Nice has had quite a mixed upbringing, swinging between French and Italian ownership with an identity that’s just as undecided. While this coastal town on the French Riviera officially became part of France a little over 150 years ago, its residents still embody a mixed culture of Mediterranean, Italian, French and Corsican.
Parisians may point their noses up at their southern sister, but the Niçois are proud of their city, called Nissa La Bella, or Nice the Beautiful, in the local Niçard dialect. The physical beauty is evident from the four-mile coastline running along the Promenade des Anglais to the eagle’s-nest medieval villages and turquoise-blue Mediterranean Sea, but the city itself is also developing and stepping out of the shadows of its nearby counterparts. Neighborhoods are changing for the better, adding new eateries and shops, bringing life back into a somewhat sleepy town, and showing that the city has just as much glamor as ever; it just doesn’t flash it as much as Monaco or Cannes.
Make your way into the Cours Saleya in the heart of Vieux Nice, or Old Nice, with terraces flowing out onto the open-air Provençal market filled with local fruit, vegetables and flowers. If you’ve seen Hitchcock’s 1955 classic To Catch A Thief, you may recall Cary Grant meeting the insurance man in a reconstructed version of this very flower market. While strolling through the market, be sure to stop and sample one of Nice’s legendary socca spots, Chez Thérésa, for a taste of the regional specialty, a hot chickpea flour-like crêpe best eaten with a few shakes of pepper on top.
Photo: Nice Convention and Visitors Bureau
Soak up the sun the rest of the morning just like the Niçois, over coffee on a terrace. While you can base your decision on the terrace sporting the most sun, you’ll find quite a crowd gathers at the popular café Brasserie des Ponchettes near the edge of the Cours Saleya. While drinking your espresso (if you simply order café, that’s what you’ll get), look next door to the four-story yellow building facing the market. Matisse called this home during the 1920s and 30s.
Continue your tour of Niçois cuisine at the nearby Olive et Artichaut, a recently opened restaurant located just behind the Cours Saleya with a daily menu that rotates based on what the chefs purchase at the market. Adding gourmet flair to local French cuisine, the open kitchen makes diners feel at home in the narrow brasserie-style space serving dishes like fried sea bream with citron confit and the regional classic, daube, a Provençal stew.
After, take a scenic hike to the nearby, thousand-year-old medieval village of Eze, perched 1,300 feet above the sea. Hop on the bus (line 100 heading to Monaco) to Eze-sur-Mer by the water, where you’ll start winding your way up the Nietzsche Path on an hour-and-a-half hike to town. It’s a small village, and part of the fun is getting slightly lost on the cobblestone streets lined with tiny artisan shops selling crystals, handicrafts and jewelry. Spend the afternoon touring the local Fragonard perfumery factory and try your hand at crafting your own signature scent. Before leaving Eze, take a seat and catch the sunset with a glass of rosé at Château Eza, a boutique hotel built into the walls of the village with a restaurant terrace looking over the Mediterranean. To get back to Nice, take line 82, which heads straight from Eze Village to Nice.
The French like to start apéro in the late afternoon and have wine or beer and light snacks until dinner, typically served around 8 or 9 p.m. In the past two years, the neighborhood near the port has been stepping up its game, transforming into a gay-friendly quarter dubbed the “petit Marais” after the buzzy Paris quartier known for its gay-friendly attitude and multitude of trendy bars and cafes. Start on the rue Bonaparte, a lively street leading off of the central square, Place Garibaldi, and take a seat at the Comptoir Central Électrique. The one-time lighting factory honors its past life with wattage-themed cocktails and an impressive light display on the ceiling over the library-style bookshelves and cozy chairs that quickly fill up.
Comptoir Central Electrique
Photo courtesy of Comptoir Centrale Electrique
After drinks, walk to the nearby L’Uzine Restaurant for a modern spin on classic French and Mediterranean cuisine. This newer eatery took its cues from one of Nice’s most-acclaimed restaurants, La Petite Maison, where chefs and servers cut their teeth. The result is an industrial-inspired spot filled with youthful energy, from the charismatic staff to the party-style house band playing tableside while diners sample some of the best Bufala mozzerella and tuna tartar in town. Be sure to reserve a table in advance because they fill up quickly, especially seats on the outdoor terrace during summer.
For a nightcap, swing by BaR’Oc for mojitos, margaritas, Motown and Deep Funk tunes in this tiki bar-meets-cave setting a bit further away from the main strip of bars.
