This post is part of a series based on my boyfriend and I’s two-week road trip through the South of France. Follow our journey here.
No trip to Nice, France would be complete without spending some time enjoying water sports, waterfront meals and some quality beach time at the Promenade des Anglais; but, you already know that. My boyfriend Andy and I recently did a two-week road trip from Nice to Marseille, so stay tuned for more posts and social media shares on this getaway (especially on Instagram!).
As usual, my goal is to take you beyond your guidebooks to show you a more offbeat, truly local point of view of Nice that goes beyond the beautiful Promenade. The following 16 things to do in Nice aim to do just that, and include the top highlights from our time in the city.
Editor’s Note: I know many of you interested in Nice may be worried about safety in light of the tragic July 2016 terror attacks in the city. We are sadly living in a time when going on vacation has lost its worry-free appeal. Andy and I felt very safe in Nice, and recommend anyone with flights booked not cancel their plans. Threats are everywhere. You can’t stop living your life. For more information on this, I urge you to read Wendy Perrin’s excellent post on “7 Keys To Traveling Without Fear Despite Terrorist Attacks. Please also visit my Safety Essentials page.
1. Have Your Own Rooftop At The Hotel Monsigny
From the outside the Hotel Monsigny Nice appears like an apartment building, with towels billowing from terraces and a cute sidewalk restaurant, though if you look up and to the left you’ll notice the vertical block letter “HOTEL” sign. The 3-star rating keeps it affordable, but awesome amenities along with the restaurant include a 7th-floor rooftop cocktail bar and Jacuzzi (5 Euros for guests to use), open marble in-room showers and, if you stay in the Superior Balcony room like we did, your very own enormous terrace with table patio and turf grass for picnicking while enjoying Nice’s architecture.
Starting rates: $65-$201 USD per night for the lowest class room. For the Superior Balcony room we had it’s about $128 to $419 USD per night.
The hotel had a great location in the up-and-coming Liberation neighborhood, about a 20-minute walk from the Promenade.
2. Eat Like A True Local
In Nice there is a special certification given to restaurants focused on preserving local culinary traditions called “Cuisine Nissarde.” At present there are less than 20 restaurants that hold the title, so when you find one that does you know it’s the real deal. We explored this side of Nice at A Buteghinna, which means “the small boutique.” The hospitality was outstanding, with the women working there reminding me of proud mothers and grandmothers whose lives revolve around spreading joy through food. We enjoyed a giant plate of typical Niçoise offerings, some of which included:
- Ratatouille: Stewed vegetables with olive oil, basil and balsamic vinegar.
- Eggplant Caviar: Boiled, mashed eggplant seasoned with sautéed garlic, basil and olive oil.
- Pissaladière: A caramelized onion and anchovy tart.
- Petits Farcis: Meat and veg-stuffed vegetables.
- Panisse: Chic pea flour fries.
- Olive Paste: A tapenade featuring just olives (this was my favorite dish of them all).
- Soupe au Pistou: A bean soup highly flavored with olive oil and basil that tastes kind of like pesto to me. The two dishes are often compared, though Pistou is void of pine nuts.
- Beignets de Fleurs de Courgette: Fried zucchini flowers.
The French get a bad reputation for being rude; however, if you say “bonjour” (hello) and “au revoir” (goodbye) as well as pleasantries like “merci” (thank you) and “s’il vous plaît” (please) you’ll have a completely different experience. We went from being ignored to treated wonderfully once we applied this tip to our trip. Here’s more on French culture tip.
3. Savor The Typical Veg-Infused Dessert
We ended the above meal with a typical Nice dessert, Swiss Chard Tart (or tourte aux blettes). Yes, as in that Swiss Chard. It looked like a vegetable quiche of sorts when it arrived at the table, but with one bite it quickly became apparent it was much more complex with dried raisins, apples and pine nuts in a sweet brown-sugar laced pie crust made with olive oil. Definitely add trying this to your things to do in Nice list!
