While Nice is only the fifth largest city in France, it boasts the No. 2 position as international tourists’ destination of choice (behind Paris).
And after a few days in the principal Alpes-Maritimes town, it’s easy to see why. A gloriously long beachfront, 300 days of sunshine a year, fresh Mediterranean cuisine and a rich cultural agenda will keep you cool in summer and inspired in (the very moderate) winter. Bienvenue à Nice!
Once you’ve checked into your hotel and brought your room to life with dahlias or fuchsias from the delightful flower markets in the Old Town’s Cours Saleya market square, the best thing you can do is pick up a French Riviera Pass from the Tourism Office (5 Promenades des Anglais). Choose a one, two or three-day option, which will have you exploring the city’s marvellous museums, the Old Town on a guided tour, and the Riviera by boat. Your pass also gets you discounts at shops and restaurants around town.
Next, take off to explore the striking ochre painted town or hit the beach. Just don’t forget to throw on some sunscreen; the water is so delicious you’re likely to soak for a while (the saltiness makes bobbing about almost effortless).
Enjoy this Nice travel guide.
Nice for history lovers
Start your journey into Nice’s yesteryear, by heading along to the Terra Amata archealogical site and museum.
You’ll learn a little about the first-known rhino and deer hunting inhabitants of Nice. Reconstructions of their beachside dwellings have been made, and there are interactive activities for adults and kids.
The Greeks settled in ‘Nikia’ in 350 BC, and the Romans arrived in around 150 BC. The remains of bathhouses and arenas, along with statues and coins from various archeological digs can be found at the Museum of Archaeology.
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Nice wasn’t actually French until good old Napoleon III signed the Treaty of Turin with Italy’s House of Savoy in 1860. Italian influences are still evident in the bright orange/yellow/red buildings, the piazzas and the pizzas!
During the Belle Epoque (1871-1914) Nice became popular with the European and English aristocracies who came to kick up their heels and make the most of the city’s mild winters. Check out the wonderful Masséna Museum for period furniture, décor, portraits and sculptures.
Nice was also the place to be in the Jazz Age, and continues to be so! The world’s first ever jazz festival opened in Nice in 1948, and over the decades has attracted the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, and more recently, Gregory Porter. The beat goes on at the annual festival, which takes place in July.
Even a visit to the beach in Nice can have a historical element. For example, the Ruhl Plage patch of sand has been owned by one family since 1920. It’s just opposite the Tourism Office, and while you need to pay for entrance, it’s well worth it given most of the beaches in Nice are pebbled. Here you can spend hours alternating between dips, snoozes and snacks. Say bonjour to the hospitable owner Monsieur Malacarne if you get the opportunity. He’s a wealth of knowledge on the history of the city.
Top cultural experiences in Nice
Artists have long been drawn to the Cote d’Azur.
You’ll encounter works by Guy de Maupassant, Claude Monet, Pierre Bonnard and Paul Signac, who invited his friend Henri Matisse to visit. The artist fell in love with the climate, the light and the lifestyle, and famously stayed in Nice for decades. The Matisse Museum is a must-see, as is the nearby Chagall Museum. The Russian-born, French-nationalised artist was actually present for the opening and his biblical-based works are vivid and absorbing.
MAMAC — the city’s modern and contemporary art museum — is also terrific. There are four floors of vibrant works, and a great view over the city.
There are many other museums to stroll through, where you can lose yourself for hours in the works and your thoughts. Most have great air conditioning and offer respite from the hot summer days or cool winter days.
The Opéra de Nice features a program of ballets, concerts and operas. It’s home to the Ballet Nice Méditerranée and the Nice Philharmonic Orchestra. To further explore the city’s historic love affair with jazz, take an apéro at Café de Flore. Chances are that local jazzman Brice Delacquis will be swinging the Old Town with his upbeat quartet. Not far away, Le Shapko also keeps jazz alive with live music every night.
Great places to eat in Nice
French and Italian — you get the best of both worlds when dining in Nice!
Delicious Mediterranean cuisine with both French and Italian influences is served all around town. Wander through the Old Town’s medieval streets and squares, and you’ll always find somewhere picturesque and atmospheric to dine — particularly around Cours Saleya with its lovely old-world ambience. Try the seafood pastas, Italian-style thin based pizzas, and socca — the local chickpea snack.
Here are my dining recommendations:
Arriving for dinner in the courtyard of this charming art hotel is like walking into the Garden of Eden. The waiter may even pick and wash a fig growing above your table to whet your appetite. The famous salade niçoise here is unbeatable, with a delicate sauce, crisp vegetables and tasty tuna and anchovies. Mains include succulent duck, lamb and fish. The hardest thing is choosing! Just make sure you leave room for the strawberry dessert special.
