Bastille Day

Bastille Day Celebrations

The 14th of July is the day of the national French celebration. Established in 1880, this date commemorates both the storming of the Bastille on the 14th July 1789, which ended absolute rule, and the Festival of the Federation of the 14th July 1790.

The Bastille, or to be exact, Bastille Saint-Antoine, was both a prison and a symbol of the absolute and arbitrary power of the Old Regime of Louis XVI. On the 14th July 1789, rioters launched an attack on the fortress. Even though there were only seven prisoners inside, this is recorded as the first large-scale intervention by the French people. From then on, the King’s power was no longer absolute. This event is considered to be the symbol of the battle against oppression for all French citizens. The three ideas of the Republic represented on the tricoloured flag all became meaningful : Freedom, Equality and Brotherhood.

Celebrations in France

Today, celebrations for the national festival are held all over France. The oldest and largest military parade in Europe takes place on the morning of the 14th July on the Champs-Elysées in Paris, in front of the President of the Republic, French senior officials and foreign guests. The procession is made up of military units either on foot, motorised, or in the air, and sometimes invites troops of foreign forces to parade beside the French armies.

Every 14th July, there are also the famous Firemen’s Balls. This tradition goes back to 1937, when the fire brigade of Montmartre opened its station doors to a small curious group of local people. There, the fire men hosted a lively evening with a gymnastics demonstration and small fireworks. Following the citizens joy, this idea became popular in all the other fire stations. Since then, this festival is an essential part of the day.

Numerous fireworks are let off in all cities, either on the 13th or 14th of July. The most famous display is in Paris, where thousands of people gather around the Champ-de-Mars, on the Seine, on a balcony or even on the 1st or 2nd floor of the Eiffel Tower. The fireworks are usually launched from the Trocadéro’s ponds and they provide an impressive pyrotechnic show lasting about 35 minutes. It is advised to go to the opposite bank to admire the fireworks.

We have numerous offers for special 14th July cruises to give you a front row seat for the fireworks.

9 Bastille Day bashes that celebrate French culture

When a riotous group of revolutionaries stormed Paris’s Bastille prison on July 14, 1789, it was the first true populist uprising in France. The successful pushback against the aristocratic elites ushered in the French Revolution and ultimately spread ideas of the Enlightenment across the continent.

Declared a national holiday in 1880, Bastille Day honors the event that shaped present day France. Today, Francophone outposts around the world celebrate the holiday, touting French culture and the ideals of liberté. From Europe’s oldest parade to the largest Bastille Day celebration in North America, here are the best places to wave the tricolor flag and sing “La Marseillaise” this year.

Paris, France

The French capital is the holiday’s epicenter. Soldiers will march along the Champs-Élysées, as they have done every year since 1880, kicking off daylong celebrations with one of the world’s oldest military parades. Join the flag-waving throngs downtown, then take advantage of free classical concerts at the Panthéon and gratis admission at the Louvre. As the summer day cools down, head to the Jardins du Trocadero for the perfect vantage of the red, white, and blue firework display behind the Eiffel Tower. Late evening dances at one of the traditional Bals des Pompiers (Fireman’s Balls) raise funds for the city’s fire stations.

Franschhoek, South Africa

This tiny town in a scenic, vine-draped valley was an early French settlement in South Africa’s Western Cape. The grounds of the Franschhoek Huguenot Monument host the town’s two-day annual Bastille Festival. Villagers and visitors don red, white, and blue (there’s a best-dressed contest with winners each day) and participate in a weekend of events including a minstrel parade, barrel rolling competitions, and live music. The jovial atmosphere is buoyed by a copious supply of local wine with food pairings.

Milwaukee, Wisconsin

At first blush, this Midwest city seems an unlikely locale for the largest Bastille Day celebration in North America, but its history as a former French fur trapping station (and the election of Frenchman Solomon Juneau as its first mayor) is a proud one. More than 150,000 attendees are expected to turn out for the 38th anniversary of its four-day Bastille Days festival. Highlights include the Storm the Bastille 5K in which thousands of runners and walkers reenact the historic mob scene in the form of a race, a Mardi Gras-style parade, a market on Cathedral Square with street performers, and wine and champagne pairings. A new feature this year is the locally-made “Love Locks” sculpture inspired by the Pont des Arts bridge in Paris, where attendees can lock their own love messages.

