When a riotous group of revolutionaries stormed Paris’s Bastille prison on July 14, 1789, it was the first true populist uprising in France. The successful pushback against the aristocratic elites ushered in the French Revolution and ultimately spread ideas of the Enlightenment across the continent.
Declared a national holiday in 1880, Bastille Day honors the event that shaped present day France. Today, Francophone outposts around the world celebrate the holiday, touting French culture and the ideals of liberté. From Europe’s oldest parade to the largest Bastille Day celebration in North America, here are the best places to wave the tricolor flag and sing “La Marseillaise” this year.
The French capital is the holiday’s epicenter. Soldiers will march along the Champs-Élysées, as they have done every year since 1880, kicking off daylong celebrations with one of the world’s oldest military parades. Join the flag-waving throngs downtown, then take advantage of free classical concerts at the Panthéon and gratis admission at the Louvre. As the summer day cools down, head to the Jardins du Trocadero for the perfect vantage of the red, white, and blue firework display behind the Eiffel Tower. Late evening dances at one of the traditional Bals des Pompiers (Fireman’s Balls) raise funds for the city’s fire stations.
Franschhoek, South Africa
This tiny town in a scenic, vine-draped valley was an early French settlement in South Africa’s Western Cape. The grounds of the Franschhoek Huguenot Monument host the town’s two-day annual Bastille Festival. Villagers and visitors don red, white, and blue (there’s a best-dressed contest with winners each day) and participate in a weekend of events including a minstrel parade, barrel rolling competitions, and live music. The jovial atmosphere is buoyed by a copious supply of local wine with food pairings.
At first blush, this Midwest city seems an unlikely locale for the largest Bastille Day celebration in North America, but its history as a former French fur trapping station (and the election of Frenchman Solomon Juneau as its first mayor) is a proud one. More than 150,000 attendees are expected to turn out for the 38th anniversary of its four-day Bastille Days festival. Highlights include the Storm the Bastille 5K in which thousands of runners and walkers reenact the historic mob scene in the form of a race, a Mardi Gras-style parade, a market on Cathedral Square with street performers, and wine and champagne pairings. A new feature this year is the locally-made “Love Locks” sculpture inspired by the Pont des Arts bridge in Paris, where attendees can lock their own love messages.
Prague, Czech Republic
Kampa, a picturesque square along the Vltava River, hosts an elaborate French market for five days to mark the holiday. Now in its 12th year, the market is so popular some 10,000 daily attendees are expected. Locals mingle, jazz duets perform, and exhibitors showcase otherwise challenging-to-find French foods, including fresh oysters from Normandy and Brittany; sparkling wines from across France; and French pies, pastries, tartlets, and macaroons. “We recreate some kind of French art de vivre on the feet of the Charles Bridge,” say market organizers.
Tahiti, French Polynesia
National Day, as Bastille Day is known in the islands, falls amid the weeks-long Heiva i Tahiti festival, a cultural showcase that kicks off with the June 29 celebration of French Polynesia’s autonomy. It’s a fitting celebration for a holiday that honors freedom and liberty: Following Anglo-Saxon missionary rule—which put the kibosh on many traditional cultural practices—the French helped usher in a resurgence of traditional dance forms. Many of Heiva i Tahiti’s highlights—beauty pageants, food tastings, a handicraft market, and competitions in stone weight lifting and coconut cracking—will take place at Papeete’s To’ata Square and in its open-air amphitheater. Canoe races, fire walking, and reenactments of ancient Polynesian ceremonies are also held throughout the Islands. July 14 is marked with a military parade followed by a reception in the residential gardens of the French Republic High Commissioner.
St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands
The sound of a bellowing conch shell announces the arrival of fishermen’s daily catch each morning in St. Thomas, and Bastille Day in Frenchtown starts the same way. The celebration here honors French immigrants and settlers who have populated the area since the 1920s. The highlight of the day (which includes live music, fish tacos, face painting, and other events at the local pub) is the Bastille Day Kingfish Tournament. Last year, more than 200 anglers of all ages participated. After the noon weigh-in, the French Heritage Museum will host a Bastille Day-themed reception.
Under French dominion for 255 years, Pondicherry enjoys the nicknames the “Indian Côte d'Azur,” and “Riviera of the East.” The city celebrates Bastille Day by showcasing its unique brand of French fusion. Street parades of retired soldiers hoisting both French and Indian flags snake through the lush trees and colonial villa–lined streets while marching bands blare both countries’ national anthems.
While French food and drink tastings abound in the Irish capital around the holiday, the country’s largest Bastille Day celebration takes place inside a converted church. In partnership with the French Embassy, The Church—a bar and restaurant with faithfully restored pipe organs, woodwork, stained glass, and religious artwork—throws a two-day French-themed party attended by many of the city’s French immigrant community. French DJs perform, attendees participate in theme-appropriate activities such as Pétanque (French boules), and the bar dishes out pastis, wine, crêpes, and saucissons.
While there’s no singular organized event to honor Bastille Day in Montreal, it is the largest Francophone city in the world after Paris and brims with French culture, food, and history. Montrealers find themselves in the thick of a summerlong festival season. Events include neighborhood parties, pub crawls, the Just for Laughs Comedy Festival, art gallery showings, French wine and food pairings at local businesses, the Montréal Cirque Festival, and even a competitive firework show.
- Nat Geo Expeditions