UPDATE FOR 2021: Bastille Day celebrations will resume this year and are set to accommodate 25,000 viewers. The seated area will not have formal spacing but social distancing and masks will be required. Meanwhile, the standing area will have a 4-sqm spacing rule for every person. All in all, people will be allowed to enter Champs-Elysées for the parade.
One of the European celebrations that you should NOT miss out on would be the French National Day: ‘Bastille Day‘ in France!
Called in many names: La Fête Nationale (The National Celebration), La Fête de la Bastille (Bastille Celebration), or Le Quatorze Juillet (the fourteenth of July), this amazing affair is celebrated annually on the 14th of July. With French people all over the world celebrating this day, naturally, it is a HUGE celebration — more so in Paris as they hold festive events for all tastes and ages from the early hours of the morning till the wee hours of the night.
That’s why this year, I was incredibly happy when I was invited to the ‘City of Love‘ to join the fête!
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Come and check out this list of the top things to do in Paris which features the best activities and tours to do in and out of the city!
About Bastille Day
- Bastille Day commemorates the Storming of the Bastille (a fortress and prison for those who opposed France’s kings) on July 14, 1789, thereby marking the French Revolution.
- Bastille Day only became a national holiday in 1880 and the French continue to celebrate it today as a way of recognizing the significance of this event which ushered the end of the royal monarchy and the beginning of its modern republic.
- It is only on Paris’ Bastille Day that you get to witness the oldest and largest regular military parade in Europe! It happens on the morning of July 14 on the Champs-Élysées.
So how was it for me? Well, I certainly had a swell time spending Bastille Day in Paris — it was memorable and I highly suggest that you make it a point to attend this too!
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Things to Do on Bastille Day
» 9AM: Witness the Military Parade (Défilé Militaire) at Champs-Élysées
As I’ve already mentioned above, this is Europe’s oldest and largest regular military parade; therefore, it’s quite a sight to see!
All traffic will usually be closed starting at 7AM in Champs-Elysées and its surrounding streets, and it’s actually around 10AM that the program starts from the Arc de Triomphe — however, I’ve mentioned 9AM because it’s always best to come early. Given the hype that surrounds this military parade, it can get very crowded!
So during this parade, trumpets would often first signal the arrival of the President of the French Republic, the Air Force will start cruising low in the sky either doing stunts or spreading colored smoke (of course in the colors of the French flag and it often happens around 10:45AM), and then the elite units of the French army will start to parade down the picturesque avenue down to Place de la Concorde on foot, on motorcycles, on horses, on tanks, on jeeps, etc.
Recently, it has even become a custom for France to invite units from its close allies to participate in the parade. For this year, they’ve invited troops from Australia and New Zealand.
- There will be a HUGE crowd. Tons of people will line up on both sides of the avenue of Champs-Elysées and security will also be quite tight! Given this fact, it’s advisable that you come early; or if you can’t, bring a stool to stand on (I’ve seen some people doing this).
- It’s best to avoid standing underneath a big tree because you can miss seeing the aerial show during the parade. One of the best spots to be in would be below George V avenue.
- Another option is to come around 8AM or earlier to reserve a seat in one of the open cafés or restaurants in Champs-Elysées that are on an upper level of a building.
- Some of the metro stations near Champs-Elysées will be closed from 8AM until 12PM. They’re not always the same every year, but most of the time it’s the stations of Concorde, George V, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Champs Elysees Clemenceau, and Tuileries that will be closed. That being said, do make sure to check before you go!
- Before and after the show, I took the Saint-Philippe du Roule metro stop and it was just a 5-minute walk to get to the avenue area.
- To check which metro stations will be closed, go here.
- After the Bastille Day parade, you can walk on the Avenue des Champs-Elysées until 6PM since it transforms into a pedestrian-only road for the time being so go mad snapping pictures away in this spot!
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» Rest of the Day: See Paris’ Sights or Watch a FREE Movie Outdoors
Though it is a national holiday, a lot of Paris’ restaurants, museums, and attractions stay open — some of them can even be entered for FREE. For that reason, you should make use of this time to visit the Louvre Museum, the Notre Dame de Paris, the Musée d’Orsay, the Chateâu de Versailles and so much more!
