The south of France has been synonymous the world over for some of the best beaches to soak up the sun and swim in. And the best area for that in France’s significant Mediterranean coast is the southeastern part known as the Côte d’Azur (Azure Coast), though it is also known in English as the French Riviera. This stretch of coast and the communities that dot it are considered to be one of the first historical modern resort locations. And the largest French city in that area is Nice, fifth overall in France and second largest after Marseille on the Mediterranean side.
Known by the nickname “la Belle” (“the Beautiful”), Nice like all cities of note in the Inner Sea that is the Mediterranean, has a weight of history where it stands. In fact in their case it goes even further back into prehistory, as Nice contains within its city limits an archaeological site, Terra Amata, which may well be one of the earliest places in Europe where primitive men learned to make and use fire that did not come from nature. It entered into historical times in 350 BC, when Ancient Greeks from the colony of Massalia (modern Marseille) founded a settlement there that they named after the Goddess of Victory, Nike.
Nikaia became a trading port that remained prosperous even as it was incorporated into the Roman Empire. This was even after the Romans built their own settlement next to it, Cemenelum. That town would eventually be destroyed by barbarian invasion, but its ruins remain in Cimiez, a district of the modern city of Nice.
Nice managed to survive the turbulent times of the Middle Ages by joining with whichever Italian city-state would lend it aid. First they allied with Genoa as protection against the Muslim Saracens. Then they sided with Pisa against Genoa. The city briefly came under the French Counts of Provence, and later the Counts of Savoy to defend against the Corsair pirates of the Barbary States since 1388. After a series of territorial exchanges, by 1860 the city was added to the territory of France and it has stayed there ever since.
The vogue of Nice and the rest of the French Riviera as a vacation spot for the affluent started as early as the latter half of the 18th Century, with the upper-crust families of Great Britain. Upon learning of the natural beauty in the Côte d’Azur as well as the gentle Mediterranean weather, British citizens who could afford the trip would head over to Nice in December, seeing it as a better place to pass the winter than back home.
As of the 19th Century this image was only strengthened by the celebrity status of the people who went on holiday there, like Queen Victoria of the British Empire herself. They were joined by writers and artists like Picasso and Henri Matisse. With the parallel development of the nearby Principality of Monaco to the east, just 13 kilometers apart, the French Riviera area became cemented in popular culture as a getaway for the rich and famous.
Travel and tourism to Nice lately has been somewhat guarded, following the tragedy during Bastille Day of 2016. But one unfortunate incident should not be enough to sour the experience of this coastal Mediterranean paradise for interested people. Travelers would most certainly be drawn to the most iconic feature of this resort city, the Promenade de Anglais. This paved walkway was built in 1822, paid for by English tourists of the time. The promenade has since been expanded with a dedicated lane for bicycles, and skateboards, and there is a Segway rental to quickly get around the 4-kilometer stretch.
Just as iconic to Nice as the Promenade de Anglais is the old quarter of the city, or Vieux Nice. Its street and building layout has been preserved since the 1700s and is centered on the busy Saleya market square, with three “F’s” as its regular offering to customers: food, flowers and flea (market). Other establishments in Vieux Nice are restaurants, bars, delis and clothing boutiques.
Historical structures within the old town include the Palais Lascaris mansion which has an 18th Century pharmacy, and two churches: the city’s Cathedral dedicated to their patron Saint Reparata, and the smaller Chapel of Misericorde. At the edge of the old town is a high wooded outcrop that has had some building or other built on it since Roman times, as well as a 16th Century tower that is all that was left of a castle destroyed by the French king Louis XIV.
Nice also has an abundance of museums, mostly showcasing the history of the city as a Riviera resort getaway. The Musee Massena and the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art document the foreign tourist and expat community of Nice in their exhibits.
Artists Henri Matisse and Marc Chagall, who both lived in the city, get their own dedicated museums showcasing their various artworks. Matisse’s collection is housed in a Genoese-style villa with an olive grove, while his grave is in the cemetery just across the nearby park. The Chagall museum, which he opened while he was still alive, is the largest collection of his work.
Last but not least, lest we forget that this is a resort city, Nice has its famous beaches that have captivated sun-seekers for centuries past. The most popular patch of seaside is directly opposite Vieux Nice, with plenty of sunbathers and beach-volleyball players about. The sand is generally judged to have more pebbles than most, but it has never stopped tourists from going there again and again.
While often perceived as a playground for the wealthy, Nice is actually accessible and approachable for every tourist of means that would come over there for a spell. With its bright and sunny weather, old-town flair, inviting sand and surf (and close proximity to the shops, casinos and racing circuit of Monaco), Nice is just about the proper way to experience the French Riviera, and a must-visit for any global traveler.
Photo courtesy of amiehu.com