The city of Nice on the French Riviera has a lot more to it than just beaches and boardwalks. The city is a cultural melting pot with a history dating back to the Roman Empire. It is a city that is known for its cuisine, art, history, and architecture.
And the sun and the beach doesn’t hurt its reputation either. With a famous pedestrian promenade along the city’s coastline along Mediterranean, this is a city geared towards the Riviera lifestyle. All this makes it one of the most popular tourist destinations in France, with locals and foreigners.
Nice, which is pronounced “nee-se“, is the 5th most populous city in France (after Paris, Marseille, Lyon, and Toulouse) and is the capital of the Alpes-Maritimes department. Located on the famous Côte d’Azur, aka the French Riviera, it is part of the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region (a mouthful, I know!).
It is a beautiful city with beautiful people, amazing food, great weather all year around, and stunning scenery. It’s also a relatively affordable city for tourists and locals, when compared to its popular neighbours like Saint-Tropez and Cannes.
The city was founded by Greek colonists in around 350BC, and became an important trading port on the Mediterranean. But it has only been a part of France for less than 200 years.
During the Middle ages, Nice was aligned with several Italian cities, like Genoa and Pisa. It then became part of the Counts of Provence (which was an independent nation), and then the independent Duchy of Savoy in 1388.
After several wars between France, Italy, Austrian Empire, and other neighbors, the Treaty of Turin was signed in 1860, making the Duchy of Savoy (including Nice) part of France. In exchange, the Duke of Savoy was made King of Italy.
These days, Nice is as French as can be. With majestic architecture and old world charm, it has a wide-open feel to it compared to neighboring Marseille, which is less than a 3 hour drive away.
Nice is a much smaller, much friendlier city geared towards visitors, and with a fantastic food scene. So let’s get to the best things to do in the area, shall we? Allons-y!
Things to do in the area
1) Promenade des Anglais
The Promenade des Anglais is a wide promenade beachside road filled with palm trees, flowers and benches, and is always filled with people.
It is one of the most iconic streets in Nice, France. The pedestrian walkway follows the coast of the Mediterranean sea from the center of the city to the airport. The heart of the city, it is lined with restaurants, cafés, and shops.
The Promenade was first called the Camin deis Anglés (the English Way) when it was built in the 1800s. The name is not French, but a native dialect of the Niçois in their native dialect.
The promenade was originally constructed for English tourists who were coming to the area en masse, for annual holidays in the sun. It was renamed Promenade des Anglais (English Walkway in French) after Nice became a part of France.
These days, one of the locals’ favourite things to do in Nice is to walk, jog, or cycle up and down the Promenade des Anglais. Just one of the lavish tree-lined avenues in Nice, it is a few minutes from the city’s old town. There is also a beach along the Promenade, and the famous Baie des Anges (Bay of the Angels).
There are beautiful views of the water, along with mountains right behind, and it is a wonderful place to spend a few hours.
2) Old Town
Next to one end of the Promenade des Anglais, is the Old Town of Nice. This is the historic neighbourhood of the city center and a wonderfully charming place to take some photos and explore.
Old Town is one of the oldest neighbourhoods in Nice. The city was heavily bombarded during WWII, with troops from Italy and Germany entrenched in the area, however much of the Old town is well-preserved.
It is a very popular tourist destination because of the narrow ancient buildings, cobbled side streets that open up into large town squares. There is a beautiful old-world feel to it and a newer part that’s got all the modern conveniences.
It’s a perfect place for visitors to the city to experience a taste of Old World Europe, and it’s also a great place to visit if you’re looking for someplace to eat. There are a ton of restaurants and cafés in the area, serving all sorts of Niçoise specialties, as well as all other types of delicacies.
There are several public and private beaches in Nice, each with its own vibe. All along the Promenade des Anglais is a long stretch of beach, that is changes name depending on the area. There are plenty of ice cream stands and cafés along this stretch, perfect for beachgoers looking to spend the day.
If you want to look further afield, La Réserve beach on the east side of the city is usually a favorite, as well as Plage Beau Rivage.
Another popular beach is Coco beach, which is near the Cap de Nice. About 6 miles (10km) from Nice are the beaches of Villefranche-sur-mer. If you are looking for beaches that a bit quieter with less of the tourist crowd, the beaches along this part of the Riviera are excellent.
Note, most of the beaches along the French Riviera have pebbles on the beach, so bring your water shoes.
Any trip to Nice has to be complimented by a trip to nearby Monaco. It lies about 13 miles (21km) to the west of Nice, and is everything you would expect from this luxury enclave on the French Riviera.
With flashy cars, chic boutiques, and giant yachts in its harbour, Monaco is where the rich and famous hang out. But there is plenty to see, even if your wallet is not as accommodating.
From the changing of the guards outside the Royal Palace of Monaco to the Monte Carlo Casino, and old town of Monaco, it is a lovely way to spend the day. You can take a tour from Nice to Monaco, and read more about visiting Monaco here.
5) Cathédrale Saint-Nicolas
Along with English tourists on the Promenade des Anglais, Nice also regularly attracted members of the Russian aristocracy, as the Russian Orthodox Cathedral can attest.
In 1864, Russian Tsar Alexander II visited by train and was attracted by the pleasant climate. Thus began an association between Russians and the French Riviera that continues to this day.