For ideas, go read my guide here:
If however, you just want to chill with friends, you can attend a FREE Open Air Cinema in the green lawns of Parc de la Villette that’s located in the 19th district in the northeastern part of Paris. It runs from July to August as part of its annual Open Air Film Festival — so it’s one of the best things to do on Bastille Day.
You can always rent chairs and blankets on site if in case you didn’t get the chance to bring one. But like I said, it’s open for all! If you want to access the lawn on other dates, you need to register on the La Villette website. (Most films, however, are in French but there are also foreign films being played but with French subtitles.)
For more info, you can check by here.
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» 9PM: Catch the Live Concert and Fireworks Show at Champ de Mars
Yet another highlight of this day that’s great to do with friends as you bring along a picnic blanket, some food, and bottles of wine!
So first and foremost, the live classical concert will start at 9:15PM at the foot of the Eiffel Tower featuring the Orchestre National de France and the Choir of Radio France — this can change in the coming years, but so far they’ve been consistently doing it. They will perform popular show tunes and soundtracks, and by the end of the night (during the fireworks show) they will play the French national song: Le Marseillaise.
The Fireworks Show will start at exactly 11PM and the dazzling lights will set off from the Eiffel Tower and the gardens of Trocadéro for about 35 minutes.
- As per usual, Parisians and visitors alike will be flocking to this, so if you want to have the best view, reserve your picnic spot on Champ de Mars at around 5PM. (Some people even start marking their territory at the early hours of the morning!)
- Rest assured, there are other spots in Paris that are good for watching the fireworks (such as that on a Seine river cruise). I didn’t manage to get a spot in Champ de Mars so I ended up in the bridge of Pont de l’Alma which still had great views of it all (as you can see in my video and in the photo above)! For the other best places to view the fireworks display, you can read my post below…
- Be aware that there are very few public toilets and they will end up being crowded too; so I suggest that you prepare some cash beforehand for buying cheap drinks in nearby cafés or bars in order to use their restroom.
- Much like the Bastille Day Military Parade, metro stations within the vicinity will be closed before and/or after the show.
- Even if there are nearby metro stations open after the Fireworks Show, they will be packed with people so I suggest that you wear comfortable shoes for walking since you might need to walk a bit further out from the Champs de Mars area to get to a metro station that is open and less crowded.
- After the show, I had to walk a bit to reach the Iéna metro station (since it was the nearest connection to my hotel located in the Bastille neighborhood). Once I was there, I had to wait for 10 minutes still until the crowd thinned a bit more.
- To check which metro stations will be closed, go here.
- If you think you can get a taxi or Uber — don’t. The surrounding area will be in a jam so you’re really better off walking.
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» Late Night: Attend a Fireman’s Ball (Les Bals des Pompiers)
One good way to avoid the busy metro stations after the Fireworks Show: make a detour and attend a nearby Fireman’s Ball!
As the name goes, this party takes place in fire stations (casernes) around Paris’ 20 arrondissements — so yes, you can party with (hot) firemen and French folks! *wink*
While there are plenty of choices to go for Firemen’s Balls, it is said that the best parties are done on the eve of Bastille Day (July 13). You can see on this link a list of the participating fire stations.
These are not only for entertainment but for charity too since there’s always a small entrance fee to be paid for and of course, snacks and drinks to buy. If you’re up for it, the firemen will also be selling raffle tickets and again, all of the proceeds will be given to charities or for the improvement of their own facilities.
If you stay in these places up until late night, most of them will transform into a dance club filled with younger people, complete with a DJ.
- These all-night soirees start at around 9PM until the early hours of the morning (but most would wind down around midnight)
- These parties do not only happen on the 14th of July but also on the 13th; but take note that metro stations are open until 2:15AM only during these days.
- If you want a complete list of Fireman’s Ball parties going around in Paris, check by this link.
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The month of July is truly a time wherein the whole of France comes alive, and even if you’re not a local, you are always welcome to celebrate Bastille Day with the French people!
If you want to be at the center of it all, then for sure a trip to Paris on July 14 is a must. With tons of events and activities to choose from, it’s now my hope that you get the most out of this day with the help of this guide. Bonne Fête Nationale!