Want to make tourte aux blettes at home? David Lebovitz has an entertaining and informative post on his journey finding the right ingredients for this and successfully re-creating the treat.
4. Try The World’s Best Regional Specialties At Le Vingt4
Le Vingt4, which refers to the street number 24 as well as wine (vin), is the place to go when you want to take a delectable culinary journey around the world. Sourcing the best regional products from France, Italy, Argentina and beyond, they focus on cooking their dishes as little as possible (to preserve the natural flavors) and pairing each with a matching regional wine. The combinations are an experiential journey. For instance, when starting with a winter truffle and mascarpone-laced brie de meaux we were instructed to first sip our paired Herbelet Champagne Grand Cru, taste the cheese, then drink again for a completely different taste. We then moved on to an Italian ricotta and spinach-filled ravioli served with small mozzarella balls, seasonal veggies and Parmigiano Reggiano — the world’s most expensive cheese — aged for 24 months. For some protein, every bite of our Argentinian Black Angus ribeye aged for 28 days to create tenderness, was exquisite, especially when paired with an Argentinian Lunta 100% Malbec.
They also have a nice concept for choosing many of their 55 bottles (and 45 glasses) of wine, allowing different women each month to taste test. Women also choose the artwork adorning the space, giving Le Vingt4 a feminine touch.
Out of Andy and I’s entire two-week trip this was our favorite restaurant, hands down. Don’t miss it!
5. Eat Gelato Like A Local At Arlequin Gelati
When a local told us Arlequin Gelati was “the best gelato in the world” — and we noticed it was 600 feet from our hotel — we made it a point to stop in. It’s small and bright with outdoor seating and a glass case full of temping gelatos with toppings to enhance the design. They serve everything from Bronte Pistachio to Rasberry Raisin to Oreos and beyond. We opted for the “Divine,” which tasted like a pistachio peanut butter Ferro Rocher combo, and “Paradise,” a kind of coconut caramel that reminded me of the beach. If you’d like to explore the world through treats, their Heritage selection showcases specialty ingredients woven into culturally-focused flavors like Champagne, Thailand Durian and Sicilian Nougat.
On a warm day the line for this place runs down the street, so going in the evening is recommended.
6. Indulge In Quirky Desserts At Ballanger
While Arlequin has a sophisticated feel, Ballanger Confiserie Creperie (13 avenue Jean Médecin) is brighter and wackier. They serve decadent donut sandwiches topped with your choice of sauces, whipped creams, fruits and nuts, as well as stuffed churros, sugary fruit slushies and creative waffle creations. My favorite was a framboise (raspberry) and pistachio swirl soft serve cone, though my made-to-order donut — hand dipped in sugar — was delicious. It’s definitely a fun place to take a trip back to your childhood!
At certain times you’ll also see taffy being pressed, spun and pulled through the window. We watched while walking home around 8pm at night!
7. Have A Meal In A Local Home
BonAppetour is a great platform allowing travelers to have a meal in a local home. It’s in cities all over the world, including Nice, where Andy and I savored local specialties with Caroline and her husband Nicolas. As soon as we stepped into their spacious art-adorned apartment we felt right at home, being invited to sit on the couch with glasses of French rose. That is, until their friend Teddy — aka “The Spritz King” — arrived and made us Spritz’s, a mix of Prosecco and Aperol. The evening lasted five amazing hours as we explored Nice through dishes like Pissaladière (a caramelized onion and anchovy tart) and Petits Farcis (a meat and veg-stuffed vegetable) while sharing stories on a more personal level than you would meeting someone on the street for the first time. I’m of the mindset that if you haven’t interacted with the locals you haven’t really visited a place, and BonAppetour allowed us to do just this!
We found having local SIM cards with data great for cultural exchanges, as any communication issues could be cleared up easily with an online translator.
