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What are the best things to do in Nice, France? Good question. You’ll be pleased to know that there are so many things to see in Nice you could easily stay a week. (Or 37 years, like the artist Matisse did.) Read on for the 15 best places to visit in this sparkling French Riviera city.
Visit Nice, France
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 many charms of its own.
With an ideal seaside location, it’s a laid back city that has ‘resort town’ written all over it. If you’re wondering what to do in Nice, and want a rundown of its top 15 activities and attractions, you’ve come to the right place.
Below you’ll find a travel guide listing the top activities, restaurants, beaches and architectural highlights – everything you need to plan your time in Nice.
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 great 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. There are plenty of things to see in Nice, France, and its spectacular location on the Mediterranean’s Baie des Anges (Bay of Angels), means outdoor lovers can also have it all.
Top things to do in Nice
Truly, Nice and the French Riviera is one of the best places to visit in France. But you may need some guidance when deciding what to do. Don’t worry, I’m here to help. I’ve spent so much time here, I’m an honorary citizen. Or at least I should be. (Let’s talk to the French authorities about that.)
And every time I visit Nice, I always find new ways to spend my time.
The following list shows 15 activities and attractions I believe to be the top things to do in Nice.
Stroll the Promenade des Anglais
If you’re wondering where to go in Nice, the first place to check out is the palm-tree lined Promenade des Anglais. This 7 km (5-mile) oceanside promenade curves gently along the Bay of Angels, and is the focal point of this light-filled French Riviera resort town.
On one side you have parks, grand hotels, and and endless string of condos (many which have holiday rentals). On the waterfront side 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 sea-scented atmosphere. In fact, despite its simplicity, walking along the Promenade is one of the best activities in Nice.
Cycle Nice on a Velo Bleu
When visiting Nice, I get 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.
If you’re looking for fun things to do, there is nothing more breezy and enjoyable 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. You can then enter the code 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.
Want a cycling tour? You can sign up for a Nice: Panoramic French Riviera E-Bike Tour here. Prices from $57.
Visit one of the 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, and relaxing on the beach is a must when you visit Nice.
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. Alternatively, you can stick with a public beach as many locals do.
What’s the best beach in Nice? The 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.
When looking for a free beach, I usually just head down to the Promenade des Anglais, and park my towel on whatever strip of sand isn’t taken up by a private beach club.
I also like the look of the family-friendly beach in nearby Villefranche sur Mer, a sleepy coastal town just to the east of Nice.
Peek into the belle époque Hotel Negresco
As far as things to see in Nice go, the Hotel Negresco should definitely be on your list. 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 is to go to Le Negresco’s Bar for a glass of champagne – because having a glass of pink champagne or a crisp rose is a top way to experience the city’s cosmopolitan flavour – then I wander through the hallways of the hotel taking in the museum-quality art.
The Negresco’s art collection ranges from the unforgettable pop art sculpture of Miles Davis by superstar artist 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.
Hotels in Nice, France
Looking for other places to stay in Nice? We can’t all afford the Hotel Negresco, but Nice has more hotels and apartment rental than you can shake a stick at (if you like shaking sticks).
I like staying as near to the waterfront as I can, but if you want to stay near the train station an affordable option is the Kyriad Nice Gare.
Centrally located is the oddly-named but cheery looking Hotel Le Grimaldi by Happyculture.
Another popular central hotel is the Best Western Plus Hôtel Brice Garden Nice.
Waterfront hotels include the venerable Westminster Hotel & Spa. For views, the luxury Hôtel Suisse is located on a rocky bit overlooking the Promenade des Anglais and a cheaper alternative is the Albert 1er Hotel at the Promenade du Paillon Park, two minutes from the beach.
Alternatively, you could think about renting an apartment. Booking.com now lists apartment rentals as well as hotels. (Read more about the in’s and out’s of vacation rentals in France.)
You can check more hotel prices and locations below:
See the Palais Massena
The restored Palais Massena is near the Hotel Negresco, so if you’re sniffing around that area anyway why not stop in?
Here 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.
