Okay, I made a mistake. For years, I scoffed at the idea of visiting Nice because I assumed it was a glitzy French Riviera city made only for leathery-skinned fleshpots and high-rollers looking for somewhere to park their superyachts. But when I took the five-hour train ride from Paris to Nice last spring, I almost immediately realised how unfair to the city I’d been.
Like someone born into wealth and good-looks, Nice is an exceptionally blessed city through no fault of its own. Perched right on the edge of the Mediterranean Sea, the city basks in year-round golden sunshine and shimmers with the warm candy-coloured Italianate hues so beloved of the upper classes in the 18th and 19th century.
But times have changed since Queen Victoria used to take shelter there from England’s cold grey skies. While Nice has its wealthy contingent, this atmosphere doesn’t dominate. Walking around in the heart of Nice, you see locals doing ordinary things like heading to work, running errands or sipping an espresso in a café–they’re just doing it in an exceptionally beautiful environment.
Nice gives one the feeling that, despite its beauty and riches, it offers generously the best of itself to just about everyone. In fact, most of the things I loved most about Nice were free.
It costs nothing to wander around the city, feasting your eyes on the city’s glorious colours and architecture. I especially loved drifting around Vieux Nice, Old Town, which dates back several centuries. The buildings in this vibrant area are colored all the hues shades of sunset and range in style from Baroque to Art Deco. You can get easily and pleasantly lost among its narrow winding streets, where you can hear passing locals chatting in the Niçoise dialect and can snack on delicious local street food–savour socca, a chickpea pancake, pissaladière, an onion-anchovy tart and beignets de fleur de courgettes, fried zucchini flowers – for about $6 a pop.
Strolling along Nice’s famed Promenade des Anglais was another priceless experience. The palm tree-lined, 10-kilometre stretch, built by the English in the 19th century, follows the elegant curve of the Bay of Angels. Every morning, I rose early to take walk along the promenade, while all was quiet. Sometimes, I would settle on the beach’s flat grey stones to gaze at the sparkling waters of the bay. Other times, I’d walk on the promenade itself to admire the old grand hotels built along its length, many of which housed royalty, film stars and other glitterati over the years.
Although the Promenade des Anglais is one of the most prestigious area of Nice, the atmosphere is non-exclusive. For every upmarket restaurant here with prices that make your eyes pop, there’s a restaurant with more affordable prices, too. For example, a dinner at a celebrated two-Michelin star restaurant, is going to cost you at the very least $183 per person (and that’s without wine). Yet, immediately next door, at the well-respected La Rotonde Brasserie, you can get a three-course dinner for $65. Fair play to you, Nice.
Activities here won’t cost a fortune either. You can visit all 14 of Nice’s museums for €20 ($30) if you buy a seven-day pass. The Museum of Asian Art and Villa Arson, a modern art museum, are free. The Marc Chagall museum, which showcases the largest public collection of his work, is free every first Sunday of the month.
“That’s all great,” you might be thinking, “but how much does it cost to stay there?” Well, when I was there in late March, I paid only $150 per night to stay at a comfortable and clean Holiday Inn in a pretty residential neighbourhood just a 10-minute walk from the beachfront. (And I must mention that my best meal in Nice was at this hotel: the roasted chicken was so tasty that I felt like crying when it was gone.)
Naturally, you can expect the price to skyrocket in summer. But what does that matter? In Nice, the weather is pleasant year-round: off-season is still a good time to visit.
So, if you’ve written visiting Nice off because you think you couldn’t possibly afford it: don’t. It may be a playground to the rich and famous, but just as much a playground for everyone else too.
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