Before everything else, there was the sea, and the Mediterranean climate – the two most important factors that made Nice a tourist magnet as early as the 1700s. Look around and you’ll find the same elemental attractions that drew Europe’s belle-époque aristocrats to promenade along the waterfront in horse-drawn carriages. Even now, nothing compares to the simple joy of a balmy beach day interspersed with a spot of people-watching astride the Promenade des Anglais’ famous blue chairs. Whether you’re skating, kayaking, swimming, sprawled on a beach lounger or transfixed by sunset over the ever-present Med, it’s all still happening by the water.
For any lover of French and Italian culture, Nice is the perfect hybrid. Long affiliated with Piedmont and Liguria to the east, Savoy to the north and Sardinia to the south, this city only joined France in 1860 and has always kept one foot in Italy. The Italian influence remains palpable everywhere, in Vieille Ville’s tall-shuttered, ochre-hued buildings that look airlifted straight in from Portofino, in the fresh pasta shops on every corner and even in the football cheer Issa Nissa! (Go Nice!), shouted in the local Nissart dialect that’s been coloured by Ligurian Italian as much as Occitan French.
The Côte d’Azur has ensnared many a visitor with the beauty of its light. Not least Henri Matisse, who came here to convalesce from bronchitis. When the sun finally emerged after a month of wintry drizzle, Matisse was so smitten that he made Nice his home for the next 37 years. Chagall, Picasso and Renoir also fell in love with this place, and Nice was later home to the influential avant-garde École de Nice. Art museums abound throughout the region, but Nice’s three superstars – the Musées Matisse, Chagall and d’Art Moderne – are reason enough to justify an aesthetic pilgrimage here.
Also bring your appetite when you come to Nice. This city is meant for epicures. It all starts at Vieux Nice’s Course Saleya market, where small producers from the Alpine foothills bring in a bounty of fresh produce, and top chefs from surrounding restaurants shop right beside tourists. The city celebrates its uniqueness with street snacks like socca (chickpea pancakes), pissaladière (caramelised onion tart) or tourte de blettes (chard, raisin and pine nut pie), while its countless cosy bistros serve everything from hearty Provençal beef stew to true salade niçoise to pasta with pistou, and from fresh lemon tart to vegan cheesecake.
But you don’t come here for food and walking around the beach, do you?
What to actually enjoy in Nice?
Stroll the length of the Promenade du Paillon gardens, where you will traverse 5 continents of botanical bliss within a leisurely 20 minute walk, finishing on the seaside. Between the fountains, statues, and people-watching, you’ll spy carefully chosen planet-wide plant-life, all neatly grouped in a logical fashion and with small interpretive panels. And a free audioguide is even available if you have a Q-reader on your phone.
Continue down the Promenade des Anglais, and right next to the iconic Hotel Negresco, discover the sumptuous gardens surrounding the magnificent belle epoch villa that is now the Musee Massena. The elegant gardens were designed by renowned French botanist Edouard Andre. Closed on Tuesdays; the gardens are free, museum interior is not.
Continue a little further along the Pron, turning inland at Boulevard de Fabron and follow it until you see the sumptuous pink Chateau Sainte Helene (now the Museum of Naive Art). This villa was built for the Coty perfume founder Francois Coty, and as such, the vast surrounding gardens were designed with an eye to, or actually, nose to, the delicate perfumes of the flora. With plants and trees imported from as far away as Australia, he carefully curated his garden to blend the rarest scents. To get there, take bus 9 or 10 getting off at the Fabron Musee d’Art Naif stop. From here walk up Boulevard de Fabron for 10 minutes until you see the rose-colored villa. As before, it’s closed on Tuesdays, gardens are free, museum is not.
Up on Cimiez, you can visit the stately flower-filled gardens behind the Franciscan Monastery, that after 500 years, are still lovingly tended by monks. The gardens are surrounded by panoramic views, and just steps from a monk museum, a 500-year-old olive grove, the Matisse Museum and the Roman Ruins. It’s completely free.
While up on Cimiez, check out the gardens surrounding the Marc Chagall Museum, which were actually designed by…surprisingly Marc Chagall! Small, but worth a look. Closed on Tuesdays; the gardens are free, but the museum is not (except the first Sunday of each month).
Just 15 minutes up the coast from Nice, the magnificent manicured gardens on the immense Villa Rothschild estate in Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat will transport you to another era with the ancient statuary, hidden gazebos, dancing fountains, not to mention the historic villa. The estate is covered with 9 immaculately cared for themed gardens including French, Florentine, Japanese, Spanish, and Exotic styles. Admission charge.
