Know your history
Most people will know – or be able to guess based on its English name – that France’s national holiday commemorates the storming of the Bastille prison on July 14, 1789, a pivotal moment in the early days of the French Revolution. It also coincides with the Fête de la Fédération, a celebration of national unity, held in 1790.
Almost a century after history’s greatest prison break, the French Republic was finally honored with an official feast on June 30, 1878, an event which Claude Monet immortalized with his painting of waving flags on the Rue Montorgeuil. The following year, a second semi-official feast was organized on July 14.
However, it wasn’t until 1880 that an annual national holiday on July 14 (and not August 4, the date of the dissolution of the feudal system in 1789, as alternatively proposed) was voted into law by the Assembly and Senate.
Party with firefighters
Parisians get into the swing of things by attending one of the dozens of Bals des Pompiers on 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 – and mimic the guingettes (taverns) of times past: live music, good food, and starlit dance floors are all to be expected.
Admission varies depending on the station, with many asking only for donations to be left in the barrel at the door, and all proceeds, including those from raffles and food and drink, go to charity.
The night usually begins at 9PM and most families last until midnight. The young folk, with the help of a few beefy firemen, keep the party going until around 4AM and the hardcore head back out for a second round on July 14, though the choice of fire station is more limited.
Get up early for the parade
Provided you haven’t totally burned yourself out (pun intended) the night before, you’ll want to get up and out sharpish to see the oldest and largest regular military parade in Europe on the Champs-Élysées.
For the next hour or so, foot, motorized, and mounted troops make their way down the crowd-lined avenue to the Place de la Concorde, where France’s First Lady, Brigitte Macron, will greet them from the viewing gallery.
An early arrival is highly recommended if you want a good view – as is a stool if you’re on the short side. If you don’t fancy standing, try getting an upstairs seat in one of the avenue’s cafés or restaurants.
Most of the metro and Vélib’ stations in the immediate vicinity will be closed or have reduced access between 8AM and noon so get off one or two stops early and walk the rest of the way.
Take advantage of free openings
Almost all of Paris’ museums and attractions will be open for business as usual on Bastille Day. Two exceptions are the Arc de Triompe and the Eiffel Tower, which are only open in the afternoon and morning, respectively, to accommodate the events taking place there. The Musée de l’Orangerie is also closed in the morning.
The Louvre also does away with its €15 entrance fee for adults. Obviously, being the middle of the tourist season, it will most likely be extremely busy but if you arrive early and stick to its quieter corners you can really make the most of this free pass.
Reserve a table for dinner
Very few restaurants will take the day off but you might want to make a reservation in case everyone has had the same brilliant idea as you (eating within walking distance of the evening’s action at the Champ de Mars). If you’re thinking of picnicking then head to markets and supermarkets earlier in the day as many will operate reduced opening times.
Alternatively, you can take advantage of a special dinner cruise on the Seine. There are dozens of tour companies sailing on the river and most of them will offer a special Bastille Day package.
Check out the free concert
For the past three years, the Orchestre national de France and the Choeur de Radio France has warmed up the crowd on the Champ de Mars before the main event: the fireworks display. This free event usually begins at 9:15PM, though you’ll want to get there well in advance to ensure you can see and hear the band and choir on the stage. Each year’s concert has a different theme but every show finishes with a rousing rendition of the French national anthem, La Marseillaise.
Watch the fireworks
As with the Champs-Élysées earlier in the day, all of the metro and Vélib’ stations around the Champ de Mars will be closed or under strict security controls in the hours before the display. Those that are open nearby will also be extremely busy and so arriving on foot (or your own wheels) is strongly advised.
The most popular places to watch the display are the Champ de Mars and the Gardens of the Trocadéro. However, anywhere you can see the top half of the Eiffel Tower will do, which includes most of the banks of the Seine and its bridges. If you want to watch the fireworks from the top of the Tour Montparnasse, you’ll need to arrive hours in advance.
The themed display starts at 11PM and lasts for approximately 35 minutes.
Plan your homeward journey
Though the metro stays open until 2:15AM on July 13 and 14, getting on it at a station within a two-mile radius of the Eiffel Tower is almost impossible in the aftermath of the fireworks. Taxis, including Uber, are also very difficult to get because of road closures. Thus, your options are to either plan a lovely nighttime stroll through the streets of Paris to your bed, pick a nearby bar to drink (and pee) in until the crowds die down, or head to a Bal des Pompiers in the nearby 7th or 15th arrondissements and party until the sun comes up.