July 4th in Washington, DC

I hope that this is the right forum, since there’s not exactly a factual answer…

My wife and I are considering a vacation to Washington, DC this summer. It occurs to me that it would fun to celebrate Independence Day in the Nation’s Capitol. The trip would also include visits to Smithsonian museums, the Capitol, White House, and the usual stuff. Going on the trip would be two adults and two kids (ages 14 and 9). We’ll have money to spend, but prefer not to blow all of it on one thing.

So, do any of you DC locals have any advice for this sort of trip? What kinds of things are available for the general public to do? Would we be tied up all day sitting in a park? Is traffic in the city outrageous on that day? Are hotels usually booked solid during this time? (We’re coming from Texas.) Are there websites to help educate us? If you were coming from out-of-town, what would you do? Is security due to terrorism going to choke the fun out of it all? Is safety an issue, in your opinion? In today’s climate, what are the “do’s and don’t’s” for Washington during a national holiday?

The last time I was in Washington, DC, I was about ten years old. I imagine things have changed a bit since then. I know I have.

Thanks for any advice you can give.

I live in Richmond now, but grew up in NOVA, and visited and worked in DC.

I’m going to suggest that unless you really like crowds, and very hot, humid weather, you plan your trip for sometime other than July 4th. The Spring or Fall are the times to visit DC (IMHO). The weather isn’t nearly as sticky and oppressive, the crowds on the Mall aren’t nearly as thick, and the prices are cheaper.

What can the general public do? How much time do you have? In addition to the WH and the Smithsonian, there are a ton of art galleries, the National Zoo, the Mint, the National Aquarium is just up the road a bit in Baltimore (damn Orioles, no longer in 1st place, but they did better than I ever hoped), drive down into VA and there are Civil War battlefield parks every 100 yards or so. There’s tons to see and do. Much more than you can hope to do in one vacation.

Just don’t do it on July 4th weekend.

Oh, I forgot to add:

If you do come, try and make sure you get down to Southeast (near the Anacostia River) on a Saturday night.

(I’m kidding - don’t go anywhere near Southeast even in broad daylight unless you’re in an Bradley Fighting Vehicle).

As plnnr said, there are lots of things to do, and many are free (of course, if your kids drag you into the gift shops, that’s another matter).

Keep in mind that the weather will most likely be gross. In my experience, many Southerners seem to believe that because they’re traveling north, the weather will be less unbearable. This is wrong–it will likely be very hot and humid; mid-90s plus massive humidity is fairly normal around that time of year.

If you’re bent on seeing fireworks, skip the Mall. There are plenty of other locations from which the fireworks can be seen; the Washington Post publishes a list of the more popular ones each year. I favor Meridian Hill Park because I can walk there from my place.

You’ll probably experience more security procedures in the airport getting here than you will when you’re here. You’ll walk through a metal detector and have a guard look in your bag at the museums, but it’s normally quick and painless.

There’s tons of stuff to do. I think the biggest mistake DC tourists (especially those with kids) make is trying to put too much into one day. There are so many things to do; give yourself time to enjoy a few and don’t let yourselves get overwhelmed.

If you’re sold on being near the Mall on the 4th, then consider waiting a day or two after the festivities and hitting the museums on a summer non-holiday weekday. Ice cream vendors on the Mall charge $2.00 for an ice cream sandwich ($3.00 for a Dove bar) but on a hot DC day nothing beats it. I recommend starting on the south side of the Mall with the Air and Space Museum, then checking the modern art museum next door; move across the Mall and take your pick of the Natural History Museum, American History Museum, or the National Gallery. Fair warning: if you are a seriously short-attention-span museum sprinter, you can do three of these in a day. Otherwise, two is pushing it. If you’ve got kids, Air & Space and Natural History will be the most interesting (5th grade is about the earliest that the American History Museum will make any sense to them, and wait until junior high for the National Gallery).

