If you live in the greater Washington D.C. area, at some point you definitely want to make plans to visit Washington D.C. for the 4th of July festivities. But if you have kids, especially younger kids, that can be a disaster in the making. Check out this Ultimate Guide to Planning an Iconic 4th of July in DC with Kids.
It’s full of tips from our experience on every aspect of the Independence Day celebrations- from the parade to the fireworks, and more!
Part One: The logistics
This post covers where to stay, where to park, when to arrive, ideas for food, and other activities you will want to consider if you want to truly embrace this once in a lifetime DC 4th of July experience.
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
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.
Note: If you are wanting to stay closer to home, there are tons of fantastic places to see fireworks in Maryland too!
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.
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. 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?
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 currently is a small cafe. 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.
- 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!
- American History Museum
- US Postal Museum
- National Building Museum
- The National Gallery of Art
- National Museum of African American History
- The National Museum of the American Indian
- The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
- The Freer and Sackler Galleries
- U.S. Botanical Gardens
Tip #6: Many of the monuments and memorials will be closed all or most of the day on July 4th. Plan accordingly
You can easily see these iconic memorials either July 3rd or July 5th.
Tip #7: Bring your stroller
Seriously. Just bring it. You will not regret this decision
Part Two: The Parade
If you are fortunate enough to travel to DC for the Independence Day festivities, or if you live in the greater DC area, the National Independence Day Parade is a must-do item for an iconic 4th of July with kids. This parade is one of the most apple pie American experiences that exists.
There are bands, floats, balloons, and other exciting theatrics. Plus, everyone is wearing red, white, and blue, and waving the American flag. If this parade doesn’t get you into the patriotic spirit, nothing will. Of course, if you will experience it with a toddler or preschooler, there are about 1000 ways your great time could devolve into tears and screaming very quickly. Don’t let that happen to you!
Wouldn’t you like to know how to maximize your fun, especially if you are celebrating with young kids? Here are some insider tips!
- The National Independence Day Parade starts at 1145AM and lasts a few hours.
- The parade route runs along Constitution Avenue starting at 7th Avenue and stops in front of the White House.
- The grandstand is located on the steps of the National Archives.
- There are limited food and bathroom options along the parade route.
- Starting at 8AM, the National Archives plans activities that include a dramatic reading of the Declaration of Independence, a Fife and Drum Corps performance, and other live performances.
Parade Tip #1: Where to See the Parade
The best view of the parade is in front of the National Archives. Well, I might suggest trying to grab a spot directly across the street from the Archives. That way, when you take your amazing photos, the dramatic backdrop of the National Archives will be your photo background.
It will be very difficult to secure a spot alongside the road or in the immediate vicinity of the National Archives. If this is important to you, plan to arrive on location when the 8AM festivities begin.
If location is not important to you, all of the parade attractions can be seen along the entire parade route. You can be sure to see and hear all of the performances if you are near the grandstand area though.
Parade Tip #2: Bring Lawn Chairs
Seriously… this tip will save you so much heartache. Your kids will end up standing a bit and sitting on the curb. But it’s nice for them to have their own spots. Likewise, it’s awesome to have a front row seat (not stand) for the duration of the parade. No one will mind you sitting in lawn chairs, because you will be lower to the ground. But this will help your kids not get too tired.
Parade Tip #3: Bring Snacks and more water than you think you will need
There are limited food options in the immediate vicinity of the parade. Pick up some fruit from your hotel and bring some crackers or other snacks.
Also, bring at least two bottles of water per person. Honestly, I would bring more than that if the day is expected to be a scorcher. You do not want to get heat exhaustion in the middle of a crowd.
Parade Tip #4: Again– bring that stroller!
If your young child is still within stroller range… bring the stroller. I know, this sounds like a cop-out. I think it is key for ensuring a seamless experience though.
Not only will you be able to roll your exhausted and overstimulated kiddo back to the hotel after the parade, but you will be able to make that transition quickly. Also, strollers have storage.. for food, drinks, hats, flags, umbrellas, sunscreen, etc… Bring the stroller.
