Nice, France: Cool Capital of Cote D’Azur

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Porticoes reminded me of Bologna, Italy in Nice, Cote d'Azur, France.
Porticoes reminded me of Bologna, Italy in Nice, Cote d’Azur, France.

Nice is the Classic Seaside Town, Loaded with Tourists and True Charm

By Max Hartshorne
GoNOMAD Editor

Bebe and chien, in A Butteghin a in Nice's old town.
Bebe and chien, in A Butteghin a in Nice’s old town.

After visiting Cannes, then Antibes, moving on to the much larger Nice took some adjustment.

Of course, this was partly due to the fact that I was driving a rental car on the narrow streets which made it very hazardous and I kept thinking I was going to clip my mirror.

Not wanting to hear the dreaded crunch as I was being overtaken on either side by daredevil motorbike riders, I’ll admit I was rattled. The GPS spun me in circles and I had no one riding shotgun to settle me down.

“Just Back Up”

On my way to the hotel, when the woman at the front desk insisted I could just back up down the very narrow street I had just driven on to get there.  I balked.

Then I asked a moving man who was blocking my way unloading his big van which way I should go and he said “of course just drive over the tram tracks” so I did that.

Then I hightailed it to the Avis office in Nice near the train station to return my rental car. I was so glad to say goodbye to my hybrid Ford Puma. Rest assured—you don’t need a car in Nice, France. Maybe a scooter or a bike but not a car!

Nice, France Hotels: Three Stars on the Tram Line

One of the stony beaches in Nice, France.
One of the stony beaches in Nice, France.

Freed from my vehicle, I was happy to check in to the three-star Hotel Monsigny, right downtown on a busy tram line. This is the site of one of the city’s many vegetable and fish markets. My guide Caterina told me Nice is a city of markets. All of the large and small markets offer Biologique  and non-organic produce and fish markets—there are so many fish stands.

The rooftop bar at Hotel Monsigny is a hit!
The rooftop bar at Hotel Monsigny is a hit!
Pissaladiere, an onion tart, is a classic Nice dish available everywhere.
Pissaladiere, an onion tart, is a classic Nice dish available everywhere.

There’s a little symbol on the tag for the fish that denotes farm-raised, or “d’élevage” and Caterina insisted that she only buys the wild-caught varieties of fish.

Some of the stalls had relatively meager offerings, that’s because they were all selling only their own homegrown products, grown on their own farms.

That’s a big difference here because so many of these sellers buy imported veggies from brokers and the ones that people here really like are from the personal farm plots. You’d be surprised what you can grow on an acre or less!

Nice, a City Full of Beaches

Nice is a city of beaches. There are 15 private and 20 public spectacular Mediterranean swimming beaches and a wide beachside promenade, all very easy to get to by tram. Some for a price offer the shelter of an umbrella for 20 euros plus five euros for a towel.

But I was just fine on the public beaches because no matter how much you pay you’re still sitting on pebbles. There are no sandy beaches to be had here in Nice.  But in the clear Mediterranean seawater and after getting free of the hard stones, (note to self –bring beach shoes) the swimming experience here is extremely satisfying and the water temperature is perfect at 72.

Six pm: Nice Beach Time

The rocky beach in Nice, Cote d'Azur.
The rocky beach in Nice, Cote d’Azur.
beach in Nice, France.
Nice Beach…rocky but beautiful.

People go to the beach much later here in Nice. I compared a photo I took at 1 pm with what it was like at 6:30 pm and it was three times as crowded. Still, it didn’t feel like New York’s famous Jones Beach, we all had plenty of space to sprawl on the pebbles and take in the still strong Cote D’Azur sun. Despite the old myth, only a few brave women go topless here anymore.

We’re Not in Provence

I was told several times this was not Provence. Provence is more west and north, Marseille and Aix-en-Provence are there. This is the Cote D’Azur. Five years ago France changed all of the regions of the country and Provence-alpes-cote-dazur is what it’s all called now. No more French Riviera.

Houses of the rich in Villefranche, near Nice, from the sea.
Houses of the rich in Villefranche, near Nice, from the sea.

Nice is home to some of the very rich. This is even more true in Eze, and Villefranche, its neighbors. There are 52 communes in Nice. Some of the homeowners whose houses we gawked at on a one-hour boat ride around the harbor included Sir Elton John, Bono, Tina Turner, and James Bond himself, the late Sir Sean Connery.