Explore Vieux Nice – the Old Town
Winding lanes crammed with creaky yellow-ochre buildings are what you’ll find in Nice’s Old Town, Vieux Nice. I think its nice to do a spot of shopping while on holiday, and this is a great place to do it.
Situated between the Quai des Etats Unis and Place Massena, the Old Town 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 an aim that’s fine, too) or stop for ice cream at Fenocchio’s on Place Rossetti.
Ice cream is a hot (weather) topic in Nice, however, and others prefer Azzurro on Rossetti Square over Fenocchio’s.
When to visit the Old Town: Go 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.
Make sightseeing in Nice easy. Try a Hop On Hop Off Bus Tour for one or two days. Check it out here. Prices from $26.
Check out the Baroque Architecture of Nice
If you’re heading to Vieux Nice anyway, check out the city’s Baroque architecture. Baroque is 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, it’s 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). The address is 15 rue Droite. Closed Tuesdays.
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 scandalized looks. Not only did Apollo have a crown of four horses on his head, but the seven-ton god also had, er, a rather large member.
The rebirth of the Sun Fountain
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.
Visit the Orthodox Cathedral of Saint Nicholas
Built during the reign of Czar Nicholas II, the Cathedral of Saint Nicholas, Nice’s Russian Orthodox Church, 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. The cathedral is an eye-catching attraction in Nice, France, and is located on Avenue Nicolas-II.
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 thanks to 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.)
Visit the museums in Nice
Painters and sculptors have long found Nice irresistible, attracted by its luminous light, enjoyable climate and sensual lifestyle, and 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). If you prefer exploring with a well-informed guide, check out this half-day museum tour.
Don’t miss the Musée Marc Chagall
When it comes to cultural attractions in Nice, the Chagall Museum is my favourite. 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.
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.
Visit the Musée Matisse
To see the renowned Matisse Museum head to the very posh Cimiez district, one of the best places to see in Nice and nicely off the main tourist track. Henri Matisse originally came to Nice to try and cure his bronchitis, but 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.
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 Nice 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. It’s 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 a swanky apartment building, it was originally built as a grand hotel. 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.)
Eat in a top Nice Restaurant
Eating well is part of every vacation in France, and Nice is no different. Here are a few of the best restaurants in Nice.
Seafood at Peixes For fresh seafood in a casual atmosphere with a maritime theme, try Peixes Restaurant at 4, rue de l’Opéra Nice, France 06300.
Health Food at Badaboom Need a fennel fix, some gluten-free dining or a fresh smoothie? Try the health-focused Badaboom Bistro at 11, rue François Guisol.
Fine Dining at Le Chantecler This 2-star Michelin restaurant in the Hotel Le Negresco offers a gastronomic exploration of Provencal-inspired food.
Meal with a view at La Terrace Located in the rooftop of Le Meridian Hotel, La Terrace is one of the highest points on the Promenade des Anglais.
Try the Local Cuisine at La Merenda While you can eat a Salade Nicoise just about anywhere on the Riviera, and there are raging debates about the proper way to make this simple salad, you might want to delve deeper into authentic local cuisine.
Run by pedigreed chef Dominique Le Stanc, La Merenda is a small restaurant in the Old Town that serves regional dishes such as fried zucchini flowers, tomato pie and stuffed sardines. And no, you can’t phone and make reservations ahead of time. It’s part of the charm. Rue Raoul Basio, 06300 Nice, France.
Why not try a Nice Evening Food & Wine Tour? from $114. Check it out here.
Take a day trip from Nice
The city is ideally located for exploring the other towns of the French Riviera, and one of the best things to do in Nice is to leave it – at least for a day.
Day trips from Nice are simple by train, cheap by bus, and there are so many great destinations in the wonderful South of France region you’ll be spoiled for choice.
You can also rent a motorbike – but to see what I think about that read renting a motorbike in France.
Visit my Things to do in the South of France travel article to get some more ideas on what you can see around the French Riviera, and which towns make great day trips from Nice.
If you want to hit several of the best French Riviera attractions in one day, consider Full-day French Riviera tour. It’s a great way to see the sights while learning some facts and history from a knowledgeable guide.
Chill at an outdoor cafe
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.
More places to visit in the French Riviera
Get some fun 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€.