Beyond fireworks: 10 alternative Fourth of July traditions to try

Independence Day parades and fireworks have been ubiquitous since 1941 when the holiday commemorating the adoption of the Declaration of Independence was made a federal holiday.

While it’s easy to find fancy fireworks displays and patriotic parades, there are plenty of other ways to celebrate July Fourth.

From historic reenactments where you can rub elbows with the Founding Fathers to competitions that range from beachfront body building to competitive eating, we’ve rounded up 10 lesser-known (but equally exciting) ways to celebrate the Fourth of July across the U.S.

Watch competitive eating at Nathan’s Famous Fourth of July International Hot Dog Eating Contest, Coney Island, New York

Nathan's Famous Hot Dog Contest

Celebrate a century of hotdog eating. (Image: Major League Eating)

For the past century, competition lovers have descended upon the Coney Island boardwalk at the corner of Surf and Stillwell Avenues every Fourth of July to watch competitive eaters scarf down hot dogs to win fame and a mustard-yellow belt in the Nathan’s Famous Fourth of July International Hot Dog Eating Contest. According to legend, four immigrants held a hot dog-eating contest on July 4, 1916, to settle an argument over who was most patriotic and the rest is history.

This year, Joey Chestnut seeks to regain the title he held for eight straight years from Matt Stonie, who won last year by eating 62 hot dogs. On the women’s side, Miki Sudo looks to defend her title against Sonya Thomas, who set a world record for consuming 45 hot dogs and buns in 10 minutes at the event a few years ago but lost to Sudon  in 2015. This year’s food competition is part of the 100th anniversary celebration at Nathan’s Famous flagship restaurant, which opened in New York in 1916. The fun begins with pre-show festivities and performances at 10 a.m. The intense competition among the women begins at 11 a.m. and the men at 12:30 p.m. in front of a crowd that in recent years has swelled to 35,000 fans. The competition is also broadcast on ESPN beginning at 10:50 a.m. EDT.

See the Declaration of Independence and meet the Founding Fathers, Washington, D.C.

National Archives

Meet the Founding Fathers. (Image: Pepe Gomez for National Archives Foundation)

The National Archives, home of the Declaration of Independence, is throwing a free Fourth of July party complete with costumed characters, hands-on activities and the famous document. This year marks the 240th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence and the 225th anniversary of the Bill of Rights. History buffs can see the Declaration of Independence on display from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. and meet Founding Fathers Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. Go early and, after attending the party, sit on the steps of the National Archives to watch the annual Fourth of July parade.

This year is an ideal one to celebrate Fourth of July in Washington, D.C. as the holiday coincides with the 40th anniversary of the National Air and Space Museum building and a celebration of the museum’s newly renovated Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall. The museum is hosting a free All Night at the Museum event beginning at 8:30 p.m. on July 1. This is the first time ever that folks can visit at night and enjoy special tours, demonstrations, giveaways, food and films on space and aviation.

Witness the tapping of the Liberty Bell, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Liberty Bell

Watch the tapping of the Liberty Bell. (Image: Visit Philadelphia)

Like the ad for Visit Philadelphia says, “Nobody does the 4th like those who did it 1st.” Philadelphia hosts an eight-day birthday party for America known as the Wawa Welcome America! June 27 to July 4. Festival events include a patriotic ceremony in front of Independence Hall, a parade through the streets of Historic Philadelphia, three fireworks shows and a massive, outdoor free concert on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway featuring Tony-nominated Leslie Odom, Jr. of Broadway’s hit show “Hamilton.”

One of the most moving ceremonies of Wawa Welcome America! is the annual tapping of the Liberty Bell hosted by the Pennsylvania Society of the Sons of the Revolution and the Descendants of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence. To avoid cracking it more, the Liberty Bell has not been rung since 1846, so it’s symbolically tapped 13 times instead (one time for each of the 13 colonies). The event begins at 1:45 p.m. on the Fourth of July when descendants of signers of the Declaration of Independence and children who have newly become U.S. citizens will tap the Liberty Bell. Admission is free, but plan to be in line at the Liberty Bell Center by 1 p.m. for the tapping. An alternative is to watch the related outdoor ceremony at 1 p.m. in Independence Square, behind Independence Hall. This is where the Declaration of Independence was originally read aloud on July 8, 1776 (marking American’s first Independence Day celebration).

Paint fences in Hannibal, Missouri

Hannibal, Missouri

Participate in festive fence painting. (Image: Hannibal Convention & Visitors Bureau)

The 61st National Tom Sawyer Days are four days (July 1 to 4) of living like Tom Sawyer, the main character from Mark Twain’s novel “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.” The book is set in a fictional town inspired by Hannibal, Missouri. where Twain lived. The highlight of the festivities is the fence painting contest for boys age 10 to 13, which began in 1956, and is based on Twain’s writings about Tom fooling his friends into painting his Aunt Polly’s fence. A crowd of thousands line Broadway and Main streets every year to see Tom and Becky, the fence painters, local bands and dancers and many colorful floats during a parade that begins at 10 a.m. on July 4.

