WHAT TO DO
Nice is a chic seaside resort town located on the French Riviera (or Cote d'Azur), the southeastern coast of France on the Mediterranean Sea. It is nestled at the foothills of the Maritime Alps on the pebbly shores of the Baie des Anges, a wide bay with serene blue waters. The city is nicknamed Nice la Belle, meaning 'Nice the Beautiful'. It was founded by the Greeks around 350 BC and named Nikaia, after Nike, the goddess of victory. Nice's mild Mediterranean climate came to the attention of the English upper classes in the early 19th century, when an increasing number of aristocratic families took to spending their winters there. In 1931, following its refurbishment, the city's main seaside promenade, the Promenade des Anglais or 'Walkway of the English', was inaugurated by Queen Victoria's son, Prince Arthur, the Duke of Connaught - it owes its name to visitors to the resort town. The clear air and soft light have particularly appealed to notable painters, such as Henri Matisse and Marc Chagall. Their work is commemorated in many of the city's art museums. Because of its historical importance as a winter resort town for the European aristocracy and the resulting mix of cultures found in the city, UNESCO proclaimed Nice a World Heritage Site in 2021. With its mix of belle epoque opulence, year round sunshine, vibrant street life and stunning seaside location, no place in France compares with Nice.
Begin your adventure in the picturesque Vieille Ville (Old Town). This atmospheric maze of cobblestone streets and narrow alleyways is the historic heart of the city. It begins at the western end of Colline du Chateau (Castle Hill) and is surrounded by spacious boulevards, including the Promenade du Paillon (park) and Place Massena (square). The southern end of the Old Town borders the Ponchettes market stalls at the Cours Saleya, where fishmongers and grocers sell fresh products. This traditional open air market is known as the Marche aux Fleurs because it includes a wide selection of flowers for sale. Fresh fruits, vegetables and other goodies are also sold from outdoor stalls with colorful striped awnings. Be sure to visit Socca du Cours - this no frills stand draws crowds each day for its hot from the oven socca (chickpea crepe seasoned with pepper and olive oil). Note: on Mondays, flowers and food make way for a flea market.
Exploring the Old Town further, north of the Cours Saleya, you will come across 3 magnificent churches - Cathedrale Sainte Reparate de Nice, Eglise Sainte Rita de L'Annonciation and Eglise Saint Jacques le Majeur. Exemplifying 17th century Baroque style, the Cathedrale Sainte Reparate de Nice has an exquisitely decorative interior, featuring Corinthian columns with gilded detailing and many little cherub figurines in friezes surrounding grand pieces of artwork. The Eglise Sainte Rita de L'Annonciation presents an ornate interior with marble, frescoes and six side chapels. Nearby is the Eglise Saint Jacques le Majeur, another noteworthy 17th century Baroque church, prized for its delicate frescoes and impressive sculpture collection. Continue north until you reach the Musee du Palais Lascaris at 15 Rue Droite. This 17th century Baroque mansion is listed as a Historical Monument and houses Flemish tapestries, religious paintings, sculptures and a collection of period musical instruments.
From there, head up to Colline du Chateau. On a bluff overlooking the coastline, Castle Hill was the first area of Nice to be inhabited by the Greeks two thousand years ago. The site was later occupied by a medieval castle that was destroyed by soldiers of the French King Louis XIV in 1706. Now the land is set aside entirely as a park. At the top you’ll find plenty of green space and commanding views over the Old Town, the Port of Nice and inland to the Provencal hills all the way to the Alps. Note: you can reach Castle Hill by foot from the Old Town or ride the lift or escalator from Place Garibaldi. Named for Nice born Italian nationalist and military hero Giuseppe Garibaldi, this grand square is bordered by stately Baroque buildings and was a military parade ground at the time of its creation in the late 18th century. These days it's a major tram intersection and community gathering place. One of the trendiest neighborhoods in the city, Le Petit Marais is found between Place Garibaldi and the Port. This charming quarter is known for its cafes, bars and restaurants.