The cathedral was consecrated in December 1912 in memory of Tsar Nicholas Alexandrovich, an heir apparent to the Russian throne, who died in Nice at the age of 21, while on an European tour. It was funded by Tsar Nicholas II, who would end up being the last Tsar of Russia.
After 1917, Communist revolution, the Paris-based Russian Orthodox church assumed control of the Nice Cathedral. However, after a long legal dispute, a French Court ruled in 2010 that the property on which the Cathedral is built belongs to the Russia.
The church itself is beautiful example of Russian architecture and is free to enter.
6) Musée Marc Chagall
There are not many large museums in Nice, but one choice offering the Musée Marc Chagall which opened in 1973.
Born Moishe Shagal in 1887 in Russia, Chagall was a renowned artist of Jewish origin. He travelled back and forth throughout his life (in between wars) between Russia and France, with deep ties to both countries.
During WWII, Chagall and his wife were extricated from arrest in Marseille in 1941, along with other Jewish prisoners, by the United States due to their high standing. Many of his works were also saved in this manner.
He returned the France after the war, settling in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, about seven miles west of Nice until his death in 1985 at the age of 97. The museum is dedicated to the artist’s many biblical works and includes several paintings, sculptures, stained glass, and mosaics.
7) Cours Saleya
One of the famous large squares in the Old town of Nice is called Cours Saleya. The area is a bustling flower and farmers’ market in the mornings during several days of the week, before turning into a giant terrasse for nearby restaurants in the evenings.
If you are at a loss for what to eat, head to Cours Saleya to find the perfect choice your heart (and stomach) will be happy with.
8) Local Specialities
And speaking of food, don’t forget to check out some of the local specialities.
There are many dishes that originated in Nice, that are today very popular all across France, such as:
- Socca flatbread – an appetizer that is a type of flatbread made from chickpea flour.
- Panisse – similar finger food to the socca, also made from chickpea flour.
- Salad niçoise – the traditional salad (which has a very specific list of ingredients!)
- Ratatouille – a slow-cooked vegetable stew featuring an assortment of local vegetables, such as eggplant, zucchini, peppers, and tomatoes.
- Pissaladière – an appetizer that is a type of pizza made with caramelised onions, black olives, and anchovies.
- Pan Bagnat – basically a salad niçoise inside a sandwich. A common dish for a quick lunch in this part of the Riviera.
- Farcis niçois – vegetables (peppers, eggplant, or squash) stuffed with meat, cheese and herbs, and topped with breadcrumbs.
9) Make perfume in Grasse
About 30 miles (50km) from Nice, lies the French capital of luxury perfume. Grasse is a small town in Provence, that has become an international leader when it comes to scents and perfumery.
And even if you are not into perfume, this little town in the south of France, with its pastel buildings and colorful shops will undoubtedly leave you with a smile on your face. With its lovely town center perched on a hill, it is a wonderful day trip from Nice. You can read more about visiting Grasse here.
There are a number of perfume museums and workshops where you can learn about the history of this beautiful industry. There are several tours you can take from Nice to visit Grasse and its perfume workshops.
10) Go hiking in Gorges du Verdon
About 90miles (150km) away from Nice lies the Gorges du Verdon. It is gorgeous natural river canyon about 15 miles (25km) long. If you are a nature-lover who enjoys hiking, kayaking, and swimming, you will not want to miss this beautiful protected natural park.
In addition, perched on a hill, near the canyon is the charming town of Moustier-Sainte-Marie which has been voted one of the “most beautiful villages in France”. The village was founded by a group of monks in the 5th century, who built a church there, high on the hillside.
People from all over flock to this beautiful part of Provence and its lavender fields, which has managed to retain a unique charm in a fast-paced world. There are several tours leaving from Nice to the Gorges du Verdon and lavender fields to help you make the most of your time in the area.
11) Enjoy the view in Cap Ferrat
About 10 miles (16 km) from Nice near the Italian border, lies the leafy suburb of Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat. It is a tiny, Mediterranean peninsula nestled between Nice and Monaco that was once modest fishing village.
Today, however, it is better known as an enclave for billionaires and a lovely stop for tourists visiting the French Riviera.
There are two major trails that meander around the Peninsula. The longer at 6 km, is a cliff-top Tour du Cap path which hugs the coast, affording views all the way to Cannes on one side, and Italy on the other.
Then there’s the shorter, but no less beautiful, walk around the Pointe Saint-Hospice. Starting just a few steps away from the port and village, this 2 km trail winds around Saint-Jean’s other, smaller headland.
It is very easy to get to the town and its surrounding area, whether by car, taxi, or public transportation. You can read more about visiting Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat here.
Frequently Asked Questions
How to get to Nice?
If you are coming from Paris, the easiest way to get to Nice is by plane or by train. There is a large international airport in Nice, and flights from Paris take around 1.5 hours.
If you intend to drive, it takes around 8.5 hours from Paris.
How many days should you spend?
Depending on how many day trips you take to Monaco, Cannes, Grasse, etc. I would recommend spending at least 3 nights. There is plenty to enjoy in this part of the French Riviera, so don’t rush!
So have you been inspired to go to Nice? If you do go, note that in the month of February a large carnival is held over several days, that is one of the biggest in the world. The city may not be as warm as in the summer time, but it is certainly a sight to behold.
If you enjoyed that post, you may want to read more about traveling around Provence and the French Riviera.
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