Beside the seaside: how to spend the perfect weekend in Nice on the French Riviera

The Unesco-listed Cote d’Azur city offers Michelin-starred dining and Mediterranean charm by the bucketload

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Nice by name, nice by nature.

With a mix of old-world opulence and year-round sunshine, the French Riviera city has coastline, culture and charm by the bucketload.

Unesco-listed in 2021, the principal of the Cote d’Azur entices holidaymakers with its sights, sounds and flavours. The birthplace of jazz in France, Nice is also where you'll find some of the best restaurants in the south of the country. Here, dishes come alive with fresh, local fare from the Mediterranean Sea.

In the Old Town, colours and atmosphere nod to the region's historic Italian past, and the city's fashionable boutiques, effortlessly cool eateries and pebbled beaches offer something for everyone.

Getting to this French seaside destination from the Gulf is easier than ever as Etihad Airways now operates seasonal flights. Gulf Air also flies direct to Nice from Bahrain. If you’re planning on spending a few days exploring this gem, here’s what should be on your radar.

The promenade

The Promenade des Anglais with Le Negresco hotel in the background. Bloomberg

Any visit to Nice should start on the Promenade des Anglais, the city’s most popular destination on the outskirts of the Old Town. Flanked by palm trees, it's home to some of the best hotels including the eccentric pink-domed Le Negresco — a legendary spot that's been a favourite of celebrities, royalty, millionaires and politicians for more than 100 years.

The seven-kilometre promenade was once the preferred strolling spot for British aristocrats and, more than a century later, is still the place to go for a morning run, a scenic amble or an evening drink at one of the myriad waterfront bars and restaurants. Try boho-chic Ruhl Plage for a sundowner overlooking the Bay of Angels, or grab a table at Les Jardins du Capitole, where you can order a Nicoise salad — the dish originates from the region — served traditional-style on a platter of lettuce, right opposite the ocean. Painted public benches and pergolas offering shade from the Mediterranean sunshine make this a great place to people-watch, so grab an ice cream and take in the view.

Forget golden sands, the majority of Nice’s beaches are pebble-strewn, which can take a bit of getting used to when it comes to sunbathing. There are several beach clubs dotted along the shoreline including Regence Plage and Plage Beau Rivage Nice that you can pay to enter, but if you want to lounge like the locals, pack a yoga mat for some extra padding and go to one of the public beaches. Head west off the main strip to find quieter spots and crystal-clear waters perfect for a swim and a snorkel.

From here, stroll upwards away from the promenade and you’ll reach hilltop neighbourhood Fabron. This leafy residential area has amazing views of the coastline and is also home to a lesser-known museum showcasing the history of Naive Art. Stop at Boulangerie Napoleon III, where it's worth the calories to treat yourself to one of the city's best almond croissants.

Flower markets and live jazz in the Old Town

Early risers can explore the flower market in Nice, which has been running for more than 100 years. Photo: Kylie Pazz / Unsplash

As the fifth-largest city in France, Nice is not small, but its efficient tramway makes getting around easy. Hop aboard for an afternoon in the heart of the Unesco-listed city. Disembark at Opera — Vieille Ville and you’ll find yourself in the Old Town. This cavern of winding alleyways throngs with visitors, vendors and locals who mosey along shadowed streets lined with historic tenement buildings, restaurants, galleries, cafes and more.

If you prefer, save this spot until the morning when early birds are rewarded with a colourful, fragrant experience at the Flower Market in Cours Saleya square. Under red-and-white striped awnings, this market is more than 100 years old and you'll find every flower imaginable — from deep-violet lavenders to sunshine yellow mimosas. Evening visits offer fewer florals, but more music at Apero Jazz at Cafe le Flore, an open-air French restaurant with live New Orleans-style tunes. If you can’t get a table, don't fret, there's more live jazz at nearby Palais de Justice Square.

Towering over the Old Town is the Castle on the Hill. Not the inspiration for Ed Sheeran’s 2017 hit of the same name, but home to the ruins of the Castle of Nice, which was destroyed some 300 years ago. Perched almost 100 metres above the rooftops of the Old Town, it’s the place to go for dramatic harbour views. At the top, you’ll find a picturesque park and artificial waterfall, visitors can also ride the art deco-style public lift 92 metres down to the port below.

Italian charm in the South of France

Etihad Airways has introduced a new seasonal flight to Nice. Photo: Paul Rysz

Not far from Castle Hill is Garibaldi Square — a reference to this French city when it was part of the Provence of Liguria. A bronze statue and fountain in the centre are dedicated to Italian revolutionary Giuseppe Garibaldi, who was born here. At the top of the square, opposite the 18th-century Chapelle du Saint-Sepulcre, stop to view the open-air exhibition, running until October

Nica La Bella Treasure of the Riviera showcases photographs of Nice, its people and its visitors. It includes canvasses depicting Queen Victoria holidaying in the French Riviera, Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall visiting in 2018 and French rock 'n' roll star Johnny Hallyday riding a bicycle along the promenade.

