From history to fantasy, and everything in between, there are plenty of French festivals to help you experience the country’s vibrant culture.
Whether you call France home or are just visiting, going to festivals is a great way to immerse yourself in French culture. Luckily, there are plenty of spectacular French festivals to choose from throughout the year. These celebrate everything from kites and lemons to dragons and opera. So if you’re looking for a fun culture fix, mark your diaries for these epic events.
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1. Berck Sur Mer Kite Festival
Giant pigs actually might fly at the Berck-Sur-Mer International Kite Festival. For over two decades, more than half a million spectators have come to watch the spectacular display of kites fly over the seaside town of Berck-Sur-Mer. Taking place every March or April, the festival sees giant dragons, whales, octopuses, and various cartoon characters take to the skies over the sandy beach. The festival also plays host to the International Kite Championships of the World every two years. During this time, experts from all over the world compete against the wind – and each other.
There is plenty of room up on the sand dunes to get a good view of the spectacle. There are also plenty of activities and entertainment to keep children of ages happy. They can learn how to make and fly kites or shop for their very own kite among the many stalls. Make sure to stick around for the last evening of the festival. This is when a night-time flying display and fireworks show brings the majestic event to a close.
2. Menton Lemon Festival
Held over two weeks in February, the Fête du Citron (Lemon Festival) celebrates all things citrus in the city of Menton. More than 200,000 visitors come to marvel at the colorful floats and sculptures created from lemons and oranges. During the daytime, parades of fruit-covered floats make their way through the streets as wind musicians, acrobats, and drummers entertain the crowds. And come nightfall, 10-meter-high whimsical statues and models made from citrus fill the picturesque Biovès Gardens.
More than 300 professionals come together to create the displays which are made from 145 tons of citrus. The quirky festival celebrates Menton’s annual production of specialty lemons and other citrus fruit. Therefore, you will find various jams, soaps, and perfumes on sale at the Crafts Fair; all made from local lemons and oranges, of course. You can treat yourself to a glass of delicious fresh lemonade or even buy your own lemon tree. Needless to say, the air smells incredible during this zesty event.
3. Cannes Film Festival
Film buffs will no doubt want to head to the world’s most famous movie festival, the Cannes Film Festival. The red-carpet event was created by a French Minister of Education and Fine Arts. He wanted to establish an international cultural event in France to rival the Venice Film Festival. And it’s safe to say, he succeeded. More than 30,000 professionals from all over the world attend the annual festival.
This includes numerous actors and directors who come to showcase their newest releases. They also hope to compete for the prestigious Palme d’Or (Golden Palm) award. The festival is as much a social event as it is a professional one. So while most screenings are invitation-only, there are still plenty of opportunities to spot your favorite A-list celebrities. A huge open-air cinema, the Cinéma de la Plage, also screens Cannes classics on the beach. You can buy tickets from the Cannes Tourist office.
4. Nice Carnival
Taking place every February, the famous Nice Carnival is one of the largest carnivals in the world; alongside those in Brazil, Venice, and Mardi Gras in New Orleans. It is also the most important event on the French Riviera. Over a million people from all over take to the street of Nice during the day and night. They come to marvel at the flamboyant floats, colorful costumes, and stunning parades; all the while soaking up the buzzing Carnival atmosphere. More than 1,000 dancers and musicians from around the world perform at the magnificent carnival.
Each year, a special theme is chosen, and artists create a series of floats and other figurines in papier-mâché for the colorful parade. Come nightfall, the floats are illuminated for the enchanting Parade of Lights. A vibrant Flower Parade also takes place each year. This is when extravagantly dressed characters throw 100,000 flowers into the crowd along the Promenade des Anglais. Clouds of confetti and silly string also fill the air in the excitement.
5. Festival Medieval de Sedan
For an unforgettable slice of Medieval France, head to the Sedan Medieval Festival in May. Held at the largest medieval castle in Europe, the Château de Sedan, the festival brings the spirit of the Middle Ages alive. Thrilling jousting tournaments, overflowing banquets, and atmospheric parades take place around the castle grounds. Around 15,000 people come to explore the castle. Spread over seven floors across 35 square meters, there is certainly plenty to spark the imagination. Just be prepared to climb a lot of stairs!
