How to spend 2 incredible days in Nice, France
Looking to escape to the South of France? The country’s southeastern coast—also known as the French Riviera or the Cote d’Azur—is set along a sun-drenched stretch of the Mediterranean where the herb-infused gastronomy of Provence meets the A-lister playgrounds of Saint-Tropez and Cannes and the glamour of Monte-Carlo in adjacent Monaco. For travelers arriving by air, the regional hub is Nice Cote d’Azur Airport (NCE), which welcomes sun- and culture-seekers to this UNESCO World Heritage Site-listed city.
Not only are there frequent flights from major European cities, including London, Paris, Geneva, Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Munich and Madrid, but Nice airport also has daily nonstops to/from New York (JFK) on Delta and Newark (EWR) on United—making it easy to get there or return home without stressful connections. Plus, for as long as the U.S. requires a negative COVID-19 test for all travelers arriving via air, the Pharmacy in the departures area at Nice airport’s Terminal 2 offers antigen testing for 29 euros.
I recently spent two days in Nice after disembarking a cruise in neighboring Monte-Carlo and learned that aside from its own scenic charms the capital of the French Riviera makes an excellent base for exploring nearby towns, such as perfume capital Grasse, colorful Menton, medieval Saint-Paul de Vence and beach-lined Antibes. I hadn’t visited Nice before, so I opted to focus solely on the city. Here’s what I discovered.
Take the tram to and from the airport
Because I was being transferred to Nice after a cruise, I hadn’t researched public transportation (which as a New Yorker without a car, I’m a big proponent of) and didn’t know that there’s a super-efficient tram between the airport and central Nice—and it’s a bargain at 1.5 euro. Sadly, I discovered this after I’d spent 30 euros on an 8-minute taxi ride from the airport to my hotel following a COVID-19 antigen test, required the day before my return flight to the U.S.
Nice has three tram lines and it’s the No. 2 (Blue) line that provides an east-west connection between the airport and the city center. The Saint-Hélène stop was just a block from my hotel, so on the morning of my flight home (on Delta 29 to JFK), I bought a ticket from the machine at the tram stop, validated it after boarding and arrived at Terminal 2 in under 15 minutes.
Choose a hotel with a view
Part of Nice’s allure is its sweeping sea views. After some online research before my cruise, I had booked the Radisson Blu Hotel, Nice—and as luck would have it that’s where Azamara also booked media guests for one night following our pre-inaugural cruise aboard its new ship, Azamara Onward. So I had two nights there and as a Radisson Rewards member, I was able to stay in the Superior Room–Sea View that Azamara had booked even though my reservation for the second night was for a cheaper standard room.
Located on the west end of Nice’s famed Promenade des Anglais, the Radisson Blu underwent a 2018 redesign that gave it a modern Mediterranean-meets-midcentury-Scandinavian aesthetic with lots of medium-toned wood and gray-and-white tile floors in the generously-sized bathroom. And the balcony view of the sea and palm-tree-lined Promenade convinced me that if I returned, I’d splurge on a Sea View room. To be able to open the double sliding glass doors, which kept the buzz of traffic to a tolerable level, and feel the sea breeze from the Baie des Anges was wonderful, especially at sunrise and sunset.
The same great view is also available from the hotel’s rooftop pool/restaurant. After an early morning of sightseeing, I relaxed beneath an umbrella-shaded chaise and enjoyed a glass of Provencal rosé (although at 13 euro it wasn't a bargain) while staring contentedly at the sea.
Other hotels located along the Promenade des Anglais include the landmark Le Negresco, which opened in 1913 and features Belle Epoque architecture and a pink-domed roof, and the Art Deco-style Hyatt Regency Nice Palais de la Mediterranée, which has a casino.
Walk the Promenade des Anglais
There’s no better way to absorb the energy of this city of nearly one million than to walk the Promenade des Anglais. With a succession of eye-candy buildings on one side and private and public beaches on the other, it’s the top spot to people watch. Joggers, bikers, parents pushing strollers and dog walkers all share the wide, 4.3-mile path that stretches from the airport on the west end to the Quai des Etas-Unis on the east end. If you love to spot airplanes, the Promenade also offers terrific views of jets taking off above the bay.
I was there just as high season (May to September) was starting and the series of private beach clubs were just reopening. With names such as Neptune, Blue and Lido, they offer sun loungers and umbrellas for rent (typically starting around 15 to 20 euros per person for several hours) and onsite restaurants/bars. There are also free, no-frills beaches without amenities, but they all have one thing in common: pebbles not sand underfoot.