The Nice Castle Hill used to be a fortress, but is now a wonderfully peaceful forested oasis peppered with ancient ruins and stunning views. Walk around the site and you will discover quiet trails, an impressive waterfall, and a stunningly beautiful cemetery around the back. To get up to the Chateau, you can walk up from Old Nice or Place Garibaldi, or just take the free elevator up, which can be found just across from the seaside; look for the neon “Ascenseur de la Chateau” sign. It’s also free.
Parc Phoenix in Nice is an enormous lush indoor botanical garden filled with exotic orchids, wild palms, diverse habitats, and surprising species of all sorts (plant and non-plant). Their botanical audioguide e-beacon is in the form of a free app which you can
download onto your smartphone in the free wifi zone at the entrance, and then it automatically alerts you as you approach notable flora or exotic fauna. Located at 405 Promenade des Anglais, near the airport, 3€ for adults, free for children under 12, and your ticket includes admission to the nearby Museum of Asian Art.
Nice has a vast and little-known Botanical Garden, with 3500 Mediterranean species and a killer view over the Bay of Angels. It can be found up in the hills above Parc Phoenix, at 78 avenue de la Corniche Fleurie; to get there take Bus #65 or 73, getting off at the Jardin Botanique stop. Free and open every day.
Another little-known spot is the Bird Sanctuary in Nice, most improbably located between the Nice Airport and the Cap 3000 Shopping Center. It’s a protected marsh area where the river Var meets the sea, a perfect habitat for migratory birds. It’s free and you just wander in to find the walking trail with interpretive drawings to help you spot the 264 species seen in the sanctuary, including 69 threatened with extinction, and 43 that nest in the springtime. Try not to be distracted by the grey-breasted Easyjet tail swooper, a rather loud and obnoxious species that seems to migrate to Nice at incredibly frequent and regular intervals.
- Parc de la Colline du Château
In the park at the top of this steep hill on the east side of the city you’ll be presented with some of the French Riviera’s greatest panoramas. You can look back over Nice and the azure sea in the Baie des Anges, and it’s a sight you’ll want to pause over for as long as possible. You can pick out all the landmarks, like Hotel Negresco and the port to the east. If you’re feeling fit you might reach the top on foot from the Vieille Ville, but there’s also a free elevator, which is recommended in the summer.
- Vieille Ville
The Old Town is pure Nice, the place where the local Niçois lived and worked, a real contrast to the sweeping Promenade des Anglais. To the east, Castle Hill overlooks the winding cobbled streets and is worth climbing for the view. Wander through the streets, taking in the Chapelle de la Miséricorde, one of the most beautiful Baroque churches in the world, and the Palais Lascaris. Tucked into the old streets, this baroque extravaganza was built by Lascaris, a 17th – century aristocrat who traced his family back to the 13th century. Don’t miss the pharmacy with its Delftware containers of herbs that formed the basis of modern medicine. The old town is centered around Place Rossetti and the pretty Baroque Ste-Réparate cathedral. After a quick visit, try any of the wonderful array of ice creams and sorbets at Fenocchio.
The Old Town is all about wandering down the streets and ducking down the alleyways. Don’t miss rue Pairolière, filled with food shops that give you the flavors of the Mediterranean, and the nearby small fish market in Place St-François which takes place from 6am to 1pm daily except Tuesdays.
Try some of the bistros, and if you’re pressed for time, certainly go for the socca. France’s top chef, Alain Ducasse, recommends Chez Pipo; also try Chez Theresa.
- Palais Masséna
Stop here for an idea of how Nice life was lived when the aristos dominated. Both gardens and palace have escaped redevelopment, the palace to become a museum. This tells the Nice story from Napoleon through to the mid-20th century. But it also tells its own story, a grandiose tale of wintering nobles trying to out-pomp one another. Marble halls and reception rooms swamp you with sumptuousness. There’s not a shred of self-doubt. And, like most Nice’ attractions, it’s free.
- Musée Matisse
This museum, 2km north of the city centre in the leafy Cimiez quarter, houses a fascinating assortment of works by Matisse, including oil paintings, drawings, sculptures, tapestries and Matisse’s famous paper cut-outs. The permanent collection is displayed in a red-ochre 17th-century Genoese villa in an olive grove. Temporary exhibitions are in the futuristic basement building. Matisse is buried in the Monastère Notre Dame de Cimiez cemetery, across the park from the museum.
