“When I understood that every morning I would see again this light, I could not believe how happy I was,'' wrote Henri Matisse about moving to Nice.
The reason for Matisse’s enthusiasm is clear. Nice’s beautiful Côte d'Azur or ‘French Riviera’ location has seen the city labelled ‘Nice la Belle’ (Nice the beautiful) by everyone from painters to poets, artists to actors.
Throughout the ages countries have fought bitterly for Nice and it has changed hands many times since it was first founded almost two and half millennia ago. Its strategic location, port and proximity to Italy have made it a target for Spain and more recently, Italy, but Napoleon finally handed it back to the French in 1860 as a territorial award after the city fought in the war against Austria.
During the next century, Nice enjoyed an economic boom primarily driven by aristocratic English families drawn to the blue waters and temperate climate of the Mediterranean coast; in fact the city’s Promenade des Anglais (Walkway of the English) owes its name to the earliest visitors to the resort. Today the city is the second-most visited place in France after Paris, receiving four million tourists each year, and is known as the Gateway to the South of France.
Nice is second only to Paris in the number of museums and galleries, and the city’s architecture provides a beautiful backdrop to the fairy-lit palms of the shoreline.
The Promenade des Anglais is a good place to start a tour. Buzzing with the joie de vivre of the French Riviera, you’ll see residents’ roller-blading, biking or jogging while tourists relax in royal blue chairs on the beach. Expensive seaside restaurants line the promenade and street vendors stroll the sand, selling crêpes and drinks.
One road back from the Promenade, at the Quai des Etats Unis end, is the Cours Saleya. Home to a famous flower market six days a week, its edges are lined with cafés and souvenir shops and the stalls are filled with a kaleidoscope of colour.
Finally, Henry Matisse is one of Nice’s most celebrated residents and his work, inspired by the fresh colours of Nice, is commemorated in a 17th century Genoese museum.
Nice is teeming with cafés and restaurants, and as a result visitors will easily find something to suit all tastes and budgets, from French bistro fare to Michelin-style haute cuisine. Many of the city’s restaurants serve food prepared in the local style, Provençal. However, Nice’s proximity to Italy and the intertwined history of the two countries has ensured that Italian pizzerias are also prevalent, and fusion dishes such as Gnocchi Niçoise and Pissaladière, the local, tomato-less, onion-laden version of pizza, are frequently seen.
If you’re looking to try local dishes, then the eponymous Salade Niçoise is a great Nice speciality, as is Bouillabaisse, a classic Provençal shellfish and fish stew, and Ratatouille, a dish of lightly stewed vegetables. Also try the Ligurian Coast specialist of Socca, a hot, black pepper sprinkled flatbread made from chickpea flour, olive oil and water.
The Promenade de Anglais is home to many of the top end French eateries, while the upmarket area of Carre d’Or is skewed more towards Italian cuisine. Nightlife is particularly good around the port area and the old quarter of Vieux Nice, a labyrinth of narrow streets with vibrant pubs and bars and an authentically French vibe. Just steer clear of the main thoroughfare, Cours Saleya, as it can be a little touristy after hours.
Nice is known as the gateway to the South of France, but many visitors rarely travel more than an hour from the city. There is good reason for this: Nice is surrounded by some of the most talked about travel destinations in France. Just 12 kms to the northeast – seven minutes in a helicopter - is the tiny Principality of Monaco, famed for the Monaco Grand Prix and the upscale resort of Monte Carlo. In the opposite direction, around 30 kms southwest of Nice is Cannes, home to the annual Cannes Film Festival and a myriad of designer boutiques. Another 40 kms further southwest is Saint-Tropez, a glamorous beach resort and millionaires playground.