Graced with an average of 2,640 hours of sunshine per year, Nice, France, proudly wears the colors of Chagall and Matisse: Its Mediterranean bay is azure blue, its tiled roofs are red, its houses ocher and yellow, and its gardens emerald green. All those colors also show up at the wonderful flower market on Cours Saleya and on the tiny bikini bottoms worn on the pebbly but oh-so-fashionable beaches.
Greeks and Romans, Savoyard kings and wealthy visitors have shaped the destiny of Nice, and still this is the only town on the Cote d'Azur that doesn't seem to depend on its 4 million tourists per year. The dynamic capital of the departement of Alpes-Maritimes may be the most-visited French city after Paris, but it is still a very local affair.
If you avoid the summer months in Nice, you can still enjoy the local cuisine to its fullest and soak up the Mediterranean light that Picasso so loved. And the stunning highlights of the French Riviera are just a few minutes' drive away.
Nice enjoys a privileged position between a gently curving bay of the Mediterranean Sea and the mountains of the Ligurian Alps, which shelter it from cold northern winds. Palms, eucalyptus and citrus trees give Nice a subtropical appearance. In the hinterland, the Arriere Pays, you'll find olive groves, pine woods, wild flowers and perched villages, which offer fabulous vistas along with cooling summer breezes.
The major areas of tourist interest are the Old Town (Vieux Nice), the New Town to the west with the Promenade des Anglais and the major boulevards, the leafy district of Cimiez with its first-class museums to the north, and the port to the east of the Old Town.
At the site known as Terra Amata at the foot of Mont Boron, remnants of a prehistoric human camp some 400,000 years old have been unearthed. Around 1000 BC, the Ligurians built their oppida
at the mouth of the Paillon River and on the hill overlooking the valley.
Classical civilization goes back to the fourth century BC, when Phocaean Greeks from Marseille sailed into the harbor and founded a commercial colony near the seaside oppidum around a hill they called Nikaia (today Colline du Chateau).
In 100 BC, the Romans, called in to help against Ligurian pirates, chose to stay on and built a city on a third hill that they called Cemenelum (today's Cimiez). By the third century, Cemenelum had 20,000 inhabitants, who enjoyed such luxuries as Roman baths and an amphitheater.
In the early Middle Ages, Nice was invaded and destroyed by Saracens and Barbarians, but in the 14th century the city rose again. In 1382, Jeanne, Queen of Sicily and Countess of Provence, was smothered to death on the order of her cousin Charles of Durazzo, Prince of Naples. He and another cousin, Louis of Anjou, tried to rule Nice, but the city preferred to side with the Counts of Savoy and spend the prosperous Renaissance and Baroque times Italian-style.
With Louis XIV, the French made a comeback by blowing up the city's fortifications, but apart from a brief period of control by Revolutionary forces between 1792 and 1814, Nice belonged to Savoy until 1860, when the King of Sardinia ceded the city of Nice and Savoy to Napoleon III in the (secret) Treaty of Turin. The treaty was later ratified in a rigged plebiscite.
By 1755 the first wealthy British travelers seeking winter warmth had set up shop in Nice and on the Riviera. In 1830 they financed the building of the seafront esplanade along the Baie des Anges, known to this day as the Promenade des Anglais. Soon it was lined by elegant hotels, and Nice became the favorite meeting place for European glitterati in winter. In the 1890s, Queen Victoria sealed Nice's fate by making the suburb of Cimiez her winter residence.
Famous writers, film stars, composers and painters such as Picasso and Matisse flocked to Nice, followed by an armada of tourists. Longtime mayors Jean Medecin and his notorious son Jacques Medecin elevated corruption to an art form. Since then, things have calmed down a bit, although the mayor elected in 2008, Christian Estrosi, a flamboyant former motorbike champion, has shown a tendency to revive some of the Medecin traditions.
By international standards, Nice is a rather small city, but it offers a surprisingly diverse number of attractions for the visitor. Its museums are world-class affairs: You can admire Roman antiquities, masterpieces of Asian art, paintings by Matisse, Chagall and Picasso, and the best contemporary art on the Riviera.
The revamped Old Town with its old churches and houses of Genoese times remind visitors of Nice's long Italian heritage. Countless charming bars and cafes invite flaneurs (strollers) through their doors.
Enjoy the stately belle epoque and art-deco mansions in the suburb of Cimiez, where queens and tsarinas once spent balmy winters; walk or skate the fabulous Promenade des Anglais; watch millionaires sailing their yachts in and out of Port Lympia; enjoy a lazy beach afternoon at classy Beau Rivage Plage; get pampered in one of the luxury spas; and enjoy a performance of Tosca in the beautiful Opera House before you dance the night away in one of the many bars.
And if money is burning a hole into your pocket, there are two casinos right on the sea promenade.
In a city with half of its inhabitants younger than 40, Nice has a lively club scene focused in and around Vieux Nice—the Old Town. The bar scene is also hopping, and many bars have a small dance floor and often live music or at least a DJ. Just walk around Vieux Nice and along Cours Saleya. On balmy nights the bar, pub and cafe terraces are still full long after midnight. Remember that Monaco's Monte Carlo is a short distance away, with a much more sophisticated selection of clubs and bars.
Nice's cuisine still shows its Ligurian influences, with its love for seafood, olive oil and tiny black olives, chickpeas, fresh basil and pine nuts.
For starters, the Nicois eat pasta (for example, ravioli filled with seafood, artichoke hearts or walnut sauce), gnocchi or, in the winter, soupe au pistou. This hearty soup is made with courgettes (zucchini), tomatoes, beans, potatoes, onions and vermicelli, and served with pistou, a sauce based on basil, pine nuts and garlic. Another Nicois favorite is bourride, a fish soup served with aioli.
Rightfully popular is the salade nicoise, usually made with quartered tomatoes, capers, black olives, spring onions, anchovies or tuna, green beans, and with or without hard-boiled eggs and potatoes.
Grilled fish and estocafinado (a stew of salt cod, garlic and tomato stockfish) appear on most menus, as do ratatouille or tourte aux blettes (a pie filled with boiled Swiss chard, pine nuts and raisins in vinaigrette). The Nicois also love socca (a sort of chickpea flour pancake), pan bagnat (a sandwich filled with tuna, onions, tomato, egg and olive oil), pissaladiere (onion tart), petits farcis (stuffed vegetables with meat or herb and mushroom fillings) and courgette flowers.
Nice has its very own local wine, the high-quality Bellet, from one of the smallest vineyards in France.
Expect to pay within these general guidelines, based on the cost of a dinner for one, including tax and service charge but not including drinks: $ = less than 20 euros; $$ = 20 euros-35 euros; $$$ = 36 euros-50 euros; and $$$$ = more than 50 euros.
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