Window shop, admire art and stroll through Vieux-Nice
When in France, window shopping is a must and there’s an impressive array of designer boutiques along rue Paradis just off of colorful Place Masséna. The city’s vibrant central square features geometric black-and-white pavers and the Fountain of the Sun with a statue of Apollo at its center.
There's also a pair of adjacent green spaces, Jardin Albert 1er and Promenade du Paillon. The latter leads to the Museum of Modern & Contemporary Art, housing 1,300 works, many from the Ecole de Nice movement that emerged here in the late 1950s. The Matisse Museum and Chagall Museum are slightly further afield in the Cimiez district, and since I’d lucked out with sunny weather, I made a note to visit them on a return trip.
Instead, I explored the city’s centuries-old heart, a few blocks away. Along with the entire coastal area of Nice, Vieux-Nice (Old Town) was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in July 2021. There’s plenty of well-preserved charm to enjoy in this maze of narrow streets lined with casual restaurants and touristy shops, and the yellow, orange and red hues of the buildings, which date back to the 1700s and earlier, are quite photogenic.
While walking on rue Sainte-Reparate, the vats of colorful gelato at Azzurro Artisan Glacier caught my eye. I scanned the choices and ordered. Who can resist a flavor called Italian Lover (pistachios, hazelnuts and chocolate) even when in France? Better still, I enjoyed it while admiring the 17th-century facade of the Cathedrale of Sainte-Reparate.
The star attraction of Vieux-Nice, however, is the Cours Saleya Market, also known as the Marche Aux Fleurs (Flower Market). This vibrant, blocks-long space is filled with vendors selling fresh fruits and vegetables, cheeses, sweets and all kids of seasonal flowers. If you arrive hungry, you’ll want to sample much of what’s on offer. Just be aware that vendors begin packing up around 2:00 p.m. and on Mondays, it’s an antiques and flea market.
Try local specialties
Nice is a terrific spot to enjoy a signature salad Niçoise. It’s on many menus throughout the city, but I had never heard of another specialty: socca. I wasn’t hungry enough for a sit-down lunch, so I headed to the popular Chez Theresa cart in the Cours Saleya Market. A fixture here since 1925, it serves generous portions of socca, a pliable crust made with chickpea flour, olive oil, sea salt and black pepper that has been baked pizza-style in a wood-burning oven, for 3 euros.
The hitch? There’s no wood-burning oven in the market, so the socca is cooked in a restaurant about five minutes away and delivered by bike every 10 minutes or so. There were 12 people ahead of me when I paid and was given a ticket, so it took three bicycle deliveries until my portion, wrapped in a paper cone, was handed to me. Was it worth the wait? I think so. Socca is a pleasant, melt-in-your mouth snack with an earthy taste. I didn’t get to sample pissaladière (a caramelized onion tart with olives and anchovies), but it’s on my radar for next time.
While at the market, you can also buy cheese, baguettes, olives, cured sausages and other fresh nibbles to enjoy back at your hotel. I didn’t think of doing this until I was at the Radisson that evening, so I went for a walk and was able to snag some local delicacies, along with a bottle of Provencal rose (decent ones can be found for just 6 to 10 euros), at a grocery store and patisserie not far from the hotel, which I enjoyed on my balcony as the sun set.
Take a day trip
While there are several appealing day-trip options from Nice, I didn’t have time to head to Grasse or Menton on this brief stopover. But having spent the previous day in Monaco I can recommend a visit to this tiny, one-square-mile principality. It’s only 30 minutes away via trains that run several times an hour and cost 4 euros each way.
Once there, head for Monte Carlo’s old town, located on a hill 200 feet above the sea. There you can ogle tanks of vibrant fish and coral in the circa-1910 Oceanographic Museum and admire the elaborate façade of the Palais de Justice and the towering 19th-century Roman-Byzantine Cathedral. Narrow streets lined with charming cafes lead to Place du Palais and the Prince’s Palace (the changing of the guard takes place daily at 11:55 a.m.).
Those with nostalgia for Princess Grace can grab a guide from the tourist office and follow the Parcours Princesse Grace, which hits top landmarks and features photos of the movie-star-turned-princess throughout her life in Monaco with Prince Rainier III. There’s also a Princess Grace Rose Garden located within Fontvieille Park, which has winding paths and some lovely niches with benches for admiring the sea views.
A final parting tip: When flying home from Nice, book a window seat on the left side of the plane. As my Delta flight took off headed to JFK, I had a perfect perch from which to bid au revoir to “Nice La Belle”—and begin plotting a return visit.