Step back in time at the Nica La Bella Treasure of the Riviera exhibition.  Hayley Skirka / The National

If you’re peckish afterwards, sample some of the city’s most-renowned oysters at nearby Cafe du Turin, or indulge at long-standing patisserie Serain Cappa.

To the west is Place Massena, the main square in Nice. Here you’ll find salmon and ochre-coloured buildings, towering illuminated Buddha-style statues and the grandiose Fontaine du Soleil which depicts Apollo as the sun and five bronze statues denoting planets. Dining at nearby L'Aromate, a one Michelin-starred restaurant serving contemporary French fare, comes highly recommended.

The Promenade du Paillon in the heart of Nice. Photo: Nick Karvounis / Unsplash

Nice’s flagship urban park is also right by the fountain, covering 12 hectares in the heart of the city. The Promenade du Paillon is popular with families for its shaded, tree-lined areas and fantastical wooden animal climbing frames and you’ll see children run and shriek in the Miroir d'Eau — a 3,000-square-metre paved area dotted with water jets soaking anyone in their vicinity.

If shopping is on your radar, Le Carre d’Or is the place to go for all things luxury. This chic district is famed for its boutique stores and belle epoque architecture and counts Louis Vuitton, Chanel, Armani and Hermes boutiques among its well-heeled residents.

Art, cathedrals and sunsets to remember

Musee Matisse in Nice. Photo: Nice Office of Tourism

For more budget-friendly retail therapy, the Jean-Medecin district offers French shopping and dining galore. It’s also where you can indulge your cultural cravings at the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art and the Musee Massena, a venue with plenty of historic artwork and artefacts. If you visit the former, don’t miss the observation deck on the roof which has 360-degree views over the city.

Just behind the museum is La Tete Carree Library, a massive cube-shaped sculpture of a head, within which you’ll discover an entire library. Even if you don't venture inside, it's a worthy photo. After an intense shopping and culture marathon, revive yourself with French cheese and charcuterie boards at nearby Bay Side restaurant and bar.

Farago, the rooftop bar at the AC Hotel Nice by Marriott, is a fitting spot to watch the sunset on a short break in the French Riviera. Photo: Marriott

Should your craving for art not yet be sated, head a little out of the city towards the Cimiez neighbourhood and The Musee Matisse. This homage to Henri Matisse has one of the world’s largest collections of the artist’s work, including painting, photographs, and decorative objects.

Getting there and where to stay

Etihad Airways operates seasonal flights from Abu Dhabi to Nice Côte d'Azur Airport. Services depart the UAE on Wednesdays and Sundays with outbound flights stopping briefly in Rome, return flights are non-stop. Fares start from Dh3,315, flights operate until September 18, 2022. 

The Radisson Blu Hotel Nice offers a western location right on Promenade des Anglais with rooms overlooking the Bay of Angels. Stays are priced from €101 ($114), including taxes.

On your way back into town, detour slightly if you want to see the most ornate onion-domed Russian cathedral in the South of France. Located on Avenue Nicolas II, just off Boulevard du Tzarewitch, Cathédrale Saint-Nicolas de Nice is the largest Eastern Orthodox cathedral in western Europe and its unique beauty — with colourful architecture, ornate interiors and detailed murals — makes it worthy of a visit, despite a distinct lack of visitor information.

South of here and back towards the ocean is The AC Hotel Nice by Marriott. This art-centric abode is flanked by two huge bronze Venus sculptures and regularly hosts exhibitions showcasing local artists. Up on the roof is Farago, a place demanding to be visited around sunset.

With perhaps the best golden hour views in the city with vistas over the Mediterranean, the terracotta rooftops in Nice and the distant Southern Alps, this poolside terrace also serves excellent tapas and live music and is an entirely fitting place to watch the sun go down on a thrilling weekend.

Updated: August 04, 2022, 2:28 PM
Getting there and where to stay

Etihad Airways operates seasonal flights from Abu Dhabi to Nice Côte d'Azur Airport. Services depart the UAE on Wednesdays and Sundays with outbound flights stopping briefly in Rome, return flights are non-stop. Fares start from Dh3,315, flights operate until September 18, 2022. 

The Radisson Blu Hotel Nice offers a western location right on Promenade des Anglais with rooms overlooking the Bay of Angels. Stays are priced from €101 ($114), including taxes.