Philadelphia's Wawa Welcome America celebration culminates with fireworks.
Philadelphia's Wawa Welcome America celebration culminates with fireworks. (Handout photo, Handout photo)

The Fourth of July is more than fireworks and picnics. It's a celebration of the day the Continental Congress took the bold step of declaring independence, vowing to "dissolve the political bands" connecting England and the colonies in order to start an entirely new government.

Here in Maryland, we're close to where it all began. Philadelphia has turned the holiday into an 11-day party with historic touches. In Virginia, the presidential homes Monticello and Mount Vernon are both holding naturalization ceremonies that "hammer home the true meaning of the holiday," said Tamra Talmadge-Anderson, spokesperson for the Virginia Tourism Corporation. Colonial Williamsburg is celebrating with a parade, picnic, fife-and-drum parade and more.

Of course, there will be no shortage of fireworks displays. Richmond is holding a July 4 fireworks show over the James River, and Atlantic City is promising the largest fireworks extravaganza in all of New Jersey.

Philadelphia, just two hours away by car, is offering free events including parades, fireworks and live music during its Wawa Welcome America! event. The 11-day party began June 24, and ends with fireworks on July 4.

For those heading to Philadelphia for the weekend, Saturday's events include a demonstration of how fireworks work, starting at 11:30 at the Franklin Institute, said Melanie Johnson, executive director of the festival. The event is free, but available to just 300 people because of space restrictions, she said.

From noon to 4 p.m., Philadelphia will host its second annual block party in its Chinatown, with live performances and an open-air market selling crafts and food. Also, Miss America, Teresa Scanlan, is expected to attend.

An ice cream festival is being held at Penn's Landing both Saturday and Sunday. It's the only event that's not free, said Johnson, but the $7 entry fee includes unlimited ice cream and benefits the Joshua Kahan Fund, seeking a care for pediatric leukemia.

On Saturday night, the U.S. Army Band "Pershing's Own" will play at Penn's Landing and the Air National Guard Band of the Mid-Atlantic will play at the Waterfront Park in Camden, N.J. A fireworks show will begin at dark over the Delaware River between the two cities.

Sunday at 8:30 p.m., Peter Nero and the Philly Pops will perform in front of Independence Hall. The event will include a Thomas Jefferson impersonator. The mayor, Michael Nutter, is expected to conduct a song, Johnson said.

On Monday, the Independence Day Ceremony will begin at 10 a.m. at Independence Hall. There will be bands and choirs, and people will read excerpts from the Declaration of Independence. At 11 a.m., the parade will start. More than 4,000 musicians, floats, dancers and representatives of all five military branches will begin the mile-long march along "the most historic mile in the entire country," said Johnson.

The parade will be followed by presentation of the nation's birthday cake at the visitors center, made by local company Tastykake. The public is invited to dig in after the candles are blown out.

The "Party on the Parkway" will start at noon, with three stages offering entertainment on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. One will have live music, one will have entertainment geared toward children, and one will feature multicultural talents, such as flamenco dancing. Since it goes till 7 p.m., many families bring picnics and stay all day, said Johnson.

The Philly Fourth of July Jam will start at 7 p.m., with Grammy award-winning band the Roots as the headliner, ?uestlove as music director and stars including Earth, Wind and Fire, Michael McDonald, Estelle, Sara Bareilles and DJ Jazzy Jeff delivering guest performances. The evening will end with fireworks over the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

If you go

Information on the Wawa Welcome America! event in Philadelphia:

Here are a few other places that bring a touch of history for their Fourth of July Celebrations.

•Mt. Vernon: The home of George Washington is hosting a naturalization ceremony and daytime fireworks over the Potomac River. There will also be military reenactments and a visit from "General and Mrs. Washington." Information:

•Richmond: For the first time, the city will host a Fourth of July fireworks display over the James River. Free live music can be heard at the city-owned Dogwood Dell amphitheater, and the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden is giving free admission all day. Information:

•Colonial Williamsburg: The living history museum is holding an annual Palace Picnic starting at 7:30 p.m. Entertainment will include a reading of the Declaration of Independence, a performance from Colonial Williamsburg's Fifes and Drums, and fireworks after dark. Information: