Nice bewitches with its magnificent Mediterranean setting, its old town with its narrow passageways, cafes and markets, and its beaches. But Nice is much more than a beach town. It is the 5th largest city in France and has a wealth of museums and cultural attractions to keep the visitor occupied for several days or a week beyond seaside activities.
Nice is well situated along the famous Côte d’Azur to continue your explorations along the gorgeous French Riviera. But having spent four languid summer days here during the summer of 2019, I can attest to the city’s appeal. This is a place that you could feel yourself living in, not just visiting as a traveler.
Nice has an undeniable appeal, with its palm-lined boulevards along the sweep of the Bay of Angels, the warm Mediterranean climate, great food and restaurants and a surprising depth of museums in this Queen of the French Riviera. Dive deep into the city’s Old Town to wander its streets, check out the local shops and sink into an outdoor cafe to watch the daily life of its inhabitants. If the Old Town seems more than a little reminiscent of Italy, it’s because Nice was linked to Italy until 1860 when it became part of France, and the influences linger in the architecture, food and culture.
Strolling the Promenade des Anglais and going to the beach will of course be atop any visit to Nice, but there’s so much more. Soak in the views from Castle Hill, have a lunch or dinner in Old Port and enjoy the lively markets of the Cours Selaya.
Nice and the entire French Riviera attracted artists over the years due to the quality of its light and the warm climate. Henri Matisse and Marc Chagall have their own dedicated museums here, and other collections reside in gorgeous mansions such as the Lascaris Palace and the Villa Masséna Museum. In fact, there are more museums in Nice than any other French city outside of Paris.
I feel that the art of living well is present in Nice. It’s a place where life can be enjoyed to the fullest, taking in the beauty of its gardens and the sea, its charming streets and markets forming the fabric of daily life, and its rich heritage and culture provide ongoing stimulation beyond just a vacation spot by the seaside. There’s an energy here that is exciting and vibrant.
Best Sights and Experiences in Nice
Walking the town and along the coastline is one of the great joys of discovering Nice.
In addition, since there is a wealth of museums in the city and in surrounding Côte d’Azur towns, you could save money on individual admissions fees by purchasing a French Riviera pass for 24, 48 or 72 hours. It costs 26€ for 24 hours, 38€ for 48 hours, or 56€ for 72 hours and offers access to over 60 sights. These prices increase to 30€, 46€, 68€ to add in bus and tram transport for 24, 48 or 72 hours.
Seaside Walks and Swimming at the Beach
Amble the Beautiful Promenade des Anglais
The Promenade that sweeps beautifully along the Bay of Angels is to me the iconic spot in Nice, where locals and visitors alike flock to enjoy the beautiful sea views, run, or bike past gorgeous old hotels and mansions, go to the beach to have a daily swim, or just sit in one of the famous blue chairs to take in the passing scene.
The name Promenade des Anglais refers to when English tourists discovered the charms of the city and provided the funding for the famous beachside esplanade. It was built in 1822 and extends over seven kilometers along the shimmering Bay of Angels.
The Promenade des Anglais is an attractive, palm lined pedestrian area that traces the curve of the Bay of Angels beaches. Along the way you’ll pass historic hotels like the Negresco and the Westminster, and elegant gardens. It extends on one end from Nice’s seaside airport to the Old Town and Old Port areas on the other.
Here are a couple of places to check out and activities to do while on your ramble along this beautiful landmark promenade:
Peek into the Hotel Negresco
Its landmark dome perched atop this grand dame of Nice hotels, the Negresco was bult in 1913 and is one of the most lavish addresses along the boulevard. This is a Belle-Époque masterpiece building that now has National Monument status. Step inside to have a look at the lavish interiors, including the Baccarat chandelier hanging in the ballroom originally intended for Russian Tsar Nicholas II. There’s also a Michelin Star restaurant, Le Chantecler.
