New York, New York may be so nice they named it twice, but in southern France is a town so nice they named it Nice! Okay yes, it’s pronounced like niece, but we can’t pass up a good pun.
However you say it, the charming city holds its own among such French Riviera luminaries as Cannes, Antibes, and Monte Carlo. In fact, for many years Nice was the Mediterranean destination for Europe’s aristocracy. Even today, it’s easy to see why: castle ruins, a charming old town quarter, and a beautiful Cote d’Azur shoreline make Nice a popular stop.
For many travelers, their first – and sometimes only – experience with Nice is as a cruise excursion, or as one in a string of stops along the coastal roads and rails from Saint Tropez to the Cinque Terre. Which means you get one day to enjoy Nice. With that in mind, we have…
Five Things to Do for Your Day Trip to Nice
We did say one day in Nice. Unless you are Speedy Gonzalez, we don’t expect you would be able to do all of these things. In fact, if you plan to pair your day in Nice with a trip to Monte Carlo or Eze, you will probably only have time for one of our picks. We would choose a stroll through the lovely old city, but you can’t go wrong with any of these activities. Mix and match to your heart’s – or your schedule’s – delight!
Wander the Old City
Like many European cities, Nice has a historic old town, referred to as Vieux Ville. Though it’s easy to navigate the district, it’s very easy to lose all track of time! Depending on how you arrive in Nice, there are two places you’re likely to start: On one end is the Hotel Suisse Nice, which is closest to the port and public parking, and it’s just below “Castle Hill” where you can see the ruins of Chateau Nice. If you arrive in Nice by train or air, you will be closest to the other end of Vieux Ville, Promenade de Paillon and Place Massena.
The main attraction in the old city is Nice’s famous Marche aux Fleurs, the Flower Market, on the Cours Saleya. Don’t let the name fool you; there is much more to enjoy than flowers! You will find artisan meats and cheeses, fruits and vegetables, candies, housewares, and more. While the area is packed with tourists, you’ll find the Nicoise here buying their flowers and produce, too. Marche aux Fleurs is open from 6am to 5:30pm (until 1:30pm on Sunday) every day except Monday. If you are there on a Monday, you can expect to find an antique market instead, which is equally enchanting. In the evenings, the market stalls re-open as restaurants, turning the Marche into Restaurant Row. The market is easy to find, as Cours Saleya is just a block from the seashore and runs along the south side of the Vieux Ville.
Near the center of le Marche, you see the Palais de la Prefecture, the former Royal Palace of Nice. It was home to the Dukes of Savoy for 250 years but, since 1861, has served as the municipal headquarters of the French Alps-Maritimes Prefecture. More impressive municipal buildings, the Palais de Justice and Palais Rusca are just to the west. The outsides are pretty, the insides are mostly offices.
The 17th Century Cathedrale Sainte-Reparate is another two blocks north. You will see several bell towers in the area, but the Cathedrale has the only dome in the old city. It’s worth taking a peek inside the recently restored Basilica Cathedrale.
Drone footage inside Cathedrale Saite-Reparate courtesy of the Diocese of Nice.
Walking north through the shops and cafes of Vieux Ville, you will eventually emerge at or near the Promenade du Paillon. Turning right will take you past Castle Hill and back to the port; to the left you can walk back to Place Massena.
The wonderful thing about the old city is that it will take whatever time you give it! You could dash through in an hour, but that’s only going to make you want to go back for more. We have been known to spend all day in Nice’s wonderful Vieux Ville!
See the Museum Scene
Every city in France pales in comparison to Paris when it comes to galleries and museums, but Nice has a few must see ‘em museums. Unfortunately, they are a little spread out; you might consider renting a bicycle, using Uber, or catching a bus if you are pressed for time and want to see several.
In the heart of the old city is Palais Lascaris, a beautiful 17th Century Baroque building that holds one of Europe’s largest collections of fine musical instruments. Close by is MAMAC the Musee d’Art Modern et d’Art Contemporain. As you might guess, it’s filled with Modern and Contemporary Art from the 1950s to present. You’ll see works by internationally-acclaimed artists like Andy Warhol and Joan Miro, and artists from the School of Nice, including Yves Klein and Niki de Saint-Phalle
If history is more your thing, the Museum of Natural History is just across the street. This was the city’s first municipal museum, opened in 1846, and showcases the diversity of the Alps-Maritime region. Staying close to the old city, Musee Massena captures life in Nice through the prominent Massena family. The museum holds family and city memorabilia in the original family home.
Near the airport are the Fine Arts and Naïve Art Museums. The Fine Art museum is of particular note. The former palace is a beautiful example of Nice’s aristocratic architecture in the Belle Époque, and dates to 1878. Inside is a masterpiece of the Italian Renaissance, Crucifixion, by Agnolo Bronzino (circa 1540).
Finally, two of the art world’s biggest names reside in Nice at the Musee National Marc Chagall, and Musee Matisse. These two are further inland, in the Cimiez neighborhood. Using Place Massena as a starting point, Musee Matisse is the furthest away at 3km by foot, or 5km by car. Adjacent to the Matisse Museum is the Arenes de Cimiez and Archaeological Museum featuring the Roman ruins of ancient Nice.
