There are so many things to do in Nice, France, you could easily stay there a week. (Or 37 years, like the artist Matisse did.) Situated on the light-filled French Riviera, this popular city in the South of France makes a great base for touring the beautiful towns of the Côte d’Azur, but it also has plenty of charms of its own. For a rundown on its top 15 activities and attractions, read on.
About Nice, France
Today Nice is known as a summer destination, but the city’s rise to tourist fame began as a winter destination in the 19th century for cloud-weary Brits who came to enjoy the milder climate of the French Riviera. (Being from Canada, this sounds like a very good idea to me.) With a population of 350,000 it’s just the right size for travellers who want plenty of culture, but don’t want to be overwhelmed by a polluted metropolis,. Its spectacular location on the Mediterranean’s Baie des Anges (Bay of Angels), means outdoor lovers can also have it all.
Things to do in Nice
1: Stroll the Promenade des Anglais
The first place you’ll likely gravitate to is Nice’s palm-tree lined Promenade des Anglais, the 7 km (5-mile) oceanside promenade that curves gently along the Bay of Angels. On one side you have parks, grand hotels and endless condos, on the other is a string of private beaches, seaside restaurants and the sparkling Mediterranean. Stretching from the Nice Airport in the west to the Quai des Etats Unis near the Port of Nice in the east, the Promenade des Anglais is the best place to breathe in the city’s seductive sea-scented atmosphere.
2: Cycling in Nice – how to use a Velo Bleu
When I’m in Nice, I get quite obsessed with using the bike share program Velo Bleu, not so much to get from point A to B, but as entertainment in its own right. There is nothing more breezy and fun than peddling on the well-maintained bike lanes along the Promenade des Anglais. With 175 Velo Bleu bike stations in the greater Nice Côte d’Azur area, and 125 km of bike lanes, it’s a great way to travel. It’s also cheap.
In all honesty, however, I find it confusing to figure out these bike share programs, but once you do figure it out, you can use it every day. The way it’s supposed to work is that you register online on the Velo Bleu site and get a code, which you can then enter into any Velo Bleu bike station around the city and grab a bike. The way it worked for me was that I screwed up and had to go to the Velo Bleu office at 17 avenue Thiers across from the train station and get them to sort it out.
3: Beaches in Nice
The idea of lying on a beach in Nice is bliss. The reality is that Nice beaches are not soft and sandy but pebbly. Ah, well. It’s still the French Riviera and it can still be blissful. You can go upscale and splash out (see what I did there?) for a chaise lounge at a private beach with change rooms, waiters to cater to your every need and even – depending on the beach – a DJ, or you can stick with a public beach like the locals do.
Plage Beau Rivage across from the Beau Rivage Hotel toward the eastern end of the Baie des Anges is a recommended private beach. Coincidentally, one of the most popular public beaches in Nice is beside it, the free La Plage Publique de Beau Rivage.
4: Peek into the belle époque Hotel Negresco
To my mind, the fabulous Hotel Negresco is the aristocratic heart of Nice. Right across from the beach at 37 Promenade des Anglais, the Negresco is a wacky art-filled luxury hotel built in the early 20th century. The dome in the Royal Salon was designed by Gustave Eiffel and the chandelier was created for a Russian Tsar.
One of my favourite things to do in Nice is to go to Le Negresco’s Bar for a glass of champagne then wander through the hallways taking in the museum-quality art that ranges from the unforgettable pop art sculpture of Miles Davis by Niki de Saint Phalle outside the entrance to the historical portrait of Louis XIV in the Salon Versailles and the 17th-century tapestry in the bar.
5: Palais Massena
The restored Palais Massena is near the Hotel Negresco, so if you’re sniffing around that area anyway why not stop in? You’ll find displays about the history of Nice and some interesting mementos of Napoleon and Josephine – but you’re out of luck if you want detailed English explanations. The villa itself and the gardens are what draw most tourists.
6: Explore Vieux Nice
Winding lanes crammed with creaky yellow-ochre buildings are what you’ll find in Nice’s Old Town, Vieux Nice. Situated between the Quai des Etats Unis and Place Massena, Vieux Nice is a fun place to shop for Provencal specialties such as lavender soap, olive oil and tacky souvenirs. You can also wander aimlessly (though if you prefer to wander with aim that’s fine, too) or stop for ice cream at Fenocchio’s on Place Rossetti.