Rent Velo Bleu bicycles
Another fun way to take an excursion along the Promenade is to rent Velo Bleu bicycles. We found these a great help to easily traverse the Promenade on the dedicated bike lanes to the Old Town and back, particularly if you are staying at one of the beachfront hotels (I stayed at the historic Westminster Hotel and found it convenient and enjoyable).
The bikes make it easy to explore other parts of town, though the city has its own modern tram system along with a network of buses. The one-day Velo Bleu subscription plan costs 1.50€ and provides a free first half hour, then costs 1€ for the second half hour and 2€ each additional hour.
Enjoying the Sea: Public Beaches vs. Private Beach Clubs
Nice is multifaceted in its charms, both natural and cultural, but the siren song of the sea is powerful. The beaches are not of sand, but rather pebbles, so wear beach shoes for making your way from your chair to the sea to swim. You have a choice of paying for beach services at one of many beach clubs, or simply taking your gear onto one of the stretches of public beach.
Our favorite was the Blue Beach Club where we rented sun loungers, beach towels and a parasol and enjoyed large amounts of time unwinding, swimming, reading, conversing and de-stressing. The setting can’t be surpassed on the Promenade, across from the iconic Negresco Hotel.
Blue Beach has a lovely restaurant featuring Mediterranean specialties including local fish such as red mullet and sea bream and terrific salads (my St. Jacque salad with scallops and a strawberry vinaigrette was superb). It’s perfect for a lunch or dinner overlooking the sea. Or order directly from your chaise lounge and let the friendly young staff bring your drinks and meal to you. Spray misters keep guests cooled off at the restaurant on the hottest days of summer.
Prices vary slightly by club, but in 2021 the Blue charged 20 euro for a lounge chair and 7 euro for an umbrella.
The prices are admittedly high for a regular course of beachgoing, so if you simply want to dash to the beach for a morning or evening dip, or plan on going every day of your trip, then there are public beaches. Be aware that there are no restroom facilities and be cautious about your belongings as there are no attendants or lifeguards watching over things.
The beach is full of pebbles not sand, so consider bringing water shoes to help you walk to the water, and perhaps a mat to place under you towel so your back doesn’t protest against the rocks pressing against you when you lay down!
Impressive Squares and Urban Rambles
Vieux Nice is the city’s vibrant old town, with narrow cobblestone streets and pastel-shaded buildings where shops sell soaps, textiles, and local crafts. This is also home to the Cours Selaya markets, which sell fruits, vegetables, plus an assortment of meats, cheeses, and wine.
This in an area to explore at leisure, losing yourself amidst the narrow passageways and popping into the local shops with their very attractive exterior displays designed to lure you in. There are plenty of bars, cafes, and restaurants to grab a meal or a drink, and sit outdoors to admire the pastel-colored buildings and engage in some people watching. Consider a stop at Place Rossetti, a perfect place to sit down and have a drink on a terrace, near the beautiful baroque Cathédrale Sainte Réparate, or an ice cream at the famous Fenocchio. We sampled a cone of Fenocchio’s and sat in the outdoor plaza to enjoy it.
I was amazed by the diversity of products available and the artistry of the displays. There’s the gorgeous lavender from Provence, soaps attractively arranged in an outdoor wicker cart in very shade of the rainbow, wine shops that beckon with tastings, artisanal cheese and butcher shops, and the buildings themselves in every hue imaginable. The ground floors are full of shops, restaurants, cafes, and galleries, while above are apartments adorned with iron balconies and painted wooden shutters.
The whole scene is intensely photogenic, and you’ll find yourself returning at different times of day to lose yourself in the local scene. Come back in the evening for dinner in the magical Old Town ambiance, settling into an outdoor cafe.
Nice Old Town forms a triangle, hemmed in by the port to the east and Castle Hill to the west, where the Promenade des Anglais finishes. The azure waters of the Mediterranean create its southern border.
