Are you ready for the best times of the year in France? Let’s jump right into the carnival culture of France!

What Is Carnival In France?

In France, Carnival is a great feast where people eat and enjoy themselves before entering a period of deprivation. We kept the best of carnival: the feast, and we took away the worst: Lent.

Carnival is celebrated in various ways. It was once a symbolic feast during which slaves could become kings, and children could become adults for a day. It was a day when anything was possible. Today, we have kept the tradition of dressing up as someone we are not at the time: a superhero, a prince or princess, and so on.

It is a very festive, colourful and joyful party. It is common during the carnival period to eat doughnuts or “bugnes” (there are several names depending on the region). These are lozenge-shaped pastries made with flour, milk, eggs, and butter and sprinkled with sugar.

Mardi-Gras In France: Origins And Traditions

Mardi Gras and carnival are terms used to describe the consumption of richer, fatty foods prior to the ritual fasting of Lent. This festive season in France is marked by sumptuous public celebrations or parades (‘les carnavals’) in many French towns and schools. Let’s take a closer look at the Mardi-Gras celebrations in France. 

The Origins Of Mardi Gras In France

Carnival began as a Catholic holiday. It is observed just before the start of Lent. Lent is a forty-day fast (= voluntary abstinence from all food). During the Lenten season, one will no longer be able to eat whatever they want, including fat and sugar. This is why it is known as Mardi Gras.

This is reflected in the word “carnival” itself. The term “carnival” actually derives from the mediaeval Latin “carne levare,” which means “to remove the meat.” Meat refers to fatty food.

Mardi-Gras (literally “Fat Tuesday”) began as a Catholic celebration to mark the end of a particular week: “week of the seven fat days.”

In the past, they were known as “jours charnels” (carnivals).

People celebrated in various ways before Ash Wednesday (the start of the Lent fasting period) because it was their last chance to eat meat until Easter. 

The Origins Of Carnival

The term “carnival” comes from the Latin “carnelevare,” which means “to take out the meat.”

Indeed, meat was banned from the table for the entire duration of Lent. Sugar, fat-containing ingredients, eggs, and dairy products were also prohibited.

While a relatively small group of people follows the religious observance of Lent in Europe, the celebrations surrounding Mardi Gras are still an opportunity for many to enjoy several features:

  • outdoor feasts,
  • masquerade processions,
  • masked balls,
  • parades

Among those who participate are pageants, jugglers, magicians, and stilt walkers.

This is known as “le Carnaval” in France.

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Mardi Gras In France Is Also About Food

Mardi Gras is a time to prepare delicious treats, which is great news for kids (and adults alike!).

On Mardi Gras, in addition to crêpes, two other closely related treats are prepared:

  • waffles
  • beignets (in some regions, they are called bugnes).

Beignet recipes and variations abound in Alsace, including Schenkele and Fasenachtskiechle.

Carnival Vocabulary:

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Carnival Related

  • A mask – Un masque
  • A cotton candy – Une barbe à papa
  • A marqué – Un chapiteau
  • A balloon – Un ballon
  • A parade – Une parade
  • A carousel – Un carrousel
  • A float – Un flotteur

 Costume Related

  • A clown – Un clown
  • A cowboy – Un cow-boy
  • A fairy – Une fée
  • A witch – Une sorcière
  • A Princess – Une princesse
  • A pirate – Un pirate
  • A magician – Un magicien
  • A harlequin – Un arlequin

 Adjectives

  • Elegant – élégant
  • Ugly – Moche
  • Pretty – Jolie
  • Funny – Drôle
  • Fear – craindre
  • Scary – angoissante
  • Coloured – colorée
  • Brilliant – géniale
  • Property – propriété
  • Chic – élégante
  • expensive – coûteuse
  • Comfortable – à l’aise

The Carnivals In France

The “Carnaval” is not unique to France. However, the world’s most famous carnivals are in:

  • Venice (Italy),
  • New Orleans (Louisiana), 
  • Rio de Janeiro (Brazil), and
  • Nice (France)!