Prague, Czech Republic

Kampa, a picturesque square along the Vltava River, hosts an elaborate French market for five days to mark the holiday. Now in its 12th year, the market is so popular some 10,000 daily attendees are expected. Locals mingle, jazz duets perform, and exhibitors showcase otherwise challenging-to-find French foods, including fresh oysters from Normandy and Brittany; sparkling wines from across France; and French pies, pastries, tartlets, and macaroons. “We recreate some kind of French art de vivre on the feet of the Charles Bridge,” say market organizers.

Prague hosts an elaborate French market in honor of Bastille Day, featuring live music and food.

PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT HARDING PICTURE LIBRARY, NAT GEO IMAGE COLLECTION

Tahiti, French Polynesia

National Day, as Bastille Day is known in the islands, falls amid the weeks-long Heiva i Tahiti festival, a cultural showcase that kicks off with the June 29 celebration of French Polynesia’s autonomy. It’s a fitting celebration for a holiday that honors freedom and liberty: Following Anglo-Saxon missionary rule—which put the kibosh on many traditional cultural practices—the French helped usher in a resurgence of traditional dance forms. Many of Heiva i Tahiti’s highlights—beauty pageants, food tastings, a handicraft market, and competitions in stone weight lifting and coconut cracking—will take place at Papeete’s To’ata Square and in its open-air amphitheater. Canoe races, fire walking, and reenactments of ancient Polynesian ceremonies are also held throughout the Islands. July 14 is marked with a military parade followed by a reception in the residential gardens of the French Republic High Commissioner.

St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands

The sound of a bellowing conch shell announces the arrival of fishermen’s daily catch each morning in St. Thomas, and Bastille Day in Frenchtown starts the same way. The celebration here honors French immigrants and settlers who have populated the area since the 1920s. The highlight of the day (which includes live music, fish tacos, face painting, and other events at the local pub) is the Bastille Day Kingfish Tournament. Last year, more than 200 anglers of all ages participated. After the noon weigh-in, the French Heritage Museum will host a Bastille Day-themed reception.

St. Thomas celebrates Bastille Day with music, food, and the popular Kingfish Tournament.

PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT HARDING, ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

Pondicherry, India

Under French dominion for 255 years, Pondicherry enjoys the nicknames the “Indian Côte d’Azur,” and “Riviera of the East.” The city celebrates Bastille Day by showcasing its unique brand of French fusion. Street parades of retired soldiers hoisting both French and Indian flags snake through the lush trees and colonial villa–lined streets while marching bands blare both countries’ national anthems.

Dublin, Ireland

While French food and drink tastings abound in the Irish capital around the holiday, the country’s largest Bastille Day celebration takes place inside a converted church. In partnership with the French Embassy, The Church—a bar and restaurant with faithfully restored pipe organs, woodwork, stained glass, and religious artwork—throws a two-day French-themed party attended by many of the city’s French immigrant community. French DJs perform, attendees participate in theme-appropriate activities such as Pétanque (French boules), and the bar dishes out pastis, wine, crêpes, and saucissons.

Dublin hosts two days of French-themed events at The Church bar and restaurant.

PHOTOGRAPH BY KAY ROXBY, ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

Montreal, Quebec

While there’s no singular organized event to honor Bastille Day in Montreal, it is the largest Francophone city in the world after Paris and brims with French culture, food, and history. Montrealers find themselves in the thick of a summerlong festival season. Events include neighborhood parties, pub crawls, the Just for Laughs Comedy Festival, art gallery showings, French wine and food pairings at local businesses, the Montréal Cirque Festival, and even a competitive firework show.

Paris’s Bastille Day is celebrated on July 14th and marks the birth of the French Republic. It’s the most important French national holiday, so the capital rightly explodes in celebration. From raucous street parties to parading brass bands, and from mesmerising fireworks to fighter pilots, July 14 is bursting with fun. If you’re lucky enough to be in Paris during this time, here’s our guide to making the most of Bastille Day.
Sam Peet / © Culture Trip
Sam Peet / © Culture Trip

Brush up on your history

If you want to share the locals’ enthusiasm for this legendary national holiday, it helps to know why it’s so historically important. Bastille Day commemorates the storming of the Bastille prison on July 14, 1789, which marked a pivotal moment for the famous French Revolution. The ordinary people of Paris decided they no longer wanted to accept the absolute power of the king.

It was during this time of turbulence that the famous motto “liberté, égalité, fraternité”, which the French are so proud of, came into fashion. Each year, Bastille celebrations on July 14 make sure to embrace this notion of liberté, égalité, fraternité with convivial parties that encourage people to let loose until dawn.

It wasn’t until 1880 that an annual national holiday on July 14 was voted into law by the Assembly and Senate, but it’s been a key date in the French calendar, with celebrations taking place without fail, ever since.

