The capital of the Riviera and fifth largest city in France, Nice lives off a glittering reputation. Far too large to be considered simply a beach resort, it has all the advantages and disadvantages of a major city: superb culture, shopping, eating and drinking, but also crime, graffiti and horrendous traffic, all set against a backdrop of blue skies, sparkling sea and sub-tropical greenery kept lush by sprinklers.
Popularized by English aristocrats in the eighteenth century, Nice reached its zenith in the belle époque of the late nineteenth century, and has retained its historical styles almost intact: the medieval rabbit warren of Vieux Nice, the Italianate facades of modern Nice and the rich exuberance of fin-de-siècle residences dating from when the city was Europe’s most fashionable winter retreat. It has mementos from its time as a Roman regional capital, and earlier still, when the Greeks founded the city. The museums are a treat for art lovers, and though its politics are conservative Nice doesn’t feel stuffy; it has a highly visible LGBT community and spirited nightlife. Of late Nice has been smartening up its act with extensive refurbishment of its public spaces and the construction of an ultra-modern tramway. Conservative it may be, but Nice does not rest on its laurels.
The area around the station teems with cheap hotels, some of them seedy, though there are a few gems. Sleeping on the beach is illegal and for campsites you’ll need to head west to Cagnes-sur-Mer.
Packed with vast belle époque piles, many of them former hotels, the northern suburb of Cimiez has always been posh. The heights of Cimiez were the social centre of the local elite some 1700 years ago, when the town was capital of the Roman province of Alpes-Maritimae. Part of a small amphitheatre still stands, and excavations of the Roman baths have revealed enough detail to distinguish the sumptuous and elaborate facilities for the top tax official and his cronies, the plainer public baths and a separate complex for women. All the finds, plus an illustration of the town’s history up to the Middle Ages, are displayed in the Musée d’Archéologie.
The seventeenth-century villa lying between the Roman excavations and the arena is the Musée Matisse. Matisse spent his winters in Nice from 1916 onwards, and then from 1921 to 1938 rented an apartment overlooking place Charles-Félix. It was here that he painted his most sensual, colour-flooded canvases of odalisques posed against exotic draperies. As well as the Mediterranean light, Matisse loved the cosmopolitan aspect of Nice and the presence of fellow artists Renoir, Bonnard and Picasso in neighbouring towns. He died in Cimiez in November 1954, aged 85.
The Roman remains and the Musée Matisse back onto an old olive grove, at the eastern end of which are the sixteenth-century buildings and exquisite gardens of the Monastère Notre-Dame de Cimiez. The oratory has brilliant murals illustrating alchemy, while the church houses three masterpieces of medieval painting by Louis and Antoine Bréa. On the north side of the monastery is the Cemetery of Cimiez; the simple tomb of Matisse is signposted on the left-hand side.
At the foot of Cimiez hill, just off boulevard Cimiez, Chagall’s Biblical Message is housed in a museum built specially for the work and opened by the artist in 1972. The rooms are light, white and cool, with windows allowing you to see the greenery of the garden beyond the indescribable shades between pink and red of the Song of Songs canvases. The seventeen paintings of the Biblical Message are all based on the Old Testament and complemented with etchings and engravings.
The beach below the promenade des Anglais is all pebbles and mostly public, with showers provided. It’s not particularly clean and you need to watch out for broken glass. There are fifteen private beaches, clustering at the more scenic, eastern end of the bay close to Vieux Nice. If you don’t mind rocks, you might want to try the string of coves beyond the port that starts with the plage de la Réserve, opposite Parc Vigier.
Vieux Nice is the centre of Nice’s pub and club scene, much of it anglophone in character. As for nightclubs, bouncers judging how much you’re going to spend, or exclusive membership lists, are the rule. There are two big casinos – the Casino Ruhl (1 promenade des Anglais) and the Palais de la Méditerranée (15 promenade des Anglais). Nice’s LGBT scene is active, and for LGBT visitors the city has a relaxed feel. The annual Pink Parade takes place in early summer. The Mardi Gras Carnival opens the year’s events in February, with the second week of July taken up by the Nice Jazz Festival.
The point where the Paillon flows into the sea marks the beginning of the promenade des Anglais, created by nineteenth-century English residents for their afternoon strolls. Today, along with lots of traffic, it boasts some of the most fanciful turn-of-the-twentieth-century architecture on the Côte d’Azur. At nos. 13–15, the Palais de la Méditerranée is once again a luxurious casino, though the splendid Art Deco facade is all that remains of the 1930s original.
Vieux Nice has been much gentrified in recent years, but the restaurants, boutiques and little art galleries still coexist with humbler shops, there’s washing strung between the tenements, and away from the showpiece squares a certain shabbiness lingers. Tourism now dominates Vieux Nice: throbbing with life day and night in August, much of it seems deserted in November. It is best explored on foot.