The Vietnam Veterans’ memorial is a good ten or fifteen minute walk down the Mall from the museums, but it’s on the way to the Lincoln Memorial; both are worth seeing. If you have relatives in the armed forces, Arlington National Cemetary is also impressive, and includes the Women in Service Memorial. When you’re down at the west end of the Mall, it’s only another five minutes’ hike. You can take the Metro there if you want.

Speakig of which, an all-day Metro pass is a MUST. Grab lunch where you can - the cafeteria behind the Holocaust Museum is good, and the East Street Cafe in Union Station is great food with indoor people watching free of charge. The food court below Union Station is less impressive, but the variety is nice.

Once you think you’ve “done” the Mall, take the Red Line up through Farragut North (Georgetown), DuPont Circle, or even up to Bethesda; the shopping and trendy neighborhoods are fun to poke around, and the variety of good restaurants is awesome. The Orange and Blue lines run to Rosslyn, another nice town.

If you’re coming around 7/4, plan to spend a lot of time at the Folklife Festival, which runs on the two weekends before 7/4. Each year the festival focuses on three areas of the world, one US and two international, and showcases arts, crafts, music, and architecture from those areas. It’s really amazing. Here’s the website from 2000, I didn’t find one for 2004 but you might with a little searching.

On the 4th itself, traffic and crowds are horrible. My advice: find a hotel in MD or VA near a Metro line, and Metro in. (Metro is very clean and safe.) Courtyard Marriott in New Carrolton is one such place. (No, I don’t work for them, I just happen to know about it.)

As far as safety, yes, there’s plenty of (mostly drug-related) crime as there is in any big city, but ignore the scare stories about certain parts of town. The Anacostia is a beautiful and neglected river and don’t tell any of the locals or I won’t be able to kayak on it in peace anymore. The worst problem you’re likely to run into is panhandlers, some of whom are very convincing con artists. I’ve been taken more than once. :smack: Don’t give anyone money no matter what their story. As for terrorism, your guess is as good as mine.

According to this site:

Bwahahahahha. I nearly choked on my cocoa puffs when I read this.

All joking aside, Southeast is an urban war zone that is unsafe even in the middle of the day. The last time I went through there, there were people throwing stuff at cars and trying to jack hubcaps at stoplights. It really is every exagerrated ghetto nightmare come to life.

But DC itself actually has a very safe, tourist-friendly vibe. I second all of the other suggestions, especially checking out Dupont Circle and Georgetown (if you dig cute shops and restaurants).

But whatever you do, DON’T come on the weekend of the fourth if at all possible! It gets stupidly expensive, hot, and overcrowded.

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.

Quick note about Metro…

It’s the best way to get around in this city, by far. I can guarantee that 95% of anything you’d want to see is accessible by Metro (and by that I mean that there’s a station within a quick walking distance of said attraction).

All-day passes are essential for you. They are not effective until 9:30 am, however, so don’t show up at a station, buy one, and try to use it before this time.

Driving in and around DC is time consuming even for the natives. If you’re not from here, it’s very easy to get turned around or lost, and then you’ll waste all that time trying to get back to where you were.

www.wmata.com is Metro’s website. Click on Metrorail at the top and choose Station Map, and you’ll see where the stops are. If you have an all-day pass, then the fares from station to station don’t matter, of course (a huge benefit when you’re sightseeing, because you’ll be going to several stations). Look also at the site’s home page to see if there are any expected delays at that time, such as track work, or something.

On their site, you can also click on The Ride Guide (lower right of home page); this will show you the best way to get to where you want to go using Metrorail or Metrobus.

In July it’s very hot and sticky here. On the plus side, 90% of the people you see will be tourists like you, so at least your misery will have plenty of company.

I don’t really agree with all the hubub is about prices going through the roof on 7/4 weekend. Maybe that’s true for the hotels, but how can you avoid it if you really want to visit during the high season? Maybe it’s the hotdog vendors, I don’t know because I bring an ice chest with sandwiches along with me. I realize you’re travelling, so bringing an ice chest along with you may not be an option, but I also wouldn’t rule out having a great time on a vacation just because the ice cream sandwiches are $3 instead of $2.