A short walk from Place Garibaldi is the Musee d'Art Moderne et d'Art Contemporain (Modern and Contemporary Art Museum - MAMAC). European and American avant garde works from the 1950s to the present are the focus of this sprawling multilevel museum. Highlights include many works by Christo and Nice’s neorealists: Niki de Saint Phalle, Cesar, Arman and Yves Klein. Note: the museum is open from 10a-6p and is closed on Monday. The Musee National Marc Chagall is located at 4 Avenue Docteur Menard. Admirers of Marc Chagall will be delighted by this museum, which houses a remarkable assortment of the artist's biblical themed works. The Biblical Message collection contains 17 large paintings depicting Old Testament illustrations, as well as a wide selection of paintings created by Chagall throughout his lifetime. Note: the museum is open from 10a-5p and is closed on Tuesday. Not far away at 164 Avenue des Arenes de Cimiez is the splendid Musee Matisse. This museum houses a fascinating assortment of works by Henri Matisse, including oil paintings, drawings, sculptures, tapestries and Matisse’s famous paper cut outs. The permanent collection is displayed in a 17th century Genoese villa surrounded by an olive grove and gardens. Matisse is buried in the Monastere Notre Dame de Cimiez cemetery, across the park from the museum. Note: the museum is open from 10a-5p and is closed on Tuesday.
The most emblematic street in Nice, the Promenade des Anglais is a gorgeous pedestrian area that follows the curve of the Baie des Anges beaches. This legendary seaside boulevard is lined with planted palm trees and filled with elegant gardens. It includes a pedestrian only esplanade, a bicycle lane and a road for cars. Since the Belle Epoque (Beautiful Age), the Promenade des Anglais has been graced by opulent buildings such as the Palais de la Mediterranee theater and the exquisite Villa Massena palace. Registered as a Historic Monument, the Villa Massena houses the Musee Massena - more on this shortly. Another exceptional building on the promenade is Le Negresco, which is listed as a National Historical Monument. Le Negresco is a lavish five star luxury hotel with a world class art collection and a Michelin starred restaurant. Found just off the promenade at 65 Rue de France is the Musee Massena. Originally built as a holiday home for Prince Victor d’Essling (the grandson of one of Napoleon's favorite generals, Marechal Massena), this grand belle epoque building is another of the city’s iconic architectural landmarks. Built between 1898 and 1901 in palatial neoclassical style, it is now a fascinating museum dedicated to the history of the Riviera - taking in everything from holidaying monarchs to expat Americans, the boom of tourism and the enduring importance of Carnaval de Nice (the impressive festival held each year for two weeks in February).
The Musee des Beaux Arts (Museum of Fine Arts) is located at 33 Avenue des Baumettes. Housed in a magnificent building, it offers an extensive collection of works spanning the 16th to 20th centuries. The collection includes French paintings, as well as Italian and Flemish works. Highlights are the 17th and 18th century French paintings, and 19th century paintings and sculptures. Artists represented include Jules Cheret, Fragonard, Jan Brueghel de Velours, Jean Baptiste Carpeaux, Pierre Bonnard and Raoul Dufy. Note: the museum is open from 11a-6p and is closed on Monday. The Cathedrale Orthodoxe Russe Saint Nicolas can be found at Avenue Nicolas II. Built by Tsar Nicholas II between 1902 and 1912 to provide a big enough church for the growing Russian community - this cathedral, with its colorful onion domes and ornate interior, is the largest Russian Orthodox church outside Russia. It boasts dozens of intricate icons, murals, candles and gilded iconostasis.
Conclude your tour of Nice with a peaceful visit to a park, a pleasant swim in the sea or a coastal sightseeing cruise. Set along the Promenade des Anglais is Jardin Albert 1er. With its shady trees, expansive lawn, fountains and fragrant roses - this lush park is a popular spot for relaxation and leisurely strolls. Stretching over four miles along the Baie des Anges, the Promenade des Anglais is home to the majority of Nice’s pebble filled beaches. A few spots where I enjoyed a swim in the Med include: Opera Plage (the city's oldest private beach from 1889), Ruhl Plage (private beach near Jardin Albert 1er) and Beau Rivage (private beach at the foot of the Old Town). A sightseeing cruise is one of the best ways to appreciate the gorgeous Mediterranean landscape of the French Riviera. The area around Nice is filled with stunning scenery, from the sky blue waters of the Baie des Anges to the picturesque coastline of Villefranche sur Mer. The one hour Coastal Cruise from Nice departs from the Port of Nice and travels around the Baie des Anges and down the coastline. Along the way, you can admire the distinctive landscape of mountains, hilltop villages and seaside villas.
