Nice’s unofficial anthem is Nissa La Bella, and you can’t help but agree with this sentiment when you visit the French Riviera’s largest city. Nice’s beauty comes from the 19th-century mansions on its promenades and boulevards, from the city’s Italianate old quarter and the rugged natural terrain that provides countless wondrous vantage points.
Artists have always cherished this scenery, rendered even more beautiful by the unique light. So Nice is now also one of the best places to go in Europe for art galleries, with museums dedicated to Chagall and Matisse. Add great cuisine, a perfect climate and more than a dash of Riviera glamour, you’ve got a very special place.
Lets explore the best things to do in Nice:
1. Promenade des Anglais
There are seaside walks, and then there’s the Promenade des Anglais, which is more than just a grand walkway next to the Mediterranean: It’s been an integral part of Nice city life (something the recent attack won’t change) since this embankment was built in the 1820s.
Parades for the ebullient Nice Carnival come by in February, while the rest of the year joggers, couples skateboarders and families pass all day long.
The promenade bends for seven kilometres, and on the eastern side is skirted by regal 19th-century palaces.
You can take a seat on the benches and find shade beneath pergolas and palm trees.
2. Vieille Ville
The oldest part of the city is a change from Nice’s broad boulevards and expansive squares like Place Masséna.
It’s a mesh of alleys with local shops and restaurants, darkened by tall ochre-painted apartment buildings and dominated by the Colline du Château to the east.
Glaciers, crêperies and cafes all flow onto the squares, which are often lively until the early hours.
There’s a strong Italian feel about the architecture and setting, which is no coincidence as Nice wasn’t French until the Treaty of Turin in 1860.
3. Parc de la Colline du Château
In the park at the top of this steep hill on the east side of the city you’ll be presented with some of the French Riviera’s great panoramas.
You can look back over Nice and the azure sea in the Baie des Anges, and it’s a sight you’ll want to pause over for as long as possible.
You can pick out all the landmarks, like Hotel Negresco and the port to the east.
If you’re feeling fit you might reach the top on foot from the Vieille Ville, but there’s also a free elevator, which is recommended in the summer.
4. Musée Marc Chagall
Chagall was so involved in the design of this museum that he decided where each of his works would be placed, configured the layout of the gardens and designed the stained-glass windows in the concert hall.
So in many ways the museum is a coherent work of art by itself.
But the reason it was created was to house Chagall’s series of 17 paintings with biblical themes, divided in to the New and Old Testament.
Among these is the famous Resistance, Resurrection, Liberation triptych, painted before, during and after the Second World War.
5. Nice Cathedral
Located in the Vieille Ville, the exterior of this landmark is rather unprepossessing, apart from its patterned dome.
A casual visitor to the square in front might not even realise that this is the city’s cathedral.
Inside it’s a different story, and the building takes on new domensions once you step through its doors.
It was built in the 17th century with a lavish baroque design, composed of ten highly ornate chapels with sculptures, paintings and gilding.
Once again, it’s the kind of building you’d expect to find in Italy or Spain.
6. Cours Saleya Market
Also in Nice’s old quarter is this lovely flower and fresh produce market, which sets up every day except Monday when it’s replaced by a flea market.
If you’re holidaying in an apartment in Nice then this market is a godsend, selling fresh produce, regional delicacies like socca made on site and flowers sourced from the Provence and Alpes-Maritimes countryside.
Many sellers will tempt you with free samples, which is an effective way of getting your business! The flower stalls stay open the longest, remaining until 17:30, long after the food sellers have packed up.
Beat the tourist rush and get there as early as possible.
7. Musée Masséna
This 19th-century villa on the Promenade des Anglais was donated to the city by the Duke of Rivoli in 1919 on the condition that it should be opened to the public as a museum of local history.
You have to go to see what it’s like inside one of these Belle Époque mansions, and it has gardens that were designed by Édouard André, also responsible for those at the Monte Carlo Casino.
There’s an intriguing miscellany of curiosities inside, like Napoleon’s death mask and a tiara belonging to his wife, Empress Joséphine, as well as a collection of 19th-century French art on the second floor.
This one city has contributed a lot to French cuisine, and there are a handful of local dishes you can’t leave Nice without trying.
Salade Niçoise is an obvious one to start with: It’s hard-boiled egg, green beans, anchovies, tomatoes and calletier olives, and goes superbly with Bandol’s rosé wines or whites from Bellet.