Many children in France prepare one of the dishes mentioned above in their schools, all dressed up in imaginative costumes ranging from animals to supermen and from Pierrots to princesses.

However, French children are not always the only ones who dress up in their favourite costumes. Large parades in cities such as Nice, Mulhouse, Paris, Dunkirk, and Annecy provide opportunities to go out disguised with make-up, fancy hats, and elaborate masks. And to throw confetti while dancing and singing in the streets. Now, let us go through the most popular carnivals in France!

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The Carnival Of Dunkirk

Although the northern city of Dunkirk is not a popular tourist destination in France, it celebrates the Mardi-Gras season with zeal, noise, and colour.

The Carnival Of Paris

Before WWII, the Paris Carnival was one of the largest in France. An organisation wishes to resurrect it, and it’s a huge success!

The Carnival Of Mulhouse

Mulhouse’s carnival is a boisterous and colourful celebration of Rhineland traditions.

The Carnival Of Sélestat

In 2021, the Sélestat Carnival celebrated its 30th anniversary. It is one of the most well-known carnivals in northeastern France, with a night parade and a day parade, also several other exciting events.

The Carnival Of Nantes

The Carnaval de Nantes is a centuries-old carnival that dates back to the Middle Ages. Apart from Nice, it has become one of France’s most popular carnivals.

The Carnival Of Annecy

One of my favourite French carnivals! Hundreds of masks wander silently and spontaneously through Annecy’s old town during the Venetian Carnival. Exactly like in Venice!

The Carnival Of Nice

The Carnaval de Nice is France’s largest carnival and, along with Rio de Janeiro, New Orleans, and Venice, one of the world’s most popular events. The 14-day celebrations include a day and night parade and a Flower parade.

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The Carnival Of Menton

The Lemon Festival (Fête du Citron) is one of France’s most colourful carnivals, held each February in the small town of Menton. Menton celebrates the end of winter by using bright yellow colours, stunning citrus patterns, and a fruity parade!

Mardi Gras In France Doesn’t Mean The Same Thing In OZ

Interestingly, Mardi-Gras in France and Europe has a slightly different connotation and history than the Sydney Mardi-Gras parade. Unlike Mardi Gras in Sydney, most carnivals in France (and Europe) do not celebrate gay pride. These events are scheduled in cities such as Paris and Berlin.

What Is The Best Carnival In France?

The Nice Carnival is the largest in France and one of the most famous in the world. It is one of the most popular events on the French Riviera, attracting thousands of spectators annually during February.

Nice Carnival Introduction & History

The Nice Carnival, along with the Brazilian Carnival, the Venetian Carnival, and Mardi Gras in New Orleans, are one of the world’s major carnival events. It is held in Nice, on the French Riviera, every year in February and sometimes early March (depending on the movable date of the carnival in the Christian calendar).

The first records of its existence date back to 1294, when the Count of Provence, Charles Anjou, wrote that he had spent “the joyous days of carnival.” This may establish the Nice Carnival as the first carnival celebration.

A committee for the carnival was formed in 1873, led by local artist Alexis Mossa, with later contributions from his son Gustav-Adolf Mossa. The carnival was reimagined as a parade with masquerades, satirical floats, and competitions.

Every year, over a million people visit Nice during the two-week event.

Every year, a different theme is chosen, and artists create 18 floats and other figurines in traditional papier-mâché for the vibrant parade. The parades occur both day and night, and “flower battles” occur on the Promenade des Anglais.

In preparation for the carnival, the memorial to the 2016 Nice truck attack was demolished in 2017. The route was also changed from the Promenade des Anglais to the Promenade du Paillo.

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Nice Carnival Details

The main annual winter event on the Riviera is one of the world’s largest carnivals (Carnaval in French), lasting more than two weeks and demonstrating that no one can throw a stylish party quite like the French.