8. See Nice At Night (In Lights!)
Nice is gorgeous at night, with beautiful buildings and parks all lit up. Check out the Notre Dame Basilica, pictured above, as well as the Place Massena and Promenade du Paillon, with glowing public art and dancing light fountains. Here you’ll also find loads of buskers and people enjoying the energy of Nice at night.
Don’t like walking around a city at night? Bring a Vigilant Personal Alarm. Pull the pin and it blares louder than a fire truck!
9. Visit The Medieval Commune Of Eze
Pronounced “Ez,” (not Ease or Easy-E like I was calling it), this charming medieval commune has a rich history dating back to the 3rd Century BC. It’s only 20 minutes from Nice and worth the short drive. Don’t miss the lookout point right before Eze with aerial riviera and yacht views. You can park here for free (or at least we did) and walk 10 minutes to the town. You’ll walk up a winding escarpment with restaurants, shops and galleries embedded into the rock. The crepes and salads (and views) we savored at Le Cactus were phenomenal, though La Plage (“The Beach”) had a funky vibe and comfy couches that seemed fun. Bring your French Riviera Pass (or 6 Euros) to visit Eze’s cacti-filled botanical garden for the highest views in the commune.
I’d recommend allotting about 90 minutes-two hours for your Eze visit as it’s beautiful but small.
10. Spend A Day Like A VIP In Monaco
Yes, it’s cool to walk around the waterfront, photograph the yachts and Aston Martins, and see how Europe’s elite live; but Monaco is more than that, particularly for the views, stunning pale pastel buildings, and grand detailed structures. Take a dip in a giant waterfront pool, bring the young ones to the waterfront baby circus, lick ice cream while strolling the marina and walk 15-minutes up a hillside park to the Palais du Prince in Monaco’s Old Town for aerial Monaco views. The stairs to the viewpoint are visible from the waterfront (if facing the water just look at the hillside to your right). There’s also a chill outdoor spot on the water called Brasserie de Monaco with communal picnic tables serving homemade organic beers.
While Monaco is its own Principality, you do not need a passport to get in. You’ll drive right in without being stopped.
11. Hike To The Top Of Castle Park
Castle Park, or Parc du Chateau, is an easy 30-minute climb from Old Town (or a quick elevator ride from the beach). It’s one of the highest viewpoints in Nice at 302 feet above sea level offering vistas of the city, beaches and azure waters dotted with paragliders below. You can also explore castle ruins and learn about the history of the site, once a fortified town set up by the Greek-Phoenicians in 3rd Century BC (though afterward it became a Roman and a Medieval city, with the site becoming a park in the 1800s).
Parc du Chateau is free to enjoy, and you’ll also find a man-made waterfall, playgrounds, snack shops and parkland for picnicking and chilling out.
12. Savor The Typical Sandwich Of Nice
Many of you have probably tried a Salade Niçoise before, made with tomatoes, tuna, hard-boiled eggs, Niçoise olives, anchovies and vinaigrette. Well, if you have this setup as a sandwich you’ve got a dish called le pan bagnat, a traditional sandwich of Nice. A local recommended I try it at Kiosque TinTin, a takeaway sandwich and salad shop. It was very tasty, and when one of the women working there saw me taking pictures of my sandwich she invited me into the kitchen to take more.
Another Nice street food I loved even more was socca, a friend chic pea bread, best topped with a bit of salt and pepper. Get it from Socca Tram, located right near Kiosque TinTin off Place du General du Galle in the Liberation Neighborhood. Address: 6bis Avenue Alfred Borriglione.
13. Grab A Rooftop Cocktail At Rooftop #7
Located on the 7th floor of the Hotel Monsigny, Rooptop #7 is a really sweet spot overlooking the city. It’s a must in terms of things to do in Nice. Not only is there a Jacuzzi (5 Euros to use), but the cocktails are great, they serve snacks with your drink, and you’ve for a panoramic Nice view. The chill music, tropical plants and wooden deck flooring set the perfect scene, and we even made friends with the locals next to us (who gave us recommendations for the rest of our trip!).
