Top French festivals 2016
Be surprised by the array of top French festivals in 2016, celebrating religion, art, chocolate, citrus, wine, film, music and even puppet festivals in France.
French festivals are vibrant and plentiful, offering a delight of regional specialities, cultural ties and historical stories. Get a taste of French culture with our pick of top 10 French festivals, or immerse yourself deeper with this detailed list of top French festivals to see while visiting or living in France.
Top French festivals
End of January: Cirque de Demain, Paris
Once a year, circus actors from the best circus schools in the world compete at the Circus of Tomorrow under the Big Top of the Cirque Phénix according to age groups and professions. The new, young talented discovered here will be the famous artists of tomorrow. The great crowds of spectators enjoy the animal trainers, clowns, acrobats and jugglers who perform in both traditional and modern acts. This is a marvellous experience for the whole family. The 37th festival will take place from 28 to 31 January, 2016.
Mid-February: Nice Carnival
Nice Carnival is one of the largest carnivals in the world. There are 15 days (and nights) of carnival parades with fantastically decorated floats and gigantic papier-mâché figurines made by the Carnavaliers. During the Flower Parade, extravagantly dressed characters throw 100,000 flowers into the crowd along the Promenade des Anglais and more than 1,000 dancers and musicians from around the world perform at the carnival. By night the floats are illuminated for the Parade of Lights. The 2016 carnival, with the theme ‘King of Media’, will take place 13 to 28 February. If you’re coming from outside Nice, book accommodation as far ahead as possible as the place will be packed out.
Mid-February to early-March: Menton Lemon Festival
Held in the second half of February, this carnival-like festival, the Fête du Citron, sees more than 200,000 visitors enjoying the work of 300 professionals who use 145 tons of citrus. For two weeks the Biovès Garden in the centre of Menton is filled with huge statutes, models and tableaux, all made from citrus oranges and lemons. The streets belong to the giants, the wind musicians, acrobats, drummers and the masked crowds that dance to the music of the parades of citrus-decorated floats. Treat yourself to a glass of delicious fresh lemonade, some lemon vinegar or even your very own lemon tree. There are shuttle buses to take you into the centre of town. In 2016, the 83rd year of the festival runs from 13 February to 2 March.
April: Berck-Sur-Mer Kite Festival
The town of Berck-Sur-Mer has held an international kite festival (Rencontres internationales de cerfs-volants) for more than two decades. People come from all over the world to fly kites of every colour and shape — from giant pandas and crabs to state-of-the-art stunt kites. There are usually around half a million spectators but there’s plenty of room up on the sand dunes to get a good view. The next festival is 9 to 17 April, 2016.
April to early-November: International Garden Festival
Every year since 1992, the gardens of Chateau Chaumont-sur-Loire play host to the annual Festival des Jardins, a garden festival with up to 30 themed gardens. From over 300 proposals, 20 to 30 gardens are selected for inclusion in the festival, with contributions from the UK, Japan, the Netherlands, Germany and Italy. The displays are also illuminated allowing visitors the chance to explore the gardens by night. The chateau is also enhanced by the glow of over 2,000 candles. Check the festival website for 2016 dates.
May: Cannes Film Festival
This International Film Festival was created by a French Minister of Education and Fine Arts who was keen to establish an international cultural event in France to rival the Venice Film Festival. Today, more than 30,000 professionals from all over the world meet at the festival. The festival is a social as much as a professional event and hundreds of thousands of guests enjoy the atmosphere. Worth a trip even if it’s just to star spot. There’s also an open-air cinema on the beach showing Cannes classics: get tickets from the Cannes Tourist Office. The 69th Festival de Cannes will take place from 11 to 22 May, 2016.
Mid-May: Festival Medieval de Sedan
Sedan Castle is one of the great European castles and is a worthy host for the thousands of people who come here to experience the atmosphere of the Middle Ages for this medieval festival. Traditional banquets, fairs, tournaments, wrestling competitions and sword duels await festivalgoers. Check the festival website for dates.
May: Paris Fringe – international theatre festival in English
The first edition of the Paris Fringe takes place from 23–29 May 2016, with more than 20 English-language shows including theatre, comedy, musicals, mime and more. International artists and companies come to Paris to take part in the events, workshops and discussions.
June: Pentecost Feria, Nîmes
Don’t miss out on the Feria de Pentecôte. Held for the first time in 1952, the five-day festival runs from Thursday to Whit Monday. A huge carnival parade starts festivities, winding its way through the city streets and culminating in a large firework display in the arenas, launching the mass celebrations of the million people who come. The world’s best toreros demonstrate their skills in corridas in the ancient Roman amphitheatre, before the streets fill with revellers enjoying the open-air concerts and dance parties that go on throughout the night. Check the festival website for dates.
June to August: Carcassone Festival
The extremely well-preserved medieval city of Carcassonne is always worth a visit, especially during its summer-long festival. A mix of music, theatre and dance is performed among the walled city's historic buildings, including the Grand Théâtre and Basilique Saint-Nazaire. This year is the 10th anniversary of the festival. Check the festival website for 2016 dates.
June 21: La Fête de la Musique, throughout France
La Fête de la Musique is a street musical festival held every year on 21 June, the day of the summer solstice throughout the whole country. Thousands of musicians gather in the streets, bars, and cafes giving free performances of all kinds of music, from jazz to rock and from hip-hop to electronic music.
