Perched on the Mediterranean Sea in southern France, Nice is one of the most enticing seaside destinations in Europe. This city enjoys a heady mix of Mediterranean flavours, old-world charms, and a culture that celebrates what’s good in life – not to mention plenty of sun year-round. Elegant, graceful, and with a gritty, urban edge, it’s no wonder that visitors have been falling in love with this stylish French city for over two centuries now. With the heavenly golden light falling across the city and a sea breeze ruffling your hair, here’s how to make the most of your trip to Nice.
Magnificent nature and beaches
Nice is the capital city of the Côte d’Azur, or French Riviera, which stretches from the glamourous resort town of St. Tropez all the way to the Italian border. Dotted with stunning beaches, dozens of charming villages, elegant cities, and plenty of Belle Époque history, this is a destination unlike any other.
At the centre of it all is Nice, where warm breezes from the Mediterranean wash through the city, visitors and locals alike dine on some of the country’s most celebrated cuisine, and the sun shines down on everything from the oceanfront promenade to the beautiful warren of cobbled streets in the Old Town.
And then, there’s the nature on all sides, the thing that attracted all those tourists to begin with. This is France’s most famous stretch of coast for a reason, and getting out on the water is a must. Cruise up and down the coast in a yacht, or book a kayaking adventure. Inland, pine-covered hills and mountains make for some fabulous cycling, mountain climbing, and hiking. The breathtaking scenery is often a backdrop for stages of the Tour de France cycling race, and there’s a bounty of wineries and countryside restaurants to enjoy on forays outside the city.
But above all else, it’s the magical light that will have you falling head over heels for Nice. Lifted straight from a dream sequence, golden hues unfold across the azure blues of the sky and ocean, glinting off the soft pastels of the city and swirling into a heady, Mediterranean spectrum of colour. Countless artists have been drawn to the city, and when Queen Victoria lay on her deathbed, she declared, ‘Oh, if only I were at Nice, I should recover.’ In summary: this is a destination to remember.
A great place to start any city escape is by picking and choosing from the buffet of famous sights on offer. But skipping out on Vieux Nice, otherwise known as the Old Town, would be a mistake. Since approximately the 1700s, this web of cobbled streets and narrow laneways has remained much the same, an ideal place for aimless wanderings to soak up the city’s vibes. Around every corner is another French deli or a brasserie, an old-world cocktail bar or a boutique shop. Musicians sing in sun-dappled squares, while stalls overflow with colourful flowers and local delicacies.
A short stroll from the seaside brings you to the heart of the Old Town: Cours Saleya. This large square lined with restaurants and a bustling marketplace that rotates between fresh food, flowers, and an eclectic flea market, is a great place to take in the sights, sounds, and smells of the city.
When you’ve had your fill of the Old Town, wander down to Nice’s beach, where you’ll find one of France’s most celebrated seafront promenades, the Promenade des Anglais. Stretching the length of the Bay of Angels, it’s a heavenly blend of Mediterranean light, azure sea, and blue sky. To one side is a glimpse of the old world, with Belle Époque mansions and glitzy hotels from back in the day providing strollers with plenty to look at. Joggers and roller-skaters zoom by beneath the swaying palms, while hundreds of people crowd onto the beach, with even more kicking back and taking it all in from one of the famous blue chaise chairs that line the promenade.
Wedged between Nice’s Old Town and the port on the other side is the Colline du Château park, a tranquil wooded area on a rugged hill. This is the spot for the best views over the red roofs of Nice, the charming Old Town, and even all the way to the Alps on a cloudless day. The winding staircase is a bit of a climb, but once at the top you can enjoy some shade under the trees and admire an artificial waterfall built in the 1800s. This is where you’ll find local families enjoying the fine weather and taking in the views over the city and the Bay of Angels.
To visit Nice is to fall in love with the city and follow in the footsteps of those who have come before. And the list of those people is impressive indeed – the light of Nice has captured many an artist’s soul. Two of the area’s most famous residents were Henri Matisse and Marc Chagall, both of whom now have entire museums dedicated to the work they created in the city. The Musée Matisse and the Musée Chagall are well worth a detour, so why not visit them both?