Cocktails range from 12-15 Euros.
If you’re a hot head like me, I recommend their spicy “Amante Picante” made with tequila, coriander and jalapeños. Yum!
14. Try Gourmet Fast Food At Try Burger
Touted as France’s first gourmet fast-food join, 2* Michelin Star Try Burger specializes in dry aged beef burgers — as well as lamb, chicken, quinoa steak, veal and fish patties — cooked over an open flame. Inside the hiply gritty eatery there’s an open case full of artisanal wines (which you drink out of paper cups) and lemonades made without sugar, as well as hand blown glass light fixtures, mismatched pendant lights, Old West sketches and a bathroom that looks like you’re walking into a treasure chest. Burgers are about $15-$18.
Food weighing you down? A stand across the street and slightly to the right (toward the water) sells 1 Euro espressos!
15. Get Lost In The Winding Streets Of Old Town
You’ll know you’ve reached Old Town (aka Vieux Nice) as soon as you find yourself lost in winding narrow streets shaded by awnings and lined with baroque architecture dating back to the 1700s. Old Town aptly refers to the preserved historic section of Nice, and is both a scenic spot for long lazy lunches and shopping during the day and partying at night. Moreover, it’s bordered by Promenade du Paillon, a bus station and car park turned greenspace. Cool down in the splash pads, lay out and read, or visit at night to see the busker’s.
Don’t miss the Cours Saleya Open-Air Market Every morning, where you can get local cheese, olives, herbs and beyond. It’s the main highlight of Old Town!
16. Party In The Harbor Area
While Old Town and the Promenade have lots of places for partying, the LGBT-friendly Harbor Area is alive with outdoor eateries, hookah lounges and wine bars, especially on Bonaparte Street. You can have drinks and go dancing or head to the Port to see the boats and city lights against the water. From there, it’s an easy walk to the Promenade.
Driving In Nice: French drivers make New York drivers seem sane and polite. Driving in Nice was extremely stressful with skinny streets, crazy cars, minimal parking aside for garages, and pedestrians and motorbikes that seemed to have a death wish. While I recommend having a car to travel the South of France, it’s best to spend a few days in Nice traveling on foot (it’s very walkable), bus and tram, and then picking up the car when you’re ready to do your day trips or journey onward.
Parking: If you have a car in Nice get a paid parking spot. The one offered by Hotel Monsigny costs 16 Euros (~$18 USD) per night but the garage is SO tight it took two of us and about 30 minutes (literally) to get out. Unless you have a really small rental car get a spot at a public lot (24-27 Euros / ~$27-$30 USD, with the first 30-60 minutes typically free).
Language: French, though we found many people spoke some English. Just make sure to understand pleasantries when interacting with locals!
Currency: Euro. As of September 2016 the exchange rate was about 1 Euro = $1.13 USD.
France Road Trip Route:
- Nice (with day trips to Eze for a medieval village, Monaco for a VIP afternoon and Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat for the Villa & Jardins Ephrussi de Rothschild)
- Cannes (with day trips to St. Tropez/Ramatuelle for beaches, Gassin for wine tasting and La Croix Valmer for beaches and hiking)
- Moissac Bellevue (we stayed at a woodland set horse farm then were about 20-minutes from Verdon Gorge)
- Hyeres (the cobbled commune itself is fun to explore, and is near beautiful beaches and is accessible to the untouched Port Cros Island; worth the trip for this cool castle stay alone!)
- Aix-en-Provence (my personal favorite spot of the trip due to the small quiet city full of amenities and accessibility to beautiful Provence farmland; a cheesey rooftop lunch at La Fromagerie Du Passage and a day trip cycling outside the city with Arthur of Secrets d’ici are musts!)
- Marseille (don’t miss hiking in the urban Calanques National Park, which doesn’t feel urban at all and is accessible to beautiful port towns and beaches)