Keep in mind that alcoholic anything is not permitted in DC parks. That includes the mall, and almost any grassy area that has a statue on it, like a traffic circle. If you try to bring a cooler or ice cheat with you onto the mall, Park police will search through it looking for beer et al.

Traffic is awful on the 4th because there are so many people they fill the streets before and after the fireworks show. Even if you were the only car on the streets, you’d spend hours inching your way back to the hotel simply because of the tens of thousands of people walking through the streets. My advice is to get a room within 20-30 minute walk of the mall and just walk there. You may pay extra for such convenience, but you won’t have to shell out $49/day on a rental car. There is a Comfort Inn at 1201 13th Street that just underwent removations, will probably run you about $120/night. The Holiday Inn at 1155 14th Street also looks nice. Both of these are a 20-30 minute walk south to the national mall, and west of Dupont Circle.

Some links:

Geographic & Technical Data
NOAA Weather for Washington DC

Government & Politics
DC Home Page
Washington DC, The American Experience
FirstGov - Your First Click to the US Government

The Washington Post
USA Today
Roll Call (Congressional News & Info)
Washingtonian Magazine
Washington City Paper
The Intowner
(Neighborhood news and information in
Adams Morgan, Mt. Pleasant and Columbia Heights,
Dupont, Scott, Thomas and Logan Circles
Dupont East, U Street, Shaw & Mt Vernon Square)

Arts, Culture & Education
The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
Ford’s Theater
Arena Stage
Shakespeare Theatre
Studio Theatre
National Geographic
National Science Foundation
General DC Info & links
DC Pages
The Embassies of Washington DC

Getting Around DC
Metrorail System Map
Washington Post Restaurant Guide
DC’s Favorite Restaurants (according to A La Carte Delivery Service)
The Great Outdoors
US National Arboretum
National Park Service Guide to Rock Creek Park
Dumbarton Oaks Gardens

Oh, and yes it gets humid in July in DC. And in other news, it’s cold in Minnesota and windy in Chicago. Just take it easy and don’t enter any 10k marathons and you’ll be ok.

Let me add some more restaurant recommendations –

Yosaku Japanese Restaurant, 4712 Wisconsin Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C.

Thai food – Busara, 2340 Wisconsin Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C.

Malaysian food – Straits of Malaya, 1836 18th St., N.W., Washington, D.C.

You guys have been wonderful. Thanks for all the ideas. I don’t know if the Fourth is worth the hassle, but we are looking forward to seeing our nation’s Capitol. Please, keep the suggestions coming. I especially appreciate the posts from folks proud of their city. Ordinary big-city crime doesn’t worry me – I’ve just wondered if the current threat of terrorism has made being a tourist in DC more difficult.

If any of y’all need suggestions about Austin or other parts of Texas, just ask. Thanks bunches.

When we lived in NOVA about five years ago (and how I miss it), we would always find the Metro station at Vienna to be a great place to get off the freeway and head into DC. Since you will most likely be using the Metro to get around (I highly recommend you leave your car outside the city limits), you might find a good hotel deal a little futher out of town. A few extra minutes on the ride in on the orange line from northern Virginia allows you to get your bearings, look at a map, and plan your day. Lots of other tourists do that.

You might also wish to go to Mount Vernon or some of the nearby Civil War battle sites. Manasses (Bull Run) is great. The birthplace of George Washington is another favorite of mine and the family. After visiting the home, wander down to the river / bay and let the kids poke around in the sandy beach. An underwater ridge containing fossilized shark teeth and whale bones will often wash up a neat momento or two. It isn’t visited frequently (about and hour from Mount Vernon), and makes for a relaxing break from the city.

And in DC? Sminthsonian, Smithsonian, and SMITHSONIAN! I openly wept when I visited the Air and Space Museum and was able to feel a piece of the termendous effort that goes into the space program. But them I believe space is our destiny. Natural History is neat, but you should also check out the American history museum. All free, but the gift shops are filled with loads of neat things you can buy to remember your trip.