The Nice Museum Pass provides access to all of these museums, except for Musee Chagall, for 10€, or 20€ for a seven-day ticket. You can get the Museum Pass at any of participating museum. Alternately, each admission to individual museums is 6€ per person. Hours for all city museums are 11am to 6pm in the winter, 10am to 6pm from June to October. Entry for Musee Chagall is 8€, and it is open 10am to 5pm during the winter; 10am to 6pm May through October. Keep in mind that most museums are closed on Tuesdays; MAMAC, the Fine Arts Museum, and Museum of Natural History are closed on Mondays.
Parks & Promenades
Nice is a fantastic city for walking. Vieux Ville is mostly pedestrian, there are sidewalks nearly everywhere, and the city has invested heavily in long, meandering Promenades. British Aristocracy is largely to credit for this tradition. Back in the day, as they say, aristocrats from England would vacation in Nice and thoroughly enjoyed a stroll by the shore. At least, they would have if the beach wasn’t filled with rocks and pebbles. Hard on tender tootsies, don’t you know? So they built a boardwalk, which proved to be so popular that it was continuously enlarged and upgraded into the Promenade des Anglais. We enjoyed it so much, we devoted a whole post to it!
What’s better than one beautiful promenade? Another! Not far beyond the border of old Nice was the River Paillon. Over time, it became something of a nuisance, so the enterprising French built a park over it. Now the Promenade Paillon runs (sort of) perpendicular to Promenade des Anglais, with broad lawns, fountains and public art. It passes the Place Massena en route to the Theatre Nice, where it turns into Promenade des Arts and continues to the MAMAC.
Near the airport, the huge Parc Phoenix is home to more than 3000 animals and 2500 species of plants! Anchored by the “Green Diamond” greenhouse (one of the largest in Europe), the park is open 9:30am to 6pm and entrance is just 5€ per person, with kids 12 and under free. In case you need to see one more museum, your park entrance also gets you into the nearby Museum of Asian Arts.
Another interesting park is near the Musee Chagall in the Cimiez neighborhood. Le Jardin des Arenes de Cimiez features thousands of olive trees said to be more than 100 years old! The grassy park is free and open to the public, and there are often city-sponsored cultural events here.
Seeing the Sights
Beyond the historic ruins, lovely parks, and enchanting old city, there are several notable sights to see around Nice. While the entire city seems superbly photogenic, here are some of our favorites:
The historic Hotel Negresco: Welcoming aristocrats, celebrities, and even royalty since 1913, this hotel is an instantly-recognizable landmark on the Promenade des Anglais. Perhaps in part thanks to the statue of Miles Davis at the front door. (Note: Unfortunately, the hotel has recently instituted a no visitors rule; you’ll have to be staying or dining at the hotel to get in.)
St. Nicolas Russian Orthodox Cathedral: It wasn’t just the English aristocracy that made Nice their winter home. Wealthy Russians vacationed on the French Riviera as well. For a time, Nice held the largest population of Russians outside of the mother country. To keep them happy, and in good standing with the church, Tsar Nicholas II commissioned what is now the largest Eastern Orthodox Cathedral in Western Europe. The beautiful church was built in 1912 and was recently renovated.
Church of Sainte Jeanne d’Arc: Known as the most controversial place of worship in Nice, this out of the way building blends art and architecture. It was finished in 1933 by architect Jacquez Droz, but wasn’t consecrated until 1965. Some say it’s beautiful, some say it’s anything but. It’s white concrete construction and ovoid domes are definitely unique in the Nice landscape. The church is on Avenue Saint-Lambert in the Cimiez, not too far from the Chagall Museum.
Chateau Valrose: If you make it as far as the Church of Sainte Jeanne d’Arc, you might as well wander a bit further to the University of Nice Sophia Antipolis to see the Chateau Valrose. The castle and surrounding gardens were completed in 1870 by Baron von Derwies, the financial advisor to Russia’s Tsar Alexander II. The City of Nice acquired the property in 1950, and it has been the residence of the University President since 1965.
Nice Beach Day
Saving the best for last, Nice elevates the art of the Beach Day. Keep in mind, the Cote d’Azur often has beaches of pebbles rather than sand, but it’s no less enjoyable. Spread out a blanket and soak in that Mediterranean sunshine, or rent a lounger, complete with food and drinks, from one of the many beach bars. Just stroll the Promenade des Anglais until you find a beach level bar that looks appealing, drop down the stairs and find your spot in the sun.
For a more exclusive experience, try the Bay Star Beach Club west of the airport at the Holiday Inn Nice-Port Saint Laurent. It is a sandy plage privee (private beach) with a bar, café, and restaurant. The good thing is, you have sand, drinks and noshes with excellent service. The bad news is that it comes at a price. Drinks and tapas start at 5€; a sunbed and umbrella is 20€ for the day. Bay Star Beach Club is open May through September.
Stay Another Day!
That’s quite a lot to do in Nice, and we have only scratched the surface! What we found out is that one day in this gem on the Cote d’Azur is just enough…to make you want another! When you’re getting back on the ship, train, or car, you will be asking yourself one question:
“When can I come back to Nice?”
We stayed with Airbnb in Nice and had an excellent experience. Not a member? You can join with our link and get $40 credit! (Disclaimer: Our stay with Airbnb was anonymous; we received no solicitation nor compensation. TravelLatte is compensated when you join using our link.)
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