Visit the Old Town in the morning when the market at the Cours Saleya is bursting with fresh flowers or straggle in during the evening when the cafes and cocktail bars are lively.
7: Go for Baroque
If you’re heading to Vieux Nice anyway, check out the city’s Baroque architecture – an excessive, wonderfully ornate style that dates from the end of the 16th century to the early 18th century. Here are three Baroque buildings not to miss:
- The Chapelle de la Miséricorde, with its unexpected circular walls and windows and fresco-filled interior is considered one of the top Baroque churches in the world. You’ll find it at 2 Place Pierre-Gautier on the north side of the Cours Saleya.
- Another Baroque masterpiece is the small Eglise de Gésu at 12 Rue Droite. Built in the 1600s, its pale blue and yellow facade is a delight and its interior will satisfy all your desires for cherubs, gilt and marble.
- The Palais Lascaris is both a museum and historic monument. Built in 1648 for the aristocratic Lascaris-Ventimiglia family, it was restored in the 1960s and opened as a civic museum. Salivate over the elaborate staircase, frescos and luxe salons as you see how the other half lived (at least until the French Revolution). 15 rue Droite. (Guided tours on Fridays at 3:00 p.m. for 6 €)
8: Visit Place Massena and learn about the scandal of the Sun Fountain
It would be hard to tour Nice and not stumble upon the grand Place Massena. Nice’s impressive (and busy) main square sits majestically between the New and the Old Town. With its striking red buildings and checkerboard ground, it’s eye catching indeed. But here’s the thing. When the square’s monumental fountain, the Fontaine du Soleil, or the Sun Fountain, was unveiled in 1956 onlookers gasped in shock. The seven-metre (23-foot) marble statue of Apollo in the centre of the fountain drew second, third (and possibly) fourth looks. Not only did he have a crown of four horses on his head, the seven-ton god had, er, a rather large member.
The poor sculptor, Alfred Janniot, had to chisel it down to size, only perhaps he took his task too much to heart because Apollo went from being a seriously large Greek god to being ridiculed as ‘The Virgin.’ Even so, the Catholic League of Feminine Virtue (no, I’m not making this up) gathered enough support in the 70s to get the offensively nude statue removed, and the once mighty Apollo was banished to a new home outside a sports stadium.
Don’t despair. In 2011, with great aplomb, Apollo regained his rightful home in the Place Massena, where you can still get a gander at his chiselled-down privvies today.
9. Visit the Orthodox Cathedral of Saint Nicholas
Built during the reign of Czar Nicholas II, the Cathedral of Saint Nicholas has dazzled visitors with its brilliant domes and spires since 1912. A two-year restoration ordered by Putin himself means that now it will dazzle you even more. Avenue Nicolas-II.
10: Hike up Castle Hill
When it comes to outdoorsy things to do in Nice, walking up the (seemingly endless) steps of Castle Hill, also called the Colline du Château or the Parc du Château, is a great active option because of the panoramic views you’ll be rewarded with. Just don’t expect a castle to be part of that view. The medieval citadel was destroyed by Louis XIV in 1706. While you’re up here, note that this hill-with-a-view, which is now a pleasant park, has been occupied for centuries – archeologists have found Celtic, Greek and Roman remains. (Important note: Lazy view seekers can take the elevator.)
Art in the South of France
Painters and sculptors have long found Nice irresistible, attracted by its luminous light, enjoyable climate and sensual lifestyle. If you’re looking for artistic things to do in Nice, you’ll be happy to know that the city is a treasure trove for art fans. The big three museums to see are the Musée Marc Chagall, the Musée Matisse and the Musée d’Art Moderne et d’Art Contemporain (MAMAC).
11: Visit the Musée Marc Chagall
The Chagall Museum is absolutely my favourite museum in Nice. Even if the Matisse Museum gets more buzz, don’t pass this one by. Like glowing illuminated gemstones, Chagall’s 17 major Biblical Message tableaux line the walls and conjure up a vibrant world where magic, folk art and creative sophistication meet. The Musée national Marc Chagall is at Avenue Docteur Ménard. Closed Tuesdays.