Photo: Flickr/Alessandro Baffa
You’ll quickly notice most places are shut on Sundays in France. Not to worry. Sundays in Nice are more about a rosé-fueled moveable feast than shopping and sightseeing. Rise and shine with a light hike up to the Château, home of a citadel destroyed by French soldiers in 1706. You won’t find a castle here anymore, but you will come across a maze of paths through the park, cemetery, fortress ruins and viewpoints—the highest in the old part of Nice with panoramic views of the city and sea.
Brunch hasn’t hit Nice the way it’s started trending in Paris, but Café Marché, located behind the Cours Saleya, has crafted an extensive French-themed brunch menu at the newly revamped café that draws a full house every Sunday. The family-run business is manned by two sisters whose lineage runs generations back in Nice, from when their grandfather and his family sold fish on the Cours Saleya market. Designed to feel like you’re entering a friend’s house (if your friend had excellent design taste and happened to also be an incredible cook), the intimate café incorporates locally sourced, organic produce into a daily changing menu of home-cooked French favorites like chicken cordon bleu. Brunch features a savory or sweet menu—or combine the two if you can’t decide—with options from eggs to pancakes, sandwiches and gourmet coffees.
Photo: Flickr/Frank Kehren
Nice’s next-door neighbor, Villefranche-sur-Mer, is a relaxing spot to spend a Sunday when the weather’s nice. The antique market in the center of town at Garden Binon (near the Octroi bus stop on the Line 100 toward Menton) is a perfect place to browse through a selection of silver, furniture and fur coats. Walk down to the old town and through the historic landmarks like the Église Saint-Michel, a baroque Italian-style church dating to the 1750s, and the Chapelle Saint-Pierre, a 16th century chapel used as a fishermen’s storeroom until it was restored in 1957 with murals by Jean Cocteau. From the beach, rent a paddleboard and cruise by the mansion where The Rolling Stones recorded Exile on Main St. in 1972, and continue paddling around the bay to the nearby Plage de Passable on the Cap Ferrat peninsula.
Start the evening with a pichet (small pitcher) of wine and moules frites (mussels and fries) at the small Loco Loco restaurant on one of the back streets in Villefranche’s old town. Next door, the low-key English bar Chez Net serves up cheap wine and live music, and allows diners to order in food from other spots around town since they don’t serve their own.
Head back to Nice and post up across the sea at L’Ark overlooking the Promenade des Anglais. The second-floor outdoor terraces are great spots to sit and enjoy a nightcap of rosé, Champagne or Corsican beer. If you don’t want the night to end, Spanish tapas bar El Merkado near the opera house in the Old Town is open until 1:30 a.m. and is usually filled with a young crowd enjoying indie-electro tunes. Just next door, the new Le Comptoir 2 Nicole, a spin-off of La Petite Maison, is a candlelit restaurant that’s equal parts casual and chic, serving cocktails in crystal, regional specialties and spectacular desserts, like the strawberry and speculoos tiramisu.
The Nice Côte d’Azur Airport is France’s second largest airport, and the main hub for the French Riviera, with daily direct flights from New York (JFK) on Delta. You can also snag a connecting flight through major European cities such as Madrid, London, Dusseldorf and Copenhagen, which offers service on low-cost carrier Norwegian. Once you land, bus number 98 runs from both airline terminals to the center of town, or you can hail a cab (cash only), which costs around 35€, or $38 at 0.92 euros to the dollar.
Unlike Paris, Nice’s neighborhoods aren’t as neatly defined. What’s more important is to know where you’re staying in relation to the sea, and Hôtel Windsor is one of the tucked-away gems and just a 10-minute walk from the promenade. Set in a ritzier part of town (read: right near the grand Chanel and Louis Vuitton boutiques), the 57-room boutique hotel is housed in a 19th century mansion designed by a protégé of Gustave Eiffel. That bourgeois air is thrown out the window, however, the moment you enter the door and are greeted by modern art installations. The whimsical rooms are also each handcrafted by a different artist’s brush. Rooms start at 100€.
For something that feels more Riviera chic—discreet and over-the-top at the same time—the 56-room Hôtel la Pérouse is perched on the hillside on one of the best spots overlooking the Baie des Anges. Bask on the terrace with views of the Mediterranean best seen from your private Jacuzzi or have a low-key lunch at the courtyard restaurant Le Patio. Rooms from 323€ per night.
Lane Nieset is a freelance writer covering all things travel from her home base in Nice, France.