You can’t see any of these famous people’s houses from land but the pleasant boat excursion gives you a cheap day out on the water and our guide provided French and English dishes with the inside scoop on those stars we all want to know more about. We even saw a hotel that spurned a blank check from Bill Gates and refused to sell him her hotel.

Artists in Nice

In addition to the world’s most famous artists including Matisse and Chagall, there are many artists who still live and paint in the Old town streets of Nice.

You can view a lot of original works here AND you can see a collaborative exhibition by British painter David Hockney alongside Matisse’s work at the Musee Matisse.  Henri Mattisse lived in an ornate Baroque house in the center of the Old town of Nice and created many paintings there during the German occupation of France in the 1940s.

boats in nice
Nice’s famous open boats painted in bright colors are called pointus.

I also visited the Chagall museum, but even though two rooms were closed, his mastery of colors was dramatic. Still, my visit didn’t take more than 20 minutes. Unlike the Matisse museum, it was unspectacular. But the Chagall museum grounds include a nice outdoor cafe.

The Italian Ice cream maker Roberto Francia owns two stores in Nice: Arlequin and Cecar. https://www.arlequingelati.com/
The Italian Ice cream maker Roberto Francia owns two stores in Nice: Arlequin and Cecar. Truly a stand-out in a city full of gelato shops.

Photos in Nice’s Old Town

We also took in a fabulous photo exhibition the Old Town by Englishman Nick Knight, who shoots closeups of roses with his iPhone and then uses the magic of photoshop and a stylus to create stunning large-format works of art. It’s much harder than it looks, as a video of the artist at work explained the painstaking process.

Nice is one of the busiest cities I can ever remember visiting. It seems like everybody is a tourist with a big floppy hat and an iPhone clicking pictures. But it doesn’t deter from the charm of the place. The beautiful scenery is just about everywhere you look. And the views of the glorious Med are easy to find.

Inspired by the Queen

Meze at A Buteghinn'a in Nice Nice to Paris
Meze at A Buteghinn’a in Nice

The ornate Baroque-style buildings were inspired by Queen Victoria and the members of the Russian aristocracy who spent the winters here in the 1800s.

There is a collegial atmosphere in Nice, nobody beefs about the hordes, they answer you back in English and bear no grudges. Certainly, it’s all a relief from the dark days of 2020-22 when we all had to roll up the streets and no one could visit.

The most conspicuous of all the glamorous super yachts in Nice’s harbor has to be the Mimtee, a 279-foot four-level white behemoth that’s available for charter.

It’s owned by the billionaire president of Lebanon, Najib Azmi Mikati. One sight here that’s a bit less gauche is the colorful small boats used by the Nicoise themselves, open boats painted in gay bright colors called les pointus de Nice.

Though Nice is not a slacker in the super yacht department, I think the prize still rests with Antibes, just down the coast where truly mind-blowing boats are all lined up. Bill Gates passed through Antibes but he’s smart enough not to own one, he just rents them.

See, that’s why he’s always at the top of the rich list. Elon doesn’t own one either.

Tender beef with truffle shavings and foie gras at the restaurant of the Hotel Monsigny in Nice.
Tender, slow-cooked beef with truffle shavings and foie gras at the restaurant of the Hotel Monsigny in Nice.

Truffles and Fois Gras at Hotel Monsigny

I stayed at the Hotel Monsigny. Three stars, small room but a really remarkable restaurant where they throw around foie gras and truffles like parsley. Very good. The chef here is Pierre-Alain Garnier.

The staff was friendly and accommodating even on the busy Rugby tourney weekend when rooms here were hard to find. Like most places in Nice, expect hotels to be sold out most of the summer.

Another standout here is a cafe right on the harbor run by a friendly Corsican chef, Le Bistrot du Port, the ambiance and the food are first-rate.

Lunch at a tiny place in the old town brought called A Buteghinn’a presented a perfect rendition of the authentic Salade Nicoise as well as a pretty meze plate with all manner of local specialties. There are no string beans and radishes and basil are key to this famous salad, I was told.

The boat tour is one hour around Villefranche and Eze harbor and leaves daily at 11 am and 3 pm with Trans-Cote-Azur.  19 euros.

Find out more about Nice and the surrounding area at Explore Nice Coteazur 

This trip was sponsored by Nice and Cote D’Azur tourism but the opinions are the author’s own.