The French Riviera has long been a playground for the glitterati and it’s no wonder. The sun drenched shores and sparkling azure water of the Mediterranean Sea beckon with an air of sophisticated relaxation and fun. Images of a tuxedoed James Bond aboard a stunning yacht mingle with the scent of suntan lotion, sand and sea. These are just a few of the reasons the French Riviera has been a coveted destination for more than a century.
Nice is absolutely a luxury resort town but there is more to this magnificent destination than casinos and celebrities on the beach. In fact the city itself has plenty to offer. Museums, shopping, excellent food and no shortage of fascinating art and architecture to view as you amble the ochre-colored streets. There are also some pretty awe-inspiring vistas of the Alps and the sea. Let’s take a dive into the allure of Nice, France.
A Brief History
The history of Nice goes back to 350BC when a group of Greek mariners founded the city, although there is proof the area has been inhabited since prehistoric times. Archeological digs certified the city was populated some 400,000 years ago. Not unlike those who flock to the French Riviera today, surely the gentle climate and abundant sunshine was a factor.
When the Phoenicians of Marseille (the Greek seafarers) founded Nice they named it after Nike, the goddess of victory. Under Roman dominion Nice fell into Roman rule and became part of Italy. For several centuries the city bounced back and forth between Italian and French dominion. That’s why today there is so much Italian influence in Nice.
Of course as Nice is on the Mediterranean it comes as no surprise that the Ottomans wanted a piece of the pie and tried to enforce their rule upon the city. While the Turk’s influence is evident in some of the area’s food and architecture, the would-be conquerors were scared off, so the legend goes, by a local laundress. Upon seeing the invaders approach a local laundry maid named Catherine Segurane displayed her ample behind and the invading forces chose to retreat! Not only is Catherine Segurane the celebrated patroness of Nice she may very well be the first recorded incident of “mooning”!
The French and Italian, along with the Turks, influenced and shaped the culture of Nice, but the Brits had a hand in making the area the iconic retreat for the rich and famous that it is today. Sometime in the mid 18th century English noblemen discovered the virtues of spending winter basking in the sunny beauty of the French Riviera, and, more specifically Nice. In an effort to elevate the appeal of Nice’s seashore the English aristocracy financed the Promenade des Anglais, to this day a famous landmark.
Up until the mid 20th century most of the world regarded Nice as an exclusive destination only affordable to the affluent. After the second World War the tourist scene changed. The affordability became clear to even the most budget-minded travelers and Nice became the top international travel destination it is today.
The affordability in no way changed the quality and high-standards those of wealth expected, it just opened up so that everyone can have a taste of the good life in this stunning resort area.
Neighborhoods of Nice
What’s your pleasure? As the UNESCO-listed capital of the French Riviera, Nice is a hub of all things food, culture, art and nightlife. It isn’t difficult to navigate your way around Nice’s charming, elegant, historical and luxurious neighborhoods.
When you're in a wandering mood and simply want to delight in the charm, vibrance and exciting nightlife of the area take a stroll through Vieux Nice. This district is also known as “Old Town” and lies between the Promenade du Paillon to the north and the Promenade des Anglais to the south.
Stroll Nice’s Old Town and find yourself taking a trip back in time. You’re surrounded by historic tenement, churches and squares. You’ll find tree-lined streets and narrow alleyways as you pass by the Opera House and a famous chocolatier dating back to the early 1800s. This is where Queen Victoria purchased her favorite chocolates.
The favorite epicenter of this district is the market square, Cours Saleya. Lined with shops, bars, restaurants and café terraces it’s a favorite destination for locals and visitors alike. There are stalls from which to taste a local favorite, Socca, which is a cross between crepe and flatbread, made from chickpea flour. This savory treat is crispy on the edges, tender in the center.
This deliriously delicious Riviera street food is best enjoyed topped with a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkling of sea salt. You can enjoy your Socca as an appetizer with cheese, olives and a glass of Rosé before you move on to the acclaimed salad nicoise, another local favorite.
