If you are looking for a short break destination in Europe that is packed with art and culture, high-end shopping, sensational cuisine, and one of the most famous coastlines in the world, then it simply must be the Côte d’Azur, otherwise known as the French Riviera. At its heart is the stylish city of Nice, offering old-world charm but with a modern and vibrant twist.
Whenever I think about this part of the world I always think of those fabulous bright and bold vintage travel posters from the early and mid-20th century. Such simple and effective advertising epitomised an era and portrayed the idea of leisure, freedom, and luxury while promising adventure.
I have visited Nice on four occasions and each for entirely different reasons. The first was way back in the early 1990s on a romantic weekend with an old flame – I was clearly trying to impress. Next was a rather special one-night “business” stopover en route to the island of Corsica. There was an activity holiday in the splendid countryside north of Nice. Finally, there was a lad’s weekend where I discovered not only fabulous nightlife but also some of the must-visit towns and villages that are dotted around the sensational Côte d’Azur. I mention these trips to highlight the diversity of a visit to this city and region. Neither will disappoint!
Nice airport is just 6km from the centre of the city making it stress-free, and if all goes well, a swift and straightforward process to get to your accommodation.
As with many cities these days, Nice has a French Riviera Pass scheme offering a 24,48 or 72-hour visitor pass with transport included. These passes allow you to discover the key sites of Nice and the French Riviera without the faff including free access to many museums and attractions and unlimited use of the Nice transport network (bus and trams) from just 32 euros!
Taxis are easily accessible throughout the city, however they are not cheap, with the airport to city centre transfers costing a minimum of 35 euros.
Public transport in Nice consists of an excellent train and bus network that connects 20 other Riviera towns. There is also a tram that connects the suburbs with the city centre, a bike share scheme called Velo Bleu, and even Segway tours.
Once you have settled in; Nice is best however enjoyed on foot, with the most popular sites located within the city centre or along the iconic Promenade des Anglais.
Something else worth considering is the scenic tourist train tour that travels through some of the newer parts of the city, as well as some of the side streets of Old Nice. It is a great way to get understand the orientation of Nice. On board, there are 12 languages to choose from, and the cost is 10 euros.
Back in the late 18th century, the city welcomed British aristocratic families who looked to get away from the harshness of the UK winter for the milder climate of the French Riviera.
Before World War I, the city saw the construction of many hotels, and the destination had become famous all over the world, however with war, tourism collapsed.
In the 1920s Nice was appearing dated, and resorts on the Italian Riviera, as well as Cannes and Biarritz, were stealing the headlines, so once again investments were made to build or renovate hotels. At this time construction of the iconic, Palais de la Méditerranée casino, was completed.
With this tourism started to increase, yet when World War II reared its ugly head, it once again, collapsed. After more investment in the infrastructure, it was not until the 50s and 60’s that visitor numbers started to grow, and it was then, that the golden age of the French Riviera holiday dawned.
Today the pristine sparkling sea and the evergreen Mediterranean climate attract visitors, celebrities and even royalty from all over the world. With Nice, perfectly located on the Baie des Anges or Bay of Angels it is a destination for all, with so much to see and enjoy.
Exploring Vieux-Nice, The Old Town
The authentic and historic centre of the city is called, Vieux Nice or the Old Town. It is located between the Quai des Etats Unis and Place Massena.
I would suggest you head to the old town first thing in the morning and if you are visiting during the summer, then before it gets too hot. Here you will be treated to one of the best experiences in the city – the Cours Saleya – a flower market and adjoining fruit and vegetable market.
After this potter around the little lanes with their delightful old buildings and baroque churches. Pick a restaurant for the evening and check out the many immaculately dressed and interesting boutiques. Shop for Provencal specialities such as lavender soap and olive oil.
It’s unlikely you will miss it but I recommend a visit to Place Massena, which is a picturesque square in the Old Town with its arcaded buildings. This is a great place for a mid-morning coffee and to people-watch. You could also indulge and treat yourself to a local speciality – ice cream.
The Promenade Des Anglais
The most famous attraction in Nice is the palm-tree-lined Promenade des Anglais. The beach is 5 miles long and packed with private beaches and stylish seaside restaurants. The pristine promenade that bends around the Bay of Angels is alive with joggers, cyclists, in-line skaters, walkers and a whole menagerie of small dogs being taken out for their daily exercise. The locals love their pooches, many of which are adorned in the latest bling!
Perhaps the most popular part of the Promenade des Anglais is the stretch between Castle Hill and the Hotel Negresco.
One of the most recommended things to do in Nice is to take the many steps or the free elevator up Castle Hill for some of the most amazing coastal views of the Côte d’Azur.
Make sure you stop halfway up the hill at the Bellanda Tower for some great views.
