Fireworks on Independence Day: How to see them on the Mall (you should)

Every American should do this once in their lifetime: Brave the heat and the crowds and spend Independence Day on the National Mall. The fireworks and the National Symphony are worth it.

Haraz N. Ghanbari/AP/File
In this July 4, 2008 file photo, fireworks explode over Washington, as seen from Arlington, Va. From left to right is the U.S. Capitol, the Washington Monument, and the Lincoln Memorial.

July 4th on the National Mall – it’s something every American should do once in their lifetime.

The fireworks above the Washington Monument are awe-inspiring. The National Symphony playing with the US Capitol in the background is an entertainment spectacle. The 90 degree heat radiating off the dusty ground at 8 PM – well, that’s just miserable, but remember, freedom isn’t free. Sometimes you have to sweat a little to gain a lot.

It’s crowded though, that’s true. Every Washingtonian has their own strategy for getting downtown, maybe enjoying the Smithsonian Folklife Festival up by the museums in the afternoon, and then grabbing a nice spot for the evening concert and fireworks display.

Here are some idiosyncratic tips derived from years of Mall-going experience:

Send out a scout

The West Lawn of the Capitol is the site of the National Symphony stage. If you want to get a good spot, convince somebody in your party to go early, as in, 8 AM. They can take blankets, folding chairs, magazines, and stake out a homestead. Then you can swoop in late and annoy the surrounding groups.

Bonus tip: Unemployed young people are good for this duty. In Washington almost every circle of friends includes one congressional aide who just lost their job because their boss did something bad and resigned. Get somebody like that to be your scout by suggesting they can network with the other early arrivers.


Yes, this is dangerous, as it is possible to get stuck in a horrific fireworks jam, particularly if you come from the Virginia side of the Potomac. But we never take Metro. It’s a nightmare. DC is full of people who used to be on the student council, and they pay attention to those public service announcements that recommend you take public transportation. So the Metro stops are packed.

Remember the Obama inaugural, when they predicted two million people would come to the Mall, and they were going to have to airdrop food? We drove. No problem.

Actually, you can watch the fireworks from your car, if you feel like it. Just cruise around – the streets will be empty. Convertibles are extra good for this.

Sit behind the Symphony

If you get there late, you’ve got two options: Worm your way through the crowd while pretending to greet an imaginary someone who’s sitting up front, or sit on the side. Everybody wants to cram in front so they can see Steve Martin, or Willie Nelson, or whoever the special guest is. But usually there’s open space on the side or up on the north side of the Capitol, by the grotto. (Look it up.) Listen to the music on a radio if you’re still far away.

Which brings us to our last, and currently most preferred option: Go somewhere else in the city. Lay a blanket out on the open lawn of the National Cathedral, say, where no one else will be around. Enjoy a nice picnic while the kids run around after fireflies. Then drive home and watch the fireworks on TV.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.