Bristol, Rhode Island
Billed as America’s oldest Fourth of July celebration—they've been at it since 1785—Bristol’s 20-day-long celebratory event is also arguably one of the longest. Technically, the town’s festivities begin on Flag Day in June; from June 14 until the main event in July, there are concerts, races, a ball, a Miss Fourth of July pageant, and a drum and bugle competition, among other events. Each year a ship from the U.S. Navy docks in the harbor during the holiday, and there’s also, of course, a parade, fireworks, and speeches. This year’s Patriotic Speaker is Donald J. Farish, president of Roger Williams University.
Capitan, New Mexico
Surround yourself with cowboys on Fourth of July when you attend Capitan’s 60th annual Smokey Bear Stampede, a weekend of concerts, dancing, and rodeo contests, including bull riding, calf roping, and barrel racing. On Saturday, chow down at a barbecue cook-off dinner and enjoy the evening fireworks over the competition.
Bar Harbor, Maine
Considered one of the best Fourth celebrations in the country, Bar Harbor’s bash pays homage to the abundant fresh seafood and produce in the great state of Maine. Start your day with a blueberry pancake breakfast, stop by the afternoon seafood festival for lobster, mussels, corn, and strawberry shortcake, and be sure to pick favorites in Bar Harbor’s annual lobster race, a “high-speed crustacean contest.” Events are held throughout the town’s sports fields, parks, and squares.
New Orleans, Louisiana
New Orleans wins the prize for best fireworks display with its two dueling barges, each shooting off pyrotechnics over the Mississippi River. The 2014 performance included the use of special fireworks that land and float on the water, sending up towers of colorful sparks. View the fireworks from a riverboat paddlewheeler—the Natchez and the Creole Queen’s voyages that night will include dinner (jamabalaya, gumbo, and Cajun chicken are on the menu) and jazz (from $77)—or Woldenberg Park in the French Quarter.
Famed for its ski slopes, Aspen makes a lovely summer mountain retreat, as well—especially when Fourth of July rolls around. Their observance of the national holiday is all classic Americana, with picnics, a carnival, bicycle decorating, and a charity race helds in venues throughout the town. There’s also the Gentlemen of Aspen rugby game, concerts and musicals, and a farm-to-table breakfast at the Aspen Art museum.
Mauna Lani Bay, Hawaii
Mauna Lani Bay takes an environmental approach to commemorating the Fourth with its 26th annual “Turtle Independence Day.” The threatened Hawaiian sea turtles (called honu locally) are brought as babies from Sea Life Park in Oahu to the Mauna Lani Hotel where they’re taken care of by staff until they’re mature enough to be released into the wild on the fourth as a sort of turtle emancipation. A parade of turtles leading to the water’s edge precedes their release back to the sea; food, entertainment, and efforts to educate the public about the importance of Hawaii’s wildlife are also included in the event.
Catalina Island, California
Catalina Island’s Fourth of July is unique mostly for its parades: One features decorated golf carts, another spotlights dinghys afloat in Avalon Bay. For a special view of the evening fireworks over the water, buy tickets to the Casino Ballroom dinner and concert (from $65), featuring a performance by the USC marching band.
True to its quaint, New England character, Nantucket does the Fourth the old-fashioned way. Past years have included a slew of classic summer events: watermelon and pie eating contests, wheelbarrow races, puppet shows, and arts and crafts. In the morning, Main Street is host to a water fight between two fire trucks, usually accompanied by crowds of kids toting water guns. At night, catch fireworks shot off from a barge anchored in Nantucket Sound.
Gilbert, South Carolina
Just outside of Columbia, South Carolina, Gilbert has been celebrating peach season with a festival on the Fourth of July for the last 57 years. Check out best peach dishes in the recipe contest (the rules dictate that cooks must use at least two cups of fresh peaches), attend the county’s beauty pageant, where a Peach Queen is crowned each summer, watch a Revolutionary War reenactment, see an antique car show, and dine on all sorts of delights, from peach cobbler to barbecue.
Colonial Williamsburg pulls out all the stops for their 18th century-style patriotic party. Be transported back in time this July Fourth and watch soldiers playing drums and fifes march by under the flickering light of torches; listen to the firing of muskets and cannons to mark the original 13 states; and take in a reading of the Declaration of Independence while standing among actors dressed as the citizens of 1776 Williamsburg, hearing the historic document for the first time.