In recent years, France has become a major center for public light and digital illumination shows. There’s a dazzling array of venues in major cities and smaller historical towns where the illuminations take place, including ancient and historical buildings, churches and cathedrals, public squares, caves, submarine stations, rivers, and converted factory buildings.
1. Fête des Lumières Lyon
The Fete des Lumieres Lyon (The Lyon Festival of Lights) is the biggest attraction of the year in the city of Lyon in mid-France with three to four million people attending annually. The history of Fete des Lumieres begins in 1643 when Lyon was spared by the plague. On December 8 that year, the city council organized a candlelight march through the city paying tribute to the Virgin Mary, who they believed helped save them. In 1852, it morphed into a full-fledged festival when a statue of Mary was erected next to the Basilica, which overlooked the city. Until this day, residents of Lyon light a candle or lamp in their windows to commemorate the special occasion.
Ever since 1989, Fete des Lumieres Lyon has become a 4-day international showcase for the advanced technology of digital illuminations and light shows with industry professionals from around the world attending so they can view the latest advancements. This translates into a sophisticated show of lights illuminated on buildings, squares, parks, and rivers all over the city.
Details for the 2021 edition of Fete des Lumieres have not yet been revealed, but the 2019 edition had 36 light installations including one at the Lyon airport.
If you plan on attending Fete des Lumieres, make your hotel or Airbnb reservations at least 3 months in advance. Also, plan to stay 2 or 3 days to take in all the other attractions of Lyon and the special events taking place for the festival.
2. Carrières des Lumières-Les Baux De Provence
Culturespaces was the first company to develop the popular digital art shows that are now throughout France and their debut space, Carrières des Lumières, is in Les Baux De Provence, an ancient village in the Alpilles mountains in the Provence region of France.
The site of Carrieres des Lumieres, started in 2012, was originally a limestone quarry from the 1800s with stone deposits dating back to 2,000 BC. The sprawling space covers an area of over 75,000 square feet and enormous ceiling heights that enhance the viewing pleasure.
Currently, there are two outstanding shows. Cezanne, the Master of Provence, projects images of one of France’s most beloved and prolific artists, Paul Cezanne, during the Impressionists period from the mid to late 1800s. Images include Cezanne’s Provence landscapes, still lifes of fruit and food, and historical scenes and celebrated works such as The Great Bathers and The Card Players.
A shorter program, Wassily Kandinsky, the Odyssey of Abstraction, focuses on the bold and bright abstract and figurative images of Wassily Kandinsky, a Russian-born painter who was based in France in the early to mid-1900s.
Visit the nearby Saint Paul Asylum and chapel where Van Gogh convalesced after his nervous breakdown and where he painted some of his most iconic works including the wheat fields. Just down the road is the Les Antiques de Glanum, a site with well preserved, architectural artifacts from the Roman city of Glanum from 200 BC.
3. Chartres En Lumières
One of the first digital art projects in France, Chartres En Lumieres began in 2003. Chartres, a small city an hour from Paris near the Loire Valley, is famous for Our Lady of Chartres Cathedral, a masterpiece of gothic architecture, which dates from the 13th century and is the centerpiece of the city. The already magnificent cathedral is illuminated in a rapidly moving rainbow of colors along with 23 other sites and monuments scattered around the city including public plazas, historical buildings, bridges, squares, and other churches. You can download an app that contains a map of the sites and their history. The city has installed a series of small lights in the ground to mark the path for you to easily follow. The route of the 23 sites is approximately 3 miles in length, and if you don’t want to walk that much, there’s a mini train that travels the route, leaving from the plaza in front of Chartres Cathedral.
The Chartres tourist office offers 90-minute guided tours of Chartres En Lumieres, which costs 15€ ($17.59). The 2021 edition of Chartres En Lumieres runs till December 31 and starts approximately 30 minutes after sunset.
