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Bastille Day 2020: What to See & Do in Paris

fireworks on the Eiffel Tower

La Fête Nationale is usually one of the biggest holidays in France, but we’re still “social distancing” here in Paris, so while the celebrations will still take place, there have been a few major changes to this year’s program, including the cancellation of the military parade on the Champs-Elysées and the popular Bal des Pompiers.

Major Changes to the Bastille Day Program

A Ceremony and Flyover Instead of a Parade

France’s Bastille Day Parade on the Avenue des Champs-Elysées — with its fighter jet flyover, procession of tanks, and soldiers marching proudly in their dress uniforms from the Arc de Triomphe to the Place de la Concorde — is so popular that even Trump couldn’t resist trying to pull off the same thing in the United States. But to avoid attracting the usual crowds along the parade route, this year there will be a smaller military ceremony presided by President Macron on the Place de la Concorde in tribute to all of the people on the frontlines of the pandemic (not open to the general public). It will include representatives from Germany, Austria, Luxembourg and Switzerland, the countries that helped France in the fight against Covid-19, as well as the UK for their participation in the aerial tribute to General De Gaulle (2020 is the 130th anniversary of his birth, the 80th anniversary of his “June 18th Appeal”, and the 50th anniversary of his death).

Last Year’s Military Parade on the Champs Elysées

The full military flyover is still taking place with the jets and helicopters, so you can try to watch from any location that gives you a clear view of the skies above the Champs Elysées. It will also be broadcast on French TV as usual each year. The plumes of the Patrouille de France – which will make two passes – will be mostly white (with one red and one blue plume on each end), in homage to the healthcare workers.

The official Fête Nationale 2020 logo of the French Ministry of Armed Services.

The Bal des Pompiers

The traditional Bal des Pompiers that takes place each year on the eve of Bastille Day has been cancelled due to Covid-19, but that didn’t stop the Strasbourg station – famous for their hilariously sexy annual “teaser” videos (such as the ones from 2018 and 2019) – from showing their support for healthcare workers in this latest video:

There Will Be Fireworks, But…

Today the French government finally announced that the fireworks show and live musical concert at the Eiffel Tower would take place as usual, but that the Champs de Mars and a large perimeter around the Eiffel Tower, Trocadéro and Pont Iéna would be closed to the public starting at 11am to avoid large gatherings. The authorities are hoping that Parisians will “act responsibly” and watch the show on TV instead of squashing together on every bridge, butte and boulevard in Paris to watch them with their own eyes. If you know how Fête de la Musique turned out, you’ll know why I’m not convinced Parisians will behave on the 14th, either.

And because the authorities aren’t totally naïve, either, the Prefect of Police has banned the “acquisition, possession and use” of large fire crackers and fireworks by anyone (except professionals) in Paris and the surrounding Petite Couronne suburbs from July 4th until July 15th. So don’t think that you can pop down to Chinatown in the 13th and pick up some sparklers and fire crackers to throw your own private rooftop pyrotechnics show.

Parisian Rooftops

If you don’t want to watch the military flyover or the fireworks on the TV and you don’t have a decent view from your window, the next best option to avoid the crowds is to try and book a spot – quickly! – at one of the many rooftop bars and restaurants in Paris. These are hard to nail down even when there’s nothing happening in Paris, but the silver lining of the Covid-19 precautions is that now many of them require making reservations online instead of standing in line feeling like a loser. Here are a few that seem to still be taking reservations:

  • The new rooftop restaurant bar of the Hotel Mama West Paris is open 7am-midnight and has a view of the Eiffel Tower.

Other Bastille Day Activities

Bastille Day on the Water

You can watch the fireworks show right on the Seine with a cruise on the Bateaux Parisiens (€70/person, includes a box meal) or with the Vedettes du Pont Neuf (€22/person, includes a glass of Champagne).

Self-drive electric boats on the Canal

You won’t see anything happening on the other side of Paris, but it’s the perfect daytime escape to escape the crowds on the Canal de l’Ourcq with six of your friends in a self-drive electric boat through Marin d’Eau Douce (€200 for boats up to 7 people for the afternoon).

Museums and Monuments Open on Bastille Day

If you’re looking for something to do, museums that are usually open on Tuesday will be open on July 14th, including municipal museums and the Catacombes (the Louvre, Centre Pompidou and Orangerie are always closed on Tuesdays). The Arc de Triomphe will be closed in the morning, but open in the afternoon from 3:40pm. As usual, book your ticket online in advance to make sure you get in.

Outdoor Fun

The festive Fête des Tuileries has opened for the summer with the Ferris wheel, stomach-emptying rides, barbe-à-papa (cotton candy) and whack-a-mole games. Open daily at the Jardin des Tuileries, 11am-midnight (free entry, tickets can be purchased for individual rides), although it may open later on the 14th due to the official ceremony taking place right next door at the Place de la Concorde in the morning.

