Ever wonder why July 4 is so often called 'the 4th of July' around the USA? And not just ol' 'July 4'? No other date regularly gets that days-of-old construction. And for a day steeped in national independence, it gets it wrong. The colonies' Continental Congress actually approved the famed break with the crown on July 2, 1776, then got around to signing a document two days later. So in a way, all the fireworks and barbecue picnics is really because the USA's first wigged leaders filled out a form.
But it's quite the party and one that shouldn't be missed by travellers. We narrowed down some of our favorite July 4th celebrations, big and small across the USA – come and join one of these this year:
You may not have heard of Addison, essentially a North Dallas suburb of 13,000 residents, but its Independence Day celebration is one of the nation's biggest and best, with a half-hour of fireworks and airplane flyovers capping seven hours of fun, held this year on July 3.
Oakland’s little island sister on the bay is home to one of the USA’s most surprisingly big July 4 celebrations, a three-mile parade of 170 floats and 2500 participants that starts early at 10am. It’s so big locals say half of the town comes to watch the other half march. This is the one time of year when the biggest bangs aren't coming from the Myth Busters performing large-scale experiments on the old Alameda Naval Air Station.
From 1929 to 1973, this event was so Boston: polite little classical musical concert on the Charles River esplanade on July 4. Then, to quote the orchestra’s long-time conductor, Arthur Fiedler, they changed things so ‘all hell could break loose.’ They put Tschaikovsky’s ‘1812 Overture’ in the set list and timed with a booming fireworks show. By 1976, they attracted the biggest audience for any classical music concert in history. It remains, without a doubt, one of the USA’s best-known July 4 destinations, with an audience of half a million and live broadcasts on national TV. Try to go once, particularly considering you’re in the heart of a region that considers itself the ‘cradle of American civilization.’ There’s a concert July 3, but the main one is July 4, capping with fireworks at 10:30pm.
Bristol, Rhode Island: the oldest July 4th parade
This might be the coolest thing you can do on July 4. From Providence, bike on the 14.5-mile East Bay Bike Path over a former railroad track into the pretty colonial town of Bristol, home to the nation’s oldest July 4th parade, which began in 1785. (They actually led the first celebration in 1777 with 13 shots of the canon, confusing British troops.) You can rent bikes from East Providence Cycle.
What is more America than frickin' Willie Nelson? Every year the king of country ponytails holds a huge indoor/outdoor ‘4th of July Picnic’ bash at the world’s biggest honky-tonk (Billy Bob’s) at the Fort Worth Stockyards. There’s a host of stars, plenty of food and beer, and if you can get a room at the Stockyards Hotel (try for the Bonnie & Clyde Suite), you’re set. Tickets are $60 ($40 in advance).
Marblehead, Massachussetts: the fifeth of July!
Just east of Salem, and all their witch-burnings, Marblehead is the Boston area’s top yacht port and one of New England’s most prestigious towns. It also throws a pretty big July 4 party, beginning July 3rd with a four-day Marblehead Festival of Arts and a harbor fireworks show at 9pm. The hub-bub is justified by having one of America’s most iconic patriotic paintings, ‘The Spirit of ’76,’ done by Ohio artist Archibald Willard for the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876. It shows a drummer, fife players and flag bearer standing stoic in the American Revolution (the fife player was actually Archibald’s dad, the drummer’s real-life dad bought it – and sent it back to Marblehead where he was from). It’s free to see at the Abbott Hall, open daily.
Showing off your patriotism in Brooklyn is best done on an empty stomach. In 1916, the legend goes, four immigrants tested their love of their new country by seeing who could eat the most hotdogs. That’s grown into a July 4 institution at Coney Island’s Nathan’s Famous hot-dog eating contest. It’s now shown on ESPN, and has seen 68 dogs eaten in a 10-minute sitting and past winners bum-rushing the stage in protest. Afterwards head to the Hudson to watch the Macy’s fireworks display over the East River.
You know there really wouldn't be a July 4th without Philadelphia, right? In fact, John Adams predicted a day before – on July 3, 1776 – that the date would be celebrated for years to come with fireworks. He was right, though he was referring to the date the congress approved independence (July 2), not the date they signed the famed declaration (July4). The city, nevertheless, throws an underrated party each year (the wordy Wawa Welcome America), with a parade by Independence Hall, then a series of free concerts by the Philadelphia Museum of Art capped with a fireworks show. If you want to stay on, check out the lesser-known tradition of the commemoration of the first public reading of the Declaration on Independence (July 8, 1776).
Fireworks are all the better when an icon sets the stage. Since Mt Rushmore has stopped its fireworks show, St Louis is, without a doubt, middle-America’s finest setting. Fair St Louis, now in its 34th year, includes a parade, fireworks, and three nights of free concerts under the Gateway Arch on the Mississippi River. Afterwards you can head to cobblestone Laclede’s Landing, just north, for a bar burger then a malt at the Crown Candy Kitchen, a soda fountain running since 1913.
The ultimate in Independence Day glory? No national event – not Times Square on New Year's Eve, nothing – beats the glamour, tackiness and raw emotion of lying in the grass of the National Mall, surrounded by families who have traveled from around the country, the National Symphony Orchestra playing behind you and fireworks exploding over the ghostly Lincoln Memorial. It's American optimism at its most potent.