07/03/2012 05:06 pm ET

D.C. July 4 Fireworks 2012: Places To Watch Off The National Mall

WASHINGTON -- Fourth of July in the nation's capital isn't much different than Independence Day in any small town.

Groups of families share time looking toward the illuminated sky -- as long as it's not raining. Things explode and kids run around. Locally, one big place where things explode and kids don't have enough room to run around is the National Mall.

But if giant crowds don't sound too appealing, there are plenty of good locations in and around D.C. to watch the main fireworks display -- plus some unofficial neighborhood shows, too.

A good rule of thumb is if you can see the Washington Monument, you should be able to see the fireworks. But maybe you want to be in a crowd and witness some not-at-all supervised displays of patriotic lights and sounds. Look no further. Here are our picks for some off-the-Mall spots to watch the big explosive display.

1. Red Derby
This lovely dive bar has a roof deck ideal for couples and parties of four. Friendly staff, excellent specials, good food and a well curated beer list make this a viable option for any summer night. Once the official fireworks end, we recommend strolling south down 14th Street NW where neighborhood residents are known for their own unofficial fireworks display. If you consider fireworks safety important, this isn't the best option for you.

2. Cardozo High School
The view of the Capitol from Cardozo is great any day of the year. On Independence Day, the area becomes a cornucopia people from all walks of life all there to watch the big display and put on their own show. The festive atmosphere sometimes gets a little dark and dangerous so this may not be the best spot to bring the kids. Since the high school is currently under construction, a better school option might be McKinley Tech Senior High School in Eckington.

3. Gravelly Point
This is a green, bike-and-car-friendly open space. If you can stand the sound of airplanes taking off and landing at Reagan National Airport (which might be really cool when there are fireworks exploding), it's hard to find a better place. No cover, no alcohol and no residents. Perfect for the family.

4. Meridian Hill/Malcolm X Park
This high spot along 16th Street NW between Adams Morgan and Columbia Heights seems like it'd be a good spot to see the fireworks. But only part of it is, and it'll be way crowded on Wednesday night. Get there early to secure a good spot as close to the southwest corner of the park's upper portion and be prepared for a view that isn't as awesome as you thought. Since this is land controlled by the National Park Service, there's no admission to go in. Leave the booze at home.

5. Holy Rood Cemetery
It's a Glover Park summer tradition to crowd the eastern slope of this neglected cemetery off Wisconsin Avenue to watch the fireworks. Like Meridian Hill Park, the view from this high spot above Georgetown is only partially good. You're probably not supposed to be in there after dark anyways, but try telling that to everyone who goes in.

6. Iwo Jima Memorial
Tons of people will crowd the grounds of the Marine Corps War Memorial in Rosslyn. There's a great view of the fireworks from here, as long as the trees aren't blocking your vista -- maybe the derecho improved the sight lines? This is a great spot for people who live in or near Rosslyn, naturally. For those who plan to use Metrorail to get home, prepare for crowds after the big show. No alcohol is allowed.

7. Rock and Roll Hotel
There's no shortage of excellent bar and hotel roof views for the fireworks. Sadly, there aren't nearly enough hot dog eating competitions. Head to H Street NE for the 4 p.m. hot dog eating/hero making competition and stay for the $6 PBR pitchers. Not perfect for the family.