Celebrating the Fourth of July on the National Mall is as all-American as an apple-pie-eating contest. And just about as messy. More than 500,000 people are anticipated to meet in the exceedingly small space for this year’s festivites. “To beat the crowds … you can’t,” says Kate Gibbs, a media relations representative for Destination D.C. “But you can manage them if you plan ahead.” And as anyone who’s experienced the patriotic display can tell you, the spectacle is worth the foresight. “It’s a real ‘We the People’ moment,” says Ryan Holladay, a local musician and co-creator of an app that plays music based on your location in the park. “You can’t beat being surrounded by so many people all there for the same reason.” Fellow Americans: Consider this your guide to surviving — and embracing — the Mall madness.
Getting There — Getting Out Later
Festivities on the Mall start early — and so should your trek. Driving is discouraged (pedestrians will clog roads; parking will be impossible). Metrobuses will operate on a Saturday schedule, though parade-related road closures mean detours are inevitable. Unless you’re within walking distance, your best bet is Metro. Trains begin at 7 a.m. and are on a Saturday schedule until 6 p.m., when rush-hour service goes into effect until midnight. Bikes are prohibited on trains, and while the Smithsonian stop remains open all day (until post-fireworks, when it becomes entry-only), WMATA recommends using alternative stations nearby. And load your SmarTrip the night before, as lines on the 4th will be longer than the U.S. Constitution.
What to Bring
Let’s start with what not to bring: No grills. No alcohol. No fireworks. If that sounds like the lamest seventh-grade party you’ve ever been to, let us remind you there will be so much going on, you won’t even miss ’em. Concession stands will be selling food and refreshments, though Carol Johnson, spokeswoman for the National Mall and Memorial Park, urges revelers to avoid the No. 1 mistake: “Not bringing enough water.” Weather forecasts are sunny with highs in the 90s, so sunscreen is a must. Grab a deck of cards and some board games to kill time until the fireworks start, or make like Holladay and his friends at last year’s celebration. “I think we reverted to Duck, Duck, Goose at one point.”
If six hours of sunny Scrabble doesn’t sound awesome, kill time at Smithsonian museums around you. Crowds will be at the parade from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., a good time to hit such congested exhibits as the flag that inspired “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the American History Museum. Refer to the National Park Service map, at left, for info on entrances, bike parking, reunification areas, restrooms and medical tents. Make sure every member of your party has a copy and knows where to meet in case of an emergency, like forgetting the words to Katy Perry’s “Fireworks.”
Catch the Mall Fireworks — Off the Mall
Any other day, this is a great place to watch planes take off from and land at Reagan National, but on July 4, you’ll see the fireworks from across the river. Bike or walk from Alexandria or Arlington to take Meto. It’s popular, so arrive early. George Washington Memorial Pkwy., Arlington (Reagan National Airport)
Air Force Memorial
Following a rousing concert by the Air Force Band at 8 p.m., you’ll have a great, high-up vista of the Mall pyrotechnics. (Fair warning: The walk from the Pentagon Metro is up a very steep hill.) One Air Force Memorial Drive, Arlington; 703-979-0674; Airforcememorial.org (Pentagon)
Iwo Jima Memorial
Celebrate the Fourth near the most patriotic statue we’ve got. Bring a blanket and make sure there are no trees between you and the view, because that would be disappointing. 1400 N. Meade St., Arlington; 703-289-2500; Marines.com (Arlington Cemetery)
Cardozo Senior High School
You want to be on the hill on the east side of the campus, though you can see the display from the west side, too. If you want a space where it’s socially acceptable to wave a sparkler, come here. 1200 Clifton St. NW, Cardozohs.com (U Street/Cardozo)
The Wilson Bridge
Park at National Harbor and take the footpath over the bridge for a down-the-river look at bombs bursting in air. Standing still on the Wilson isn’t a new experience for locals, but doing it on foot while watching fireworks is. National Harbor, 137 National Plaza, Oxon Hill, Md., Nationalharbor.com
You can pay to eat at (and sit on the terrace of) one of the restaurants by the water (Tony & Joes, Sequoia or Cabanas) or you can just park on the edge of the dock to watch the sky go boom. Georgetown Dock at Washington Harbor, 31st Street at the river. (Foggy Bottom)
Red, White & Boats
The fireworks happen too late at night to rent paddleboats on the Potomac, so if you want to head out on the water, you’ll have to do it in style on the opulent Odyssey. Cruises are kitschy — you can get flowers delivered or pony up for a “remembrance photo” if you’re feeling flush — but the view of the fireworks from the river is unbeatable. If you’re a reverse vampire and can’t go out at night (or you have kids with you; the night cruise is only for those 21 and older), try the Independence Day Cruise on another boat, the Spirit of Washington: It’s at lunch and tickets are cheaper. Odyssey departs from Gangplank Marina, 6th and Water streets SW; Wed., 6 p.m., $220; 866-306-2469, Odysseycruises.com. Spirit of Washington also departs from Gangplank Marina; Wed., noon, $25.95 for kids 3-12, $42.90 for adults; 866-302-2469; Spiritofwashington.com. (Waterfront)
Just the Facts, Ma’am
Your full-time job on July Fourth? Being a patriot and visiting the National Mall, where hundreds of thousands of other Yankee Doodle Dandies are expected to red, white and blue it alongside you. The day begins early, so put on that corny Old Navy flag tee and get moving. Everything’s free, except the sunblock and bottled water we hope you brought.
Reading of the Declaration of Independence
National Archives, Constitution Ave. steps, between 7th and 9th streets NW; Archives.gov (Archives)
C-SPAN host Steve Scully emcees a reading of the DOI by historic reenactors dressed as Thomas Jefferson, John Adams et al, and the old-timey (think tricorn hats!) Continental Color Guard and Fife and Drum Corps perform.
11:45 a.m.-2 p.m.
Independence Day Parade
Constitution Ave. between 7th and 17th streets NW; July4thparade.com (Smithsonian)
Twenty marching bands from across the country, floats (including one decked with a nonvampire Abraham Lincoln), military drill teams and at least one Uncle Sam on stilts perambulate down the street. Yes, you can bring a folding chair, but get there early (9:30 a.m. or so) to guarantee a spot.
Junior Ranger Program
Sylvan Theater near Washington Monument, Madison Drive NW and 15th St. NW; Nps.gov (Smithsonian)
Junior patriots (kids 5-12 years old) do red, white and blue crafts, play all-American games and more in this National Park Service-sponsored freebie.
Washington Monument Concert
Washington Monument grounds, Madison Drive NW and 15th St. NW; Nps.gov (Smithsonian)
Broadway star Ben Vereen, the U.S. Army Blues Band and other acts sing and play patriotic music near George W.’s hulking obelisk.
A Capitol Fourth Concert
U.S. Capitol Grounds, accessible to public starting at 3 p.m. First St. NW between Independence and Constitution Ave. NW; Pbs.org/capitolfourth (Capitol South or Union Station)
“Dancing with the Stars” Tom Bergeron emcees a star-studded (or at least star-spangled) concert featuring Matthew Broderick, Kool and the Gang and the National Symphony Orchestra. Jumbotrons broadcast the show on the Capitol Grounds. It’s also on PBS, or, bring a radio where it’ll play live on WAMU.
Roman candles, multibreak shells, peonies and other fireworks light up the sky above the Mall, creating D.C.’s most postcard-y tableau.