WHERE TO EAT
Nice has many great places to eat, drink and indulge. Start your day at Mama Baker, located at 13 Rue de Lepante. Great bakeries abound in France, but even here, truly creative artisanal ones stand out. Witness Mama Baker, where organic grains and specialty ingredients go into a host of unique goodies. Do not miss the delectable bouchees aux olives - soft and crispy bite sized bits of olive studded cheesy dough, or pompe a l'huile - a semisweet roll flavored with olive oil and orange blossoms. Enjoy it all with a perfectly made cappuccino. Another outstanding patisserie is Philippe Tayac, found at 15 Rue du Marechal Joffre. This heavenly place focuses on vanilla, coconut, passion fruit, lemon, chocolate and hazelnut. I enjoyed the Z chocolate tart (cocoa hazelnut shortcrust pastry, chocolate biscuit, coconut praline, whipped dark chocolate coconut and milk chocolate ganache) and the Pavlova (meringue, mango, passion fruit, pineapple, lime and vanilla).
The top chocolate shop in the city is Maison Auer, located at 7 Rue Saint Francois de Paule in the Old Town. With its gilded counters and mirrors, this opulent store - run by the same family for five generations - looks more like a 19th century boutique than a sweets shop, but this is where discerning Nicois have been buying their fruits confits (candied fruits) and amandes chocolatees (chocolate covered almonds) since 1820. Note: the store is closed on Sunday. Bar des Oiseaux can be found at 5 Rue Saint Vincent. Hidden down a narrow backstreet, this Old Town classic has been in business since the 1960s. It serves superb traditional French cuisine spiced up with modern twists. Note: the weekday three course lunch menu (20 euros) offers phenomenal value. Le Comptoir du Marche is at 8 Rue du Marche. With its vintage kitchen decor and great value prices, this place should not be missed. There are five or six daily mains, scribbled on a chalkboard. The cuisine is a modern twist on traditional French recipes with lots of offals and staples such as magret de canard (duck breast), confit rabbit and joue de cochon (pork cheek).
The perfect spot for an afternoon meal is Le Safari, located at 1 Cours Saleya in the Old Town. Of the many brasseries adjoining the Cours Saleya market, it is among the few that native Nicois (and my concierge) regularly recommend. I went with the local Salade Nicoise (potatoes, tuna, anchovies, eggs, green beans, olives, tomatoes and fresh basil) and a chilled bottle of rose wine. My post meal indulgence was creme brulee and a generous pour of Calvados (French brandy made from apples). Note: the restaurant is open daily from 12p. Not far away at 5 Rue Droite is Chez Palmyre. Look no further for authentic Nicois cooking than this packed, convivial little space in the heart of the Old Town. The menu is very meat heavy, with plenty of tripe, veal, pot cooked chicken and the like - true to the traditional tastes of Provencal cuisine. It’s understandably popular, so book well ahead, even for lunch. Note: the restaurant is closed on Wednesday and weekends.
Le Bistrot d'Antoine can be found at 27 Rue de la Prefecture. The quintessential French bistro, right down to the checkered tablecloths, streetside tables and impeccable service - not to mention the handwritten blackboard, loaded with classic dishes such as rabbit pate, pot cooked pork, blood sausage and duck breast. If you’ve never eaten classic French food, this is definitely the place to start; and if you have, you’re in for a treat. Note: the restaurant is closed on Sunday and Monday. Another classic spot is Socca d'Or, located near the Port of Nice at 45 Rue Bonaparte. Locals swear by the authentic Nicois specialties served at this low key neighborhood eatery: pan bagnat (southern France's iconic tuna sandwich) on fresh homemade bread, tourte de blette sucree (sweet Swiss chard tart), pissaladiere (onion tart) and, of course, the restaurant's famous namesake socca (savory chickpea crepes). Two additional eateries that are worth a visit - La Merenda (4 Rue Raoul Bosio in the Old Town) and La Maison de Marie (5 Rue Massena near Place Massena).