A more casual street-food is Socca, a kind of cross between flatbread and pancake, made with chickpea flower and sold by vendors in the old quarter.
Ratatouille also comes from this part of the world, and this famous vegetable stew is made with courgettes, aubergine, peppers and tomato.
There’s also fougasse bread, onion tart and Daube Niçoise, a braised beef stew, with bacon, tomatoes and red wine.
Available tour: Half-Day Walking, Food & Wine Tour
9. Parc Phoenix
There’s a three Euro fee to get in to this park, but it’s money well-spent considering how much there is crammed into these seven hectares on the western end of the Promenade des Anglais.
Kids go free and, it’s one of the few attractions in Nice that they’re guaranteed to enjoy.
There are 20 themed zones, with 2,500 plant species growing around ponds, in a modern greenhouse (one of Europe’s largest) and in a variety of gardens.
There are also animal enclosures and terrariums, with turtles, otters and tropical spiders, while mandarin ducks, Chilean flamingos and iguanas roam freely in the greenhouse.
Nice’s beaches are pebbly, and while they’re beautiful to wander past, they may not be to everyone’s taste for sunbathing.
There are private sections providing the comfort of sun loungers, and occasionally even laying sand.
Everywhere else you can still pass a relaxing afternoon in the sun, but the currents might be a bit strong for little ones and the beach shelves quite steeply too.
One beach guaranteed to delight the kids is on the other side of Mont Boron at Villefranche-sur-Mer, where the waters are shallower and screened from the open sea by the headlands at Cap de Nice and Cap-Ferrat.
11. Monastère de Cimiez
This monastery on a rise, north of the centre was established by the Benedictines in the 800s.
You get there along the Boulevard de Cimiez, one of Nice’s most impressive thoroughfares, with extraordinary 19th-century hotels and mansions.
The gothic monastery buildings are from the 14th and 15th centuries, with delicate frescoes from the 1500s.
But most visitors make the climb for one purpose: To see the exquisite gardens, with flower beds, topiaries, geometric lawns, pergolas and a terrace with an unbelievable view of the city.
These gardens are the oldest on the Côte d’Azur, plotted in 1546 and a potager for the monks.
12. More Art Museums!
With the Riviera Pass you can get into the Chagall Museum and a host of other attractions on one ticket over a 48-hour or seven-day period.
Here’s a quick overview; The Matisse Museum has one of the world’s biggest collections of this revered impressionist’s works, but perhaps more exciting for fans is that it builds a picture of the artist’s influences and process (with heaps of sketches to see). On Promenade des Anglais there’s the Museum of Asian Art, right behind the Phoenix Park, with a pavilion where you can attend an authentic Japanese tea ceremony.
Then there’s the contemporary art museum, MAMAC, with pieces by Warhol, Lichtenstein and Yves Klein.
A byword for Riviera luxury and old money, Cap-Ferrat is 20 minutes east of Nice, on the panoramic Boulevard Napoléon III. Come to be dazzled by the sensational turn-of-the-century mansions.
One, Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild, is open to visitors and loaded with precious paintings, sculptures and furniture.
Like the renowned path at Cap d’Antibes, Cap-Ferrat is also bordered by a coastal trail with supreme photo opportunities of the Riviera’s mythic rugged coastline and the Massif de l’Esterel.
The path is also the easiest way to get to some to the cosy beaches on the east side.
14. OGC Nice
From August to May, if you want a break from the cerebral and epicurean attractions of Nice and the French Riviera you could always watch some live football at the new Allianz Riviera stadium, a few minutes west of the city.
OGC Nice enjoyed their best season for many years in 2016, and are managed by the Swiss coach Lucien Favre, respected for his attractive style of football.
Their capacious new 35,000 capacity home is worth the admission too, and was built for EURO 2016. The club is also now owned a wealthy overseas consortium, so might be set for big things in coming years.
15. Mont Boron
Between Nice’s port and Cap-Ferrat is a peak that rises steeply from the water, reaching a height of almost 200 metres.
It’s a rare piece of open terrain left to olive, carob and pine groves.
You can walk to the southwest side where Nice rolls out into the distance next to the Baie des Anges, and even the Colline du Château looks small.
On the other side is a comprehensive view of Cap-Ferrat, while you walk along the ridge back to the Fort du Mont Alban.
This bastion was constructed in the mid-16th century is open to visitors in the summer.