When it comes to celebrating the birth of our nation, there is hardly a more iconic and patriotic place to be than Washington D.C. Images of fireworks bursting over the Washington Monument, the U.S. Army Band performing ‘Stars and Stripes,’ your toddler or preschooler having a complete meltdown that ends in you having to carry them sobbing through the throngs of humanity who are gathered to celebrate the 4th of July with you. Hold on! You mean, you don’t think a good meltdown would contribute to the patriotic spirit? Well, guess what? I don’t either! That is why I have compiled this guide to help you navigate Washington D.C. during the 4th of July festivities and ensure both you and your kids have that ‘once in a lifetime’ experience that you won’t ever forget.
How to Plan an Iconic DC 4th of July With Kids: Part One- Logistics
First off, you might be thinking that January is a strange time to even think about planning for the 4th of July. Well, I have to tell you that this is the PERFECT time to plan some of the details, because you want to make some reservations now when prices are down and availability is high.
Tip #1: Plan to arrive in DC the morning of July 3rd, and leave DC the afternoon of July 5th. I cannot stress this first point enough. If you are planning to celebrate with young children, you will want to be relaxed. Driving into the city or trying to pile onto mass transit the day of will invite disaster. I know you are thinking that you can’t possible handle staying in the city two nights. However, I would like to challenge your mindset a little bit– this is an iconic experience that you are going to share with your children. Isn’t that worth a little more time, money, and pre-planning? Bookended the 4th of July with the day before and after ensures that you will have built in flexibility and you will be in DC before the hordes arrive and after the hordes leave to go home.
Tip #2: Pick a great hotel as close to the National Mall as you can get. This is so incredibly important and for our family, was the key to a successful weekend. Why? Well, hanging out in DC all day is exhausting even when no one is around. Your young kid will not be able to hang all day without getting cranky pants. I don’t care how cool the airplanes and dinosaurs are. If you stay at a hotel near the mall, you can carve out a sizeable chunk of time on the 4th to take a nap, swim in the pool, watch a movie… rest and recharge. Also, picking a hotel near the National Mall has a great ‘fail-safe’ fireworks option because if, God forbid, your wee one is not ‘together’ enough to make until 9pm and the main event, you can schlep out to a less crowded area of the Mall, watch the fireworks, and then be back to your room (with junior in bed) before the first wave of revelers have even made it to the Metro.
Of course, picking a hotel in DC is really tricky. I love the hotel we stayed at this past year- The Holiday Inn Washington- Capitol. For 4th of July festivities, I am not sure you can beat this hotel. It is located literally one block away from the National Mall, a mere 5 minute walk from the back door to the Air and Space Museum. Talk about convenient. Not only that, but this hotel has a rooftop pool, which was an excellent midday break for our family, and they plan special events throughout the weekend for hotel guests. Finally, this hotel has a very nice breakfast buffet and dinner restaurant option with tons of kid-friendly selections. No, I am not being compensated for this review… I am in love with this hotel. If you decide to plan an iconic DC trip at any time, I would highly recommend this hotel.
Tip #3: Be flexible. The weather can be very fickle. Pack your umbrella. One advantage to spending 2-3 days in DC for the 4th of July is that you can work around the weather. This year, there was a 40-50% chance of rain the entire weekend. As it turns out, it rained most of the 4th of July itself, and was sunny on the 3rd and 5th. However, you don’t want to plan to stand in front of the Lincoln Memorial in the pouring rain only to sit in the IMAX theater at the Air and Space Museum when it is sunny outside. So, be flexible and ready to rearrange your plans as necessary.
Tip #4: Where do you eat lunch and dinner? Well, as I mentioned above, our hotel (and many other hotels) have nice dining options. However, you don’t want to be tied to eating all your meals back at the hotel. If you are on the National Mall on July 4th, here are some options worth considering:
- The Stars and Stripes Café at the National Museum of American History is excellent. They have a ton of tasty and healthy options, and the seating area is relatively nice. Conversely, the only dining option at the Air and Space Museum is a very crowded McDonalds. You have been warned.
- Throughout the 4th of July weekend, the Smithsonian Folklife Festival will be running. Typically, the festival boasts some pretty good eats.
- Food trucks! Did you know that Washington D.C. is a big foodie city? There are food trucks everywhere and you can bet that during the 4th of July, many of them will be out, trying to attract your business. I love the food truck option. For lunch on the 4th, we crashed at our hotel room and enjoyed three different meals from three different food trucks that were parked near our hotel.