Step back in time at a Colonial Faire, Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia

Colonial Williamsburg

American artillery units fire cannon. (Image: Colonial Williamsburg)

Step back in time with a special militia muster, faire and fireworks during a four-day commemoration of the anniversary of the birth of the nation in Colonial Williamsburg, a 300-acre re-creation of the capital of the largest and most populous British colony at the outset of the American Revolution. Events held include Salute to the States at 10 a.m. in Market Square, a special militia muster to honor the 13 original states with the playing of fifes and drums, display of flags, as well as muskets and cannons in Market Square; a screening of “1776,” a musical film that showcases the days leading up to July 4, 1776, at The Kimball Theatre; a reading of the Declaration of Independence at 11 a.m. on the courthouse steps; and the Colonial Faire, an event for children to engage in 18th century-inspired activities, such as foot races, hobby horse races, tomahawk throwing and cannon firing. Many events are included with admission ($40.99/adult, $20.49/child 6 to 12, free/child under 6).

Listen to a reading of the Declaration of Independence, Boston, Massachusetts


Re-live history at Harborfest. (Image: Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau)

The American Revolution began in Boston, so it’s fitting that the city hosts annual celebrations that are a testament to Bostonians’ civic pride and maritime tradition. The 35th annual Boston Harborfest includes four days of fun July 1 to 4 with two readings of the Declaration of Independence and a fireworks show on the Esplanade set to music by the Boston Pops Orchestra. Begin July Fourth by listening to a reading of the Declaration of Independence at 10 a.m. at the Old State House or watch a dramatic reading at 1 p.m. at Old North Church.

See the Mr. & Ms. Muscle Contest, Muscle Beach, Venice, California

Muscle Beach

Admire the muscles at Muscle Beach. (Image: Matt Marriott / Los Angeles Tourism and Convention Board)

Muscle Beach in Venice, California, is a symbol of the most famous and celebrated bodybuilding champions of the world (the official Venice Muscle Beach logo features a silhouette of Arnold Schwarzenegger) and a year-round workout destination for extreme fitness devotees. On July Fourth each year, professional and amateur bodybuilders from around the world flock here to strut their stuff in the annual Mr. and Ms. Muscle Beach Contest. Any athlete can enter the contest for $100 (registration begins at 7 a.m. on July 4). Pre-judging begins at 10 a.m. and the final competition is at 1 p.m.

Participate in America’s Oldest Fourth of July Celebration, Bristol, Rhode Island

Bristol, Rhode Island

Get patriotic at the oldest Fourth of July celebration. (Image:

The charming coastal enclave has hosted its annual Fourth of July Celebration since 1785, making it the oldest continuous Fourth of July Celebration. Named after Bristol, England, when founded in 1680, this seafaring town was the site of the first battle of King Philip’s war in 1675. This year marks the 231st celebration of independence that was started by Bristolians who actually took part in the Revolutionary War. The 2016 celebration, which officially started on Flag Day (June 14), continues with events like a concert series and a carnival and concludes on July 4 with a variety of events, including a festive parade. Traveling across the country to celebrate? Be sure to let the Bristol Fourth of July Committee know; they seek out the individual who has traveled the longest distance to the celebration each year.

Watch a presidential re-enactment at Mount Rushmore, North Dakota

Mount Rushmore

Have a Q&A with past presidents. (Image: Dean Franklin, 06.04.03 Mount Rushmore Monument via Flickr CC BY 2.0)

When folks ask you “If you could meet anyone dead or alive, who would it be?” and your response is George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt or Abraham Lincoln, then this unique Fourth of July celebration is for you. Professional re-enactors portray the four presidents who are carved into the Mount Rushmore National Memorial on July Fourth. Activities include musical performances, a presidential press conference and autograph signings.

Admire midnight fireworks in Seward, Alaska

Seward Fireworks

Watch magical midnight fireworks in Seward, Alaska. (Image:

Each year, the small harbor town of Seward, Alaska, bursts to life (the town’s population dramatically increases from 2,500 to a reported 30,000) for the annual Seward Fourth of July Celebration July 2 to 4. While this celebration includes staple July Fourth events, such as street vendors, food and a parade, this event is far from typical. The festivities are centered around the famous Mount Marathon Race, where racers navigate 3.5 miles through cliffs, loose rocks and steep inclines and reach an elevation gain of over 3,000 feet in an attempt to be the fastest to scale and ascend the mountain that towers over Resurrection Bay. A Fourth of July celebration wouldn’t be complete without fireworks, which begin at 12:01 a.m. on July Fourth. The fireworks are shot off from a spit of land jutting out into Resurrection Bay, a launch spot that emerged when the harbor was dredged several years ago. Spectators can gather to watch the free, 20-minute display throughout the city – some even depart from the harbor to take in the show from boats.


Main image: iStockphoto/AleksandarNakic

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