The fact Castle Hill is locally known as the Parc de la Colline du Château tells even those with the most limited French language skills that the area is also a lovely park. There is however no castle as that was destroyed by Louis XIV over 300 years ago.
La Tour Saint Francois
Having opened to the public in 2019, the Tour Saint- François, is a relatively new experience although it is built in an old 13th century tower. Overlooking Old Nice from a height of 42 metres you are privileged to enjoy a 360° panorama of the city.
The Hotel Negresco
Built-in 1913, the 5-star Belle Époque Hotel Negresco is one of the most recognisable buildings in Nice. It is also the aristocratic heart of the city.
The hotel is famed for its dome which is part of the Royal Salon and was designed by Gustave Eiffel with the chandelier created for a Russian Tsar. The Negresco sometimes feels more like a gallery or museum than a hotel with some sensational art and sculptures.
The 2 Michelin star Le Chantecler provides a veritable feast of Provencal-inspired cuisine.
In 1998 I was lucky enough to spend one night at the Hotel Negresco. It truly was one of the finest luxury hotels I have ever experienced, and its pea-green glittering marble bath was a feature that I will always remember!
Step outside the Hotel Negresco and you are at the heart of the Bay of Angels and that glorious, iconic beach.
Now, it’s important to understand the rules regarding beaches in Nice as many areas are designated as private. Some are exclusive whereas others allow you to pay a rather hefty charge to enjoy the benefits of a comfy lounger, changing rooms and waiter service.
Then there are the public beaches of which the La Plage Publique de Ponchettes is one of the most popular due to the variety of watersports such as jet-ski and banana boat rides. There are also land-based beach activities like volleyball and football.
I always like to take a boat trip especially when I am on the shores of the Mediterranean. From Nice, there are plenty of options catering for all budgets.
You could visit Villefranche-sur-Mer, Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, Beaulieu-sur-Mer, Eze-sur-Mer, St Tropez, the Ile Saint- Honorat or even all the way to the majesty of Monaco.
Churches & Cathedrals
If you’re heading to Nice Old Town, keep an eye out for some prime examples of the city’s Baroque architecture which is a quintessential part of the city.
If you want to tour the old town of Nice on your own, here are some Baroque buildings to spot:
With its circular walls and windows as well as its fresco-filled interior, the Chapelle de la Miséricorde is considered one of the top Baroque churches in the world.
Another Baroque masterpiece is the small Eglise de Gésu at 12 Rue Droite. Built in the 1600s, its pale blue and yellow facade is stunning, as is the interior with its abundance of cherubs, gilt and marble.
Visit the Cathedral of Saint Nicholas which was built during the reign of Czar Nicholas II. The Cathedral is Nice’s Russian Orthodox Church, and has dazzled visitors with its brilliant domes and spires since 1912. After a two-year restoration, the cathedral is an eye-catching attraction, and is located on Avenue Nicolas-II.
The Marc Chagall Museum is dedicated to this Russian-French artist’s work, and is renowned as one of the best museums in the city. The signature piece is Chagall’s 17 Biblical Message tableaux which line the walls. There are also sculptures, stained glass windows, tapestries and mosaics to view.
The Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MAMAC) feature hundreds of works of modern art from the 1960s on. Pieces from Andy Warhol and Lichtenstein together with various French avant-garde artists are part of this vast collection.
The Musée Massena is near the Hotel Negresco. This beautiful villa tells us the history and the story of Nice in the 19th century. The villa and landscaped gardens are well worth a visit.
The Museum d’Histoire Naturelle de Nice was founded in 1846 and highlights the rich biodiversity of the region’s incredible flora and fauna.
Deep in the heart of the posh Cimiez district is the renowned Matisse Museum. Set in a gorgeous Genoese villa the museum showcases the works of the great master Henri Matisse who lived in Nice for much of his life. You will be able to view sculptures and paintings and even if you wish visit his grave in the nearby monastery de Cimiez.
The Sun Fountain
Some stories I just love, and when I heard about the poor old marble statue of the Greek God, Apollo, I simply had to share his rather embarrassing tale.
Back in 1956, the Fontaine du Soleil, or Sun Fountain, was unveiled in Place Massena. However, as the statue was exposed to the light of day, many looked on in horror, as Apollo had a crown of four horses on his head, which it was alleged, was like an advert for the top-selling car at the time – the 4-horsepower Renault 4CV. Not only this, but as you scanned down, Apollo was also proudly showing off a rather large…. ahem… well you know what these statues are like!
With the city in an uproar, it was down to good old Alfred Janniot, the sculpture, to do a spot of re-chiselling. Before you knew it, poor old Apollo had been transformed from an impressive Greek God to an “Oh Dear, Is That It God”!
Despite Alf’s impressive chiselling, it just wasn’t enough to satisfy the Catholic women’s “League of Feminine Virtue”, so Apollo was taken down and dare I say it, erected over at the local sports stadium, where he was less likely to offend the ladies.