Les 2 Terraces
If you like dinner to be a jovial event and not just a meal, book a table at Jean-Pierre Rossi’s Les 2 Terrassses in the heart of Nice. Rossi welcomes his guests like old friends and offers live music that often ends with a patron jumping up to perform a number. Try a refreshing gazpacho, then order the half-cooked tuna — which is the talk of the town.
Perched on the coast on a series of rocky outcrops (and with one section only accessible by a narrow bridge), stunning Le Plongeoir offers cocktails, wines and meals. Salads and fresh fish are the way to go since you’re almost completely surrounded by water!
For those looking to self cater, wander the market stalls of the up-and-coming Libération area north of the train station for fresh fruit, cheeses, olives and cured meats.
Of course, there’s no substitute for a local’s perspective on great places to eat. Book a food and wine walking tour of Nice with a local guide and pick up tips for more awesome eateries to try during your stay in the city.
Where to shop in Nice
When you’re done with the beach and planning your long luncheons and dinners, take a stroll around Nice and discover the department stores and boutiques that cater to all tastes and budgets.
The city has its own department store — Galeries Lafayette — and the Nice Etoile shopping centre. Otherwise, these are the streets to hit for both cheap and cheerful beachwear and sophisticated and upmarket brands: avenue Jean Médecin, rue Masséna, rue Paradis and avenue de Verdun.
If you have your sights set on souvenirs and gifts, head to the Old Town for boxed nougat and chocolates, perfumes, soaps and trinkets. For those in town on a Monday, don’t miss the antiques market in Cours Saleya in the Old Town. During the summer months the square also hosts a nightly arts and crafts market from 6pm.
Ways to relax in Nice
Nice is a very chilled-out town so it’s hard not to relax!
Just walking at a leisurely pace around the coastline in the fresh sea air is lovely. Climb (or take the lift) up to Castle Hill for a phenomenal view, then wander down to the port to take a Riviera boat cruise (included with your French Riviera Pass). A perky script delivered by your guide in both French and wonderfully thick accented English will have you spying the home of Elton John and other jaw-dropping Mediteranean Sea-side mansions, along with the stunning towns of Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat and Villefranche-sur-Mer.
Alternatively, why stride when you can glide? Enjoy the fresh sea air as you explore Nice on two wheels on a Segway tour. Cruise through the historic Old Town and along the Promenade des Anglais. This is a fun and relaxed way to get to know the city.
Otherwise, just grab a book or an iPod playlist and settle in for a long lazy day at the beach.
If you’re keen to explore further afield, head to the beautiful Provence wine region. A wine tour from Nice is a great way to go (and someone else does the driving!). You’ll learn about the region’s soils, climate and winemaking pedigree as you visit a number of family owned wineries and cellar doors for tastings.
As the sun sets behind Nice, chill out with a cocktail on the rooftop bar of Le Meridian Hotel, or follow the locals and pull up a pew to enjoy a Perrier or Pastis wherever you happen to be…
Where to stay in Nice
The Deck Hotel
The Deck Hotel by the HappyCulture group is a great accommodation option for those wanting to pursue an active agenda during their stay in Nice. Situated in the heart of the town, the hotel is a short walk from the train station and a five-minute stroll to the beach. Popping in and out between shopping excursions, dips in the sea and museum trips is too easy! Once the Hotel de Flore, the hotel reopened in 2018 following a total renovation, and now resembles a cute-as-pie cruise ship with single, twin and double ‘cabins’ with a blue and white colour scheme.
The rooms are intimate but clean and comfy and the shared areas include a games room with a pool table, a free drinks machine (available 24/7), a breakfast area and a terrace with lounges (perfect for socialising). There are also work spaces with good free Wi-Fi access. Best of all are the staff — friendly, lively, and full of helpful tips on places to eat, shop and visit.
Situated between the station and the sea, Hotel Grimaldi has a classic French/English charm and reminisces of days past (the reception area even has a bar and library where guests can browse the works of Zola, amongst other classics). This hotel is also part of the HappyCulture group. The staff are efficient and charming, and there’s a concierge service that will book meals, massages and so forth on your behalf.
The generously sized rooms with a bath and walk-in wardrobe allow one to really settle in to a home away from home, albeit for a few days. If you decide to ‘go green’ and skip a day of room servicing, you’ll be rewarded with a complimentary flute of champagne at the bar. Santé!
Ruby travelled as a guest of The Deck Hotel, Hotel Grimaldi, Hotel Windsor and Les 2 Terraces.
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About the writer
Ruby Boukabou is a travel, culture and lifestyle reporter. She has written for dozens of publications, including Qantas in-flight magazine, The Age, The Australian, The Diplomat, Paris Voice, Get Lost and France Magazine. She has produced and presented culture and travel stories for the ABC, SBS and Screen Australia. Ruby is author of The Art Lover’s Guide to Paris and Sense in the City, Paris. When she’s not exploring, you’ll probably find her tap dancing.