Once upon a time, there was a revolution in France. The date was July 14, 1789, when the French people marched on the prison at Bastille in Paris, marking start of the fall of the monarchy, and the cry of “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité“.
Today “14 Juillet” is an annual public holiday in France, a bit like Independence Day is in the United States. Anglophones may call it Bastille Day, but the French actually just refer to it as 14 Juillet or fête nationale.
French vacationers decide if they are juilletistes or aoûtiens, the weather has started to get warmer, and just about everyone is ready for a public holiday and a few fireworks. So let’s get to the best things to do on Bastille day in France, aka 14 juillet, shall we? Allons-y!
Ways to celebrate 14 July in France
Since it is a public holiday, there are several events held all across Paris from 10am onwards. Obviously, you can decide to participate in as many as you want.
Most of the events don’t require a fee for entry, just plenty of patience and a willingness to get there early. The best events across Paris on Bastille day are:
1. Watching the Military parade on the Champs Elysées
If you want to see army tanks, troops with weaponry, firetrucks, and other governmental units who are France’s first line of defense, this is the place to see it. With planes, helicopters, and fighter jets joining overhead, it is a sight to behold.
It usually starts around 10ish around the Arc de Triomphe, heading down the Champs Elysées towards the Place de la Concorde and ending in the military headquarters at Les Invalides.
The parade is held annually, with one other foreign country usually invited as a special guest to participate as a sign of friendship.
It can be a little strange to see full military gear marching down one of the most famous fashion avenues in the world, the Champs Elysées, but they are following in tradition. Everyone from Napoleon Bonaparte to Hitler to the Allied forces of WWII have marched down this illustrious avenue that has played such a symbolic role in French history.
If you do want a good spot along the parade route, I’d suggest being there at least by 8:30-9:00am.
2. Visit the Louvre Museum for free
The Louvre museum does not usually have free entry, unlike some of the other ones who offer free entry on the 1st Sunday of each month. If you are not sure what to do, this historical museum in the center of Paris is always a good way to spend a few hours.
Tickets are usually for timed entry for crowd control, so be sure to reserve your tickets a few days in advance.
3. Go on a picnic along the quais of the Seine
As most of the restaurants outside the tourist zones are closed, you may want to have an easy French-inspired picnic instead.
Some of the nicest places to have a picnic are along the Seine river. And if the weather is good, you can imagine that it is going to be popular.
4. Take self-guided Revolution walking tour
Many of the events surrounding the French Revolution occurred right in the heart of Paris. If you have visited the Palace of Versailles before, you probably heard how Queen Marie-Antoinette and her family were brought to Paris during the Revolution.
Many of the monuments of significance during the Revolution are within walking distance of each other in the center of Paris. You can follow the following route:
- Angelina’s at 226 Rue de Rivoli – Start off by eating some cake at the historic tearoom, Angelina’s, the epitome of “gourmet pleasures”.
- Jardin des Tuileries – After cake, stroll through the Jardin des Tuileries which is just across the street. This was the site of a royal palace, the Palais des Tuileries, and it is in this palace that Marie-Antoinette, Louis XVI and their children were brought to after being forced to leave Versailles.
- Place de la Bastille – About a 20 minute walk away is the Place de la Bastille on the edge of the Marais, whereupon stood the ancient fortress prison of Bastille. There are no remnants of the fortress there today, but you can head over anyway if you enjoy a good walk.
- Conciergerie on Ile de la Cité – Cross Pont Notre dame (bridge) with its many carvings of kings and saints, and visit the Conciergerie on Ile de la Cité. The prison at the Conciergerie is where Marie-Antoinette was held in prison, put on trial, and found guilty. You can book a tour of the Conciegerie here.
- Place de la Concorde – After the Conciergerie, head over to Place de la Concorde, which is where Marie-Antoinette and King Louis XVI were guillotined. A large Egyptian obelsik marks the spot where they lost their lives.
- La Chapelle Expiatoire, 29 Rue Pasquier, 75008 – About 10 minute walk away is the Expiatory chapel. It was built on top of the cemetery where King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette were buried after their execution in 1793. Their bodies were moved to Saint-Denis Basilica outside of Paris, where other royal family members are buried, but the Expiatory chapel was built on this spot in the 8th arrondissement to commemorate the lives lost in the Revolution.
You can get an expanded version of the French revolution walking tour here.