Meanwhile, in the castle grounds and on the city streets, guests can enjoy a wide variety of entertainment. This includes a glorious procession of knights, nail-biting sword fights and wrestling matches, falconry shows, and flag-throwing competitions. Visitors can also browse hundreds of stalls at the sprawling medieval market and pick up all sorts of hand-made souvenirs. Some of the festival highlights include a parade by torchlight across the castle grounds and a dragon-sleighing performance with real fire-breathing. With so much entertainment on offer, this is definitely one of the most popular French festivals among families.
6. Bastille Day
Celebrated nationwide on July 14, Bastille Day is the biggest and most important festival in the French calendar. It commemorates the day that Parisian commoners and peasants stormed the fortress and prison of Bastille. This provoked events that would end the monarchy and usher in the age of liberty, fraternity, and equality. Celebrations are held all over France, including large-scale public events and parties.
The best place to be, however, is in Paris. Here, celebrations start on the night of 13 July when many fire stations throw all-night parties. On Bastille Day itself, a huge parade and various free concerts take place around the city. Come nightfall, some of the best fireworks you will ever see light up the sky over the Eiffel Tower. For the best atmosphere and view of the display, go early to the Trocadéro gardens, the Parc de Belleville, or the Champ de Mars. For a bird’s eye view, the Sacré Cœur or Montparnasse Tower are unbeatable.
7. La Fête de la Musique
There’s music in the air throughout France on June 21, the day of the summer solstice. This is when La Fête de la Musique (Music Day) takes part, celebrating the diversity and scope of musical practices in all its different genres. The first all-day musical celebration was first held in Paris in 1982 but later became celebrated in 120 countries around the world. During the festival, thousands of musicians gather in the streets, bars, and cafés giving free public performances. They play everything from rock and jazz to hip-hop and electronic music.
Meanwhile, citizens are allowed and even urged to play music outside in their neighborhoods or in public spaces and parks. The festival aims to make music accessible to the public and familiarize young and old from all social backgrounds with all musical expressions. Those who can play an instrument or sing are also encouraged to get involved. So if you happen to have a saxophone or guitar lying around, you’re more than welcome.
8. Festival d’Avignon
Another fantastic French festival not to miss is the Festival d’Avignon. The annual theater festival is held in July in the courtyard of the Palais des Papes in Avignon. During this time, Avignon transforms its architectural heritage into various majestic performance venues. Tens of thousands of theater-lovers of all ages come to enjoy theatre, dance, visual arts, and live music. The town also becomes an open-air forum where festival-goers can talk about the shows and share their experiences.
Every evening, there is at least one show première, making Avignon the place to be artists and spectators alike. Alongside the official festival, which is referred to as the “In” one, a number of shows are presented in Avignon at the same time; known as the “Off”. These are organized by a non-profit organization composed mostly of theatre companies. The performances take place in theaters schools, on the streets, and in other suitable venues. Needless to say, if you love theater, this is one French festival not to miss.
9. Chorégies d’Orange
Dating back to 1869, the Chorégies d’Orange is the oldest festival in France and the place to be if you love opera and classical music. It takes place every August in a beautifully preserved Roman Theatre in Orange. Almost 9,000 spectators come to lap up the incredible historic atmosphere of the ancient theater. They also get to enjoy the exceptional natural acoustics, created by the theater’s original stone stage wall.
With its semi-circular tiered stone seating, the Roman theater is undoubtedly one of the best settings in the world in which to enjoy al fresco opera. Every year, the festival puts on a program of well- and lesser-known productions starring international opera stars. All the major players of the French classical stage have appeared in the Orange festivals over the years. But even if you’re not a huge opera fan, it’s an experience not to be missed.
10. Festival of Lights, Lyon
For four days in December, the city of Lyon comes aglow during the Festival of Lights, which pays homage to the Virgin Mary. Thousands of flickering candles can be seen in windows and on balconies, creating a beautiful and magical atmosphere. Meanwhile, the city’s buildings and bridges come aglow with multi-colored lights. Various light installations created by artists from all over the world also help to light up Lyon.
Other activities based on light usually take place over the four days, too. The highlight of the festival, however, is the lighting up of the Basilica of Fourvière in different colors. The evening light show at the Place des Terreaux is also not to be missed. If you decide to visit, just be prepared for crowds, as it is said that up to four million people attend over the four days.