Take a relaxing stroll along Nice’s four-mile stretch of glorious, pedestrian-friendly promenade and soak up the gentle sea breeze blowing in off the deep blue Mediterranean. Dine alfresco or sip cocktails at the plethora of trendy alfresco restaurants, café’s and bars, with something to suit all tastes and budgets. Then zip along the coast to Monaco and pretend to be a millionaire for the day. Whatever your style, Nice offers something for everyone in a very convenient, safe and surprisingly affordable package.
I truly believe Nice is one of Europe’s most underrated destinations. It wasn’t always that way of course, as this bustling small city on the Cote D’Azur was once a fashionable destination for the English aristocracy and a new class of wealthy businessmen in the late 18thcentury. A decline in visitor numbers alongside its reducing importance as a trading port saw Nice perhaps become a little jaded, downtrodden and certainly a little less glamourous. Recently, significant investment by the French government and the EU has seen a transformation and the butterfly has re-emerged with renewed finery and splendour.
Sure, if you visit Nice in the peak months of July and August, the crowds may be overwhelming, the queues disenchanting and the heat unbearable, but due to its fortunate position in a sheltered bay on the shores of the Mediterranean, Nice provides a very pleasant and warm Autumn or Spring destination.
Getting There & Arrival
As soon as you land at the neat little airport, you realise this is going to be a relaxing weekend and the onward journey into the heart of the city is just a short drive along the promenade. This makes Nice one of the most convenient spots for a short city break, where time is of the essence.
I booked an Uber on my iPhone once my wife and I had passed through immigration. By the time we collected our bags and emerged out into the sun from the arrivals lounge, the car was just pulling up outside.
The ride into town cost around €15 (but it was only €12 on the way back for some reason) and our driver dropped us right outside the understated but enchanting entrance to our hotel’s lobby.
If Uber isn’t your thing, there are regular taxis waiting outside the terminal and for those on an even tighter budget, there are also regular buses from the airport with appropriate stops along the promenade and the city centre.
If you are feeling especially energetic after your flight and have only a small amount of luggage, a short walk from the airport brings you to an electric bike stand, where you can hire a “Boris” style bike to take you into the centre for as little as a couple of Euros.
Where to Stay
We decided to shy away from the glitzy and glamorous (and eye-waveringly more expensive) chain hotels along the Promenade des Anglais and instead looked for a friendlier, quirky boutique hotel. We found the perfect place in the Hotel Windsor in the Le Carre d’Or district and just a five-minute walk from the promenade and ten to the old town.
The hotel definitely ticked the “quirky” box, as most of its large, airy bedrooms have been designed and decorated by a selection of local artists, making your stay that little bit special, unique and serendipitous. Our room was large and airy and had two large French windows opening onto a small balcony overlooking the lush, almost tropical looking, garden, patio and pool.
As soon as you enter the hotel you know this is going to be something different, something special, with an ever-changing display of local artists’ works and lush tropical plants throughout the building. Indeed, after the easy check-in is done, you’ll step into the tiny outer-space themed lift to your room, and “lift-off” to your floor, accompanied by a NASA countdown and rocket sound effects.
The hotel also has a small outdoor swimming pool and a spa with a full selection of treatments on offer.
The hotel restaurant also comes highly recommended on TripAdvisor and TimeOut’s restaurant guide, so on the balmy evening of our arrival we sat under the starts in the lush tropical hotel garden and ate a fantastic meal of local dishes with a North African twist. The food was excellent, the local wine even better!
Getting Around Town
If you choose your accommodation carefully, and you’re relatively fit and healthy, then a comfy pair of shoes are all you need to get around. The Old Town, promenade, shopping parades and other attractions are all within a couple of miles of each other, and many streets are pedestrianised or at least walker friendly.
Bike hire is also popular, and there are electric bike stands where you can borrow a bike for an hour or for as long as you wish.
There are also trams and buses in abundance if you need to go further out, and the central railway station is close by should you wish to go further afield, to Monaco for example.
The streets feel safe, and although the Promenade des Anglais can be clogged with bust traffic at peak times, there are ample crossings and, of course, the very generous pedestrianised walkway.
Must See PLaces & Activities
On the Western end of the horseshoe shaped promenade is a promontory rising up proudly above the old town and the sea. Castle Hill, or Parc De La Colline Du Chateau to the locals, is the original site of the city and was once an impregnable and spectacular citadel but was completely destroyed by King Louis XIV in 1706. We never did discover why.
As seems to be the trend in this part of the world, there is a lift (this one being especially interesting due to its art deco design) that will take you to the peaceful, verdant park on the top of the hill, but the walk up isn’t too arduous and affords excellent views across the port, the old town and the whole of the Bay des Agnes.
En route to the summit we took time to admire the spectacular waterfall, enjoying the cooling spray and taking photos. We then spent several enchanting hours just wandering around, sitting on benches and taking coffee at the little café and just watching the world go by.
After gently making our way back down Castle Hill we strolled amongst the market stalls on the and sampled the local street food delicacy of freshly made Socca , a kind of thin pancake made from chickpea flower and simply seasoned with salt and pepper – a definite must try when in Nice.
Alongside the pleasant park (the Jardin des Arenes de Cimiez) we found the Musee Matisse in an ornate, grand building. It’s a two mile walk from the Old Town area, so we took an Uber (€6) and walked back with a detour around the gardens.
