I would like to start by saying that I have wanted to spend the 4th of July in Washington D.C. since I was probably 11 years old. I had a lot of thoughts running through my head about how to share our Washington DC experience (it was a unique one), and I’ve decided that instead of telling you what to do and where to go, I have to just tell you our story.
When the people around me asked me what my plans were for the 4th, I would excitedly tell them about visiting Washington D.C. However, instead of being excited for me, I was met with genuine confusion and distaste – “why would you want to go there?”.. “it will be SO hot”.. “it’s a madhouse, I’d avoid it”. Even though I wouldn’t let anyone talk me out of it, it made me nervous. After all, I really am not a huge crowd person, and no girl likes runny makeup and frizzy hair from heat.
If you have read my “about me”, you will see that I’m a planner and my boyfriend prefers spontaneity. Since I had technically been to Washington DC before (in 7th grade – I don’t remember much about it) I decided to try to just “wing it” for Mitchell since he allows me to be a control freak when it comes to almost every trip we take. I obviously did some research on some of the things I’d like to see, but I made no plans and had no expectations (other than the fireworks, of course!)
One of the things that I really didn’t plan for was rain, but it was there when we woke up Saturday morning. Luckily, our hotel provided complimentary umbrellas which saved our butts because none of the souvenir shops were open on the 4th! We had 45 minutes before anything was open for lunch, so we got Starbucks (the first time I’ve ordered coffee from Starbucks!!) and talked about what we wanted to do.
I had wanted to do the hop – on, hop – off bus tour due to our short time in Washington DC, but we weren’t sure the rain would hold off and we didn’t want to be stuck outside or on the top of a bus in the rain. We opted for the Smithsonian’s Air and Space museum instead.
On our walk to the museum, we ran into the 4th of July parade. I had known about the parade, but had decided to skip it in order to see more of Washington DC. I am so, so glad we ran into it; we watched the parade for about a half an hour, and it was incredible. It really added to the 4th of July experience, and it gave me goosebumps! If we had more time in Washington DC, this is something that I would love to make time for.
The rain stopped by the time we were leaving the museum, and we could see the Washington monument from where we were; I had heard that they block off the monuments for the fireworks (more about that later) and I really wanted to see them, so we headed that way.
I underestimated how long of a walk it would be. By the time we got to the Lincoln memorial, we had already walked about 3 miles. The plan had been to head back to our hotel to change clothes at some point before the fireworks, but it seemed like too much walking to one of us. This is probably too much information, but I have permission to say that one of us was chafing, and to walk to our hotel round trip would have been 4 miles. To walk back to a museum or to the hop on/hop off bus would have been about 3 miles round trip, which was too much for someone who didn’t plan ahead to bring baby powder 😉 Normally, I do believe taxis would be available, but the roads were closed off so that wasn’t an option.
Even though it was only 2 pm, a lot of people were already camping out for the fireworks so we decided to stay where we were at. I was not missing those fireworks for anything! We weren’t thrilled with our decision (Mitchell didn’t want to sit around waiting that long, and I didn’t want to waste our time not seeing more of the city), but we didn’t feel like we had another option.
This decision haunts me because it was so foolish. We could have rented bikes, we could have sucked it up and walked, and we definitely would have had time for the hop on – hop off tour had we headed there instead of to the monuments (which I’d insisted on) in the first place!
Before 2 pm, it had truly been a gorgeous day. Even though it rained in the morning, it had tapered off by 11:00. Right around 2, it started getting pretty hot. It wasn’t miserable as I had expected our weekend to be, but it wasn’t comfortable either.
So this is where it gets interesting. We were sitting on the steps people watching when it started raining. After at least 30 minutes of steady rain, it starts to downpour. At that point, there was nothing to do except laugh deliriously. We had an umbrella, but were still completely soaked. Literally drenched. Then the wind picked up. We finally bolted to the Lincoln memorial to take cover (why didn’t we do this right away?) and let me tell you – there is something kind of special about huddling together with a bunch of strangers cheering for the downpouring rain and thunder!
It was one of those moments that put things into perspective for me. You can plan your trip all you want, but no matter how good of a planner you are, things will inevitably go wrong once in a while. You just have to make the best of things and enjoy the ride. It didn’t bother me that we got poured on, or that we went from being very hot to shivering – it was our experience, and it was a unique one (I guess waiting 16 years may have had something to do with it too).
When the rain tapered off around 5, we hit up the concession stand for a snack and a few beers then made our way to the Washington Monument to watch the fireworks. I had planned ahead and brought a blanket, but didn’t have it with us since we’d thought we were going to return to the hotel. It wouldn’t have mattered, though, since everything was a muddy mess.
We staked out a spot right in front of the gates that blocked off the road because we didn’t know where else to go. We ended up standing there for over 3 hours straight. There was a stage nearby where people were performing, and although we couldn’t see it from where we stood, we could hear it, and it really added to the experience.
Finally, it was dark and the fireworks started. To be at our nation’s capital for the 4th of July is something that I can’t put into words. It was incredible, and it was everything I hoped it would be. It was even worth waiting 7 hours for, even though I would definitely show up later if I went again!
Afterwards, we ran out as fast as we could. I mentioned earlier that it wasn’t as crowded as I had anticipated – mostly because it’s such a huge area that people are able to spread out. But we were in the very front row so when the fireworks started, people were crowded right around us. When we left, there were swarms of people everywhere– I thought it would never end. But I have to say, it still was spread out enough to walk (or jog like we did) comfortably.
Overall, I am disappointed that we weren’t able to see more in Washington DC. With as many places as I’ve been to, you’d think I’d know by now that you just can’t see everything in every city – but I always leave yearning for more. I suppose that’s why I have a diagnosed travel addiction.
Helpful Hints for the 4th of July in Washington DC:
Washington DC is a place that you don’t have to plan ahead if you’re into being spontaneous – you can pretty much show up, and a lot of what you want to see will be central to other sights.
That’s not to say, however, that it won’t be a lot of walking. The city has bikes that you can rent, though I don’ t know much about them since we were too foolish to look into it (Have I mentioned that really, really wish we had?)
I had heard from many different people and blogs that for the 4th of July, they close down many of the monuments. In our experience, this is partially true. We were able to check out the World War II memorial during the day, but it was closed off later on (I’m not sure what time they closed it down, but definitely before 6 pm). They also closed off the pathway to the Lincoln Memorial, though it was later on at night – probably around 7 pm. The takeaway: while they do close off parts of the memorials, it’s not for the whole day like I was lead to believe.
Plan ahead more than we did. You’ve heard this before and you’ll hear it again – bring comfortable walking shoes (!!!), baby powder if you are a chafer ( 😉 ) and plan for rain, just in case. If it rains, a blanket won’t be good for sitting in the grass!
It is obviously going to be crowded, but the crowds didn’t bother me at all (and I don’t like crowds). Washington DC is big enough for there to be room for everyone! I have experienced worse crowds every year at the Iowa State fair (not joking).
If you enter the National Mall, you can watch the fireworks either from the Lincoln Memorial or from the Washington Memorial. We chose the Washington Memorial only because it was about a 20-30 minute walk closer to the entrance, and we wanted to be able to bolt after the fireworks show. The couple next to us, who have been to the firework show before, told us that we had the best view in the entire park. While the fireworks were shot right at us, I think I would have preferred to have had the Washington Memorial in the background. We had the Lincoln Memorial in the background, which was too far away to be as prominent.