The Fourth of July is one of those

holidays we like to celebrate with

others. The big question, though, is just how many others? Do we join the crush of humanity downtown? Or just plan a picnic, listen to music and watch smaller-scale aerial extravaganzas? Here is a primer

on what's up with the Fourth.

Where is the biggest show in town?

That would be the Mall. The annual show in downtown Washington draws hundreds of thousands for free events from morning until dark. The day starts at 10 with a ceremony and living history portrayals at the National Archives, followed by the National Independence Day Parade on Constitution Avenue starting at 11:45. After the parade, drop by the Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the Mall between Seventh and 14th streets, where activities until 5:30 include concerts, crafts demonstrations and international food vendors. From 4 until 9:10, Kathy Mattea and the U.S. Navy Band host "America's 2005 Independence Day Celebration" on the Washington Monument grounds. At 6, the U.S. Air Force Concert Band and Singing Sergeants perform on the North Terrace of the National Air and Space Museum. At 8 on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol, the Beach Boys, Gloria Estefan, the O'Jays and other stars join the National Symphony Orchestra for "A Capitol Fourth 2005." The largest fireworks show in the area starts at 9:10 in the sky above the Washington Monument grounds.

What if I want to appreciate the fireworks on the Mall from afar?

Good viewing spots near the Mall include East and West Potomac parks, the Ellipse and Capitol Hill, and in Virginia around the Iwo Jima Memorial and from the few available parking areas along the George Washington Memorial Parkway. (Parking restrictions don't evaporate on the holiday. If you park along the parkway shoulder, as many people do, don't be surprised to find a police officer's autograph on your windshield.)

What's the best way to get downtown?

Metro is easier than driving. Traffic is heavy, especially just before the fireworks show begins, and parking will be tight. The Smithsonian Metro stop will be closed Monday. The Metro stops closest to the Mall are Federal Triangle, Archives-Navy Memorial, L'Enfant Plaza and Federal Center SW. Trains will operate on a holiday schedule, and stations will remain open until midnight. Buy a round-trip farecard when you start out to avoid lines on the way home. Bicycles, big coolers and glass containers are prohibited. For Metro information, call 202-637-7000 (TDD 202-638-3780).

Is the National Symphony Orchestra playing on the Fourth?

Yes, on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol. They share the stage this year with the Beach Boys, Gloria Estefan, the O'Jays, tenor Ronan Tynan, Kimberley Locke of "American Idol," actors Jimmy Smits and Sharon Lawrence, classical crossover quartet Il Divo and other stars. Barry Bostwick will host. The program includes a salute to the music of the "Star Wars" films and Tchaikovsky's "1812" Overture accompanied by real cannons from the U.S. Army's Salute Gun Battery. The NSO also will play patriotic standards during the 20-minute fireworks show.

Is there a place to see fireworks over water?

Baltimore and Annapolis have great fireworks shows with lots of good viewing areas around their harbors.

I love a parade. Where can I see one?

The National Independence Day Parade begins at 11:45 at Constitution Avenue and Seventh Street NW. Marching bands, floats and other units will travel west to 17th Street. In Baltimore, the Shriners host their Celebration Parade along Pratt Street from 1 to 6. Many communities stage their own neighborhood parades.

Where are some other big fireworks shows?

The shows in Annapolis, Baltimore, Columbia and Fairfax City all have enthusiastic fans.

Is there a place to take my family for a day of fun and fireworks away from urban bustle?

Try Great Meadow, on Route 245 in The Plains, Va., for a family-oriented July 4 with live entertainment, hayrides, tethered hot-air balloon rides, a petting zoo, children's games and musically choreographed fireworks. Admission is $30 per car in advance, $40 at the gate. You can also bring a picnic supper and enjoy the fireworks at Lake Fairfax Park in Reston. The park's Water Mine Family Swimmin' Hole offers more than an acre of slides, flumes, sprays, showers and floatables. Park admission is free; Swimmin' Hole admission is $12, $10 children less than 48 inches tall, ages 2 and younger free (adults and children $7 after 5 p.m.). Fireworks start about 9:15.

I like small-town celebrations. Any to recommend?

Here are three possibilities. A parade sponsored by the Palisades Citizens Association in Northwest Washington starts at 11 along MacArthur Boulevard and is followed by a free afternoon picnic at the Palisades Recreation Center (no fireworks). In Fairfax City, a two-hour parade winds through the historic downtown area beginning at 10, and at 7, the City of Fairfax Band and the Fabulous Hubcaps give a free concert at Fairfax High School, followed by fireworks. In Manassas, a festival with music, hayrides and children's games begins at 6 in the Old Town section near the Manassas Museum, concluding with fireworks.

Is there a fireworks show with easy parking or Metro access?

There are two in Montgomery County: Wheaton Sparkles, in downtown Wheaton at Reedie Drive and Grandview Avenue, has a children's show by Milkshake at 6:30 and a concert by Harry Traynham at 8, followed by fireworks. Park at the nearby Westfield Shoppingtown Wheaton, or ride Metro to the Wheaton station. And in Gaithersburg at the Montgomery County Fairgrounds, a concert by Great Expectations begins at 7, followed by fireworks at dusk. Note that there will be no parking at the fairground itself. Park at Lake Forest Mall and enter the fairground at Chestnut or Dalamar streets.

Are all of the fireworks shows free?

Most, but not all. Some shows charge admission or parking fees.

Do I have to celebrate the Fourth of July on the Fourth of July?

Not necessarily. The Annapolis Symphony Orchestra hosts a concert Saturday followed by a 20-minute fireworks show at Anne Arundel Community College in Arnold. The Maryland Symphony Orchestra presents a concert of Sousa marches, Tchaikovsky's "1812" Overture and other works Saturday at Antietam National Battlefield in Sharpsburg, Md., followed by a huge fireworks display. (Plan ahead: Access to the area is mostly by two two-lane country roads.) And Alexandria celebrates America's birthday and its own on July 9 with a concert by the Alexandria Symphony Orchestra and fireworks over the Potomac.