Bastille Day in Paris is one of the best French travel experiences you can have. Like Americans, the French are proud of their celebration of independence from a monarchy, and from the Bastille Day parade down the Champse Elysées to the fireworks at the Eiffel Tower and everything in between, it’s worth a trip.
Getting to the Parade
Paris’ Bastille Day parade kicked off at about 10:30 a.m. when I was there in 2014. Getting to the Champs Elysées, however, required getting a much earlier start. I figured the Metro stop at Charles de Gaulle/Étoile would be closed, and it was. (As were the other ones on the Champs Elysées). I was able to eventually get off the Metro at Madeleine, which is not too far, but it probably took 20-30 minutes of walking before we were in place.
If you go – don’t worry about getting lost. Plenty of Gendarmes and police were present to guide the significant crowd down a maze of blocked streets to the viewing area.
We came to the parade route near Concorde, which is at the end of the Champs Elysés where it meets the gardens in front of the Louvre (the opposite end being the Arc de Triomphe, where the parade starts). After quite a bit of maneuvering and fighting crowds, we were able to get to the middle of the Champs Elysées on the north side (which I definitely preferred to seeing it from the south side, or the side closest to the river).
The Parade Begins
The Paris Bastille Day Parade began as all parades should – with a flyover of nine fighter jets trailing smoke in the Tricolor’s blue white and red. But the flights didn’t stop there. Seemingly every plane and helicopter the French Armée de l’Air flies was on display, flying low and slow directly overhead. The plane geek in me was loving it.
As the planes flew overhead, the soldiers marched past on foot in their medley of uniforms. Everything from the French Foreign Legion to infantry and even canine units passed on foot.
After that came the various vehicles. High-tech articulating all-terrain tracked vehicles rumbled past, as did trucks towing artillery pieces, antiaircraft vehicles and armored personnel carriers.
Then came the tanks, gleaming after what I imagined was a pretty arduous cleaning job to get them all fancy for the parade.
No American parade is complete without one fire engine, and they made their appearance in the French Bastille Day Parade, too. Paris’ firefighters are actually part of the military, and they drove their gleaming red vehicles by wearing their polished metal helmets and, yes, carrying their assault rifles.
After the Parade
When the last plane, tank and soldier had passed, the Champs Elysées opened up again, but not before a couple of tanks took high-speed loops through the famous Étoile roundabout on their way to various displays throughout the city.
Various vehicles were parked all over the area, and in a scene that would give any American lawyer a heart attack, they were open for kids to climb around on, pose with the soldiers and touch and prod the various pieces of equipment.
And, of course, no French national celebration would be complete without some guys tooling around in a Citröen 2CV in striped shirts waving Tricolors.
Celebrations Throughout the Day
After the parade, I headed to the Chateau de Vincennes to explore some medieval history and wandered through the Parc Floral since I was in the area.
Making my way back to the city, I stopped at the Nation metro stop, where a few fighter jets and plenty of vehicles were on display under a banner that said the local arrondissement welcomes its soldiers.
Surprisingly, all the vehicles were opened up, so of course I took the opportunity to crawl around inside a few, try on the famous French kepi and, yes, play with the machine guns (the kids really loved that part).
The Main Event — Fireworks at the Eiffel Tower
France does not skimp on celebrating Bastille Day, and the fireworks at the Eiffel Tower were the best I’ve ever seen.
I arrived at the Champ de Mars — the field in front of the Eiffel Tower — about three hours before the fireworks started. If you’re planning on going, it’s worth it. Know that the Trocadero area across the river from the Eiffel Tower is closed (fallout zone) as is the bridge leading to it and much of the area around the tower itself.
An orchestra played as the sun set, finishing with the Marseillaise. Once they were out of the way, the fireworks kicked off.
Choreographed to music, the beginning was a tribute to France’s 20th century history. The numbers 1914, 1918, 1939 and 1944 were traced in fire on the Eiffel Tower, followed by Vive la Paix (long live peace), then rockets fired off the sides of the tower and low-powered red fireworks were launched off behind it to somber music.
As the more-than-30-minute show progressed, the music progressed, ratcheting up the excitement. Lights illuminated the tower in everything from the Tricolor to rainbows, and the music went from the opening piece to pop songs to an instrumental version of the Marseillaise.
My personal favorite moment was when everything went dark for a moment followed by the opening chords of John Lennon’s “Imagine.”
The crowd got into it, singing along, and, well, just watch the video.
After the show ended, I headed back to the nearby Rue Cler area where I was staying and stopped at one of the restaurants for some wine, cheese and Champagne.
For more information on visiting Paris, check out the official tourism website.