Best July 4th Fireworks
On July 3, 1776, the day before the Continental Congress adopted the final draft of the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia, at least one wise man thought a big party was in order.
“It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade,” wrote Congressman John Adams to his wife, Abigail, of the document’s initial ratification. “With shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other from this time forward forever more.”
Related: America’s Best Towns for July 4th
Illuminations? We’ve got those. No day on the calendar taps into America’s celebratory spirit quite like July 4, and no matter where our location, chances are we’ll kick back, enjoy the new summer’s warmth, and at day’s end, watch the rockets’ red glare—and every other color in the rainbow—light up the night sky.
Today, the explosive spectacles that Adams envisioned come courtesy of the U.S. pyrotechnics industry, a $900 million-plus annual business that is “pretty recession-proof,” says Julie Heckman, president of the American Pyrotechnics Association (APA). Some communities will scale back this year, she says, but Independence Day celebrations, which account for more than half of industry revenues, are rarely canceled.
Good news, to be sure. But that makes the challenge of picking the country’s best fireworks displays all the harder. Heckman shares her own criteria for magnificence: “It has to do with the way the display is scripted and timed, how it is choreographed to music, how much of the sky is filled at any given time, and whether the whole thing dances.”
To those artistic requirements we added historical significance—explaining the predominance of former Colonial towns on our list, including Philadelphia, Boston, and New York City, which itself typically uses about three times more shells than any other display in the country.
We also considered geographical context, since the physical location is the stage on which the fiery drama is performed. That’s why Mount Rushmore, Cape Cod, and a tiny Texan town called Addison—where the landscape’s flatness and the lack of humidity mean the jaw-dropping effects can be viewed from miles and miles away—made the cut.
True, even a handful of sparklers in the backyard can make for a great evening. But being in the crowd at one of these pyrotechnically bedazzling events constitutes a truly extraordinary July 4th experience.
Boston: Boston Pops Fireworks Spectacular
Few celebrations are as tradition-heavy as Boston’s Fourth, which began in 1974 in anticipation of the Bicentennial. Some 20 city, state, and federal agencies collaborate on the planning, and six—including the U.S. Coast Guard and the Cambridge police and fire departments—have boats in the Charles River, to oversee the four barges as they launch the 21-minute extravaganza.
Where to View: The Boston Pops kicks the night off with a rousing concert at 8:30 p.m., but oddly enough, you can’t see the fireworks at all from the best concert seats. Thanks to 30 sound towers, though, every one of the 400,000 to 600,000 spectators—watching from both the Cambridge and Boston sides of the river on blankets, from the Longfellow Bridge, and from some 500 to 1,000 boats on the river—can have their concert and watch the fireworks too.
Washington, D.C.: A Capitol Fourth
The whole Mall is a stage on the Fourth of July, and its live audience one of the country’s biggest—for good reason. The show, which takes a week to set up, uses predominantly large shells, with the splendor of the capital’s monuments as a backdrop. Central to the production’s drama is the illusion that the fireworks are exploding above the Lincoln Memorial or the Washington Monument, instead of over the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool where they’re launched. Two soundtracks accompany the sights: one is a prerecorded score for the on-site crowd, and the other—played live by the National Symphony Orchestra on the West Lawn of the Capitol—accompanies PBS’s broadcast of the fireworks.
Where to View: If it’s your first time, get into the thick of it and claim a spot on the Mall. Arrive as early as possible.
Lake Tahoe: Lights on the Lake
The alpine lake straddling Nevada and California is known for its rich ecosystem, pristine water, extraordinary beauty—and unbeatable July 4 fireworks. “It’s not so much how many you get but what you get,” says Ian Gilfillan, vice president of Pyro Spectaculars. This show, he says, has a special line of products. Round, symmetrical, and floral fireworks are interspersed with farfalles (spinning butterflies) and other whistling, spinning, pistil-like devices.
Where to View: South Lake Tahoe’s paddle wheelers the Tahoe Queen and M.S. Dixie II get you out on the lake for front-row seats over dinner. You can also head to Baldwin Beach, with fire pits and picnic tables, or Nevada Beach State Park, whose sandy shoreline has on-site barbecues.
