I’m a resident of the Washington area and I’ve spent three or four Independence Day weekends around the National Mall and such areas. It’s a really, really good time, but be prepared for the weather to be very hot and humid alternating with heavy rain.
I would recommend you stay in a hotel across the river in Arlington, Va. – there are many relatively inexpensive ones – and take the subway into town. As a resident, I often take the risk and drive in on the off chance I’ll get a good parking space, but then, I can always change my mind and just go home. Don’t take this risk on July 4 itself – you will not find parking.
Prepare for it to be very crowded. You’ll be walking a lot in hot weather, so carry a lot of water with you (it might be pretty hard on young kids). You’ll be walking and standing pretty much all day. And after the fireworks (which are pretty spectacular) – you will spend a lot of time waiting in line for the subway – unless your hotel is pretty close and you decide to just walk it. Fortunately a few years ago they started prohibiting alcohol during the July 4 festivities, so it’s safer than it used to be, and a lot less messy. If you’re going to be on the Mall that day, I would recommend you show up early and get a spot close to the Washington Monument to see the American Roots concert, sponsored by National Public Radio. It’s a damn good show.
I’ll second the Folklife Festival – it’s a very good time, they usually have some really nice exhibits and good food.
What else? I mean, you’ve got the fireworks, the Folklife Festival, the museums – you don’t really need anything else. There’s plenty of that to occupy your time.
Personally speaking, I would avoid the most popular museums (Air and Space, Natural History, and American History) – they are the most crowded and, in my opinion, the least interesting. (And the U.S. Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio, kicks the National Air and Space Museum’s ass.) Try the Freer/Sackler galleries for their Asian art collections. Try the Corcoran gallery. Try the National Gallery (which actually is not part of the Smithsonian) and the Hirschhorn. There’s tons to do. You can get a pretty comprehensive listing of things to do from the Washington City Paper, a free alternative weekly that comes out Thursday afternoons.
Finally, if you’re in the Washington area, you’ve got to sample some of the fantastic ethnic food around here –
Half smokes – this spicy sausage is sold only by street vendors in most parts of downtown Washington. Get it with mustard, relish, and onions.
Vietnamese food – there are at least a half a dozen great Vietnamese restaurants in the Clarendon neighbourhood of Arlington. My favorite is Nam Viet, 1127 N. Hudson St., Arlington, Va. (near Clarendon metro)
Vietnamese Pho house – steaming hot bowl of noodle soup in beef broth – it’s tasty and cheap. My fave: Pho 75, 1721 Wilson Blvd., Arlington (near Court House metro)
Korean food – you’ve got to try the bulgogi grilled right at your table – again, there are a lot by my current favorite is Woo Mi Garden, 2423 Hickerson Drive
Silver Spring, Md. (near Wheaton metro)
Sushi/Japanese – don’t turn your nose up at the thought of raw fish – it’s delish. Actually, I get most of my sushi at Korean restaurants rather than at stand-alone Sushi bars, so I suggest if you go to a Korean joint, give the sushi a try there. But for sushi and Japanese food, I’d suggest Matsutake, 4121 Wilson Blvd., Arlington (near Ballston metro).
Ethiopian food – nothing like a stack of sour injera bread with a spicy curry – plenty of joints all over the place, but my fave is Fasika’s, 2447 18th St., Washington, D.C. (near Dupont Circle metro)
Mongolian barbecue – you pile up your raw meat, veggies, spices, and oils in a bowl and then at the end of the line you hand it to the cook, who fries it all up right in front of you – again, all over the place. I’d recommend the Mongolian Barbecue, 7710 Wisconsin Ave., Bethesda, Md. (near Bethesda metro)
Dim Sum – try all kinds of Chinese delicacies a little at a time. There are plenty of South China style dim sum places (try Chinatown), but they usually offer dim sum only on weekends. My fave is a North China-style dim sum place that’s all dim sum all the time – A & J Restaurant, 1319 Rockville Pike, Rockville, Md. (it’s a bit of a drive from Washington proper, but it’s worth it).
Chinese food – It’s noisy and hot, but apparently the Chinese word for “fun” literally means “noisy and hot” – and the food is delicious – Tony Cheng’s, 10
619 H St. N.W., Second floor, Washington, D.C. (near Chinatown metro). There’s also a Mongolian barbecue on the first floor.