France is a big country—it’s impossible to see everything even in a lifetime of vacations. Yes, Paris is a must, as are the lavender fields of Provence. But don’t stop there! Nice is a treasure trove of sun-warmed beach promenades, influential art, and a culinary tradition all its own. Here are some reasons why you should consider Nice for your next French adventure:
It’s bustling—in a good way.
We can’t pretend that Nice isn’t already one of France’s hottest tourist destinations. The largest city on the famed Côte d’Azur—or French Riviera—rose to superstar status in the 19th century.
Europeans flock to its cerulean blue seas in July and August. Its Carnival Mardi Gras celebrations (mid-Feb to March) are some of Europe’s greatest. Every May it’s filled to the brim with visitors during the Cannes Film Festival and the Monaco Grand Prix.
It’s multicultural and glamorous.
Tourism is nothing new to Nice. It boasts a wide variety of hotels, including many affordable 3-star and 4-star properties. Surprisingly, Nice came to life as a winter vacation destination. Seeking sunny, mild winters, wealthy Brits began frequenting this Mediterranean wonderland in the late-1700s. The railroad aided in this tourism boom. Parisian aristocrats, Belgian kings, English queens, and Russian princesses came for the splendor of la Belle Époque on the shores of the Mediterranean.
The weather, though ideal, was not the only draw. By the late 19th century, Nice had a reputation as a rich man’s paradise. It offered seaside casinos, jaw-dropping scenery, impressive hotels, theaters, mansions, and the crème de la crème of European social circles.
Artists, writers, musicians, and wealthy Americans soon followed, and Nice’s role as a summer resort took shape.
Today, tourism spans a larger portion of the French Riviera. The upper class is now more likely to be lounging on a beach in nearby Cannes, St Tropez, or St Jean de Cap Ferrat. Gamblers are more likely enjoying nearby Monte-Carlo. So what’s left of Nice? A fabulous, inviting city filled with scenic, artistic, culinary wonders.
Nice today exudes a fantastic blend of Italian and French cultures and traditions. With its architecture and vibrant colors, you could easily mistake Nice’s Old Town (Vieille Ville or Vieux Nice) for an Italian city.
There is no shortage of Italian restaurants (gnocchi in particular are a delicacy here). You’ll undoubtedly encounter many Italians visiting from across the border, which is only 25 miles away.
Its Old Town, markets, and shopping are world-class.
Nice is an incredibly easy city to navigate. It has great tram and bus systems. Much of its center is pedestrian-only and contains wonderful parks, fountains, and green areas.
The city’s Old Town is a lovely labyrinth of ochre-colored medieval buildings, bakeries, shops, restaurants, Baroque churches, and elegant palaces. Wandering this neighborhood gives you a glimpse of the city’s Italian past. Some of its grandest squares look like they came straight out of Turin, Italy (the former capital of the House of Savoy), which ruled Nice for centuries.
Be sure to walk down Rue Droite, the home of Palais Lascaris. Another must-see is the Cathedral of Sainte Réparate in the Place Rossetti. Though it resembles any other church from the outside, its 17th-century interior is positively dazzling. A late-addition Old Town jewel is the opera house, which was created in the early 19th century to entertain the city’s posh aristocrats.
Several Old Town businesses have withstood the test of time. One in particular, the Patisserie Auer, once supplied England’s Queen Victoria with chocolate goodies when she wintered in Nice.
Visitors can find great shopping opportunities along pedestrian Cours Saleya, the city’s main market square for centuries. Most mornings it hosts Nice’s famous flower market, but on Mondays it’s the scene of a lively antiques market. (On Saturdays, try the market in Place Garibaldi or the shops on Rue Catherine Ségurane.)
Its scenery is surreal.
Nice is a magical combination of Mediterranean Sea and Alpine foothills. Its most famous avenue, the seaside Promenade des Anglais, offers locals and tourists a chance to take in views of these expansive vistas.
The promenade was commissioned in the 19th century by English vacationers. Strolling down this boardwalk while gazing at the shimmering Bay of Angels is truly an experience to cherish. The transparent sea shifts from shades of cerulean to deep sapphire. At sunset, shreds of pink and orange glimmer on the water.
The inviting water is perfect for a long swim or quick dip. Facilities along the beach rent lounge chairs, umbrellas and towels. If you’re not up for a swim, grab lunch or a drink at one of the many seaside cafes along the promenade. For a terrific view of the promenade, sea and port, head to the top of Castle Hill.
Its art scene is fantastic.
Over the years, Nice’s natural beauty has lent artistic inspiration to a number of famous artists. Today, Nice houses some of the French Riviera’s best art museums. If you can only visit one, make it the Musée National Marc Chagall. Other noteworthy museums in Nice include the Matisse Museum, the Modern and Contemporary Art Museum, and the Fine Arts Museum.
While not an art museum, the seafront Masséna Museum is a great stop for those interested in Nice’s history. The museum’s lavishly decorated downstairs takes you straight back to Nice’s Belle-Époque splendor. Think Downton Abbey, but on the beach.
It’s ideally situated for day trips.
Nice’s location makes it easy to take day trips along the Côte d’Azur. The area offers a variety of sightseeing excursions, frequent buses, and convenient train connections.
Popular destinations in the interior include hilltop Gourdon, the perfume capital of Grasse, and the artsy Saint-Paul-de-Vence. To the west, many day-trippers visit the glamorous Riviera towns of Sainte-Maxime, Saint-Tropez, Antibes, and Cannes.
The eastern edge of Nice also offers incredible day trip opportunities, which feel more and more Italian the farther east you travel. Between Nice and nearby high-rolling Monaco, visitors can take the Three Corniches—scenic coastal roads. Villefranche-sur-Mer, affluent Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, and medieval Èze village all merit a visit.
From Nice it’s also very easy to travel to Italy for the day to visit the markets of San Remo or Ventimiglia.
Why do we love Nice? Its authenticity.
Despite its surreal environs, it’s a normal, everyday French city. Though it has a reputation as a resort town, Nice is not a tourist trap. Even in places that enjoy a high volume of tourists, like Cours Saleya and its flower market, you’ll see locals chatting away in neighborhood cafes and snacking on socca. Locals actually live in the Old Town. As you meander through its narrow streets you’ll see children playing, friends having drinks, and long lines forming at the neighborhood butcher. Old Towns aren’t like this everywhere in Europe. It’s one of the many things that makes Nice so very special.