Fête des Tuileries

If you’d like to get out of the middle of the city, the Jardin d’Acclimatation in the Bois de Boulogne is now open, including the funfair rides more appropriate for younger kids (and anyone who doesn’t like rides that make you puke up your lunch).

But Not Too Much Fun…

While it may be tempting to join the masses who will surely be picnicking in every available green space and along the Seine and Canal St-Martin on Bastille Day, don’t forget there are pretty strict laws now about alcohol consumption in public. The police will likely turn a blind eye if you’re behaving, but be prepared to have your wine or booze (especially if it’s in a glass bottle) confiscated if they decide to crack down.

Châteaux Events

Château Vaux-le-Vicomte is having a special Nuit aux Chandelles tonight with fireworks to celebrate the Fête Nationale on Monday the 13th. You can choose to just visit the gardens (from €5) or both the gardens and the château (from €14), both which will be lit with thousands of candles, followed by fireworks at 11pm. Reserve your tickets online here (be sure to get the ones specifically for the 13th July).

Although its website says it’s closed on Tuesdays, the Château de Chantilly palace, museum and gardens will be open on July 14th. If the weather is nice, it’s worth the trek out to the little café in the Hameau (the hamlet that inspired Marie Antoinette’s in Versailles) for strawberries and whipped cream, called “chantilly” in France because this is where it first became a famous dessert topping. The “Billet Domaine Daté” gives access to the entire estate on a specific date for €15.30 (there are also special family rates).

Versailles will be open on the 14th with a special date for the Musical Fountains Show to celebrate the Fête Nationale. You can attend if you purchase the usual Versailles Passport for €27, or just access the gardens and not the château with the special Musical Fountains Show ticket for €9.50. Be sure to buy online IN ADVANCE to avoid going all the way out there and getting turned away if there’s no more spots open. Read the latest guest post about the post-confinement visit to Versailles by Secrets of Paris readers Karl and Marsha, “Versailles without the Crowds”.

Versailles fountains
The Musical Fountains of Versailles
Blood Drive Collection poster

Make a Difference

To remember that Bastille Day is also a day to honor the French armed forces who maintain national security both in France and abroad, there’s a blood drive on the Esplanade des Invalides (129 rue de Grenelle, 7th) from 10am-5pm.

Public Transport Notes

Check the RATP website for station closures during the day. Usually stations all along the Champs-Elysées and around the Place de la Concorde are closed during the military ceremony, and stations around the Eiffel Tower and Trocadéro are closed during the fireworks.  If you do plan on going out, keep in mind that the Paris metro will NOT extend its hours like it usually does during the Fête Nationale, so be sure you have a solid Plan B to get yourself home if you’re out after 12:45pm. Vélib service could also be affected (ie bikes are locked at certain stations to prevent vandalism), so pack your comfy shoes if you need to hoof it home.

Stations Closed All Morning for Parade & Air Show

  • George V
  • Tuileries 
  • Concorde   
  • Champs-Elysées-Clemenceau   
  • Franklin D. Roosevelt   
  • Charles de Gaulle-Etoile     

Stations Closed from 4pm

  • Boulainvilliers
  • Pont de l’Alma
  • Tour Eiffel-Champ de Mars
  • Kennedy Radio France
  • Javel
  • Bir-Hakeim 
  • Ecole Militaire
  • Trocadéro  
  • Invalides
  • Iéna
  • Alma Marceau
  • Rue de la Pompe

Stations Closed from 7pm

  • Javel
  • Invalides
  • La Motte Piquet Grenelle
  • Sèvres-Lecourbe
  • Dupleix
  • Cambronne
  • Passy
  • Boissière
  • Kléber
  • La Tour-Maubourg
  • Michel-Ange Molitor
  • Michel-Ange Auteuil
  • Emile Zola, Ségur
  • Charles Michels
  • Mirabeau
  • Eglise d’Auteuil
  • Boulogne-Pont de Saint-Cloud
  • Boulogne-Jean Jaurès
  • Porte d’Auteuil
  • Chardon-Lagache
  • Saint-François-Xavier
  • Varenne

How to Watch Online if you don’t get French TV

No doubt you’ll be able to watch all of the Bastille Day 2020 events on YouTube shortly after they take place (just do a search), but if yu want to watch live and don’t have access to French television, you can download the free Molotov.tv app on your phone or home computer to stream all of the regular French TV stations for free including TF1, France 2 and France 3. I get my “Paris only” news from the “BFM Paris” channel.

Did You Know?

First celebrated in 1790 to mark the one-year anniversary of the July 14th storming of the Bastille prison that kicked off the French Revolution, it was originally called the Fête de la Fédération. And because the Revolution hadn’t quite yet entered “Terror” mode – they were still testing the Constitutional Monarchy model – King Louis XIV and Marie Antoinette were even allowed to leave their heavily-surveillanced residence at the Tuileries Palace to attend the event as “King and Queen of the French”.

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