Gillian Thornton takes a short break on the Côte d’Azur
Nice makes a dramatic impact long before you set foot on its stylish seafront or wander the narrow streets of the historic Old Town. Arrive by plane and as your aircraft positions over the sparkling Mediterranean, you’re treated to a panoramic view beyond the coastal runway to the broad sweep of the Baie des Anges and on over the city rooftops to the distant peaks of the snow-capped Alpes-Maritimes.
What’s more, Nice fulfils that early promise on every level. Hop on a tram for the 25-minute journey to the city centre and moments after stepping out into the streets, you’ll be enveloped in the physical and emotional warmth of France’s fifth city.
First town on this stretch of coastline to develop its winter tourism in the late 18th century, Nice was last year awarded World Heritage Site status by UNESCO as ‘Winter Resort Town of the Riviera’. This glorious city has museums and art galleries, shops, restaurants and cultural events to suit all tastes, not to mention a mild climate, glorious promenade, and a wealth of grand architecture. And with a choice of beaches, mountain villages and outdoor activities all included within the Metropolitan area, it’s the perfect base for a city break at any time of year.
So these are my five favourite things to do in Nice, whether you’re a first-time visitor or, like me, making a welcome return to this Riviera gem.
1. Soak up the atmosphere of Vieux Nice
Not just the narrow streets and hidden squares but the many fine buildings and historic sites that make up this three-sided section of the city. With the green corridor of the Promenade du Paillon on one side, the Mediterranean on another, and the rocky outcrop of Castle Hill along the third, this delicious quarter is packed with iconic photo moments.
Wander inside the sumptuous Baroque interior of Saint-Reparate Cathedral; browse the market stalls beneath the colourful striped canopies on Cours Saleya; and watch the world go by from a café table on Place Garibaldi. See how the other half lived in the 17th century at Palais Lascaris with its opulent staircase and highly decorated rooms. And maybe sample traditional local dishes at Acchiardo on Rue Droite, one of 33 restaurants that proudly displays the Cuisine Nissarde label.
2. Take in the views from Castle Hill
Site of Nikaia where ancient Greek traders first established a settlement, the Colline du Château divides the Bay of Angels from the yacht harbour, and offers great views of both from the wooded summit. Nice harbour is smaller than neighbouring Antibes, playground of the super-rich, but you’ll still see a selection of gleaming craft.
It’s a steep climb from the seafront via slopes and steps to a succession of viewing terraces, the panorama broadening out at every new bend. So my tip would be to catch the free elevator up and then walk down. Or hop on the little Tourist Train at sea level and jump off at the top to enjoy a cold drink and a snack at the shady café close to the archaeological remains.
3. Stroll the sea front on a fine evening
At the eastern end of the Baie des Anges, the coast road was known as the Quai du Midi until 1917 when it was renamed the Quai des Etats-Unis in honour of President Woodrow Wilson’s decision to enter the world war ‘against barbarianism’. Further west, America morphs seamlessly into England as the road becomes the Promenade des Anglais in honour of the Reverend Lewis Way, an Englishman who created a path along the shore here in 1823.
Six years after the terrorist attack that killed 86 people during the Bastille Day fireworks in 2016, it’s hard to equate this beautiful boulevard with the horror of that night. Bollards now prevent traffic from mounting the broad seafront pavement that is popular with locals and visitors alike. Sit on the shingle to watch the waves; pop inside the legendary Negresco hotel for a cocktail; and watch the lights come on around the bay. Then turn inland to experience the floodlit statues and arcades of Place Masséna.
4. Enjoy a culture fix in some of the city’s many museums
Nice boasts 10 municipal museums covering a wide range of art and history, and a 3-day Museums Pass is good value at just 15 euros. Or invest in a French Riviera pass for a wide range of discounts that also includes sightseeing tours and the Grand Tour tourist bus – 26, 38 or 56 euros for 24, 48 or 72 hours.
If time is limited, I’d recommend three of the unique municipal collections. Head to the Old Town for Palais Lascaris, a magnificent 17th century Baroque mansion whose opulent rooms are home to a collection of musical instruments and fine art. And catch a bus uphill to the Cimiez district for the Matisse Museum and adjacent Archaeological Museum with its Roman arena and extensive remains of a Roman bath complex. The same bus passes the Chagall Museum, the first National Museum in France dedicated to a sole artist during his lifetime.
5. Explore beyond the city centre
The Nice Metropolitan area covers three very distinctive zones – the coastal strip, the foothills, and the high peaks of the Alpes-Maritimes. So visitors can combine a seaside city break with excursions to perched mountain villages, sailing and watersports with skiing and hiking.
Take the train or the Grand Tour sightseeing bus to neighbouring Villefranche-sur-Mer to wander its quaint streets or sit beside the sheltered harbour over an al fresco meal at Le Cosmo. Walk the pine-scented coastal trail around the peninsula in the chic resort of Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, and soak up some period glamour at the Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild. Or head up to the medieval village of Eze to visit the exotic hilltop gardens and browse the craft boutiques. I can also recommend the Train des Merveilles, a 2-hour journey that climbs steadily up to Tende in the high country at the gateway to the Mercantour National Park. For inspiration and information, visit www.nicetourisme.com.
Find out more
Ideal for a city break, Kirker Holidays offer superb hotels, travel notes and private transfers from the airport. Call 0800 412 5678 to book your stay in this glamorous, enchanting city.