Even though you’ll want to wander about Old Town on your own, you may want to take a walking tour at the outset to get your bearings, see what there is to see, and learn about the history from a knowledgeable guide. Options include a two-hour walking tour of old town plus Castle Hill for $32.05 per person, or a private walking tour of Nice’s old district for $114.46 per person.
Another area worth a wander is the Old Port, or harbor. Here you will find ferry services for the island of Corsica, tour boats, yachts of the rich and restaurants that are prime locations for taking in the nautical scene while having a drink or a meal.
It’s fun to get a different perspective of the Mediterranean coastline by getting out on the water. Here is one option for a 2 ½ boat trip between Nice and Monaco that allows you to see the stunning natural scenery and coast hugging villas, plus provides some time for swimming before your return. The cost of the adventure is $67.53 per person.
Visit the Amazing Museums
Henri Matisse came to Nice to live and work and made the city his home. In 1963, this beautiful old 17th century Italian villa was transformed into the Matisse Museum, honoring one of the 20th century’s greatest painters. Inside you’ll find a collection of his works in a variety of the mediums he worked in, from paintings to paper cutouts to stained glass (including two studies for his tree of life glass window in his famous chapel in Vence).
The museum is located on the hill of Cimiez north of the sea. Matisse lived from 1918 until his death in 1954. Most of the artwork on display here was created by Matisse here in Nice. You’ll also see some of his personal possessions such as antique furniture and ceramic vases. Admission to the museum costs 10 euro.
Marc Chagall Museum
Chagall was born in Russia in 1887 but became a French citizen in 1937. The Marc Chagall Museum houses one of the world’s largest collections of his works.
The vibrant colors of Chagall’s work just captivated me. Much of his work here deals with biblical themes from the Old and New Testaments. Be sure to first stop into the concert hall to see a film on Chagall’s life to better appreciate what you’ll see here.
The stained-glass panels on display are overwhelmingly beautiful, and the biblical paintings are marvelous. These were originally intended to be placed in the cathedral in Vence, but high humidity in that setting forced a change of plans. Chagall instead built this custom-made space for these works.
This very attractive museum includes pools and a garden, creating a very peaceful place to contemplate these lovely works of art. Entry to the museum costs 8 euro outside of special exhibition periods, 10 euro when special exhibitions are on.
Villa Masséna Museum
Here’s a gem of a collection, the Villa Massena Museum, that I highly recommend. First, the building itself is remarkable, a Belle-Époque villa with its original décor and architecture that is another of the city’s landmarks.
The villa was originally built between 1898 and 1901 as a holiday home for the grandson of one of Napoléon’s generals, Maréchal Massena. Today the museum has an exquisite collection of paintings and furnishings. There are some Napoleon memorabilia, including a vest and death mask.
But most interesting to me is the extensive collection of material relating to the history of the Riviera. You’ll learn the history of how tourism developed from the first Victorian visitors and Russian nobles promenading along the seafront, to menus from the past, period photographs and other memorabilia that bring the past to life in fascinating detail. The entry cost is 15 euro.
Museums for those with more time
Museum of Fine Arts
Originally built for a member of Nice’s Russian community, this Italianate mansion is a Belle Époque wedding cake, containing one of the grandest staircases on the Mediterranean coast.
The Musée des Beaux-Arts contains an extensive collection of artworks from the 16th to 20th centuries. Highlights are the 17th- and 18th-century French paintings, as well as Flemish and Italian art and 19th-century paintings and sculptures. Entry costs 10 euro.
Lascaris Palace Museum
The 17th-century Lascaris Palace is in the Old Town of Nice, and one of the city’s most iconic historic monuments. This family museum opens a window into an aristocratic world filled with lavishly decorated rooms and ornate frescoes.
The palace’s rooms feature furnishings from the 17th and 18th centuries, Flemish tapestries, and Italian ceiling paintings. The impressive main staircase contains niches filled with statues of classical gods. But the most famous part of the museum’s holdings is the enormous musical instrument collection, with some dating to the 16th-century.