- There are also nice cafes at the National Gallery of Art and the Natural History Museum.
Tip #5: Where to escape during the day if your hotel is not an option. So, this is a tricky one, right? However, the big draws on the mall are the Natural History Museum and Air and Space Museum. Seriously, the crowds at these two museums will be outrageous! If you need to escape, consider one of these options:
- Play outside on the National Mall lawn! Seriously, let your kid burn some energy. If you are staying at a hotel, bring a ball or a frisbee. Play a game of tag!
- The National Gallery of Art
- The National Museum of the American Indian
- The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
- The Freer and Sackler Galleries
- U.S. Botanical Gardens
*Note: Clearly, your young kid isn’t going to be totally jazzed about a place where they are expected to be quiet. However, if you need a place that is calmer, less frantic and chaotic, an art gallery could be a welcome break for everyone.
Tip #6: Many of the monuments and memorials will be closed all or most of the day on July 4th. Plan accordingly.
Tip #7: Bring your stroller. Seriously. Just bring it. You will not regret this decision.
Tip #8: A winning itinerary for July 3rd that will definitely get you in the patriotic spirit!
If you follow tip #1 and #2 above, you will find yourself with some time to kill on the 3rd. Here is the itinerary we followed this past year and it worked beautifully. I would highly recommend this to anyone!
- Plan to arrive in DC no later than 10AM. 930AM is actually better. Drive and use parking panda to reserve a spot in a parking garage near the National Archives. There are decent parking garages at the Ronald Reagan Building and National Place.
- Walk to the National Archives first and get in line to see the founding documents. You will likely want to come back here on the 4th for the parade and festivities. However, if you actually want to see the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution, I would highly recommend going on the 3rd (or 5th). If you have a small child, clearly waiting in line will not be top on their list. So, have one parent/adult wait in line, while the other ones wheels (must bring stroller… it is so much faster) your kiddo across the street to the fountains and wading pool at the Sculpture Garden. We probably had to wait 45 minutes in line to see the founding documents and Sweet Pea and I spend all but 5 of those minutes with our feet in the water.
- Plus!!!!! If you brought your stroller, you get to hop to the front of the line! This blew my mind. Once you are inside the National Archives, you still have to wait in quite a long line to see the founding documents. However, that line goes down stairs. So, if your kid is in a stroller, you get to go in a separate entrance… with no line.
- The National Archives is basically located across the street from the Natural History and American History Museums. We really wanted to see the Star Spangled Banner, so immediately after we left the Archives, we hoofed it to the American History Museum. Honestly, I expected there to be a huge line. However, it was also before noon.. as in, before all the tourist buses arrived. So, there was no line. Let me repeat. There was no line to see the Star Spangled Banner! Wow, how cool is that?
- So, I have to level with you… At 2 1/2 years old, Sweet Pea really couldn’t care less about seeing flags and founding documents. She loved splashing in the wading pool though. The trip to the National Archives and American History Museum were all about Mommy and Daddy. The wading pool diversion bought us time and made that possible. We didn’t stay long at the American History Museum.. just long enough to eat lunch and wonder where all the people were.
- Well, guess what? They were all at the Natural History Museum. Holy cow, that place was packed to the gills! Still, Sweet Pea loved seeing the animals. So, we quickly hit the highlights and then walked back to the truck, drove to our hotel and checked in, and then crashed. Yep, even on July 3rd we all took a nap. We stayed in our air conditioned hotel room during the heat of the afternoon.
- At about 5pm we emerged, grabbed a bite to eat for dinner and then walked the 5 minutes to the Air and Space Museum. Due to the holiday weekend, this museum was open extended hours. We stayed until they closed the doors and saw everything. The best part of visiting after dinner was that the museum was largely empty.. which was awesome!
- If we had had energy, it would have been an easy walk to the Capitol lawn to hear the dress rehearsal of the Stars and Stripes concert. However, we were pooped. So, we headed back to the hotel and all three of us slept very, very well.
So far we had accomplished an amazingly iconic 4th of July weekend trip with your very young and very volatile 2 year old. The next installment in this series will cover the 4th of July parade, and then we will end this series with tips on how to maximize fun and minimize stress for the fireworks. I really truly hope you found these tips helpful. And, I hope you come back for more!
Thank you for reading!