A winter retreat for pampered aristocrats in the 18th and 19th centuries thanks to its mild climate and gift for self-promotion, the French city of Nice has thrived on the tourist trade ever since. Yet while visitors flock here from every corner of the globe, the city remains remarkably unfazed by all the attention. Less glossy than its counterparts along the coast, Nice has never bartered its soul to the tourist dollar. Here are nine reasons to visit.
1 See masters of art There’s a healthy mix of old and new in Nice when it comes to fine art. On the contemporary side, the unrivalled champion of the scene is the Musée d’Art Moderne et d’Art Contemporain (www.mamac-nice.org). Its large permanent collection features a good showing from the Nice School, New Realism and Pop Art. Galerie Jean Renoir (www.jean-renoir.com) is a champion of up-and-coming, young local talent, and it’s free. The Musée Matisse (www.musee-matisse-nice.org) houses a huge number of the artist’s paintings, drawings, engravings and personal effects in the serene surroundings of a 17th-century villa.
2 Have a corking night out As in Paris, ‘vins naturel’ – grapes produced with minimal chemicals and sulphites, many of them organic or biodynamic – are becoming increasingly popular. Be part of the trend at La Part des Anges (+334 93 62 69 80), which stocks bottles from many of the country’s best producers.
3 Cleanse yourself with chocolate There are plenty of spas and wellbeing centres here, ensuring that local citizens are able to relax and rejuvenate, but only one offers the practice of ‘choco-cooning’ – rolling around in creamy ganache and melted chocolate. This is, however, only one of the 80-strong treatments available at La Bulle d’Isis (www.labulledisis.fr).
4 Get into the French groove Glamorous grooves, with a show-boating crowd to match, can be sought out at two main nightclub addresses in town. Ôdace (+334 93 82 37 66) emanates louche orientalism, with its slickly appointed bar, restaurant and dancefloor. The atmosphere couldn’t be more different in Blue Moon (+33 629 503 556). This sweaty little stew of a club whips its post-bar punters into a carefree frenzy with a pumping mix of house and handbag anthems. If you’re looking for something a little more sophisticated, Nice’s premier DJ bar has to be Le Smarties (nicesmarties.free.fr). Billing itself as an ‘electro lounge’, this retro-hip bar is populated by the kind of clientele who don’t look out of place among the decor of funky divans and ’70s television sets.
5 Get an earful of modern music Nice is also a popular stop-off on the modern music scene, with larger venues such as Acropolis (www.nice-acropolis.com) and Théâtre Lino Ventura (www.tlv-nice.org) pulling in all the usual big names, along with some more underground hip hop and electronic music outfits. The mega gigs tend to take place at Palais Nikaïa (www.nikaia.fr). But it’s not all international in flavour: Niçois theatres like Théâtre Francis Gag (www.theatre-francis-gag.org) have some of the most well-trodden stages in town. It’s quite an achievement considering almost all of their performances (from reinterpretations of Molière through to urban rap) are given in the local Niçois dialect.
6 Have a religious experience Nice has a host of charming churches to visit. Cathédrale Saint Nicolas is one of the most striking examples of Russian Orthodox architecture outside Russia; Chapelle de la Miséricorde is considered one of the finest examples of Baroque religious architecture in France; L’Eglise de l’Annonciation is a gem of gilded Boroque miniaturism; the atmospheric villa Prieuré du Vieux Logis is home to a collection of artworks spanning the 14th to 17th centuries; and the 18th century Cathédrale de Sainte Réparate provides a treat for musicologists in the shape of its three organs.
7 Slice up some ‘socca’ Socca, a sort of chickpea crêpe – the preparation and consistency of the batter is similar – is a speciality of south-eastern French cuisine, particularly around Nice. Try this local treat at socca specialist Chez Pipo (www.chezpipo.fr), where delicious food is churned out day in, day out.
8 Explore the past Constructed on the site of a prehistoric settlement, the Musée de Paléontologie Humaine de Terra Amata (www.musee-terra-amata.org) investigates life on the Riviera 400,000 years ago via a variety of prehistoric artefacts. At the Musée International d’Art Naïf Anatole Jakovsky (www.nice.fr), some 600 artworks trace the history of the artistic movement from the 18th century to the present day. The building that houses the Musée des Beaux-Arts (www.musee-beaux-arts-nice.org), the former residence of a Ukrainian princess, is itself a work of art, but the real treasures are to be found within, from 15th century altar pieces to Rodin’s sculpture ‘The Kiss’.
9 Relax with a little terrace time Lounging on a French terrace supping a drink of your choice is unbeatable. Enjoy a quality cuppa (Kusumi leaf teas, to be precise) in the shade of the imposing Opéra at Auer Gourmet (+334 93 85 59 95); join the slow-sippers and sarnie-snackers under the yellow awning at Bar de la Dégustation (+334 93 80 57 57); take a seat in the sun at the infectiously fun bar Civette du Cours (+334 93 80 80 59); or fill up at the justifiably popular brasserie, Safari (+334 93 80 80 59) in the heart of Vieux Nice.
Need to know
Getting there Fly from Dubai to Nice via Vienna with Austrian Air from Dhs2,500 return, or direct with Emirates from Dhs4,940 return. www.austrian.com, www.emirates.com
Where to stay Family-run options The lifeblood of the Côte’s hotel industry is its smaller, family-run hotels that specialise in a particular brand of French hospitality: breakfast on the terrace, sunny guest rooms and enthusiastic staff, happy to take the time to point you in the direction of a relative’s bar or a favourite stall at the market. Villa la Tour in neighbourhood Vieux Nice is a typical example, and was originally an 18th-century convent. Single rooms start from Dhs260 a night. www.villa-la-tour.com (+334 93 80 08 15)
Chain hotels The chains have a good presence up and down the coast, with Nice’s Four Points Sheraton Elysée Palace being popular thanks to a mouthwatering seaside location. Rooms from Dhs1,040 a night. www.elyseepalace.com (+334 93 97 90 90)
Did you know? Nice has always had a darker side, and rumoured organised crime. ‘Avoid the region of Nice,’ Graham Greene advised readers in 1982, describing it as ‘the preserve of some of the most criminal organisations in the south of France.’ This shady image stems in part from the financial shenanigans of its late mayor, Jacques Médecin (who ended up fleeing to Uruguay). Although Nice is said to have a high crime rate, figures show it is only slightly more dangerous than Paris and less crime-ridden than Cannes or Antibes. In recent years the Old Town has cleaned up its act, although night-time festivities often lead to slurred 3am shouting matches (most of them in English), which echo along the streets.