There are plenty of reasons to trade downtown D.C. for a small-town Fourth of July — reasons far exceeding the metaphorical fireworks that have exploded around this year’s national celebration. In the communities that surround the District, roving squid show up to spirited parades, joined by marching bands and precision-marching librarians. Following strict directives from the Declaration of Independence, or some other small-town rule book, local towns also offer celebratory classics such as pie-eating contests and red, white and blue snow cones.
Here are five communities in the Washington region where you can catch a parade, among other festivities, and, of course, (literal) fireworks.
A word of advice if you’re planning to participate in the Palisades’ 53rd annual Independence Day parade (billed as “the best small town parade in D.C.!”): Don’t make a boring float. Those are frowned upon. The festive event specializes in spontaneous, wholesome fun: “It’s not really as organized as it could be, but it’s probably as organized as it ought to be,” chair Spence Spencer says of the parade that his grown children travel home for each year. “There’s a Norman Rockwell quality to the entire thing; it’s completely homespun. We have bagpipes, we have marching bands, we have the mayor, we have beauty queens, there’s candy being thrown onto the streets.”
Palisades isn’t a small town, per se, but a quiet neighborhood on the District’s northwest edge with a secluded, residential feel. Neighbors tend to band together to participate — such as the Millwood Mob, residents of Millwood Lane who crown a Miss Millwood to greet attendees from atop a convertible.
Following the hour-long parade, there will be 4,000 hot dogs and 90 watermelons served during a free picnic at the Palisades Recreation Center. Though Palisades doesn’t put on its own fireworks display, catch the downtown offering from the Key Bridge.
If you’re traveling to the festivities from another part of town, there’s plenty of street parking, Spencer says; he also recommends biking the Capital Crescent trail along the bluffs overlooking the Potomac, which will deposit you near the parade route.
And if you want to kick off the festivities a day early, check out the “hoedown on the green” on July 3, featuring live music and a pie-eating contest.
The parade starts at 11 a.m. at Whitehaven Parkway, and is followed by a picnic at the Palisades Recreation Center, 5200 Sherier Pl. NW. palisadesdc.org.
First, you hear the joyous bagpipes, unmistakable even when they’re still around the corner. Then, a dozen or so members of the Scottish Reels drill team rush by, pushing lawn mowers as they shimmy about, executing what appears spontaneous but is actually a choreographed routine.
“I’ve been in Takoma Park for as many years as I’ve been alive, and they’re always there,” coordinator Tara Egan says of the drill team and the parade. “It’s really unique — it has all the traditional, patriotic elements, like bands and firetrucks. But we also have some really esoteric groups — we had a group of people dressed up as squid last year.”
In a nod to Takoma Park’s reputation — the Maryland suburb is known for its liberal politics and hippie-ish vibe — there are a variety of awards for participants, including the Wacky Tacky Takoma Award, which goes to a particularly outrageous entrant.
Following the parade — part of the town’s 130th Independence Day celebration — pop into Republic for Freedom Fest (noon to 8 p.m.); the neighborhood restaurant is offering celebratory delights such as 10 taps from local breweries, barbecue and frosé.
In the evening, head to the Takoma Park Community Center for live music, an acrobatics troupe, food trucks and kids’ activities. (Takoma Park’s standard fireworks display won’t be held this year because of construction at the launch site.)
The parade starts at 10 a.m. at the intersection of Carroll and Ethan Allen avenues. Evening events start at 7 p.m. in front of the Takoma Park Community Center, 7500 Maple Ave. takomapark4th.org.
There’s a gap in Laurel’s annual Independence Day Parade, after a set of finely preserved antique cars pass by and before the rest of the participants — flag twirlers and drummers, veteran bikers, and balloon-covered floats — start marching. And that little break is chair Carreen Koubek’s favorite part of the day. “We’ve got a great DJ playing music, and we get out there on the street and dance,” Koubek says. “The kids are dancing with us, we’re having fun, and then the parade comes and everybody’s all happy and cheering.”
Laurel’s Fourth of July celebration is held on Saturday, a day-long affair that keeps the merriment alive into the weekend (residents like that timing because they get to see two sets of fireworks, Koubek says). Post-parade, the vintage cars that jump-started the parade will be on display at Granville Gude Park, part of the Laurel Lakes community, in addition to a packed lineup of field games: corn hole, a giant rainbow parachute, minute-to-win-it style activities.
If you have an impressive appetite, consider signing up for the hot-dog eating contest at 4 p.m. “We have a lot of fun with it,” Koubek says. “Mayor Craig Moe usually quote-unquote ‘eats 20 hot dogs,’ but he’s actually passing them out to everyone in the crowd, so he says he’s the winner.”
In the evening, recover from all that activity with a concert featuring local band Oracle and a lakeside fireworks display. Get there early: By 7:30 p.m., when the music starts, there’s typically not a spot to be found on the lawn, Koubek says.
The parade starts at 11 a.m. on July 6 at Sixth and Montgomery streets. The car show begins at noon at Granville Gude Park, 8300 Mulberry St., and the day-long event concludes there with fireworks at 9:15 p.m. laurel4th.org.
There’s all the standard parade fare at Fairfax City’s annual two-hour event, which travels through the historic Old Town district: marching bands, motorcycles, those tiny cars the Shriners squeeze into. And then there’s the city’s beloved precision-marching librarians, who push patriotic book carts down the street while doing tricks such as spinning in unison to the command of a whistle.
“Our book cart drill team was actually the first in the country,” says Laura Raymond, branch manager of the City of Fairfax Regional Library. “People shout all sorts of lovely things, like ‘We love the library!’ or ‘Books are our favorite!’ This parade — it’s not just a couple people wandering around. It’s very well-attended and a real tradition.”
For a blast of fun afterward, check out the firefighters’ competition, which involves shooting powerful water hoses at targets. Revelers who wish to cool down are invited to stand a safe distance behind the spray. Later, gather at Fairfax High School — and spread out on the football field, or in the bleachers — for face painting, balloon artists and ’70s and ’80s tunes, as well as a fireworks display.
The parade starts at 10 a.m. on Armstrong Street. The evening gathering kicks off at 6:30 p.m. at Fairfax High School, 3501 Rebel Run, with fireworks at 9:30 p.m. fairfaxva.gov.
Extravagant red, white and blue is encouraged here — each year, the most patriotic float in Leesburg’s annual Independence Day Parade is presented with the Patriot Cup, a trophy that’s engraved with the winner’s name and displayed at Leesburg Town Hall. “It’s a fun day with a nice hometown feel,” says Barb Smith, the town’s events coordinator. “Just come and bring your patriotic spirit.” Arrive early to catch the American Originals Fife and Drum Corps, a crowd favorite that will perform at the intersection of King and Market streets at 9:45 a.m.
Following the parade, many attendees hang out in charming downtown Leesburg, perusing the mix of historic homes, shops and restaurants. Pop into King Street Oyster Bar, which is along the parade route, for a black-cherry lemonade (infused with vodka), bowl of gumbo and, of course, oysters. Or try Shoe’s Cup and Cork, a former shoe store-turned-restaurant that delights with a “secret garden” — an outdoor seating area that features a full bocce court.
It’s a pleasant way to kill time until the evening celebration, when 20,000 people are expected to pour into sprawling Ida Lee Park for festival food — funnel cakes, ice cream, burgers, hot dogs — and live party music. Cap off the holiday with a fireworks display that’s choreographed to patriotic tunes.
The parade starts at 10 a.m. at Ida Lee Park, 60 Ida Lee Dr. NW; gates for the evening event there open at 6 p.m., with fireworks starting at 9:30 p.m. leesburgva.gov.