Take The Train To Monaco & Monte Carlo
On our second full day we wandered up to the central station and for around €12 each took a super-efficient train to Monaco. Once there, as we only had a few hours to spend, instead of heading down to the marina as most tourists would naturally do, we took the elevator from the station up to street level then headed up the hill. On the way to the Jardin Exotique, we called in at the Nouveau Musee National de Monaco, located in the combined villas Paloma and Sauber and set in a delightful garden with amazing views over the ocean. To be honest, we nipped in by accident to get out of the sudden torrential downpour that threatened to soak us to the skin, but it turned out to be a serendipitous detour and we whiled away an interesting hour admiring the quirky (and a little risqué) sculptures and paintings of Oliver Laric.
Luckily, as we emerged from the white-out interior of the gallery, the sun was beaming down upon us and we continued on to the Jardin Exotique. The €12 entrance fee was worthwhile, simply for the stunning panoramic views from the gardens, across the bay and down to Monte Carlo and Monaco. We practically had the gardens to ourselves and wandered around at leisure, admiring the succulents and cacti assembled from all corners of the world, before taking a guided tour (included in the garden’s entrance fee) down into the bowels of the rock and the Observation Caves. Our knowledgeable guide pointed out the most interesting limestone rock formation formed by millions of years of volcanic water wear and tear.
After being soaked in the brief but thunderous downpour in Monaco and wandering around the exotic gardens for hours, we decided to treat ourselves in the spa when we returned to our hotel in Nice. After a brief swim in the heated pool (which is open from the beginning of May to the end of October) I opted for the Hammam (€13) for a deep cleansing experience, then the Swedish massage (€39 for 25 minutes of pure relaxation). My wife went for the Mediterranean Ritual which included a beautifully smelling Rose Salts scrub and massage (€140).
After this, we were ready to hit the town again, sitting outside one of the many bars sipping the finest rose wine and building an appetite for later.
Warning. Many UK mobile phone companies don’t have an international roaming agreement with Monaco so be careful as when you leave France you won’t be able to use your mobile data bundle!
CHECK WITH YOUR MOBILE PROVIDER BEFORE VISITING MONACO
Places To Eat & Drink
Nice is packed with foodie hotspots and your biggest problem will be deciding where to eat. The food is eclectic with a big influence from nearby Italy. The old town (Vielle Ville) has a range of outdoor eateries, which coupled with a gentle wander around the mazy, cobbled streets, browsing in the windows of the quirky shops, makes for a pleasant evening. I imagine the old town can get very busy in the peak season, and even in the shoulder season when we went, booking a table at the more popular restaurants was necessary.
Around the hotel and towards the promenade there are a number of streets where a new breed of innovative Cuisenaire’s have set up shop alongside family restaurants that have been serving delicious food for decades. Every taste is catered for, including local foods but also world-wide tastes.
One evening we dined at the Indian Lounge on Rue Droitte in the heart of the Old Town and being English and therefore coming from the curry capital of the world (after India and Bangladesh of course) I was pleasantly surprised with the delicious biriyani being served in the most garishly, yet strangely pleasantly, decorated restaurant.
As I mentioned earlier, due to close proximity to the Italian border, Nice enjoys more than its fair share of excellent Italian restaurants from home cooked pasta dishes to perfect pizza baked in roaring wood fired stoves.
On our final day, before leaving for the airport, we broke an unspoken rule of not eating on the main tourist routes at La Pizza Cresci on Rue Massena. We needn’t have worried as the pizza was as good as any we’d had in Italy, and the price was only a little bit on the high side, considering the location it could have been a lot more.
Shop at One of the Many Markets
Anyone visiting Nice should also visit one of the many markets held most days at the Brocante Saleya nestled between the Castle Hill, the Old Town, and the promenade. On our first day, the market had the most wonderful array of fruit, vegetables, cakes, and other delights. On the following day it had metamorphised into a vast, sprawling flea market. There’s also a famous flower market (Marche aux Fleurs) held most days of the week. The broad street where the market is held is bordered by fantastic cafes, serving perfect coffee and petit fours as well as wine, beer and aperitifs. We spent a good our sitting outside the café at the far end of the market, just watching the market stalls going about their business.
What I really loved about Nice at this time of year, was being able to merge with the locals. There weren’t many tourists around so in the pleasant evenings we’d walk up and down the Promenade des Anglais alongside courting couples, roller-bladers,
heavily made up and overdressed old ladies walking their unbelievably tiny dogs and children playing all to the background of the salty sea air and the gentle lapping of the Mediterranean waves against the pebbly beach.
What to Pack & Take WIth You
We visited Nice in October and experienced a mix of cloud and clear blue skies, with a few hours of downpour on one day. During the day we didn’t need anything more than shirt sleeves, with the temperature not falling below a comfortable 18 degrees, peaking in the mid-twenties at times. In the evening a light jacket is fine, but with occasional cloud bursts possible, it’s worth taking a light water-proof jacket as well. In the summer months of July and August, the South coast of France can become baking hot. The good news is that Nice is fairly laid back, so you won’t be out of place in smart beachwear in most places around town, though the mid and higher end restaurants and hotels will insist on smart casual for evenings. No one seemed to dress up to the nines for a night out anymore, and this certainly seemed to be the case in Nice and it wasn’t at all like Paris in this regard.
Making It Happen
Fly to Nice from London Stansted with Jet2.com. The flight is a short one, around 2 hours, and my experience of Jet2 has always been as pleasant as flying on a budget airline can be. We paid £240 in October for two return flights, with hand luggage and extra legroom seats.