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June 03, 2011

Top Ten Spots for 4th of July Fun in the Nation's Capital (And Free!)

Independence Parade(ElvertBarnes,Flickr)
Independence Parade, Washington, D.C. (ElvertBarnes/Flickr)

Influential lobbyists, political consultants, and patrons of the arts are no doubt sitting pretty having already firmed up plans for the impressive Independence Day fireworks in Washington, D.C., in a few weeks' time. Choice invitation-only venues may include the Kennedy Center rooftop, private balconies in the National Gallery of Art, hallowed chambers in the U.S. Capitol building, and, yes, for the chosen few, a spot on the White House lawn. For the rest of us unconnected mortals, the choice can range from dropping a hefty cover on the best hotel and restaurant rooftops, or sweating it out with the masses in any number of public spaces around town. Happily, though, this city of open green spaces and low-level buildings proffers many choice (and free) spots to enjoy the show. Here, we guide you through ten of the best.

1. U.S. National Mall, Washington, D.C.
Ground Zero for the big show, there is nominally lots of green space here for watching the Fourth of July fireworks, although you'll need to arrive early to claim the best spots. The Smithsonian's annual Folklife Festival—this year featuring Colombia, the Peace Corps, and Rhythm & Blues—offers events and exhibits to while away the pre-display hours. The fireworks go up over the Reflecting Pool in front of the Lincoln Memorial, so the prime spots are on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and points east along the U.S. National Mall from 14th Street toward the U.S. Capitol. The White House Ellipse is also a good spot that usually has a few open patches of ground a little closer to the kickoff just after 9 p.m. Plan on walking down to the Mall from Metro Center or Farragut West to avoid the crush of Metro riders getting off at the Smithsonian. The NPS' National Mall website offers some useful planning tips, including info about a free bike-valet service and advice for staying hydrated in the area's often-fierce summer heat.'s National Mall Travel Guide

2. George Washington Memorial Parkway, Arlington
Fireworks-viewing real estate doesn't come much more prime than here, with the Arlington stretch of the George Washington Memorial Parkway offering the best riverside views of the D.C. monuments and skyline. You won't miss a single explosion, though, of course, this place is no secret. Pack a picnic and get there early; limited public parking is available at various points along the roadway, though a much safer bet is to ride your bicycle along the scenic bike trail (an option that will also offer a swifter mode of escape once the fireworks end at around 9:30 p.m.).'s George Washington Memorial Parkway Travel Guide

3. Gravely Point, Arlington, Virginia
Technically part of the George Washington Memorial Parkway, Gravely Point merits special mention for two reasons: access to a limited amount of public parking (if you get there early enough) and the fact that it's within walking distance of the Washington National Airport Metro stop (OK, you'll need to do some exploring to get out of the airport complex and onto the bike trail, but trust us, there's a way). A grassy field beneath the airport flight path offers near-unobstructed views of the Washington Monument and U.S. Capitol.'s Arlington Travel Guide

4. U.S. Marine Corps Memorial, Arlington
This is a good spot if you can't get down to the Potomac or can't be bothered with the crush (and noise) on the National Mall. You will definitely be able to get a decent view of the show, with the extra elbow room here being a boon to families. However, don't expect to drive down and find curbside parking. Take the Metro to Rosslyn or Court House in Arlington and walk down to the grassy areas around the Marine Corps War Memorial.'s U.S. Marine Corps Memorial Travel Guide

5. Oronoco Bay Park, Alexandria, Virginia
You might feel a little distant from the big event some six miles upriver on the National Mall, but what you do get here is a panorama of not only the main event in D.C. but countless local pyrotechnic displays going up over other Virginia and Maryland localities—a 360-degree Fourth of July, so to speak. Stroll back toward the Old Town waterfront and King Street bars and eateries to enjoy Alexandria's casual Independence Day atmosphere.'s Alexandria Travel Guide

6. Meridian Hill Park, Washington, D.C.
This is a real locals' find in one of the capital's more charismatic neighborhoods, offering a decent vantage south toward the Washington Monument and National Mall. Beyond the view, this location also offers an easy exit strategy as well as convenient access to the bars and restaurants of the U Street corridor, Dupont Circle, and Adams Morgan.'s Washington, D.C. Photo Gallery

7. West and East Potomac Parks (Haines Point), Washington, D.C.
These two adjoining parks cover an impressive swath of ground that ranges from the popular grassy fields surrounding the Tidal Basin to the more obscure, relatively speaking, parklands (and public golf course) tucked behind the busy I-395 span and south of the Jefferson Memorial. There are lots of good vantage points here, with East Potomac Park's Haines Point section offering the least overcrowding. Plan on taking a bike for the easiest way to get there.'s Washington, D.C. Family Travel Guide

8. Potomac River Kayaking
Washington area locals will make a Fourth of July day of it by cruising up the Potomac River in watercraft of all shapes and sizes. However, out-of-towners (and those without the financial means to snap up a 20-foot pleasure cruiser) need not miss out on the waterbound action if they can travel with their own kayaks or canoes. This is probably one of the most dramatic perches for the display, although you should feel comfortable bobbing in the wake of lots of other, bigger vessels.'s Guide to Paddling

9. Key Bridge
The pedestrian walkways on either side of this 1920s span across the Potomac River between Arlington, Virginia, and Georgetown, D.C., will be packed to the hilt. But if you can snag a space, you'll be ringside for the show. Saunter back over to the Rosslyn side for the Metro home or into Georgetown to enjoy the atmosphere and area eateries.'s Georgetown Travel Guide

10. U.S. Air Force Memorial
Once a scrubby hillock that fronted an undistinguished unit of military housing, the three-pronged U.S. Air Force Memorial (opened to the public in 2006) now offers a front-row perch for the airborne Fourth of July festivities. Looking out over the nearby Pentagon, you get a view of the Potomac, Washington Monument, and U.S. Capitol. Access the memorial from Arlington's Columbia Pike corridor, or follow the crowds under I-395 (it's OK, sidewalks and crosswalks keep things safe) from nearby Pentagon City.'s Family Travel Survival Guide in Washington, D.C.

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