The Fourth of July is fast approaching and if you're looking for somewhere to go, Washington, DC is at the heart of the Independence Day celebrations. Just be prepared for crowds. It won't be as crazy as January's Inauguration, but it will still be busy. To get the most out of the weekend, here are some highlights of what's going on and how to see it.
Fourth of July Events
Of course, the big attraction in DC over the Fourth is the concert with fireworks on the National Mall. To get a good viewing spot you'll need to get downtown early, or find a hotel or restaurant with a rooftop terrace. There will be an Independence Day Parade earlier in the day.
Neighboring towns will also be having fun festivals and fireworks displays that will be a bit less crowded. The About.com DC guide (http://dc.about.com/od/specialevents/a/4thofJuly.htm) has a comprehensive list of Fourth of July events that weekend in DC, Maryland, and Virginia.
The weekend doesn't necessarily have to revolve around fireworks and parades. There are many other activities going on that weekend that are enjoyable and free. Every Friday night during the summer, there’s Jazz in the Garden. From 5-8 p.m., a band plays in the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden. The café sells drinks and appetizers.
Every evening at 6 p.m., the Kennedy Center features a Millennium Stage performance. It’s free and has new performers each night. And, if you come down for the weekend of the fourth, you’re just in time for the Smithsonian’s Folklife Festival. The Mall will be filled with booths, stages, and food stands featuring different cultures around the world. To find more activities, search through the DC Cultural Events Calendar (http://www.culturaltourismdc.org/calendar2532/calendar.htm).
In addition to events, there’s always much to see in the nation’s capital that’s absolutely free. Nature lovers will enjoy Rock Creek Park, where there is a zoo, a fort to explore, picnic sites, and trails to hike or bike. There is also the National Arboretum and Botanical Gardens, which are full of blooms in the summer. For anyone interested in visiting museums, all the Smithsonian Museums are free, as are the National Geographic Explorer’s Hall, the National Portrait Gallery and the National Gallery of Art. Even if you’ve seen the museums before, there are always interesting temporary exhibits and the American History Museum has reopened following extensive renovations.
The monuments throughout the city also make for popular attractions. The best time to see the Lincoln Memorial, Jefferson Memorial, Washington Monument and others is at night. The crowds are lighter, the air is cooler, and everything is beautifully lit.
Where to Eat
There are surprisingly few reasonably priced places to eat near the Mall, especially if you want more than a hot dog from a vendor. Most of the museums have restaurants which are decent but overpriced. For a quick bite, try Ollie’s Trolley (http://www.olliestrolleydc.com/) which has good burgers and lots of tables. If you’re looking for more variety, the Old Post Office Tower (http://www.nps.gov/opot/) has a food court on the ground floor. And after lunch you can take the elevator up to the top for free to see a birds’ eye view of DC.
Stay near a metro. The metro runs pretty far out of town, so you can get a good deal at an outskirt hotel while still having the ability to get downtown quickly and easily. To make sure you are staying in a convenient location, visit the DC metro website and check out the feature that overlays the metro map on a road map (http://www.wmata.com/rail/maps/map.cfm).
Driving will be difficult over the holiday weekend. If you do drive, the best way in from Virginia is Route 66 to Constitution Ave. If you're coming from Maryland, you probably want to take either 16th street or Rock Creek Parkway.
DC over the Fourth is a high-demand vacation. However, there are deals to be found. Airports include BWI, National, and Dulles. National is the closest, but buses into DC from BWI and Dulles are cheap and flights to those airports are plentiful.
On June 22, we went shopping on priceline.com for some July 4th weekend trips to Washington. Roundtrip airfare from New York to Washington was $184 per person, from Chicago $242, and from Atlanta $303, including all taxes and fees. Click here to check airfare from your city.
Published rates for hotels in the downtown area for the 4th weekend are running around $225 a night. That rate can be cut significantly by choosing neighborhoods a Metro stop or two outside the city proper, or by using priceline.com’s Name Your Own Price hotel service. For example, we see priceline.com customers being successful with offers of $79 a night for 3-star hotels in the Dupont Circle/Woodley Park area of the city.
It’s also possible to book Priceline vacation packages to Washington that include round-trip airfare and hotel. For example, we found a 2-night package including round-trip airfare from Boston to Washington and accommodations at the 3-star Holiday Inn Hotel & Suites in Alexandria (a short Metro ride from DC) for $213 per person. For a 2-night airfare-plus-hotel package from Boston, with accommodations at The Madison, a 4-star hotel downtown, the price was $310 per person.
The Fourth of July is a fun and exciting time to be in town, but if you really want to see DC for less, you can always skip the fireworks and schedule a trip for fall. Later in the year the weather is nicer, the museum lines are shorter, and the hotels have more availability.
Jessica Ek is a former Washington, DC, resident who now resides in the more bucolic suburbs of Maryland with her husband Chris and puppy Loki. Recent travels have taken them to southern France, where they lived for a summer; South Africa, where they went on safari; Malta, and the jungles of Thailand, which they negotiated on foot and elephant-back.
To see Jess’ travel photography, visit www.jessicaek.com.