Nice is a blessed city on the Mediterranean: the spectacular Provence light, wonderful food, a great quality of life, an international airport, and if you get tired of the sea, the Alps and ski resorts aren’t even 1 hour away.
Nice is centred on the 4-mile beach that curves round the palm-lined Baie des Anges. Above the beach runs the Promenade des Anglais, which was paid for with English money in the 19th century (hence the name), at the time when the Cote d’Azur started to attract winter visitors.
At that time Nice did not extend beyond what is now called Vieux Nice (Old Nice), at the eastern end of the Baie des Anges. Vieux Nice is a tight cluster of little streets and squares that are full of shops, restaurants and the street markets. This is where the charm of Nice is most concentrated.
Carry on around the point from Old Nice and you get to the harbour, which is partly alluring with wooden fishing boats, partly ferry terminal for sailings to Corsica. Around the harbour are many restaurants, mostly seafood-based.
Nice is great for transport. Apart from France’s second biggest airport there are buses and trains that run the length of the French Riviera, as well as inland to the lovely villages in the hills behind Nice.
The place to walk around and take in the life and bustle of a Mediterranean city. There are few cars and interesting sights at every turn. You will see the mix of Italian and French architecture, some fine belle époque buildings, squares brimming with market stalls and endless restaurants, bistros and boutiques. The best view of Vieux Nice is from the hill above, Parc du Chateau, which you can walk up or take the lift. At noon you will hear the cannon blast from atop this hill – another English influence: Sir Thomas Coventry, resident of the 1860s, wanted to know exactly when it was time for lunch. The tradition continues to this day, and signifies it is time to head back down to Vieux Nice, maybe for a salade nicoise.
From narrow shaded alleys Old Nice opens out into the Cours Saleya, home to a gloriously colourful market befitting of Nice. Cours Saleya is know for its flower market – Marche des Fleurs – although it has tempting food stalls too. The market runs every day except Monday. Matisse lived just off Cours Saleya at 1, Place Charles-Felix, his colourful house is still there but it is not marked and cannot be visited.
Promenade des Anglais
This wide promenade is over 4 miles long and runs the length of the sea-front for over 4 miles. It is still a lovely place to promenade, although instead of lords and ladies in Victorian dress there is now a rush of skaters, cyclists and joggers, and a more demure stream of people taking in the air and view. There is room for all. The sea is a lovely aquamarine, the palm trees yell ‘French Riviera’, and though most of the old buildings across the road have been replaced by modernist constructions, everyone is looking the other way anyway. The beach is pebbly and alternates between public and private beach clubs where you can be nourished and sunlounged. Skates can be rented at the eastern end of the Promenade des Anglais.
Nice has some great art museums.
Chagall Museum (Musée National Marc Chagall). While his contemporaries were painting chapels along the coast (Picasso in Vallauris, Cocteau in Villefranche and Matisse in Vence), Chagall painted a series of 17 paintings based on stories from the Old Testament. No chapel was found for these paintings so a museum was built in the hills of Nice.
Matisse Museum (Musée Matisse). Perhaps the best of Nice’s museums, the Matisse museum is set amid the Roman ruins of Cimiez Hill, and has a great collection of Matisse’s oeuvre, from the 1890s to his late cut-outs – it is the world’s biggest Matisse collection.
Musee Archéologique (archeological museum)– next to the Matisse Museum, this houses Roman artefacts found at the excavations of Cemenelum, where you can see the remains of the amphitheatre and baths. Only worth it if you are a Rome buff.
Musée d’Art Moderne et d’Art Contemporain (Modern and Contemporary Art Museum) or MAMAC. Four concrete towers announce that this is modernism. Inside are the colourful works of Rauschenburg, Christo, Warhol, Oldenburg and other major figures of the late 20th century. Upstairs is an Yves Klein gallery. Those are the recognisable names, there is also some far-out, less accessible stuff for the ultra-contemporary.
The Russian Cathedral is the most beautiful Russian church outside Russia. Built for the many Russian noble families who wintered in Nice, it was paid for by the Tsar, so only the finest materials were used. To the Russian design is added a Mediterranean twist – blue tiles from Florence, pink granite, the white stone of La Turbie, and glazed roof tiles from Nice. Inside, a treasure trove of icons and frescoes, gold and jewels.