[Updated June 2016]
With its day-long beach parties, afternoon parades, nightly concerts, and dazzling fireworks, July 4th isn’t your everyday holiday — it’s the birthday of the good ol’ U.S. of A., and everyone’s invited to the countrywide party. Whether you’re into paying tribute to American history or just enjoying traditional summer pastimes, our list of top places to celebrate July 4th has got you covered. While we were tempted to include London — just to remind them who won! — we opted to stay domestic with our picks for July 4th vacations. Accordingly, you’ll find the obvious places for saluting the nation — like D.C., Boston, and Philadelphia — as well as the unexpected. Look for coastal cities, offshore islands, an inland mountain, and…one of the finest ships afloat. Start the celebration with our Places to Celebrate July 4th slideshow.
A city that cradled the American Revolution and once threw wild tea parties, today Boston hosts a party of a different kind, as one of the nation’s premier destinations for July 4th vacations. More than 200 events make up a fun-filled six-day calendar during the annual Boston Harborfest, which kicks off on July 1. This patriotic celebration focuses on the city’s strong maritime and colonial heritage, and unfolds, as such, along the waterfront, on the Harbor Islands, and in the city’s downtown area. Expect a slew of events (many of them free), ranging from fireworks, concerts, kids’ days, cruises, tours, reenactments, and more. Some of the festival’s highlights a cruise aboard the USS Constitution; and the reading of the Declaration of Independence from the balcony of the Old State House. The other major component of Beantown’s Independence Day festivities is the free Boston Pops Fireworks Spectacular; arrive early with beach chairs or blankets to guarantee good seats.
Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard & Nantucket
With their sand dunes and salty air, lighthouses and quaint fishing villages, Cape Cod and its neighboring islands make superb retreats for July 4th vacations, with dozens of parades, picnics, and fairs that will have you humming the “Star Spangled Banner” all holiday long. Three of our favorite Independence Day events are the barbecue at the Old Whaling Church in Martha’s Vineyard (in Edgartown), where you’ll get a dose of nostalgia for the country’s old maritime days; the Bike and Carriage Parade in Falmouth (on Cape Cod), where participants dress up as Uncle Sam and parade around in these decorated modes of transport; and Nantucket’s fireworks display on Jetties Beach.
Chicago locals get so amped for the city’s annual Independence Day festivities that they actually kick off the revelry days in advance. Spectacular firework displays, fun festivals, rockin’ concerts, and ballgames make the city an obvious choice for a holiday hurrah. Of course, July 4th vacations wouldn’t be complete without a colorful fireworks extravaganza — the most elaborate display is set to patriotic music and lights up the sky over Navy Pier, a superb location with sweeping skyline views along Lake Michigan. Be sure to grab a seat at the Navy Pier Beer Garden before the show to listen to free performances by stellar Chicago-area bands, which jam to the blues, classic rock, and pop.
Mount Rushmore, South Dakota
Acclaimed as one of the top manmade wonders of the world, Mount Rushmore is as grand a tribute to American history as one can get and, not surprisingly, a prime national monument for July 4th vacations. The imperial visages of four of the country’s most venerated leaders — George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt — are etched into the Black Hills of South Dakota, and visible from multiple spots at the Mount Rushmore National Memorial. You can follow the Avenue of Flags from the Concession Building to the Presidential Trail — a half-mile path that’ll get you up close to the mountain carvings. You can also head to the Grandview Terrace above the Lincoln Borglum Museum or the memorial’s amphitheater. A slew of commemorative events are scheduled on America’s birthday, however, note there will be no fireworks.
Where better to celebrate America’s independence than in the city of our nation’s birth — Philadelphia? The old stomping grounds of the Founding Fathers, this history-rich city lays claim to being the place where the Declaration of Independence and Constitution were both drafted. More than 200 years later Philadelphians are still ready to get all riled up in the name of independence making it a great location for the national holiday. With a superb weeklong celebration, start off your visit to the city of Brotherly Love by visiting its most iconic symbol of freedom, the Liberty Bell, as well as the historic sites in Independence Hall. Once you’re done with the history, it’s all about music and fun: Expect free concerts, a July 4th parade, and fireworks you can watch above the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Barbecues, beer, bonfires, and fantastic fireworks — if there’s one beach destination that packs a party on Independence Day, it’s San Diego. The sprawling shores along Mission Bay and Pacific Beach are crowded with merry sunbathers from dawn till dusk — some dedicated holiday celebrants arrive at daybreak to ensure a prime spot on the sand. Plenty of oh-so-American activities will keep you occupied both on and around the holiday — like the month-long San Diego County Fair on the Del Mar Fairgrounds. But the real action starts after dark, when a no-holds-barred pyrotechnics show lights up the sky before fizzling into the ocean. You’ll hear the explosions all night long, but the largest display is the Big Bay Fireworks show at 9 p.m. It’ll be hard to miss the rockets’ red glare shooting up from bay barges, but some of the best viewing is from Shelter Island and Coronado Landing.
San Juan Islands, Washington
Watch a bald eagle fly overhead on the San Juan Islands, off the coast of Washington State, and get into a stars-and-stripes state of mind. As one of the few places in the U.S. where such sightings are commonplace, your best bet for July 4th vacations is the eponymous San Juan Island. There you will find the aptly named Fourth of July Beach along Griffin Bay. Of the more than 700 islands that make up the chain, your best bet for July 4th vacations is the eponymous San Juan Islands, where you’ll find the aptly named Fourth of July Beach along Griffin Bay; claim your spot along the sand, and spend your day swimming, playing softball, and roasting marshmallows on bonfires below the tideline. Don’t miss the annual Pig War Picnic, named for the so-called “Pig War” waged on the island between Brits and Americans in 1859. The commemorative picnic takes place on nearby Price Street, following the community parade, and serves up equal parts burgers and hot dogs with good old-fashioned fun.
U.S. Virgin Islands
St. Croix, St. Thomas, and St. John comprise a tantalizing trio of Caribbean isles with U.S. territory status (no passport needed here), and they pull out all the stops with two celebratory holidays. First, they celebrate their own Emancipation Day, on July 3rd to commemorate the end of the slave trade. They continue to celebrate the next day since joining the U.S. in 1917. One of the main events is a parade on St. John, the tiniest, and, arguably, prettiest, of the islands. Not only is airfare to the isles cheaper in late June and July, but hotel rates are nearly half off their winter highs as well, making July 4th vacations a cultural treat and a bona fide bargain. Imagine celebrating July 4th drinking a rum punch instead of beer and painting the town red, white, and blue at Caribbean-flavored bashes at night. Note that while St. John is the main focal point for Independence Day antics, all three of the islands have something to offer over the holiday.
Of course the nation’s capital is going to rank as one of the top 10 places to take a July 4th vacation and celebrate the nation’s birthday! Several exciting events lead up to the culmination of the July 4th festivities, one of which is the Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the National Mall. The festival runs June 29 through July 4 and features artists, performers, and craftspeople. Next up is Constitution Avenue, where the massive National Independence Day Parade incorporates a stream of lavish floats, bands, giant balloons, and military groups; it makes for an impressive spectacle against the backdrop of imposing national monuments. Finally, as night falls on July 4th, the free A Capitol Fourth concert kicks off on the West Lawn of the Capitol Building, with special guest performances. As a grand finale, the concert is followed by one of the nation’s largest and most visually impressive fireworks displays, illuminating the night sky above the Washington Monument.