Parade Tip #5: Pull-Ups are your friend (for young kids)
Unless you preschooler or toddler is 100% fully potty trained, put them in a pull-up. Again, limited access to bathroom facilities.
Seriously, you do not want to die on this hill.
The worst thing ever would be for your child to wet their pants in the middle of the parade.. or lose it because they have to go potty and you can’t get to one in time.
Parade Tip #6: Dress for Success!
Dress appropriately for the weather and prepare for everything. Bring sunscreen, hats, and umbrellas. Unless the weather report is 100% clear or 100% rainy, don’t assume that the weather at 9AM will be the weather at noon.
Parade Tip #7: Bring something for your kids to do
You will likely be waiting a few hours for the main parade to start. Bring a few fun time-passers… books, an iPad, a card game. You get the idea. Don’t risk the meltdown before the fun even starts!
Parade Tip #8: Bring some flags to wave!
Bring flags! Ok, this isn’t totally imperative. You can buy them from flag sellers on the scene. I bet the flags you buy at Target will be cheaper and nicer though. Just sayin’.
But what if it’s raining?
Oh, Washington D.C. Your weather patterns are so fickle and unpredictable. When you plan your iconic DC 4th of July adventure with your kids, you will not be able to predict the weather.
You just won’t.
I would like to suggest that you should plan to go regardless of the weather (unless it is 100% rain and the parade is cancelled. Then, by all means, go see a movie instead).
Bottom line: roll with it and you might get lucky enough to snag that front row seat.
What attractions will you see at the parade?
- Marching bands from all over the country.
- Parade floats and balloons.
- Everything Americana, from the Fife and Drum Corps to Uncle Sam walking on stilts.
Part Three: The Fireworks
The evening is a comfortable 79 degrees. There is not a cloud in the sky.
You have just spent a relaxing and fun-filled day playing on the National Mall and indulging in the gourmet picnic food you packed for your family. Now, as the sun sets, you and your kids are comfortably seated for the main event: fireworks on the National Mall in Washington DC.
You arrived early enough to get a prime spot, and as the U.S. Army Band finishes playing Stars and Stripes, you smile, knowing that in a few moments the sky will be filled with the most iconic 4th of July fireworks you have ever seen.
Yeah, right. I don’t think that scenario is realistic either.
Actually, if you are a parent with young kids, the idea of fireworks on the National Mall sounds like the coolest, scrapbook-worthy, family memory-making event ever.
That is, until you consider the 700,000 other people who will show up.
Or, the fact that it is likely to be muggy, buggy, and quite hot.
Maybe the lack of easily accessible port-a-potties, the heavy security, the nightmare parking and public transit situation, the fact that there is no shade on the lawn of the National Mall.
Or the fact that if you spent all day playing outside, by 8 or 9PM your kids are going to be cranky, whiny, and completely done.
That sounds like a recipe for disaster to me.
Fireworks tip #1: Make sure your kids are as well rested as they can be
We arrived in DC on July 3rd and stayed until July 5th. This turned out to be the best decision ever because it gave us a home base, a place to chill in the heat of the afternoon, and it was just really convenient.
Fireworks Tip #2: Don’t head to the Fireworks viewing area too early
There is really no good reason to arrive hours ahead of time. There is plenty (I repeat plenty) of room to put a blanket and a few chairs. Even if it’s crowded, all viewing locations in the National Mall area will have decent viewing of the fireworks. That being said– try to arrive at least 1 to 1.5 hours before fireworks kick off.
Fireworks Tip #3: You will be walking a lot more than you Think you will
Again– if your kids are young bring the stroller.
But also, make sure you have decent shoes on too! You could be walking up to an hour just to get to the security checkpoint.
Putting younger kids in a stroller keeps them contained and manages their anxiety and overwhelm. Why is this important? There will be over 100,000 people in the immediate area.
Fireworks Tip #4: Pack for Success!