New York City: Macy’s Fireworks Display
America’s most mammoth, sparkling, light-filled sky is in New York City, thanks to Macy’s fireworks display, an annual tradition since 1976. The show, with fireworks from Pyro Spectaculars, typically uses about three times more shells than any other in the country. The theme in 2009 was the American River, and the show took place on the Hudson for a change (it’s usually on the East River), in honor of the 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson’s trip up the waterway. Six barges situated between 24th and 50th streets sent some 75,000 pounds of fireworks skyward.
Where to View: The West Side Highway was open to pedestrians as was the lush Hudson River Park. For an unforgettable night, book a spot on a schooner like the Shearwater or the Adirondack and set sail.
Philadelphia: Sunoco Welcome America Festival
Philadelphia is, of course, the only place that can lay claim to having hosted Independence Day. This is where the new nation’s citizens first commemorated independence with lights, by putting candles in their windows. The theme of this year’s fireworks display is Great Orators, and the pyrotechnics will be accompanied by spoken-word recordings—the poem Maya Angelou wrote for Clinton’s inauguration and portions of speeches by Martin Luther King, Barack Obama, and John F. Kennedy—as well as music.
Where to View: The stage on which illustrious names (including, this year, Sheryl Crow) gather for a pre-fireworks show is being moved away from the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which will not only improve sight lines for the concert but allow for the use of larger—and likely more magnificent—starbursts.
New Orleans: Go 4th on the River
A New Orleans–style party on the waterfront culminates in the fireworks show dubbed the Dueling Barges, two waterborne platforms doing their best to outdo each other with red, white, and blue magic. This year’s show will also celebrate the 200th birthday of Abraham Lincoln, who spent much of his childhood upriver in Perry County, IN, and will be streamed live to U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan.
Where to View: Reserve seats on the paddle wheeler Creole Queen or the steamboat Natchez to watch the show from the Mississippi.
Best July 4th Fireworks
Mount Rushmore, SD
Perhaps America’s most dramatic setting for fireworks is sculptor Gutzon Borglum’s Mount Rushmore in the Black Hills of South Dakota, where some 12,000 folks gather each July 3 (to avoid conflicts with other celebrations). Rigging the fireworks is a unique challenge for pyrotechnics company Zambelli’s; workers hoist 3,000 shells up the rock carving’s face via pulley, then lower them into the canyon behind the monument. The effect? Fireworks seem to appear out of nowhere and illuminate the faces of presidents Washington, Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt, and Lincoln—breathtaking indeed.
Where to View: The memorial park’s Grand View Terrace and amphitheater are ideal spots—but both fill up by mid-morning, so plan to arrive soon after the parking garage opens, at 7 a.m. Bring a cushion for the amphitheater’s wood-plank seating or a folding chair for the Grand View Terrace.
Addison, TX: Kaboom Town!
A 4.4-square-mile suburb north of Dallas with 15,000 residents may seem an unlikely spot to celebrate the nation’s birthday, but it’s an excellent one—or so think the half-million people who watch the display each year. Preceded by flyovers of commemorative planes (courtesy of the town’s Cavanaugh Flight Museum) and the patriotic music of military bands, this show features the most current technology, the newest shells on the market, and a live radio simulcast.
Where to View: By virtue of northern Texas’s trademark flatness and lack of humidity, these fireworks’ spectacular displays can be seen from miles away, as if carried by the night air’s heat.
Oahu, HI: Ala Moana Fireworks
So grand is this pyro party on the southern shore of Oahu that some 50,000 people watch it each year, most from perches in Waikiki and Honolulu, several miles away. It’s gargantuan in part because the shells are launched from three rigs at the end of Magic Island, a man-made peninsula perpendicular to Ala Moana Beach, and not from waterborne barges. This setup was chosen to protect the fragile offshore reefs, says Pyro Spectaculars’ Ian Gilfillan.
Where to View: Many spectators set up camp on sponsor Ala Moana Shopping Center’s parking deck turned scenic outlook. To us, however, the idea of watching the sky light up beside the lapping waters of Mamala Bay with sand between our toes sounds more enchanting.
Where better to look skyward on the Fourth of July than from the shores of summertime idyll Cape Cod? Conceived in 1980 and funded solely by the community, these fireworks draw some 50,000 spectators a year—one-and-a-half times the town’s year-round population. This year the event is dedicated to the 150th birthday of Katharine Lee Bates, the composer of “America the Beautiful,” who was born in Falmouth. If it’s raining, the party happens the following day.
Where to View: Stake out a spot along the six miles of Falmouth beaches, or head to Martha’s Vineyard’s north shore for a wider panorama.