Image: Fireworks over Mt. Rushmore
Seth A. McConnell / Rapid City J
Fireworks light up the night sky over Mt. Rushmore National Memorial, S.D. on July 3 of last year, during the 10th annual Heartland of America Independence Day Celebration at the Shrine of Democracy.
By
updated 7/3/2008 8:40:47 PM ET 2008-07-04T00:40:47

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 American summer pastimes, our list of top places to celebrate July 4 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.

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.

Boston
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 July 4th destinations. More than 200 events make up a fun-filled six-day calendar during the annual Boston Harborfest, which kicks off on July 1st and continues through the Independence Day holiday. 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.

Expect a slew of events (many of them free), ranging from fireworks, concerts, kids’ days, cruises, tours, and more. Some of the festival’s highlights include Chowderfest, during which some 11,000 participants chow down to select the best chowder from Boston-area restaurants; the annual turnaround of 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, Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard
With their sand dunes and salty air, lighthouses and quaint fishing villages, Cape Cod and its neighboring islands make superb Independence Day retreats, 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 taste of New England cooking and 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 Grucci fireworks display on Jetties Beach.

Chicago
Chicagoans 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, no 4th of July would be complete without a colorful fireworks extravaganza — the most elaborate display is set to patriotic music and lights up the sky over the Navy Pier, a superb location with sweeping skyline views along Lake Michigan. Be sure to grab a seat at theNavy 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; remarkable free concerts are also held at the Petrillo Music Shell.

Mount Rushmore
Acclaimed as one of the ten man-made 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 Independence Day celebrations. 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 in 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. July 3rd is the day to be there as a slew of commemorative events are scheduled — including a fireworks display that night.

Philadelphia
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, with a superb week-long celebration. Start off your visit to the city of Brotherly Love by visiting its most iconic symbol of freedom, the Liberty Bell; it, and the historic sites in Independence Mall will have extended viewing hours over the holiday. 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 Art Museum while listening to five-time Grammy winner John Legend.

Queen Mary 2
The Cunard Line’s prestigiousQueen Mary 2 embodies the essence of luxury cruising, and the ship's six-night "Independence Day Getaway" over the July 4th weekend is a brilliant opportunity to hail the Queen stateside (while celebrating our separation form the British monarchy!) This rare local sailing — most QM2 itineraries cover transatlantic or Caribbean jaunts — departs from New York on July 2 and calls on Boston, Bar Harbor and Halifax. Sample the ship's ten restaurants, two pools and a calendar jam-packed with activities during the additional two days at sea.

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San Diego
Barbecues, beer, bonfires and fantastic fireworks — if there's one beach town that packs a party on July 4, it’s San Diego. The sprawling shores along Mission and Pacific beaches are crowded with merry sunbathers from dawn 'til dusk — some dedicated holiday celebrants even camp out overnight 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 three-week San Diego County Fair on the Del Mar Fairgrounds. But the real action starts after dark, when a no-holds-bar pyrotechnics show lights up the sky before fizzling into the ocean. You’ll hear the explosions all night long but the largest display (and our favorite) 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
Watching a bald eagle fly overhead is bound to get you into a stars-and-stripes state of mind and the San Juan Islands, off the coast of Washington state, are one of the few places in the U.S. where such sightings are commonplace. Of the more than 700 islands that make up the chain, your best bet for July 4 is the eponymous San Juan Island, 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 tide line. Also 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 Fourth of July 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 are the only American-owned islands in the Caribbean and they pull out all the stops with two celebratory holidays: their own Emancipation Day, on July 3rd (to commemorate the end of the slave trade), and Independence Day, on July 4 (since joining the U.S. in 1917), culminating with 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 a visit here a cultural treat and a bona fide bargain. Imagine celebrating July 4 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.

Washington, D.C.
Of course the nation’s capital is going to rank as a top ten place to 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 along the National Mall.

The festival runs until July 6 and features artists, 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 and makes for an impressive spectacle against the backdrop of imposing national monuments. Finally, as night falls on July 4, the free A Capitol Fourth concert kicks off on the West Lawn of the Capitol Building, with special guest performances accompanied by the National Symphony Orchestra. 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.

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