A fireworks display set against the Washington Monument electrified the night sky a few minutes after 9 p.m. in Washington on Friday night, along with the screens of thousands of smartphones in the hands of onlookers poised to snap photos.
"This was absolutely the most beautiful scenic background possible,'' said Theresa Cook, who traveled from Cleveland for the show. "It was beautiful.''
Evelia Polastere had a much shorter trip. The Washington resident, who has come to the National Mall for the fireworks display ten times before, said this year's was the best she's ever seen.
"I was so enchanted,'' she said. "The shapes and colors -- I was just taken away.''
Before nightfall, the "A Capitol Fourth'' concert kicked off on the West Lawn attracting massive crowds eager to sing along to Patti LaBelle's rendition of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow,'' and Michael McDonald's version of "Ain't No Mountain High Enough.''
During the day, visitors to the National Mall gazed at the White House and the Washington Monument and strolled through the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, which featured food, music and cultural demonstrations from China and Kenya.
Cedric and Sharon Stallworth spent 11 sweaty hours in the car on Thursday, driving all the way from Atlanta to Washington to celebrate Independence Day among the monuments on the National Mall. On Friday afternoon, the Stallworths and their 7-year-old daughter Carrington, dressed in a red-white-and-blue jumper and clutching an American flag, strolled along the Mall under a near-cloudless sky.
"When you see the monuments and the marble, you're soaking that up, that sense of pride and hope,'' Cedric Stallworth said. "Being here today reminds me that we've come so far -- there's cultural diversity, and people here can live in peace -- and there's still so far to go. We're a young country that's growing, and we all do our part.''
Steve Souvannasot, 49, traveled from Chicago with his wife and two sons on Friday morning to visit Washington for the first time. Souvannasot arrived in the United States when he was seven, after his family fled violence in Laos following the civil war, and said he wanted to bring his children to the capital to help them put their history and identities in context.
"I'm trying to teach my children about the freedom they have in America,'' Souvannasot said. "We had to give up everything in Laos, all was lost. To see different ethnicities and diversity in Washington, the center of politics and culture and the law that gives people that freedom, I'm grateful.''
Angela and Sergio Lopez, immigrants from Venezuela and El Salvador respectively, and now living in Syracuse, bobbed their heads to Kenyan music emanating from a tent set up at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival on Friday as they walked along the Mall in matching American Flag T-shirts. Sergio Lopez, who served in the Air Force for five years, calls America his "adopted home.''
"We come from places where you can't express your views without the government watching or getting arrested, but this is our way of life now,'' Sergio Lopez said, gesturing to the monuments surrounding him. ``Being able to vote, and not worry about what our views are. To us, being here represents freedom.''