Dance with firefighters

Parisians have a unique way of celebrating Bastille Day, which involves dancing the night away at one of the many Bals des Pompiers (Firemen’s Ball). These parties are organised at Paris fire stations in different districts of the capital on July 13 and 14, so it’s the perfect way to get into the festive spirit before the day even begins.

While there are plenty of choices for Firemen’s Balls on the 14th, the best one is on the eve, July 13. These dances are hosted by the city’s fire stations – a full list of those participating is published a few weeks in advance by the tourist board.

With disco lights and live bands, DJs and drinks on tap, these events are hotly anticipated with heaps of dancing involved. The night usually begins at 9pm and can go on until around 4am, though most wind down by midnight.

The admission fee varies depending on each station, though many only ask for donations at the door with proceeds going to charity or to improve the facilities of the 8,700 heroic men and women who comprise the largest fire brigade in Europe.

Sam Peet / © Culture Trip
Sam Peet / © Culture Trip

Get up early for the parade

If you’re not too tired from partying the night before, then make sure to set an alarm so you can see ‘the oldest and largest regular military parade in Europe’, which completely takes over the Champs-Élysées. Literally everyone will be gazing awe-struck at the military parade, including President Macron, who usually turns up at the Arc de Triomphe at 10am.

The incredible military planes soar across the sky in the colours of the French flag at 10.45am – it’s a breathtaking spectacle. After gazing at the displays, people then make their way over to the Place de la Concorde. What’s so special about this day is the sense of community, where throngs of people are celebrating on the streets as one.

Make sure to arrive early if you want to stand a chance of seeing the Bastille Day celebrations, as it gets incredibly busy. With the abundance of crowds, many of the metro stations nearby are closed between 8am and noon.

Tuileries and Concorde are usually completely closed and those along the Champs-Élysées (Champs-Elysées–Clemenceau, Franklin D. Roosevelt, George V, Charles de Gaulle–Étoile) have restricted access, so make sure to plan your journey in advance. You can easily get off one or two stops from the destination and walk the rest of the way.

Arc de Triomphe, Place Charles de Gaulle, Paris, France

Take advantage of free openings

As if the Firemen’s Ball and the brilliant military parade weren’t enough, there’s yet another reason to get excited about July 14 in Paris. Every year, many of Paris’ museums and attractions open their doors free of charge.

You can make the most of this day by popping into the Louvre, dodging the usual €15 (£13) entrance fee. And since most of the crowds will be clustered around the parade, some people say this is the best day of the year to visit the Louvre.

You can also enjoy the Notre-Dame Cathedral, the Musée d’Orsay and the Chateâu de Versailles on Bastille Day, though the Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower have restricted openings, along with the Musée de l’Orangerie, which is closed in the morning. Make sure to check the opening hours of each venue in advance.

Celebrate on a cruise

One of the best ways to celebrate Bastille Day in Paris is with a cruise on the Seine, admiring the fireworks from a boat. The Bateaux Mouches is one of the most popular options, boasting a live orchestra for musical entertainment. Though the real reason people are drawn to the Bateaux Mouches on Bastille Day stems from its gastronomic reputation.

If you choose this cruise, you’ll be served a gourmet French menu composed of appetisers, caramelised and smoked duck foie gras, langoustines, château filet and a crispy vanilla tart. It lasts two hours and 15 mins, but there are plenty of other special Bastille Day event packages on offer from numerous tour companies.

Sam Peet / © Culture Trip
Sam Peet / © Culture Trip

Gaze awe-struck at the fireworks

The highlight of the celebration consists of the vibrant colours of the explosive firework display that dazzles the sky from around 11pm. It’s the city’s only fireworks display and keeps the population awe-struck for 30 to 35 minutes.

The most popular places to enjoy the spectacle are at the Champ de Mars and the Jardins du Trocadéro, but do be aware that these highly coveted spots get incredibly busy. If so, you could opt for the banks of the Seine and its bridges – a picnic and a bottle of wine make a great addition.

If you can get there early, then the very best views will be gained from atop the Tour Montparnasse, cocktail in hand, though it can be difficult to secure a seat.

Make sure you can get home safely

The metro stays open until 2.15am on July 13 and 14, but you need to know that all the stations within a two-mile radius of the Eiffel Tower will be almost impossible to use once the crowds have finished gazing at the fireworks.

You could try calling a taxi or ordering an Uber, but know that road closures might mean you have to walk a little bit before they can even gain access. But fear not, the streets of Paris are glorious to explore at night.

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