The entry cost is 15 euro, but this gives 72-hour access to all the municipal museums of Nice.
Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art
The Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art features artwork from the 1950s to the present, exhibiting work by such famous artists as Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and Francis Bacon. Genres range from French minimalism to American pop art.
The building itself is an architectural work of art. Its two stone blocks are made from Carrara marble, and a glass walkway winds around the top. Make you way the observation deck with its 360-degree views of Nice, from the mountains to the sea.
Admission to the museum costs 10 euro.
Top Parks and Squares
Castle Hill Park
To get one of the very best views of the city, I recommend a walk up to Castle Hill Park. Located just east of Old Town, Castle Hill is the highest point in Nice. At the top, you’ll find the ruins of the Castle, which was destroyed by French King Louis XIV in the early 1700s. You’ll spot a large artificial waterfall, and a historical cemetery, but best of all are the spectacular panoramic views of the city and the Bay of Angels to the west, and of the old port to the east.
Place Masséna is the main square in Nice, and has a checkerboard design, making it very appealing visually. You’ll find yourself passing through here several times during your exploration of the city. There are rococo buildings and fountains, as well as the Promenade du Paillon parkway that stretches down to the Albert 1st Garden. Decorated with palm trees and flowers, this pedestrian-only zone is a very pretty place to wander.
The Fontaine du Soleil (Fountain of the Sun) is at one side of the square and has an interesting history of its own. There are 5 bronze sculptures in the basin representing Earth, Mars, Mercury, Saturn, and Venus and in the center stands a large marble statue of Apollo, 23 feet tall and weighing 7 tons.
The people of Nice were less than thrilled when the fountain was unveiled in 1956. Apollo’s role in mythology was to pull the sun across the sky behind his horse-drawn chariot. But the sculptor placed the horses atop Apollo’s head instead. It made locals think of a local car known as the four-horsepower Renault and the statue was nicknamed the four-horsepower statue.
Not only that, but Apollo’s male anatomy was also judged as being too large and the sculptor had to chisel down its size, and locals then made fun of that as well! The statuary’s nudity offended many and both the Apollo and the bronze statues were moved out of the city for over thirty years until finally restored to their rightful place at the fountain.
Admire its Eclectic Churches
Nice Cathedral (Cathedrale Sainte-Reparate)
Tucked away in the Place Rossetti in the heart of Old Town, the Baroque Cathedrale Sainte-Reparate from the 1680s contains the relics of Saint Reparata, a virgin martyr and the city’s patron saint.
It is well worth coming inside during your Old Town explorations to have a look around. The cathedral has a beautiful interior with ten chapels, several organs, and an ornate high altar. The adjoining bell tower was added in the 17th-century. Entry is free.
St Nicholas Orthodox Church
Russia’s last emperor, Tsar Nicholas II, ordered the building of St. Nicholas Orthodox Church, the largest of its kind outside of Russia. Nice used to be the winter home of Russian aristocracy, and this cathedral was built to accommodate their needs in 1896. The six gold-leaf onion domes reach to the sky, and it’s a surprising sight to see here on the French Riviera.
Inside, the cathedral is richly furnished and elaborately decorated with icons, carved woodwork, and mosaics. You can take a guided tour to learn about its history, but there is no cost to enter and have a look around.
The Cimiez Monastery is still a working monastery with monks living onsite. There are beautiful gardens to visit plus a terrace with spectacular views over Nice and the coastline. The Gothic monastery dates to the 14th and 15th centuries and the church has some beautiful paintings by Ludovico Brea.
The museum presents exhibits on Franciscan history from the 13th century and contains 17th century frescoes. Artists Henri Matisse and Raoul Dufy are buried in the cemetery near the monastery. This is a peaceful yet very interesting trip into the northern hillside section of town called Cimiez, and entry is free.