The city of Monte Carlo falls under the rule of the Principality of Monaco. Such beautiful sights lie within the city like the Napoleon Museum, the Prince’s Palace and the Monaco Cathedral where Princess Grace, our own Grace Kelly, is interred.
Casinos are a big draw to the city and one of the most famous is the Monte Carlo Casino. The Casino de Monte-Carlo was established in 1863 and is the most famous gambling house in the world.
Even if you aren’t much of a gambler Monte Carlo is an absolute must-see. The heart of the playground of the rich and famous and a much-celebrated setting for films, literature and music, Monte Carlo is luxury at its finest.
From the Monte Carlo Opera House where Sarah Bernhardt appeared to the Hotel de Paris known for its near-perfect views from every room and it’s exclusive guests, royalty among them, Monte Carlo is among the most famous cities in the world.
The Formula One Monaco Grand Prix takes place in Monte Carlo and the city plays host to many gaming tournaments such as the European Poker Tour Final and the World Backgammon Championship.
There’s no shortage of museums and cultural sights to see in Nice. With the abundance of natural beauty and seaside culture you won’t be surprised to find the area was and remains an inspiration to artists, artisans and curators of objet d’art.
The Musée Matisse houses the largest collection in the world from the celebrated French artist Henri Matisse. The museum itself is a thing of beauty. The building, a 17th century red ochre Genoese villa, is surrounded by lush palm and olive trees. The artist himself was a resident of Nice for 40 years and is buried across from the museum in the Monastère Notre Dame de Cimiez.
The Russian artist Marc Chagall also resided in Nice until his death in 1985. Here there is a museum containing the largest collection of Chagall’s works including his 12 famous works depicting events in the Bible from Genesis to Exodus. There are many museums devoted to the celebration of all things art, including modern art (MAMAC), photography, fine art, art and music and more.
For history buffs there is the seaside Musée Masséna. Situated along the famed Promenade des Anglais, the museum is an attraction itself. The building is surrounded by lush gardens and inside the walls of the museum you’ll find much about the history of Nice including the importance of carnival, an epic celebration on the Riviera since 1876.
What to Eat in Nice
With so many cultural influences, Nice is a foodie's dream. Ratatouille originated in this coastal town. It’s often served as a side dish alongside an entree of chicken or veal. The recipe can change slightly depending on the cook and the availability of fresh ingredients.
Italian influence is prevalent in foods such as soupe au poitou, a Provencal whose bean soup topped with a very garlicky version of pesto (without the pine nuts), particularly hearty and mouth watering raviolis Nicois made with a braised beef, chard and cheese filling and La Daube Nicoise, a slow-cooked beef dish made with carrots and a red wine sauce and served with pasta.
A French pissaladiére may seem like a pizza but it’s all French. A tender, tasty tart topped with anchovy, onions and olives and available at most boulangeries, a pissaladiére makes for a great midday treat.
Life is Easy in Éze
A mere 5 miles from Nice you’ll find the medieval village of Éze. The village of Éze was built 1300 feet above sea level on the top of a hill. The views from this vantage point are so magnificent they must be seen to be believed. Perhaps that’s why it is one of the most-visited sights on the French Riviera.
Inside the historic walls of the village there is no shortage of sites. This fairytale town is filled with stone buildings adorned by cascading flowers, exotic gardens, churches and monuments. The neoclassical church, Notre Dame de l’Assomption stands on the ruins of an earlier temple and is well worth a visit. The interior is richly appointed in detail and art.
Along the sloping street and alleyways you’ll find the hotel Chateau de la Chèvre d’Or, a famous hotel where Walt Disney once stayed. Perhaps this beautiful village served as inspiration for many of Disney’s ideas?
Fully Experience the South of France
For those who’ve delighted in our Provence tour and aren't yet ready to bid this alluring region au revoir, adding a visit to Nice is the perfect way to complete your South of France experience. So talk to us about extending your South of France vacation with a visit to the French Riviera.