You should count on being away from anything convenient for at least 4 hours. I would highly recommend you bring the following items with you:
- A few different varieties of snacks, not just for your kids.. but for you too. You will get hungry.
- More water than you think you need.
- Bug Spray. May I remind you that DC was built on a swamp?
- Something to occupy your kids’ time while you wait for the fireworks to begin. Simple toys from the Dollar Store, the iPad (?), a ball or frisbee?
- Rain gear. If there is even a hint of rain, you might want to pack at least one umbrella.
- At least one change of clothes for your kid. Also, pick extra diapers and wipes.
- Your camera and/or fully charged smart phone. You are going to want to take pictures and video. These fireworks are amazing!
- Glow in the dark bracelets and necklaces. You know, the cheapy kind you can pick up at Target or the Dollar Store. As the sun starts setting, but before the fireworks begin, your kids will love messing around with them.
Fireworks Tip #5: Bring lawn chairs, not a blanket
Ok, this one really is personal preference. Let me just give you one word of caution: It rains a lot in DC.
If it rains during the day, by the evening, the ground will perfectly dry in some places but in others, it will be a huge mud pit.
There was very little separation between dry and muddy.
For us, bringing lawn chairs (we even brought a kiddie lawn chair for our daughter) gave us a great vantage point for the fireworks, and kept our bums dry.
If you prefer a blanket, I would suggest bringing one with a waterproof side to it.
Fireworks Tip #6: Best Fireworks viewing areas
Sit in front of the Washington Monument:
- The fireworks launch from the Reflecting Pools and WWII Memorial Area. If you sit in front of the Washington Monument, you will literally have a front row seat to the fireworks, and the sound of the fireworks.
- You will not hear the live band play (that band plays at the other end of the Mall in front of the US Capitol) but there is patriotic music piped in.
- Possible downside? Because of your close proximity to the fireworks, you will not be able to take any iconic shot of fireworks with either the Lincoln Memorial or Washington Monument in the background.
- However, this is about as close to the fireworks as you are going to get. So, your view of the fireworks themselves will be near perfect.
Far Side of the Washington Monument:
If you want great shot of the fireworks with the Washington Monument in the background, you should try and sit on the far side of Washington Monument hill/lawn area.
The Steps of the Lincoln Memorial:
- Another great front row seat to the fireworks would be the steps/area around the Lincoln Memorial. This would give you a great vantage point for a front row for the fireworks and that iconic photo of the fireworks with the Washington Monument in the background.
- Possible downside? This seems like the most popular place to try and get a fireworks viewing spot.
- So, if this is important to you, you will likely need to show up wayyy before 7pm. This option might be more feasible if your kids are older.. or you have the best behaved kids in the world. Ha!
U.S. Capitol Viewing Area:
- A less stressful, but still great, view of the fireworks is on the part of the lawn that is directly in front of the U.S. Capitol Building. This is further away (about a mile) but honestly, these fireworks are pretty impressive. You will still have a phenomenal experience.
- You could also try and get a seat in the U.S. Capitol viewing area. The cool thing about this area is that you will get to hear the U.S. Army Band 4th of July concert while the fireworks go off.
- Possible downside? The seats in this viewing area are likely hard to come by as well. Also, the fireworks are a little further away.
Great viewing areas away from the National Mall:
- The Tidal Basin in the area of the Jefferson or FDR Memorials
- Arlington Cemetery near the Iwo Jima Memorial
- East Potomac Park
Washington D.C. 4th of July FAQ
909PM is when the fireworks will start.
The most prized locations are in front of the Washington Monument or on the step of the Lincoln Memorial. Other excellent fireworks viewing spots include the Iwo Jima Memorial and U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial.
Expect 700,000+ people to visit DC on the 4th of July for fireworks and other festivities.
Yes! There are various locations in the National Harbor where you can see the fireworks at the National Mall, as well as other locations in the vicinity.
Yes it is. On holidays, there is no fee to park in metered parking spots.
Yes. All Smithsonian Museums will be open on July 4th.