Salivate over its Enticing Food Experiences
Cours Saleya market
Be sure to pay a visit to Nice’s most famous market, the Cours Selaya. The market is Instagram worthy with beautiful floral displays and mounds of fresh produce. The market beckons visitors to wander through and interact with the vendors. The multi-hued displays continue beyond the fruits and vegetables to rainbow-colored soaps, spices, and gorgeous Provençal lavender.
Striped awnings cover the center of the market, and a multitude of cafes and restaurants ring the sides of the long square.
From Tuesday through Sunday (8am–1pm), the market is crowded with fruit and vegetable sellers, along with meat and cheese vendors. The flower market operates Tuesday to Sunday from 8am to around 6pm. Then on Mondays the square hosts an antiques market. Go experience this real slice of daily life in Nice.
Local food favorites
Visiting Nice also means discovering the local food specialties. Here are some to try:
Socca: a hot, peppery flatbread made of chickpea flour and olive oil. Look for the stand within the Cours Selaya market that dishes out these treats, baked on a large cast-iron pan. This is where we tried out this local favorite, straight off the hot pan into a waiting paper cone for me to munch on as we strolled through the market.
Pissaladière: A flatbread pizza with black olives, caramelized onions, and anchovies.
Salade niçoise: The classic salad with tuna, tomatoes, salad and other raw vegetables, anchovies, hard-boiled eggs, and olives.
Pan Bagnat: a sandwich version of the niçoise salad: tuna and/or anchovies, raw vegetables, hard-boiled eggs, olives, and olive oil enclosed in a round bread.
Farcis niçois: small vegetables stuffed with sausage meat.
We stopped at one of the restaurants right in the Cours Selaya for lunch, specifically to sample several of these local treats during the same meal. We tried the farcis niçois and the pissaladière and of course a salade niçoise and recommend all of them. The market and the surrounding shops scattered throughout the Old Town make it easy to make your own culinary discoveries.
Ice cream at Fenocchio
In the heart of the Old Town in Place Rossetti, Fenocchio is a master ice-cream maker that has been in business since 1966. It offers an amazing variety of over 70 flavors. Take some to go on your day or evening walk around the passageways of Old Town or have your treat right in the square. Here are types of ice cream you’ve never tried before, like lavender, fig, tomato, and beer!
Sometimes I like to put myself in the hands of locals who know the culinary scene intimately to find the best places to try the various specialty items or find those don’t miss places I might not find on my own. There are several good tours to choose from to help supplement your own explorations.
A Taste of Nice runs 3-4 hour Niçois cuisine food tours, focusing on local specialties and wines. Choose from either a 10 am morning tour with stops at a market and local shops then a sit-down lunch priced at 75 euro or a 5 pm afternoon tour with a culinary walk through the old town followed by dinner at 95 euro.
Nice offers so much to the visitor, from its magical natural setting to its labyrinth of streets in Old Town. Spend as much time as you like just taking in the grand scenery by walking the length of the Promenade des Anglais, visiting a beach club to enjoy the sea and perhaps have a meal on the beach. Or take a bike ride from one end to the other. Wander the old port and make your way up to Castle Hill to drink in the views from on high.
My personal favorites of the many museums are those dedicated to individual artists, namely those of Henri Matisse and Marc Chagall, but the Villa Masséna is also a fun trip back in time recounting the development of tourism in this Queen of the Riviera.
Old Town is another place you’ll want to spend a lot of time in, as exploring its little alleyways will reward you by discovering the little shops and cafes that you’ll remember or find unique things to purchase. But be sure to also take the time to relax and enjoy your surroundings. For those with more time, Nice is a great place to use as a base for further explorations of the towns and villages strung like pearls along the coast of the Mediterranean.
Nice is the perfect blend of beautiful seaside resort and cultured, cosmopolitan city that offers the best of both worlds. Its mild climate combined with a rich tapestry of cultural offerings make it an attractive year-round destination. I could imagine settling in here as a place to live, not just considering it as a delightful vacation destination!