United with France only since 1860, Nice has its own history and atmosphere, exemplified by the stark contrast between the openness and modernity of the Promenade des Anglais to the narrow, ocher-tinted streets of the Old Town against the center of town and the sleek tramway whizzing down the main shopping thoroughfare Avenue Jean Médecin. (A second tramway line running to the airport is expected to be operational by 2017.) It was on Colline du Château (now château-less) and at the Plage des Ponchettes, in front of the Old Town, that the Greeks established a market-port and named it Nikaia. Having already established Marseilles as early as the 4th century BC, they branched out along the coast and founded the city that would become Marseilles' chief coastal rival. The Romans established themselves a little later on the hills of Cimiez (Cemenelum), already previously occupied by Ligurians and Celts, and quickly overshadowed the waterfront port. After falling to the Saracen invasions, Nice regained power as an independent state, becoming an important port in the early Middle Ages. So cocksure did it become that in 1388, Nice, along with the hill towns behind, effectively seceded from the county of Provence, under Louis d'Anjou, and allied itself with Savoie. Thus began its liaison with the House of Savoy, and through it with Piedmont and Sardinia, it was the Comté de Nice (Nice County). This relationship lasted some 500 years, tinting the culture, architecture, and dialect in rich Italian hues. By the 19th century Nice was flourishing commercially, locked in rivalry with the neighboring shipping port of Genoa. Another source of income: the dawning of tourism, as first the English, then the Russian nobility discovered its extraordinary climate and superb waterfront position. A parade of fine stone mansions and hotels closed into a nearly solid wall of masonry, separated from the smooth-round rocks of the beach by what was originally named Camin deis Anglés (the English Way), which of course is now the famous Promenade des Anglais, lined by grand hotels; this magnificent crescent is one of the noblest in France. Many of Nice's most delightful attractions—the Cours Saleya market, the Old Town streets, the Hotel Negresco, and the Palais Masséna—are on or close to Nice's 10-kilometer (6-mile) waterfront, making it the first stop for most visitors. The redevelopment of Nice's port, around the other side of the château, makes it easier for amblers who want to take in the Genoese architecture in this area, or peruse the antiques at the Puces de Nice along Quai Papacino. In September, the port is transformed into an eating adventure (one of the rare occasions you'll witness the French walk and eat simultaneously) during La Fête du Port. Nice residents by and large support a popular and ambitious mayor, Christian Estrosi, president of France's first metropolis, Metropole Nice Côte d'Azur, created in 2010 with 46 communes. Estrosi has introduced some forward-thinking initiatives that have earned the city two recent honors. First, on the national front, the "Family Plus" label (the airport has free pushchairs, play areas, and restaurants with child-friendly activities) and second, and another first in France, the international "Gay comfort" label from the association IGLTA (Inter-national Gay and Lesbian Travel Association). As a leading destination for gay couples, all Gay Welcoming hotels, restaurants and shops in the Riviera capital display "a natural iridescence" sign. A brochure in English for Family Friendly Nice and Gay Friendly Nice can be downloaded at en.nicetourisme.com . Estrosi's most ambitious project, however, is to make Nice "the Green City of the Mediterranean," and he's pulled out all the stops. Already he made available rentable bikes and electric cars, but his chef-d'ouevre is the Promenade de Paillon, a 12-hectare park in the middle of town, running from the Théâtre de Verdure (across from McDonald's on the Prom') to the Museum of Modern Art, inaugurated in October 2013. Nice's population is about 347,000, and they are seeing the changes afoot. Case in point: while there are "Made in France" and "Nissart cuisine" movements on the rise protecting all that is near and dear to the French, the invasion of Starbucks and the Hard Rock Café can't be staved off at sea.
The venerable Henri Auer has sold crystallized fruit since 1820.
You have to hand it to the French, they even do second-hand fashion right. Steps away from the Hôtel Negresco, Mademoiselle has quickly become a must-stop shop in Nice: Chanel, Dior, Louis Vuitton, Hermès... you name it, the gang's all here, at least in vintage terms. You'll find lots of luxury brand clothes, shoes, bags, and belts to rummage through—all of it excellently priced and gorgeously displayed. Open every day, don't be surprised to walk by at 10 pm on a summer's evening to find owners Jeremy and Sephora sipping champagne with clients.