The Zoo is also great and free, paying only for parking ($4.00 five years ago).

Good luck!

I, too, am planning a trip to D.C., not for the 4th, but in May. I’ve booked a hotel in Fairfax, VA (Courtyard by Marriott), and if it’s not too much of a hijack, could anyone tell me if that’s an okay place to stay?

That looks like quite a trek from the city, and nowhere near a subway station as far as I can tell from the Marriott web site. I would guess about a 45 minute drive outside of the city on route 50. Just make sure you do your driving outside of rush hour, since Rt 50 is a major artery. You could possibly drive north to one of the subway stations at the end of the orange line, and then take the subway in. All day parking at the stations is $3, but they might fill up fast on weekdays so you better get there early.

There is nothing particularly interesting to do in Fairfax, (if that’s what you mean by “an okay place to stay”), except for a Vietnamese shopping center called “Eden Center”. If you crave authentic Vietnamese cuisine, the Four Sisters Restaurant in Eden Center would be the place to go.

The Marriot in Fairfax (by Fair Oaks Mall) isn’t too far from the city. The Vienna metro (Orange line) is a few miles away. 15 miles isn’t much- that’s about 20 minutes or so up 66 to DC, without traffic of course. If you’re at the Fairfax Marriott in Tysons Corner (the McLean one), you’re near the Tysons Mall and the West Falls Church metro isn’t that far away. (Still orange line). They’re both ok locations, but the Tysons one is a better location I think.

More DC restaurant recommendations: A chilli cheese half smoke at Ben’s Chilli Bowl- U Street Metro Stop, 14th St Exit.

Jaleo- Spanish Tapas- 7th Street near the MCI center.
I second the Pho at Pho 75. So yummy and cheap.

BTW, in case you do use Metro, here’s a tip that’ll serve you well: Try to board one of the end cars. Human tendencies are to go to the middle cars (which is usually where the escalators or stairs open to); the end ones are almost always much less crowded.

The street vendor half-smokes are OK, but if you really want to sample the best half smoke DC has to offer, take the Green line up to the U Street/Cardozo stop, get off at the 13th St. exit, and cross the street to Ben’s Chili Bowl, perhaps the most famous place to eat in DC.

U St. used to be a total ghetto, but it’s becoming gentrified very, very quickly now and you’ll be safe there at anytime of the day. My god, the first things you see coming off the Metro are a Quizno’s and a Starbucks. You can’t get much friendlier than that. :slight_smile:

Ben’s has been owned by the same family for 50 years or so, and it’s Bill Cosby’s favorite place to eat. Treat yourself to a chili half-smoke with everything, some chili-cheese fries and a shake. Your arteries won’t thank you, but if you’re doing the tourist thing, you’ll walk off the calories in no time.

And please, please: If you’re going to stand on the Metro escalators, do it on the right side. The left side is reserved for those who are walking up the escalators. Obviously, you’re free to walk up the left side with the rest of is if you so choose.

Oh, a good place to view the fireworks, as well as eat, might be the restaurant on the rooftop of the Hotel Washington, which is right near the White House. I suspect you’d need reservations for something like that, though, because the view is spectacular.

It seemed like the OP hoped to get a tour of the White House and the Capitol.

You can certainly see those buildings from the outside, but there is pretty much zero chance of getting a tour of the White House at this date. There is a months-long waiting list for tours, and if you are going to be here in early July, I’m afraid you should have tried to book a tour back in February or so. But hey – you can still try! Click here.

As far as touring the Capitol, call your congressman asap to have them set something up for you. You have a much better chance to do this, but I’d recommend that you act quickly.

On fireworks, I always hear people knocking the Mall, but I like it. You have to go through security now in order to get on the Mall, but that has had the benefit of cutting down the number of folks who want to go through the hassle. It’s crowded and hot, but the Mall is still a-okay in my book.