July 14: Bastille Day
A day of national celebration for the French, this public holiday commemorates the day that Parisian commoners and peasants stormed the fortress and prison of Bastille, provoking events that would end the monarchy and usher in the age of liberty, fraternity and equality. There are celebrations all over France but the place to be is the capital. Celebrations start in Paris on the night of 13 July, when many firestations have all-night parties. Next day there’s a traditional military parade along the Champs Elysees and there is a festival atmosphere throughout the day, finishing with the city night-sky turned bright by magnificent and noisy fireworks shows. Festivities last until the late hours.
July: Festival of Avignon
The annual Festival d’Avignon is one of France’s oldest and most famous festivals. Every year there are around 40 different shows in venues around the city, both French and non-French, in a variety of art forms — theatre, dance, music and cinema, many of them world or French premieres. Check for 2016 dates.
July: Chorégies d’Orange
The Chorégies d’Orange festival dates back to 1860 and is the oldest festival in France. The festival of opera and classical music takes place in a beautifully preserved Roman Theatre in Orange. The 9,000 spectators enjoy not only the incredible historic atmosphere of the ancient building but also, because it has retained the original stone stage wall, amazing natural acoustics. In 2016 the festival, which includes Puccini’s opera Madama Butterfly, runs from 9 July to 6 August (dress smartly).
Mid-September: Mulhouse Beer Festival
The city of Mulhouse in North East France holds an annual beer festival (Modial de la Bière Mulhouse) lasting three days and with a variety of events and shows. As well as drinking beer participants can watch beer contests, exhibitions on making beer and beer and cheese workshops. Check 2016 dates.
September: World Puppet Theatre Festival, Charleville-Mézières
Every two years the Festival Mondial des Théâtre de Marionnettes or World Puppet Theatre Festival is held in the town of Charleville-Mézières in the Champagne-Ardennes region of France. For 10 days, 250 troupes from around the world perform around 200 shows — main festival, fringe, street shows — to 150,000 spectators. You’ll find every sort of puppet from glove, through string marionettes and shadow puppets to the latest puppetry innovations. The next festival is on 2017.
Early Oct: The Grape Harvest Festival, Montmartre
Clos Montmartre vineyard, nestled in the hills of Montmartre, is a tiny relic of the once abundant vineyards that flourished all over this northern Parisian neighbourhood. But once a year, in early October, all of Montmartre celebrates the Fete des Vendanges de Montmartre — the Grape Harvest festival. Check for 2016 dates.
Mid-October: Autumn Festival of Lanvellec
The music festival of Lanvellec celebrates the magical music of Brittany. Taking place over some two weeks, the gentle sounds of the Dallam’s Organ, which was built in 1653, transport the listeners on a journey into the heart of traditional French music. The festival also sees a range of artists from around the world participate in what is a relaxed festival before the winter storms. Check for 2016 dates.
Late-October to early November: Le Salon du Chocolate, Paris
Chocolate lovers who visit Paris at the end of October can enjoy the delights of dozens of chocolatiers and see how chocolate is produced from the picking of the cocoa beans to the end product. Manufacturers from Italy, Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, Russia, Japan, Canada to name a few come and present their wares on more than 400 stands. A heavenly delight for children and sweet lovers of all ages. The next Salon du Chocolate is on from 28 October to 1 November, 2016, Porte de Versailles.
November to December: Lille Christmas Market
Get into the festive spirit with Lille's month-long Christmas Market. The Place Rihour is taken over by stalls selling arts and crafts. There's entertainment for children plus a Ferris wheel and traditional Christmas delicacies to try or take away. Visitors with children can have photos taken with Father Christmas, who attends the market and participates in a spectacular event on the Saturday before Christmas — when he ‘falls’ from the Chamber of Commerce's 80-metre-high Belfry. Check for 2016 dates.
Early December: Le Grand Tasting
The Louvre in Paris hosts Le Festival des Meilleurs Vins. This is a unique meeting of winemakers and lovers of wine. The wines presented are approved by Bettane and Desseauve before being accepted for the Grand Tasting. Check for 2016 dates.
Early December: Feast of St. Nicholas, Nancy
Each year, several countries in Europe celebrate the feast of Saint Nicholas in December. In Nancy, France, the festival is growing in popularity and has been transformed into a fairytale, taking you in to the legendary and magical world of Saint Nicholas. An equestrian parade, a craft market, exhibitions, theatrical performances and concerts are also on the agenda, not to mention a spectacular firework display. Check for 2016 dates.
December 5 to 8: The Festival of Lights, Lyon
France expresses gratitude towards Mary, mother of Jesus, on 8 December each year. This uniquely Lyonnaise tradition dictates that every house place candles along the outside of all the windows to produce a spectacular effect throughout the streets. With over four million tourists coming to Lyon for this event, La Fête des Lumières includes other activities based on light and usually lasts four days, with the peak of activity occurring on 8 December.
Photo credit: Mark Fischer (Nice Carnival, Bataille des Fleurs), GIRAUD Patrick via Wikimedia Commons (International Garden Festival), Clelie Mascaret (Festival Medieval de Sedan), Jean-Baptiste Bellet (Festival de Carcassonne), Irene (Bastille Day), G.Garitan via Wikimedia Commons (puppet festival), Christelle Paris (Salon du Chocolat).
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