Although Bastille Day, or “Le 14 Juillet”, commemorates the start of the French Revolution in 1789, many French actually start the celebrations already the night before, on July 13.
And whether you’re a party animal or a history buff, there are plenty of activities to ensure you get some of that revolutionary feel that the French are so proud of.
From Paris and Marseille to Lyon – and most of the little towns villages in between – it will be hard to miss the choreographed fireworks that will light up the French skies on July 14th.
In the City of Light the traditional fireworks bonanza will take place as usual at the Eiffel Tower, (between 11pm-11.35pm) and as every year, will see thousands of people flock to the capital’s No. 1 landmark.
But if you want to avoid the crowds around the Iron Lady (on the Champs de Mars), or simply want a better view, here are our best picks to catch the show:
– The Montparnasse tower. Take Europe’s fastest elevator up the 196 metre-tower in 38 seconds and watch the fireworks from the cocktail bar at the top.
– Parc de Belleville. Bring a picnic and get an unobstructed, and panoramic, view of the city from the top of the hill in the 20th arrondissement.
– On board a boat on the Seine. If you want to get away from the crowds, but still have a front two view, this is a sure way to enjoy the pyrotechnics extravaganza. Bateux-Mouches and Bateux Parisiens are just some of the companies that offer cruises along the Seine.
– The Trocadéro gardens are located on the other side of the Seine and faces the Iron Lady. The 10,000 square metres of green space is a popular spot to watch the show though, so be there early to secure a good view.
The annual parade down the Champs Elysées on the 14th has been around since 1880 and is something that is taken very seriously: 3,501 soldiers, 55 fighter jets, 241 horses and 31 helicopters will take part this year.
In a special tribute to special forces that took part in the counter-terrorism operation that ended the January terrorist attacks will lead the parade.
To this day, the Paris Bastille Day parade is the oldest and largest regular military parade in Europe, but it has only been held on “Les Champs” as a tradition since 1918.
To get a good view, we recommend getting there early (at 6am or 7am) to make sure you get a good spot for the three and a half hour show that starts at 9am.
For those that can’t make it up that early, the Boulevard Saint-Germain is said to be a good spot to get a glimpse at around noon. La Rue Marbeuf and Rue Royale are also less crowded.
Don’t forget that the Concorde métro stop, at the end of the Champs Elysées, will be closed as of 7am because of the parade.
Firemans' balls (Bals des pompiers)
With few exceptions, nearly every fire station in France fling up their doors to the public on the evening of the 13th or the 14th for the traditional fundraising dance that often lasts until the early hours (like to 4am) of the next morning.
In Paris alone, more than 40 fire stations are preparing for the party as we write.
Some say the balls, which have become somewhat of a French institution, began on July 14 in 1937 when a fireman from Montmartre decided to briefly open the doors for a group of Parisians that had followed him and his colleagues back to the station.
The visit turned into a party, with music, drinks and gymnastic performances, and became such a success that other fire stations soon followed suit. Others, however, claim the tradition dates back to the start of the 20th century as the firemen who took part in the parade were allowed to bring ladies back to the entrance of the station and eventually, also to host a ball.
The dance is a fundraiser from which all the proceeds go towards funding fire stations across France. French firemen take turns manning the bar throughout the evening.
Hollande’s Bastille Day interview
At 1pm on Tuesday, France’s Socialist President François Hollande will be interviewed on live TV (broadcast by TF1 and France 2), answering questions about the state of the French economy, terrorism, the European migrant crisis, Greece and much, much, more.
The French leader’s predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, got rid of the annual interview tradition, but when Hollande came to power in 2012, he reinstated it.
If you want to get an overview of what currently concerns Hollande and his fellow Frenchmen, you should not miss this.
Dip into history
Or, if you’d rather trace the French Revolution and what brought it on, what better way than to visit some of the sites where it all started?
The first place to hit is Place de la Bastille. Although nothing remains of the fortress that a mob of insurgents stormed on July 14 in 1789, there is a round pavement mark on the Bastille square to at least give you a bit of a feel. Or head to Château de Versailles which was the seat of the royal family for many years before it was toppled in the revolution.
Another point of interest of course is Place de la Concorde, where Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were beheaded by guillotine.
La Conciergerie, near Notre Dame Cathedral and which is a royal palace that served as a prison during the revolution, would also be well worth a visit.