the 4th of July. It is typically hot, humid and crowded. We wanted to make the most of this opportunity, so we did our homework and planned our day carefully. In this post, I'm sharing what worked for us and what didn't.
Here are my top tips for celebrating Independence Day in Washington D.C.
Book a hotel near the National Mall
The National Mall is where all the big events will occur. It has plenty to keep you busy all day long, and then some. I recommend booking a hotel within walking distance. You can take Metro or find parking, but trains and roads will be extremely crowded at the end of a long, hot day. You'll be glad to get out of it quickly, especially with kids.
Expect peak pricing at hotels near the National Mall. The convenience was absolutely worth the extra expense for my family. We probably would not have made it to the fireworks if we hadn't had a comfortable place to relax and recharge in the afternoon.
Book well in advance for best pricing and availability. We stayed at the historic Hotel Harrington. It feels a little run down, but is more affordable than most and the location is hard to beat. The room I booked for my family of four turned out to be a queen and two singles in adjoining rooms with two bathrooms and two televisions. It was just three blocks from the National Mall and around the corner from other popular attractions like the National Archives and Ford's Theatre.
Click the button to see rates and reviews for Hotel Harrington and other Washington D.C. hotels on TripAdvisor.com.
The National Mall is a big place (nearly 2 miles long), and heavily patrolled by security. Expect airport-style screenings in every museum and at entrances to major Independence Day events like A Capitol Fourth and fireworks. Normally I would recommend packing provisions in a cooler or pack and leaving it by your blanket, but not here. Unattended items may create a security problem. Bring only what you can comfortably carry all day.
I recommend that you buy food as you go. You'll find cafes, food trucks and street vendors selling cold water, meals and snacks all over the National Mall. Not all of them take credit cards, so bring cash in small bills as well.
Other items you might consider are sun hats, glasses, sunscreen and a lawn blanket. One or two of these top-rated Kahuna Pocket Blankets from Amazon.com would easily fit in a stroller or day pack.
Attend A Capitol Fourth Dress Rehearsal
A Capitol Fourth is the big televised concert on the lawn of the U.S. Capitol Building. When we were there, the lineup included Smokey Robinson, Kenny Loggins, Sutton Foster, Gavin DeGraw, Amber Riley, Christopher Jackson, Jackie Evancho and others. It's a spectacular patriotic event.
The concert is free and seating is first come, first served. Gates open at 3 pm. The concert begins at 8 pm. You can bring in food, non-alcoholic beverages and folding chairs.
I recommend attending the dress rehearsal on July 3 instead of the televised concert on July 4. We flew into Washington D.C. late in the afternoon on July 3, and didn't decide to go to the dress rehearsal until just before 8 pm. We picked up dinner from food trucks on the Mall and got through security at the Capitol Building with no wait. The West Lawn was crowded, but we didn't have any trouble finding a space to lay our blanket with a distant view of the stage.
Another advantage to attending the dress rehearsal instead of the televised concert on July 4 is that it will free you to find a better seat for the fireworks on July 4.
Related: Tips for U.S. Capitol Tours
Start your day at the National Archives
Does it get more patriotic than starting your day at the home of the original Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution? The National Archives hosts live entertainment all morning on the front steps, then it's a great place to watch the National Independence Day Parade.
Arrive between 8-9 AM for best seating on the stone steps. There was plenty of space when we arrived, but every inch filled by the time the program began.
The entertainment included a live band, a dramatic reading of the Declaration of Independence by actors performing as Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Abigail Adams and others. There were also a few short speeches. In one, the National Archivist dropped the plot from the fun family movie National Treasure into his brief history of the National Archives!
After the program, keep your seat for the parade or visit the National Archives Museum. If you decide to visit the National Archives Museum, be sure to get reservations in advance to shorten your time in line. Even with reservations, we waited 20-30 minutes on Independence Day.
Explore the National Mall
You'll have your pick of monuments, museums and special events all over the National Mall after the parade or your visit to the National Archives. However you spend your day, expect the weather to be hot and humid and expect large crowds everywhere you go.
We spent a few hours at the Smithsonian Museum of American History and Museum of Natural History, which are both across the street from the National Archives Museum. We were also tempted by the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, but by then, we were ready for dinner and downtime.
This is when you'll be glad if you booked a hotel nearby. You'll find lots to do on the National Mall all day, but you might find it hard to appreciate the fireworks if you or other family members are worn out and melting down. Give yourself permission to take a break in your private, air conditioned room in the middle of the day.
Finish with Fireworks
There are lots of places where you can see the Fireworks in Washington D.C. Check out official tips and recommendations on the National Park Service website at www.nps.gov/subjects/nationalmall4th.
We figured that anywhere near the Washington Monument would be good, and picked a spot inside the security perimeter on the east side. I wished we had gone farther because our view was partially obscured by the Washington Monument and trees. Our view was also obscured by fog at the end of a rainy day, but that is not the norm. I recommend picking a spot between the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial.
The fireworks will begin around 9:00 PM. I recommend arriving at least 2 hours early to find a seat on the lawn. The fireworks will be loud, so consider packing ear plugs.
Sidewalks, Metro stations and streets will be mobbed immediately after the fireworks. Let me say again how glad I was that our hotel was just three blocks away.
Related: Top Patriotic Places in the U.S.A.
Celebrating the 4th of July in Washington D.C. can be a lot of fun, but it pays to plan your day in advance. Expect crowds, heat and humidity – along with a long list of free family activities to choose from. I strongly recommend booking a hotel within a short walk of the National Mall. It was worth every penny for us.
It was a long day, but my memories of Independence Day in Washington D.C. with my family will last a lifetime. I hope that your family has a great 4th of July in Washington D.C. too.