Just like any other lively, sprawling city, Nice cannot be tidily summed up in a few chapters. There is no one area that contains all the best sights, the greatest museums and coolest clubs. You’re going to have to walk a bit, bus a bit and stop for a fair few cool lemonades along the way if you want to really see the sights.
When exploring Vieux Nice it helps to remember that it was, until relatively recently, cut off from the surrounding neighbourhoods by the river Paillon. It was only in 1921, when the river was covered over and the Pont Vieux was demolished, that the city’s most ancient quarter became fully accessible. And yet the spirit of the place remains very much one of feisty independence. It is, in no uncertain terms, the blood and guts of Nice.
Vieux Nice’s new life has been the familiar modern parable of tourism and gentrification. Trendy second-homers (domestic and foreign), and a heavy traffic of tourists shuttling to the nearby airport, have brought in their wake slick bars, restaurants and shops, but the original residents are far from outnumbered. This is the part of town where the old ladies at the boulangerie still gossip together in Niçois, and where the local festivals and processions are taken very seriously.
Walking among the tall, pastel-coloured buildings of rue Droite, the street feels cool as a forest floor, while high above washing lines are threaded from balcony to balcony, and the faded blue shutters are shut tight against the battering sun. The unassuming façade of Eglise de Jésus or Palais Lascaris are gateways into forgotten worlds, while the sudden surprise of the Cathédrale de Sainte Réparate, opening up among the tiny streets, is one of the most beautiful sights on the Riviera. But perhaps the greatest of Vieux Nice’s treasures is the cours Saleya, home to the flower market and many of the city’s busiest bars and restaurants. If you have time to drink just one coffee, then drink it here.
Major reconstruction work has converted the central place Masséna into a vast open precinct at the hub of the New Town. From here, streets branch off in all directions, offering myriad shopping and dining possibilities. Not least of which are the city’s two major department stores (Galeries Lafayette and Nice Etoile), under whose collective roofs you’ll be able to lay your hands on everything from socks to contact lenses. But for more exclusive addresses, head down to the blue-chip rue Paradis, which is, as its name implies, a kind of heaven on earth for design junkies.
But God is not only in the retail: the New Town has rich pickings for culture vultures, particularly those with a taste for the contemporary. The MAMAC (Musée d’Art Moderne et d’Art Contemporain) and the Théâtre de la Photographie et de l’Image both contain enough material to keep even the keenest museum hound going for a couple of afternoons. And for those with junior members in tow, the fustier but no less fascinating Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle is stuffed to the rafters with creepy crawlies.
And unlike Vieux Nice, where the buildings are jammed tightly together, the New Town has some splendid boulevards (notably Victor Hugo), where the townhouses are grand and the restaurants correspondingly smart. But if it’s just a quick bite you’re looking for, the area’s busiest shopping streets (France and Buffa) are just a few steps to the south, where snackeries and kiosks are wedged in among a rainbow of shops, bars, clubs and cafés.
If most of the history and character is crammed into the labyrinth of Vieux Nice, then it’s here, on the sun-spangled promenade des Anglais, that the real action is.
In-line skaters carve through the crowds, speedboats haul shrieking parascenders skywards and swarthy boys flirt with bikini-clad girls at the ice-cream stands. The bay itself is one long stripe of bleached pebble and turquoise water, divided between the volleyball courts and crisp white sun loungers of the private beaches, and the colourful melee of the public ones. And as evening falls, the promenade comes alive with sunset strollers and post-work joggers, while parents sitting on the famous blue seats watch their children devour waffles and Nutella crêpes. Until finally, when the last stragglers have packed up their towels and wandered home, the bars and restaurants get going, and the sea becomes a dark, glittering backdrop to the evening’s festivities.
If you want to make the most of your sun-worshipping, it’s worth taking note of how the Baie des Anges is divided up. Much of its steep, pebbly shoreline (remember to pack some sandals) is open to the public at all times of day, throughout the year. And it is on these public beaches that you can expect to encounter serious crowds in summer. If that doesn’t faze you, then fine (just remember to leave any valuables at home – the normal seaside drill), but if you’d rather occupy a more exclusive patch of sunlight, you’ll need to pay the entrance fee on one of the private beaches. Read more about Nice's private beaches.
Some of Nice’s most iconic buildings are also to be found on the waterfront, such as the two hotels, the Negresco and the Palais de la Méditerranée.
The Musée d’Art et d’Histoire at the Palais Masséna has been undergoing serious renovation work and was still not finished at the time of writing. For the latest information on this, contact the Centre du Patrimoine.
With far fewer hotels than the New Town or even hotel-poor Vieux Nice, the Port is an area where most visitors lodge aboard ships. But if that conjures an image of salty seafarers, nothing could be further from the truth. The yachts and gin palaces moored in Nice’s harbour are smart, shiny and staffed by liveried crews. Some of the busts might be enhanced with silicone, but the Guccis, Rolexes and Prada swimsuits are all real.
Happily, though, you don’t need to be part of the yachty clique to fit in on the dock of the bay, where most of the bars and restaurants are down-to-earth locals’ haunts (with the occasional, very fancy exception – hey, a billionaire’s gotta eat). And just wandering around the streets here, there is a sense of a city going about its business, unlike in the more overtly touristy Vieux Nice where the prevailing tone is more of a city made into a business.
That said, it’s still only a short walk around the headland to get to the promenade des Anglais, with the splendid War Memorial and the magnificent views from Pointe Rauba Capeu en route. Or else wend your way past the antiques shops of rue Catherine Ségurane and take the back way into town (stopping for a sweet treat at Confiserie Florian and a quick shufti at the Puces de Nice along the way).
The beautiful residential neighbourhood of Cimiez, quietly drowsing on its hillside a few miles above Vieux Nice, is where you’ll find some of the best museums in town. The dynamic duo of Musée Matisse and Musée National Message Biblique Marc Chagall draw huge crowds, while the rather more erudite L’Eglise et Le Monastère Notre Dame de Cimiez and Musée Archéologique de Nice-Cimiez offer a little more breathing space.
Further afield, Cathédrale Saint Nicolas (popularly known as ‘the Russian church’) is gobsmackingly beautiful, while the far-flung Musée des Arts Asiatiques and neighbouring Parc Floral Phoenix are only a ten-minute bus or cab ride from the pavements of the old town, and yet a world apart from its bustle and heat. The excellent Musée des Beaux-Arts is accessible by foot (for those who have the puff for the steep Baumettes), and be comforted that at the end of the trek to Villa Arson, you’ll find not only an impressive stash of contemporary art but a first-rate café to boot. And on the subject of food, the views from Coco Beach restaurant are not only the most extraordinary in Nice but arguably some of the most exquisite to be found in all of France. A grand statement? Go judge for yourself.
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