The capital of the French Riviera has a relaxed Mediterranean vibe and lovely setting, providing the perfect getaway for romantics and sunseekers alike.
From the water, Nice has one of the most wonderful scenes of any Mediterranean port. Its graceful bay glimmers peacock blue, a looming rocky crag is topped by gardens and a ruined castle, and rows of grand hotels and mansions nestle among palm trees. In the background, the rugged hills of Provence are a purple smudge inviting exploration.
Although its setting is impressive, the capital of the French Riviera also combines a relaxed Mediterranean vibe with cool sophistication and considerable elegance, making it a favourite for honeymooners, couples and romantics. Nice has an impressive pedigree as well, since it’s one of the oldest settlements in Europe, founded by the Greeks in the 4th century bce. It became a significant port under the Romans and remained so all the way through the Middle Ages, its trading ties still evoked by its seductive blend of Italian and French heritage.
Nice was variously part of the kingdoms of Savoy and Sardinia and only absorbed into France in 1860. Today you’ll find a bustling city, the most visited destination in France outside Paris, and a favourite amongst Mediterranean cruise enthusiasts. With its good transport links, the city is also an excellent base from which to explore the rest of the French Riviera.
The best place to start exploring Nice itself is along the famous Promenade des Anglais or ‘English Promenade’, which is lined by stately belle époque mansions and hotels that recall Nice’s heyday as the playground of 19th-century British and later Russian aristocrats. The promenade was built in 1822 when Nice’s orange crop failed and the town’s well-heeled, philanthropic British admirers clubbed together to employ workers on its construction.
Later, an ageing Queen Victoria really put Nice on the map by travelling here by private train to escape the British winter and soak up some Mediterranean sun. She spent five winters here at the end of the 19th century and enjoyed making excursions by donkey and cart. A statue of the British queen stands outside Hotel Regina-Excelsior in Nice’s Cimiez district, where she used to stay.
Promenade des Anglais runs for a flower-filled six kilometres, along which you’ll find some of the city’s finest cafés and (towards its eastern end) fish restaurants. It’s just the place to stroll hand-in-hand under the palm trees and gaze over the beach, while keeping a wary eye out for zooming roller-bladers and joggers as you go. A modest rise at its eastern end gives you a great view over the whole bay and Provence’s mountains in the background. A large and much-Instagrammed ‘I Love Nice’ logo is perfect for a pose.
From here, head up the pine-scented hill to the ruined castle, from which you get a magnificent view over the terracotta rooftops of the old town, the turquoise waters of the Baie des Anges (or ‘Bay of Angels’) and around the coast as far as Cap d’Antibes. The castle grounds are now a public park, with one area given over to a wonderfully ornate old cemetery founded in the 1780s and featuring plenty of Italianate drama and exuberance in white marble.
It was on this hill in 350 bce that the Greeks set up a trading base, founding the city. The Romans followed with a settlement they named Cemenelum. The Archaeological Museum displays the remnants of their six centuries of occupation, including pottery, jewellery, tools and sculptures. You can also trace the remnants of an amphitheatre and bathhouse.
It’s this long history that supplies Nice with the gravitas lacking in more glamorous Riviera towns. The French Riviera is certainly beach-holiday seductive, but Nice has much more than just a pretty setting and celebrity bling. It’s a millennia-old, real, lived-in and rather down-to-earth city and, thanks to its seemingly perpetual sunshine and glorious light, has long been a favoured retreat for artists and writers such as Henri Matisse, Marc Chagall, Alexandre Dumas and Gustave Flaubert. In short, Nice has culture, too. In fact, it has more significant museums than any French city outside Paris.
Art lovers should drop into the free-entry Musée Matisse for some lovely and typically colourful works from the Fauve master who made Nice his adopted home. (Matisse himself is buried in the cemetery behind the museum building.) It’s also worth visiting the Musée des Beaux-Arts for 19th- and 20th-century paintings, and the very bold Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MAMAC) for some challenging European and American avant-garde works from the 1960s onwards. The latter has a great rooftop terrace dotted with sculptures and providing a wonderful view. There’s also a national museum devoted to Russian-French early modernist artist Marc Chagall, which has a very fine collection of his later works.
After your dose of art, head onwards into Old Nice, where you’ll discover a delightfully laid-back and residential part of town, seemingly far from the Riviera glitter and glamour, where washing flaps overhead and cats slink among café tables. The architecture is Italianate, and street corners burst with baroque chapels or lively bistros serving Provençal lamb and pissaladière, the southern French version of pizza. At the heart of the old town, fountain-splashed Place Masséna is surrounded by pretty pink buildings and flanked by pleasant gardens – another great spot for an Instagram or Snapchat moment.
Shopping is another delight, whether you’re poking through the antique shops or delicatessens of the old town, or sashaying along Rue Paradis, where every great French fashion label seems to have a boutique. For a more down-to-earth experience, the Cours Saleya features open-air stalls selling everything from bric-a-brac to fresh seafood and spectacular bunches of flowers. When the market packs up, cheerful bars and cafés unfold tables and invite you to a lazy hour of people-watching over coffee or a glass of wine. Come back in the evening when the bars are lively and live music plays. There might even be a spot of dancing on the square as the stars come out.
For other evening entertainment, the Opéra de Nice puts on a wide range of operas and also has a concert season, while the Cabaret du Casino Ruhl features old-fashioned French song, acrobats and a flutter of feathers and sequins. Then wander along the Promenade des Anglais and admire the twinkling lights before popping into one of its upmarket bars for a cocktail – a lovely way to end a day in Nice.