- Musée Marc Chagal
At the foot of the hill that leads up to Cimiez you come to the Marc Chagall museum with its greenery and pool. It’s the most important Chagall collection in the world, so it’s a popular venue for international visitors. The light and airy museum was built especially for Chagall’s Biblical Message and opened by Chagall himself in 1972. The Song of Song canvases, based on the Old Testament, are a wonderful mix of hues between pink and red. Along with the 17 paintings is a large collection of stained glass and sculpture as well as all the drawings showing the Exodus and other paintings.
- Musée d’Art Moderne et d’Art Contemporain
The Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MAMAC) is one of the most exciting new projects Nice has unveiled in the last few years. Its object is to show the importance of two of modern art’s great movements: the avant-garde French and American from the 1960s to today and the influence of Nice with French names like César, Arman and Niki de Saint-Phalle. There’s a permanent collection of Nice’s Yves Klein and a series of temporary exhibitions. With artists like Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski, Larry Poons, Frank Stella and Sol LeWitt, as well as Warhol, Lichtenstein, Arman and Christo, this makes for an innovative museum.
You can’t miss it; the building stands out with its modern triumphal arch at the end of the covered course of the Paillon which also has a theater, forming part of the Promenade des Arts.
- Monastère de Cimiez
This monastery on a rise, north of the centre was established by the Benedictines in the 800s. You can get there along the Boulevard de Cimiez, one of Nice’s most impressive thoroughfares, with extraordinary 19th-century hotels and mansions. The gothic monastery buildings are from the 14th and 15th centuries, with delicate frescoes from the 1500s. But most visitors make the climb for one purpose: To see the exquisite gardens, with flower beds, topiaries, geometric lawns, pergolas and a terrace with an unbelievable view of the city – I’ve already talked about that before.
- Orthodox Cathedral of St. Nicholas
The Russian aristocracy came to Nice in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, forming a community almost as big and important as the English. The arrival of the young Prince Nicholas Alexandrovich, son of the Russian Tsar, in 1864 merely added the final touch of approval. The cathedral was consecrated in December 1912 in his memory; he died in Nice in 1865 at the early age of 25 having been sent here for his health. It’s one of the most extravagant buildings in a city which has its fair share of ornate architecture.
- Promenade des Anglais
There are many seaside walks, and then there’s the Promenade des Anglais, which is more than just a grand walkway next to the Mediterranean: It’s been an integral part of Nice city life (something the recent attack won’t change) since this embankment was built in the 1820s. Parades for the ebullient Nice Carnival come by in February, while the rest of the year joggers, couples skateboarders and families pass all day long. The promenade bends for seven kilometres, and on the eastern side is skirted by regal 19th-century palaces. You can take a seat on the benches and find shade beneath pergolas and palm trees.
It would be a sin to not to buy yourself a little treat when visiting this city! I’m not talking about souvenirs now, Nice is very well known for numbers of markets and boutiques all around the city centre.
What to not to miss out?
The key shopping experience in Nice is the morning flower market on Cours Saleya. It’s an inebriating effusion of colours, aromas and commerce. Of course, if you’re on a short break, it’s unlikely you’ll want to buy any flowers yourself – but you can have them sent to friends back home. This is not only very kind but will also make them feel as jealous as hell.
Directly off the Cours Saleya, Rue François de Paule hosts three of Nice’s more venerable shops. At No 7, the Maison Auer has been making cakes and confectionery since 1820, and is still at it. Established in 1868, Alziari at No 14 is a relative stripling, but has still had time to master olives, olive oil and associated food matters. At No 20 is the Nice outpost of Molinard, Provençal perfumers since 1849.
Elsewhere, the Old Town has all kinds of boutiques, both touristy and funky. But, for the big-ticket fashion items, you need to head to the Carré d’Or (Golden Square) around Avenue de Suède and Rue Paradis. Here gather the sorts of stores where, if you have to ask the price, you’re out of your depth.
More reasonable, mid-range shopping lines up along the main Avenue Jean Médecin – where the Galéries Lafayette are at No 6 and the pretty large Nice Etoile shopping mall at No 20.
Finally, antiques fans should head towards the port and Rue Cathérine Ségurane where antiquaries cluster by the armful.
And if you’re looking for souvenirs anyways? Tiny tobbaconist’s can be found on every corner 🙂
And our dinneeeer. It was extremely expensive, but it was the only restaurant open after midnight, so we didn’t really have a choise. But it was great nevertheless, hah 😀
Have a wonderful day!