A few decades later, it was felt Apollo had received a bit of a hard time, so he was moved back to his original home in Place Massena. Now even though he is not perhaps the God he used to be, the Sun fountain is worthy of a visit, just, if anything, because of this fabulous story!
All hail Apollo!
The Avenue Jean Medecin is the street with many of the fashion industry’s most renowned brands. It is also home to the two largest shopping centres, Nicetoile and Galleries Lafayette.
Then there is the area known as the “Golden Triangle” between Rue Paradis, Rue Alphonse and Rue de Verdun, where you will find luxurious, not to mention expensive boutiques.
Throughout the city, there are fish, flower, fruit or vegetable markets such as Cours Saleya and the area on Avenue Malaussena.
Finally don’t forget to explore the Old Town for quirky shops and local handmade arts and crafts.
Bars & Restaurants
Having visited Nice with a group of friends we were all pleasantly surprised at how enjoyable and diverse the nightlife was in Nice. The old town offered a choice of wonderful grungy-style bars and pubs, many featuring live music or DJs. Down on the seafront, there were the busy nightclubs while on the beach itself the beach clubs are the place to be seen and provide that air of exclusivity.
Eating out in Nice and the region as a whole is a delight. Dishes will focus on fresh local produce along with seafood, grilled fish, fresh salads, herbs and olive oil. From rooftop terraces to private beach restaurants and from brasseries to tiny family-run businesses tucked away in the Old Town, there is something for every taste.
Festivals & Events
Throughout the year Nice hosts several highly recognised festivals and events. The Nice carnival in February, the Jazz festival in July, and its Christmas village in December are just some of the many that take place.
If you are in Nice for a few days then I would wholeheartedly recommend you spend a day or two out and about exploring the region as there are some truly mind-blowing experiences just a stone’s throw from the city. You have two options – visit the towns along the coast or head inland and discover the nature, countryside and hidden villages of the region.
You can book guided tours of the French Riviera locally or you can do it yourself with a rented car or scooter. Another option and how I chose to travel a few years back was by train.
Taking the train just eliminates all the worry about travelling. I visited Monaco for the day and then on my return stopped in the little coastal town of Villefranche Sur Mer, for a sunset dinner on the beach, before arriving back in Nice for last orders. Other fantastic places to visit along the coast are Cannes, Antibes and Eze.
If you are looking for greater independence then hiring a car can transport you to the interior.
I recommend a visit to the medieval village of Saint-Paul de Vence, and then if you enjoy hiking then a walk to the summit of the Col de Vence for views of the Southern Alps on one side and the Mediterranean on the other.
For those looking to explore there are several national parks worth visiting. The Parc naturel régional des Préalpes d’Azur is an easily accessible area of natural beauty bordering the southern edge by Grasse, Vence and Carros. The landscapes include mountains, deep gorges and caves.
The Préalpes park is home to over 2,000 types of flora and fauna, some very rare, like Orsini’s viper and the beautiful Diane and Apollo butterflies.
The Esterel mountains are an area of 32,000 hectares consisting of red rock ravines and volcanic outcrops. Hikers and mountain bikers enjoy exploring its gorges and high points.
In the Alpes-Maritimes, there is skiing in the resorts of Valberg, Auron and Isola 2000, and seven village resorts. The facilities here cater to all tastes and levels of snow sport ability.
There is the Mercantour National Park, a huge area on the border of France and Italy with eight valleys spread over 700 square miles.
The Pelagos Sanctuary is a vast marine area that spans from Monaco beyond Corsica to the northern tip of Sardinia. This joint initiative between Italy, France and Monaco is designed to protect the marine biodiversity that includes wildlife such as seals, dolphins and whales.
More Things To Do In Nice
A fun excursion is the Chemins de Fer de Provence which is a picturesque narrow gauge train journey of some 94 miles on the Pine Cone Train to Dignes-Les-Bains?
For those looking for an active holiday how about the lovely Mouratoglou Hotel & Resort in Biot. I spent a few days at this luxury tennis resort where many up and coming professionals hone their skills before getting on to the professional circuit. Nearby is the beautiful Golf de Biot golf course as well as many traditional villages and the most perfect nature. Also nearby is the Club Med Resort in Opio – another wonderful activity holiday resort.
The wine-producing area of Bellet northwest of Nice is a popular excursion for those looking to discover the region’s local wines as well as explore the estate of Chateau de Bellet and Chateau de Cremat.
As a city break destination, the Cote Azur is pretty hard to beat given the combination of beach, city, nightlife and the many attractions in the vicinity.
When looking for the best location to base yourself, there are of course many options depending on the time that you have, the season and of course your interests. However, if you want to be able to experience the authentic Cote D’Azur, then I believe that Nice is the word that should be on all your lips.