12: See the Musée d’Art Moderne et d’Art Contemporain
With nearly 1,300 works in the collection, the very urban Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art covers major art movements from the 1960s on. You’ll find big names such as Niki de Saint-Phalle, Andy Warhol and Fluxus. (Speaking of Fluxus, I saw these conceptual art stars at a performance in Seoul, Korea, years ago, and will never forget them putting a rose in a blender and drinking it. To this day I wonder what a rose smoothie tastes like.) MAMAC is at Place Yves Klein. Closed Mondays.
13: Visit the Musée Matisse
To see the renowned Matisse Museum head to the very posh Cimiez district of Nice. Henri Matisse originally came to Nice to try and cure his bronchitis, and ended up staying on and off for the rest of his life. The Matisse Museum, housed in a lovely red-ochre villa, has one of the largest collections of his work in the world, and you’ll be able to get a sense of the wide range of his talent that includes sculptures, monumental paintings and cutouts. The Musee Matisse is located at 164 avenue des Arènes de Cimiez. Closed Tuesdays.
14: Tour the Cimiez district of Nice
If you’re already in Cimiez visiting the Matisse Museum, take the opportunity to check out more of the attractions in this fashionable neighbourhood. Surrounding the Matisse Museum, you’ll find the remains of a Roman settlement. Nearby you’ll find the Franciscan Monastery and Museum (closed Sundays) that dates back to 1546 and is a popular stop for its gardens and 15th-century masterpieces by the famous Niçoise artist Ludovic Bréa.
Across from the Matisse Museum, you can see the imposing Regina building where Matisse once lived. Now an swanky apartment building, it was originally built as a hotel and Nice’s most venerable fan, Queen Victoria, would stay here for up to six weeks at a time. (As an irrelevant note, I tried to get a vacation rental in the Regina last time I was in Nice but someone snatched it before me. Rats.)
As you can see, there are a ton of things to do in Nice, but to truly appreciate the Côte d’Azur lifestyle, settle into a sidewalk cafe, order a glass of rosé and watch the world go by. Doing nothing just might be the most rewarding thing you do.
Travel guide for things to do in Nice, France
Getting to Nice
Flights to Nice. There are many direct flights from Paris as well as other destinations. From the Nice Côte d’Azur Airport you can take a taxi or the Airport Express Bus into town – catch Bus 98 for the beach and Vieux Nice or Bus 99 for the train station, the Gare SNCF.
Taking the train to Nice is also a breeze. You can catch a highspeed TGV from Paris (about 5.5 hours). There are also plentiful regional trains that can get you to Nice from Cannes, Antibes or Monaco.
Getting around Nice
Nice is a dream for public transportation. There are plenty of public buses, a tram, and options for tourists that include hop on, hop off double decker buses and those embarrassing but fun little tourist trains. Cimiez is a bit far, as is the Chagall Museum, but other than that you can pretty much walk to all the main sights.
Day trips from Nice
One of the best things to do in Nice is to leave it – but just for the day. Day trips from Nice are simple by train, cheap by bus, and there are so many great destinations in this wonderful South of France area you’ll be spoiled for choice. Top picks are Cannes, Antibes, Monaco, Biot, Grasse, Ez, Vence and St-Paul de Vence. You can also rent a motorbike – but to see what I think about that read renting a motorbike in France.
More places to visit in the French Riviera
To read more about where to explore visit my things to do in the South of France article. Or get some travel ideas from my attempt to retrace my parents’ honeymoon in the South of France.
Nice attractions tip – get a French Riviera Pass
A French Riviera Pass will save you money if you intend to do much sightseeing. Many of Nice’s top attractions are included with the pass (and so is the little tourist train). The price of a pass for 24 hours is 26€, 48 hours is 38€ and 72 hours is 56€.
Where to stay
Nice has one of the best selections of accommodations in France. If you can’t afford a fancy hotel such as the Negresco, there are plenty of cheaper hotels – or think about renting an apartment. (Read more about the in’s and out’s of vacation rentals in France.)
For info on prices, check out Booking.com (I’m an affiliate.)