5. Enjoy the concert at Champs de Mars
If you have enjoyed your day thus far, and are still keen to keep going, head over to the Champs de Mars in front of the Eiffel Tower for a full-orchestra classical concert. Featuring opera singers and the best classical musicians in France, you can sit on the grass with a picnic and enjoy.
Note: a lot of the metro stations in the area will be closed for the concert, and it does get quite crowded and there will be lots of security checks. So head there early, if you want to claim a good spot.
The concert will also be on France 2 television, so if you just want to just watch a portion of it and chill out, you can just catch it on tv 😉 It ends with the playing of the French national anthem, and a 30 minute fireworks show.
6. Dance at a Bal des Pompiers (Firemans’ ball)
If you want to enjoy a good folksy night out, instead of listening to classical music, you can head to a Bal des Pompiers. The firemans’ balls are usually held all across Paris near the different fire station casernes.
Entry is usually free or for a token sum of €2-3, and you can expect to hear local bands playing a lot of popular French songs, with the crowds singing and dancing along. You can find more information about the Bal des Pompiers across Paris here.
7. Take a dinner cruise to see the fireworks
Around 11pm a fireworks show takes place around the Eiffel Tower, as a finale to the classical concert, and the evening’s festivities.
A lovely way to see the fireworks, without being elbow-to-elbow with a big crowd is by taking a dinner cruise along the Seine, that gathers around the Pont de Grenelle and Eiffel tower around 11pm in order to let you have an unfettered view of the Eiffel tower.
Most of the dinner cruises involve a 3 course meal included in the price, with a glass of wine included. You can make reservations for a dinner cruise here.
Best Places to Watch the Eiffel Tower Fireworks
There are plenty of wonderful places to watch the fireworks at the Eiffel Tower, even if you don’t feel like a dinner cruise. Some of them are rather unexpected, because all you need actually is a good sightline from a high vantage point.
Since buildings in Paris are usually no more than 8-10 floors, you can usually see over them, even if you are a bit further away. Some of the best places to see the Bastille day fireworks in Paris are:
- Champs de Mars on the lawn in front of the Eiffel Tower, after the concert.
- Trocadéro, across the Seine from the Eiffel Tower. This does get rather crowded, with a risk of pickpockets, but if you get a good spot, the view is great.
- Quais of the Seine: If you want to bring a bottle of wine and snack, along the quais of the Seine around Pont Alexandre III and Jardin d’Erivan are a good spot to see the fireworks.
- Bridges along the Seine: The bridges on near the Eiffel Tower will give you a good view, including Pont Alexandre III, Pont des Arts, and Pont de la Concorde. You can also try Pont de Grenelle-Cadets de Saumur on the far west side of the Seine for (slightly) fewer tourists.
- Montmartre and the Steps of Sacre Coeur perched high in the village of Montmartre in the 18th arrondissement.
- Park des Buttes-Chaumont in the 19th arrondissement has plenty of hills giving a clear view across the city. (Bonus: The Rosa Bonheur bar should be open to enjoy as well).
- Parc de Belleville in the 20th arrondissement is a much smaller park but is on a hill, and also offers great views of the city
- Tour Montparnasse with its panoramic restaurant on top will offer a perfect view of the Eiffel Tower up close.
- Grande Arche de la Defense has a rooftop terrasse and is near RER train line A, if you are looking for somewhere convenient to get to, without a lot of crowds. From there in La Defense, you should also be able to see the competing fireworks from nearby Puteaux that are reputed to be even longer than the ones in Paris.
- Rooftop bars – Parisians love a good rooftop bar and there are several all over Paris depending on your personal taste. My favorites include the following:
Note, I should mention that the lights and fireworks impressions of the Eiffel tower at night are actually considered artist intellectual property, and photos are not allowed for commercial use.
Frequently asked questions
Is everything closed on Bastille day?
Yes, almost all offices, banks, pharmacies and grocery stores will be closed on Bastille day. Certain shops and restaurants in designated tourist zones may be open if they have received the appropriate authorizations. Certain grocery stores may be open until 12h-13h, although I would advise doing your picnic shopping earlier.
One thing to note is that the Paris metro will be closed around the military parade route in the morning, and around the Eiffel tower for the concert and fireworks show in the evening. You can check metro closings on the RATP website.
What to eat and drink?
French people don’t usually have a particular menu for Bastille Day, but some champagne will always be welcome.
If you enjoyed that article, you may like to read more about other national holidays in France. A bientôt!