For dinner, head to Le Bistrot Gourmand at 3 Rue Desboutin, next to Place Massena. Under the leadership of chef David Vaque, this elegant 'house of Mediterranean gastronomy' does not disappoint. The service is excellent and the wine list is impressive. Yours truly devoured the fish soup and roast turbot with carrot puree. I ended the experience with the award winning chocolate souffle. Note: the restaurant is open daily from 7p and reservations are recommended. Peixes can be found at 4 Rue Jacques Medecin near Place Massena. This modern seafood eatery is the latest jewel in the crown of Nicois master restaurateur Armand Crespo. All done up in white and turquoise nautical decor, with dangling fish eyeball light fixtures and murals of a tentacle haired mermaid ensnaring a fishing boat - it specializes in fresh local fish turned into delicious ceviches, tartares and Japanese style tatakis by chefs in the open kitchen. A stellar cocktail list enhanced the excitement, be sure to try the El Diablo (tequila, citron vert, creme de cassis and ginger beer). Note: the restaurant is closed on Sunday.
One of the top restaurants in town is Le Canon, found at 23 Rue Meyerbeer. Sebastien Perinetti and Elmahdi Mobarik take locally sourced cuisine to the next level at this cozy neighborhood bistro. Every farmer is listed by name on their daily changing chalkboard menu and the creative, beautifully presented dishes come accompanied by a fine lineup of organic wines - check out the wine cellar. Note: the restaurant is open daily and reservations are imperative. My most memorable dining experience was at Franchin, located at 10 Rue Massenet. White linen tablecloths give this upmarket bistro an air of formality, but the friendly service dispels any notions of stuffiness and chef Antoine's food is simply divine. Don't miss the octopus salad with potatoes and chorizo (one of the best starters you'll find anywhere on the Cote d'Azur), or the super yummy escargot. Note: the restaurant is closed on Monday and Tuesday.
End your evening in Nice with a drink or two. La Part des Anges can be found at 17 Rue Gubernatis. The focus at this stylish wine shop and bar is organic wines - a few are sold by the glass, but the best selection is available by the bottle, served with homemade tapenades and charcuterie platters. The name means ‘the Angel’s Share', referring to the alcohol that evaporates as the wines age. There are only a few tables, so arrive early or reserve ahead. Note: the bar is closed on Sunday. Les Distilleries Ideales is at 24 Rue de la Prefecture. The most atmospheric spot for a tipple in the Old Town, whether you are after one of the many beers on tap or a local wine by the glass. Brick lined and set out over two floors (with a little balcony that is great for people watching), it is packed until late. La Cave Romagnan is located at 22 Rue d'Angleterre. Most days of the week, this old fashioned cellar is simply a neighborhood hangout where locals gather for wine and conversation. The real highlight is its regular Saturday evening series of live jazz performances. Note: the bar is closed on Sunday. Conclude with a visit to the Opera de Nice Cote d'Azur, found at 4 Rue Saint Francois de Paule. This vintage 1885 grande dame hosts opera, ballet and the Nice Philharmonic Orchestra.
WHERE TO STAY
Nice offers a number of places to call home during your stay and there are 2 that I especially enjoyed. Both are in prime locations and provide exceptional service, modern amenities and comfort. The first is Le Negresco, located at 37 Promenade des Anglais. Occupying an elegant building dating from the early 20th century, this sophisticated hotel is next to the Musee Massena and across the promenade from the Mediterranean Sea. Refined rooms have free WiFi, flat screen TVs, minibars, plus tea and coffeemakers. Upgraded quarters add sea views, sitting areas and terraces. Amenities include a world class art collection, a Michelin starred restaurant (Le Chantecler) and an old world bar (Le Bar).
A second option is Hotel Palais Saleya, located at 21 Rue du Marche in the Old Town. This luxury boutique hotel in an 18th century building is near the Cours Saleya market and a short walk from the Modern and Contemporary Art Museum. Decorated with colorful artwork, the stylish suites have complimentary WiFi, flat screen TVs and kitchenettes, plus sitting areas and washer/dryers. Upgrades add sofa beds. Other perks include continental breakfast served in your room.
Nice is bursting with beauty, culture, history, art and great food. It treated me well and I look forward to returning.