The flavours of the Mediterranean
Don’t forget to bring along your appetite on a trip to Nice, because this is a dream destination for foodies. Once a part of the House of Savoy, which would later become the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia and join Italy, there’s a distinctive Italian flavour to the foods here that’s mixed with classic French cuisine, offering an incredible array of flavours to cater to any traveller’s tastes.
Nice is best known for a salad that’s now popular around the world. Containing tuna, hardboiled eggs, tomatoes, olives, and anchovies, it’s the perfect summery salad, the ideal meal for sitting on a sunny terrace, sipping a cool glass of rosé, and watching the world go by. The Niçoise salad is so popular that the locals decided one day to throw it all into a sandwich, and voilà: the pan bagnat. Whole loaves of circular bread are cut and loaded with the salad’s ingredients, making for a great lunch to enjoy on the go.
France isn’t known for its street food, but Nice does love to do things a bit differently. While fine dining goes on in a variety of elegant restaurants, many others choose to simply enjoy the classics. Socca is Nice’s most iconic dish, a heavenly pancake made from chickpea flour and olive oil. In fact, it’s so popular that it has since spread across the Mediterranean, with variations popping up in Gibraltar, North Africa, and the Middle East. We recommend you grab some from a street vendor, find a quiet spot in the sun, and wash it down with a cool glass of local wine.
With a bevy of fresh ingredients flowing into the city from the bountiful region of southern France, ratatouille is a very enjoyable dish to have in Nice. There’s tomato, onion, zucchini, eggplant, red bell peppers, and plenty of seasoning, all of it stewed together for a quintessential taste of southern France.
As such a vibrant, eclectic city made up of countless diverse cultures, there’s a lot to satisfy those after a drink as well. Head to the old port for the wine bars, where you can sip on local vins from the nearby vineyards. Rosé is the Riviera’s signature drink, best enjoyed on a sunny afternoon as a precursor to a meal. Along the Promenade des Anglais, you’ll find plenty of ritzy cocktail bars to choose from, and after dark, the Old Town comes alive with pubs and clubs.
The best day trips from Nice
Nice is just one of the cities strung along this tantalising stretch of the Mediterranean coast. Road trips through the French Riviera are immensely rewarding, turning up a fabulous number of destinations both on the Med and inland.
All the glitz and glamour of the Côte d’Azur is distilled into St. Tropez, arguably the most famous city in these parts. A-lister celebrities and billionaires descend on this town by the yachtful, drawn here ever since Brigitte Bardot came to town in the 1950s to star in the film And God Created Woman. Since then, this has been one of the French coast’s most scintillating and sexy places to be seen. But underneath its glossy, celebrity sheen, you can still glimpse St. Tropez’s history as a fishing village, with beautiful old lanes in the centre, locals sipping on drinks in shady squares, and plenty of sardines flowing in through the port.
High rollers with a penchant for games of chance should head east along the coast to Monaco, the world’s second-smallest country (behind only The Vatican). This country is famous for its tax-haven status, its chic casino, and as the location of the Monaco Grand Prix. There are super yachts moored in the harbour, and the casino itself attracts a bewildering number of Ferraris and Lamborghinis. For a small country, there’s a lot going on to grab one’s attention. Our advice? Wander around and take it all in, spend a few hours people-watching inside the famed Casino de Monte Carlo, and pay a visit to the Palais Princier de Monaco.
Another town to the west of Nice is Cannes, known for its world-famous film festival. Every year, the biggest stars of Hollywood and European cinema descend on this stunning seaside city, but there’s a lot more to see than the A-list celebrities. For example, throw your towel down on the pretty beach, enjoy a lunch in the old quarter, or explore the city’s lush Mediterranean gardens. It’s a beautiful mix of quaint and charming character with high-end luxury – something the French Riviera does oh so well.
Venture into the hills north of Nice and you’ll eventually come across the town of Grasse. It’s famous for one thing: its perfumeries, of which there are around 30 that make the town their home. Grasse has been a perfume hot spot since the 16th century, and a handful of makers let visitors in for guided tours of their factories or perfume-making workshops. The fragrances are all made from the fields of flowers surrounding the town, from jasmine to lavender. This is the perfume capital of the world, offering smells that will linger with you long after you’ve returned home.