Escape the winter doldrums by attending the famous Nice Carnival, featuring colourful parades, entertainment from over 1,000 musicians and dancers worldwide, and spectacular flower displays.

These huge, colourful parades take place day and night, with dazzling colours, street theatre and music groups from all over the world, and huge paper mache models towering over the crowds; this is a world-class carnival. The vibrant carnival atmosphere means the city is humming to the rhythm as over a million people arrive to enjoy the magic, forget the long winter days, and soak up the sun on the French Riviera. The illuminated floats – the Corso Illuminé – and evening parades light up the heart of Nice (Tuesday and Saturday nights) and are always spectacular.

The elegant “flower battles” on the Promenade des Anglais are a highlight of the carnival not to be missed. Exquisitely dressed characters on floats decorated with the most stunning floral compositions throw sweet-smelling mimosas, gerberas, roses, and lilies to the enthusiastic crowd – the battle is to catch the flowers. The first Flower Parade was held in 1876 and has grown in popularity year after year. Today, 90% of the flowers used in the parade are grown locally. The sight of these magnificent floats along the promenade between the Théâtre de Verdure and the Hotel Negresco is simply unforgettable.

Each carnival represents a one-time-only production. Being a Carnavalier is a hobby or a vocation, not a profession. For several months, the large workshop where these artisans work, known as the “Maison du Carnaval,” is transformed into a magical setting. The results will astound you.

This event is unique worldwide, elevating the Nice Carnival to the ranks of the world’s best carnivals. Streets throng with swarms of people spraying “silly string” and throwing confetti, crowds battling to catch flowers and present them to loved ones, street food vendors tempting you with delicious smells – it’s a happy time with a capital H!

A nice carnival will bring out the reveller in you with its exotic, exciting, and intoxicating atmosphere!

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Kings And Themed Parades At The Nice Carnival

The Nice Carnival is one of the many old festivals in the world, dating back to 1294 when the Count of Provence celebrated “the joyous days of carnival.” The carnival initially resembled a large unorganised street party with no parade in sight. However, the King and Queen of Sardinia (Charles-Félix and Marie-Christine) visited Nice in 1830, and the city council organised the first carnival parade in their honour. As prominent Niçois ladies and gentlemen dressed in elegant costumes filed past in decorated carriages, the royal couple sat on their palace balcony and waved.

That parade was so successful that in subsequent years when the king was not present, the Niçois made themselves a king out of straw and old clothes. They placed him on the palace balcony, where he watched the passing revelry with approval. Then, in 1882, it was decided that this dummy king should participate in the procession.

This marked the beginning of the modern carnival parade in Nice, which is always presided over by a massive, kingly figure. His arrival on the royal float marks the start of the festivities. A new king arrives each year to set the tone for the event. In 2014, the event will introduce His Majesty, King of Gastronomy, so all the floats will be related to food. Unfortunately for His Majesty, his reign is short-lived, and on the last night of the carnival, he is thrown into the sea on a small boat and burned while carnival goers celebrate with fireworks.

His Majesty’s reign in Nice is brief, but he has a busy schedule. Every day and evening for more than two weeks, there are parades. Along the carnival route, the Nice Carnival King directs the procession of decorated floats interspersed with marching bands and costumed characters. The king’s helpers (the people on the floats) throw confetti and candy into the crowd, and they are attacked by children wielding silly string cans.

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Confetti And Silly String At The Nice Carnival

Silly string, that aerosol spray that sends out foamy streamers that stick to everything but are easy to remove, is one thing you can’t avoid at the carnival. It can be irritating, but it is a modernised and improved version of a long-standing tradition. People threw sugar-coated seeds, plaster confetti, egg shells filled with soot or flour, rotten eggs, fruit and vegetables at each other in the earliest carnivals. Those with a view of the parade route stocked up on “munition” and bombarded those in the streets below.