It’s best to plan an overnight stay in Chartres to view the illumination show if you go between April and October because it doesn’t start until about 9:30 p.m. and by then, the trains back to Paris are no longer running.
There are lots of other marvelous things to see in Chartres including a visit to Maison Picassiette, an early 20th century arts and crafts cottage containing 15 tons of found objects including glass, ceramics, glass bottles, and tin bottle caps used to make an incredible collection of mosaics embedded on the walls of the house and garden area.
4. Ateliers des Lumières
In 2018, Ateliers des Lumieres was the first digital arts center to open in Paris. Located in the 11th district in eastern Paris, the site was originally an iron factory from 1853 and was transformed to a state-of-the-art site for digital art with 120 video projectors and 50 Nexo speakers spread out in a massive 33,000 square foot area. The first show launched in 2018 and projected a dazzling display of over 3,000 images of paintings from the most famous Viennese artists of the 19th century, including Gustave Klimt and Egon Von Schiele. The show was a smash hit, with over 200,000 visitors attending throughout the year. In addition to the constantly moving light show projected on the walls, ceilings, and floors, there was an eclectic soundtrack of pop, jazz, and classical music with everything from Wagner to Strauss to Philip Glass. A succession of new shows followed in 2019 and 2020 with new themes including artists such as Van Gogh, Renoir, Degas, and Chagall. The current exhibitions, launched in 2021, feature Salvador Dali and Spanish architect Antoni Gaudi, and are on until January 2, 2022.
There are several excellent restaurants and cafes on the rue Saint Maur where Atelier des Lumieres is located, including a fantastic pizza restaurant, Oxymore, which offers a three-course menu at lunchtime, Monday to Friday, for only 15€ (around $18) per person.
5. Bassin des Lumières
In a follow-up to the super successful Ateliers des Lumieres in Paris, Culturespaces, the leading company for digital entertainment in France, upped the ante with a new mega space in the city of Bordeaux. Opened in 2020, Bassins du Lumieres is a former submarine base with four water basins. The enormous space contains close to 14,000 square feet of projection surfaces, making it the largest digital theater in the world, five times the size of Ateliers des Lumieres in Paris.
Presentations are divided into six areas including a space for projecting images on the water. These spaces include a mezzanine floor, a stage and seating area, a museum area, an educational room, the Cube — a more intimate area that’s insulated and soundproofed with a surface area of 2,300 square feet and ceilings measuring 26 feet high projecting contemporary art images — and The Citerne — which links the museum with original works.
The current show is Monet, Renoir, and Chagall: Journeys Around the Mediterranean, commemorating the inspiration the Mediterranean has been for so many 19th century artists along with the musical collaboration of Luca Longobardi, an Italian composer and musician. There’s an additional short program, by French artist Yves Klein. In the evenings at Bassins du Lumieres, there’s another projection show, Gustav Klimt’s Gold and Colour, which illuminates a potpourri of portraits, landscapes, nudes, and gildings of Gustav Klimt, plus another shorter show of Swiss artist Paul Klee.
6. Rendez-Vous Place Stanislas-Nancy
Nancy, a city in the Lorraine region in Eastern France, is best known as the birthplace of the Art Nouveau architecture, design, and art movement from about 1890 to 1910. It’s also home to Place Stanislas, a stunning historic square erected in 1755 and inaugurated by Stanislaw Leszczynski, the last duke of Lorraine. Place Stanislas is frequently recognized as one of the most beautiful squares in Europe and has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1983. Other noted historical structures extend from the square including Place de la Carriere, the Palais du Gouvernement, Place de Alliance, and the Triumphal Arch, which make it an unmissable destination.
Rendez-vous Place Stanislas is an annual light show emblazoned on the buildings of Place Stanislas, which tells the story of Lorraine’s history and heritage. Every year a part of the show is updated. There are several outdoor cafes and restaurants lining the square and you can enjoy dinner or relax with a drink while watching the show.