Bastille Day is arguably the biggest French holiday on the calendar, as it’s the country’s national holiday. In a sense, you can think of it like France’s 4th of July – though the origins of Bastille Day are, of course, very different from Independence Day in the US. Since so many people already choose July to visit Paris, the fact that Bastille Day is celebrated on July 14th every year just adds to the things that can make your July in Paris exceptional.
History of Bastille Day
It was July 14, 1789 when enough people in France had finally had it up to here with the ruling Bourbon monarchy, what with their Versailles extravagance and their “let them eat cake” while the citizenry starved, and a crowd made their way to the Bastille in Paris. At the time, the Bastille fortress served as a munitions storehouse and a prison for political dissidents, so was the perfect place for a revolutionary group to direct their energies.
Fewer than 100 people died during the attack on the Bastille, which is traditionally called the “storming of the Bastille,” and the attack itself was merely the beginning of the French Revolution – but the storming of the Bastille remains symbolic of the French people demanding their freedoms, and is therefore near and dear to the hearts of all French people today.
The first Bastille Day celebration on July 14, 1790 wasn’t referred to by that name, but rather called the “Fête de la Fédération.” It was held in the area where the Eiffel Tower now stands, so it’s fitting that the Eiffel Tower remains a central site for Bastille Day festivities today. It wasn’t until 1880 that an official national holiday of July 14th was made the law of the land. In fact, the law was passed on July 6th of that year, making the 1880 celebrations especially notable. The official name of the holiday is still “Fête Nationale,” or “national celebration,” although in France it’s most commonly referred to as “quatorze juillet,” which is simply “14 July.”
Bastille Day in Paris
As you might imagine, because Bastille Day is the French national holiday it is celebrated in grand fashion all over the country – but because Paris is the French capital, it’s also easy to see why Paris is probably the best place to be in France to see Bastille Day celebrations. Each year, the French president presides over an immense military parade which shuts down the Champs-Elysées (one of the few things that closes Paris’ most famous boulevard every year), and the Eiffel Tower is regularly used as the launching point for a spectacular fireworks display.
Here’s a video from the Bastille Day parade of 2007:
As you can see, the crowds are pretty big – so if you’re hoping for a good view of the parade, you’ll want to get to the Champs-Elysées early to stake out your spot. In the 2007 parade, representatives from each European Union country were invited to march and carry their country’s flag – but that isn’t a regular part of the parade, so be on the lookout for what will make your Bastille Day parade unique. Also note that there’s a flyover with planes streaming out the colors of the French flag during the parade.
Here are a couple videos of the fireworks display at the Eiffel Tower in 2007:
Whether the iconic tower serves as a backdrop for the fireworks or stands in front of them is, obviously, entirely dependent on where you stand! So if you’re concerned about that for your photos and/or video, try to find out exactly which side of the tower the fireworks will be launched from so you can find the best viewing spot. As with the parades, the crowds are enormous for the fireworks – so getting a spot early is important.
Parisgirl recommends watching the Bastille Day parade from the top floor of any of the cafes along the Champs-Elysées, if you can get a seat, as you’ll have an overhead view of the parade that’s unobstructed by trees or guardrails. She also notes that there are typically big parties in Paris the night before Bastille Day, on July 13th, that include public concerts and dances at the Place de la Bastille as well as smaller concerts and dances in different Paris neighborhoods.
original photo by Ammar Abd Rabbo