The masks and costumes worn during the carnival were designed to conceal your identity and protect your face and clothing from all flying objects. For added protection, some masks were even made of iron. Throwing eggs, vegetables, and plaster have thankfully fallen out of favour in our day, leaving us with harmless paper confetti and silly string and largely mask-free.

Flower Battles At The Nice Carnival

While those early rowdy, egg-throwing brawls raged in Nice’s Old Town, another genteel battle erupted on the Promenade des Anglais. The first “Bataille des fleurs” (flower battle) occurred in 1876. It was a beautiful parade of flower-covered carriages reserved for the elite who didn’t like being pelted with eggs and vegetables. Queen Victoria is said to have taken part, throwing flowers at young soldiers. It was more of a show with polite flower exchanges than a battle.

The modern flower battle is still held independently of the carnival parade. A parade of flower-covered floats parades down the Promenade des Anglais, showcasing the variety of flowers grown in this region. Each float is manned by beautifully dressed ladies who shower the onlookers with colourful blossoms. We don’t normally throw things back at them anymore, but a child occasionally attacks them with a can of silly string.

Even though the Nice Carnival has evolved, three essential historical ingredients remain: a king to preside over the parade, good-natured battles, and an abundance of blooming flowers.

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Facts And Figures Of The Nice Carnival:

  • 30-35M Euros: the money in euros of tourism brought in because of the Nice Carnival
  • 1-1.5M visitors (Nice gets about 5 million visitors total/year, so you can notice how big the carnival is)
  • 5,000-8,000 fresh flowers are thrown out during the Flower Parade/Flower Battle, also known as Bataille de Fleurs
  • 20,000 kg of confetti thrown
  • 12x3m is the size of the giant heads/Kings
  • 4,000: Number of hours of work gone into organising it (over six months)
  • 724: Number of years it has been running
  • 1000 dancers/performers
  • 300 members of the press (from 19 countries)
  • 120 police and gendarmes
  • 200 private agents
  • 60 troupes
  • 36 secured entrances
  • 50 security/surveillance cameras
  • 15-20 floats and giant papier-mâché heads or “Kings.”
  • 15 countries represented

6 Tips For Seeing The Nice Carnival In France

  • Part I: Corso Carnavalesque (Day Carnival Parade)
  • Part II: Corso Carnavalesque Illuminé (Night Light Parade)

Go – How To Get Around Nice

Nice (pronounced Neece) is a city on France’s southern coast. It is located in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur (PACA) region and the department of Alpes-Maritimes. It is France’s fifth most populous city.

Getting To Nice By Car

It is relatively simple to travel to Nice by car. It will be difficult to find parking. Check to see if your hotel has parking; if not, ask where you can park your car and how much it costs. ParcAzur is a parking lot chain. You can park for free if you pay for a round trip on the tram.

Getting To Nice By Taxi

I assume you’ll arrive at Nice Airport or a major train station. Taxis are plentiful and simple to hail.

Getting To Nice By Bus

I took the bus to Nice after arriving by plane (when I arrived by train, I just walked it or took the tram). Aero tickets are required for the airport express buses 98 and 99, which cost €6 one way.

Getting Around Nice

It’s very easy to get around once you’re in the city. However, if you have luggage, young children, or the elderly with you, the tram is very convenient (which is why I recommend booking your accommodation near the tram line). Trams run every 5 to 10 min between 4.30 am and 11.30 pm every day, with tickets costing €1.50 each, day passes costing €5.00, ten tickets costing €10.00, and a seven-day pass costing €15.00.

The ticket machines only accept coins or chipped credit cards.

When Should We Visit The Nice Carnival?

The Nice Carnival takes place every year on the second or third Saturday in February and lasts two weeks.

Daytime temperatures in February range from 12 to 16 degrees Celsius (53 to 61 degrees Fahrenheit), so it’s not as warm as you might think, but it’s very sunny, so you forget how cold it is.