This long pedestrian thoroughfare—half street, half square—is the nerve center of Old Nice, the heart of the Vieille Ville, and the stage-set for the daily dramas of marketplace and café life. Framed with 18th-century houses and shaded by plane trees, the narrow square bursts into a fireworks-show of color Tuesday through Sunday until 1 pm, when flower-market vendors roll armloads of mimosas, roses, and orange blossoms into cornets (paper cones) and thrust them into the arms of shoppers, who then awkwardly continue forward to discover a mix of local farmers and stallholders selling produce (try the fresh figs), spices, olives, and little gift soaps. Cafés and restaurants, all more or less touristy (don't expect friendly service) fill outdoor tables with onlookers who bask in the sun. At the far east end, antiques and brocantes (collectibles) draw avid junk-hounds every Monday morning. At this end you can also find Place Charles Félix. From 1921 to 1938, Matisse lived in the imposing yellow stone building at Number 1, and you don't really need to visit the local museum that bears his name to understand this great artist: simply stand in the doorway of his former home and study the Place de l'Ancien Senat 10 feet away—the scene is a classic Matisse.
In the '60s the city of Nice bought this lovely, light-bathed 17th-century villa, surrounded by the ruins of Roman civilization, and restored it to house a large collection of Henri Matisse's works. Matisse settled along Nice's waterfront in 1917, seeking a sun cure after a bout with pneumonia, and remained here until his death in 1954. During his years on the French Riviera, Matisse maintained intense friendships and artistic liaisons with Renoir, who lived in Cagnes, and with Picasso, who lived in Mougins and Antibes. He eventually moved up to the rarefied isolation of Cimiez and took an apartment in the Hôtel Regina (now an apartment building, just across from the museum), where he lived out the rest of his life. Matisse walked often in the parklands around the Roman remains and was buried in an olive grove outside the Cimiez cemetery. The collection of artworks includes several pieces the artist donated to the city before his death; the rest were donated by his family. In every medium and context—paintings, gouache cutouts, engravings, and book illustrations—the collection represents the evolution of his art, from Cézanne-like still lifes to exuberant dancing paper dolls. Even the furniture and accessories speak of Matisse, from the Chinese vases to the bold-printed fabrics with which he surrounded himself. A series of black-and-white photographs captures the artist at work, surrounded by personal—and telling—details.
Musée d'Art Moderne
The assertive contemporary architecture of the Modern Art Museum makes a bold statement regarding Nice's presence in the modern world. The collection inside focuses intently and thoroughly on works from the late 1950s onward, but pride of place is given to sculptor Nikki de Saint Phalle's recent donation of more than 170 exceptional pieces. The rooftop terrace, sprinkled with minimalist sculptures, has stunning views over the city. Guided tours are offered by reservation Wednesdays at 3 pm.
Musée des Beaux-Arts
Originally built for a member of Nice's Old Russian community, the Princess Kotschoubey, this Italianate mansion is a Belle Époque wedding cake, replete with one of the grandest staircases on the coast. After the richissime American James Thompson took over and the last glittering ball was held here, the villa was bought by the municipality as a museum in the 1920s. Unfortunately, much of the period decor was sold; but in its place are paintings by Degas, Boudin, Monet, Sisley, Dufy, and Jules Chéret, whose posters of winking damselles distill all the joie of the Belle Époque. From the Negresco Hotel area the museum is about a 15-minute walk up a gentle hill.
Musée National Marc Chagall
Having just celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2013, this museum has one of the finest permanent collections of Chagall's late works (1887–1985). Superbly displayed, 17 vast canvases depict biblical themes, each in emphatic, joyous colors. Chamber music and classical concert series also take place here, though admission fees may apply. The No. 15 and 22 buses stop at the museum.
Monastère de Cimiez
This fully functioning monastery is worth the pilgrimage. You can find a lovely garden, replanted along the lines of the original 16th-century layout; the Musée Franciscain, a didactic museum tracing the history of the Franciscan order; and a 15th-century church containing three works of remarkable power and elegance by Bréa.
This museum, next to the Musée Matisse, has a dense collection of objects extracted from digs around the Roman city of Cemenelum, which flourished from the 1st to the 5th century. Among the fascinating ruins are an amphitheatre, frigidarium, gymnasium, baths, and sewage trenches, some dating back to the 3rd century. It's best to avoid midday visits on warm days.