  • The Flower Parade runs Wednesday and Saturday afternoons
  • The Main Parade (Day) runs once only on the Sunday halfway through the festival
  • The Parade of Lights (night) runs Tuesday and Saturday evenings

The Main Parade and the Parade of Lights are the same, so seeing both is pointless. It simply depends on whether you prefer daytime or nighttime. On the other hand, tickets for the Main Parade are much more difficult to obtain because they only occur once. The Flower Parade, on the other hand, is something entirely different.

On Mondays, Thursdays, and Fridays, there are no events. You could spend these days sightseeing in Nice or attending the Lemon Festival in Menton. The Roi (King) is incinerated on the final night of the Parade of Lights.

How Much Would It Cost You To Go To The Nice Carnival?

I thought the ticket prices were very reasonable for such a grand spectacle. And if you want to go to the Nice Carnival but can’t afford it, you can even see it for free (standing zone only)! However, there is one small catch: you must arrive dressed in costume! To do this, you must come dressed in full costume from head to toe. A simple wig or hat will not suffice.

Bataille de Fleurs (Flower Parade)

  • Promenoirs (Standing) Zone B: Adults/Older Children: 12,00 €, Children 6-10 years: 5,00 €, Children Under 5: Free
  • Stand (Sitting): Adults/Older Children: 26,00 €, Children 6-10 years: 10,00 €, Children Under 5: Free

Corso Carnavalesque (Carnival Parade)

  • Promenoirs (Standing) Zone A: Adults/Older Children: 12,00 €, Children 6-10 years: 5,00 €, Children Under 5: Free
  • Promenoirs (Standing) Zone B: Adults/Older Children: 5,00 €, Children Under 11: Free
  • Stand (Sitting): Adults/Older Children: 21,00 €, Children 6-10 years: 10,00 €, Children Under 5: Free

Carnival Parade Of Lights

  • Same as above except the Sitting Adults/Older Children seats are 26,00€.
  • Special Deal: Combined adult tickets for the Flower Parade and the Main Parade (Day only) is 40,00€. (Saturdays not included).

How To Get The Best Seats For The Nice Carnivcal

Purchase your tickets as soon as possible. If you buy Stand (sitting) tickets (Zone A), I recommend the Phocéens area and the front row for the best view of the floats coming and going. Also, if you’re watching the day parade from this side, you won’t have the sun in your eyes.

Get there early, whether you have standing or sitting tickets! Security checks take a long time (well, getting through the queue takes a long time, the check itself is quick), and if you arrive early, you’ll have the opportunity to get up close and personal with the floats and performers before they begin, which is awesome!

How Long Should We Spend At The Nice Carnival?

If you want to see the carnival and Nice itself, I recommend at least two days. However, if you have more time (3-5 days), you could also go nearby:

  • Menton for the Fête du Citron (Lemon Festival)
  • Villefranche-sur-mer for the Combat naval fleuri (Naval Flower Battles)
  • Mandelieu La Napoule for the Fête du Mimosa (Mimosa (Wattle) Festival).

Photo Tips

Because Nice can get crowded (especially during the carnival), the best advice I can give is to get up early and shoot in the morning. Shooting at the carnival is easier if you arrive as early as possible. Also, book early to get the best seats and the best photos!

Shop

For the best souvenirs, go to the market area around Cours Saleya in the old town (Vieille Ville). You’ll also find the fruit and veg market and the flower market here. It is paradise!

Final Words

This article explains that the carnival is a time to let loose. During this time, people of all ages drink a lot. It makes no difference what time of day it is. I’ve seen groups of people over 60 years old and completely drunk on the streets dressed as clowns at 10 am. The best carnival France has to offer is the Nice Carnival. Nice Carnival has been held for over 140 years and is one of the world’s largest. This winter event draws up to a million tourists to the Cote d’Azur, costs 7 million euros, and uses 20 tonnes of confetti.