I woke early on a Saturday morning in February, head pounding and stomach churning. The dreaded “UK Flu” had been making an appearance every few days and it seemed today it the day. Sleepily, I glance at my pile of “stuff” in the corner of my temporary bedroom and am filled with dread. I need to schlep all my stuff from train to train to plane to bus – from Bradford-on-Avon, England to Nice, France. Next on my schedule – exploring Nice.
Sadly, I want nothing more than to curl up under the covers and get some more sleep. But Nice is calling!
I don’t have great expectations for my weeklong break in Nice. My friend Maureen (“Moe”) invited me to stay with her. Fortunately, the British Airways ticket from London is dirt cheap and I have an open week between house sits. But my expectations are pretty low – a little sun and maybe a glass of wine at an outdoor cafe. That’s all.
So, I drag myself out of bed, pop an ibuprofen and load up on coffee. Sipping my coffee, I check my train ticket from Bradford-on-Avon to London Gatwick and see my train departs an hour earlier than I remember…departing in just 20 minutes! (Damn!)
In a panic, I grab my pile of stuff and rush to the train station arriving with just 3 minutes to spare. Suddenly, halfway to Bath (a very brief 12-minute ride), the train stops. It just sits there, motionless, for about 10 minutes – and pulls into Bath just as my connecting train to Reading pulls out. So, I curse a little and pop another ibuprofen.
And then I sit down on a bench and start to laugh. Attitude adjustment time!
“How many people would give ANYTHING for a week of exploring Nice?”
“Quit your whining and embrace the adventure!”
Finally, many hours later, I emerge through Nice customs and am greeted by the smiling face of Maureen. I had met Maureen at the TBEX travel blogger conference a few months before. She’s a former Wisconsinite who has called Nice home for many years. I am warmly embraced by Moe and I finally begin to embrace Nice.
At last, we skip through the airport exit into a beautiful Nice night and I inhale deeply. Surprisingly, it smells and feels different than expected. Different than my hazy memories from my last trip 30 years before.
Nice is fun. Historic. Laid back. Beautiful. Artistic. Delicious. Addictive.
Here are a few helpful tips for exploring Nice…
Wander Old Town
Moe’s apartment is set in the midst of Old Town (“Vieille Ville” according to the locals), the most interesting and historic area of the city. The neighborhood is filled with cute cafes, ethnic restaurants, butchers, flower stalls, and small shops. The Old Town area runs along the Mediterranean Sea and includes the area just west of Castle Hill and south of Promenade du Paillon.
Wander through the narrow streets and get lost in the maze. Enjoy the amazing architecture of the Opera House and other beautiful old, French buildings.
Later, when you’re thirsty, stop at one of the many sidewalk cafes, sip a cappuccino (beer?), and watch the real Nice go by.
Relax at Happy Hour
I expected Nice to be ridiculously expensive. Fortunately, Moe has her finger on the pulse of affordable Happy Hour options in town. Many places offer a glass of wine for just 2 Euros. Head over to Place Garibaldi in the Old Town area and check out either Cafe de la Place or Campo Cafe. Both have great happy hour prices on wine or beer plus free munchies like chips, mixed nuts, olives. (Check here for more cheap/free things to do in Nice.)
Savor the Sunsets
Set along the Mediterranean Sea and surrounded by the foothills of the Alps, Nice is famous for stunning scenery and amazing sunsets. Walk along the promenade, enjoy the street musicians, and soak up the atmosphere. Another fine option – sip a glass of wine and enjoy the view from the rooftop bar at Le Meridien Hotel.
Or, for a more challenging sunset view, tackle the stairway up to Castle Hill!
Hike Castle Hill
The hill overlooking Nice is a somewhat challenging climb that offers stunning views of the town, the Port, and the surrounding mountains. At the top, you can view the remains of Chateau de Nice and stroll through the large park, stopping at the waterfall (Cascade Dijon). There is also an incredibly photogenic cemetery located on top of the hill – a stunning final resting place.
Explore Jazz Clubs
On a balmy Tuesday evening, Moe and I were dragging our tired asses home after a long day of exploring Nice. The game plan – a bottle of wine and a classic chick-flick, “Under the Tuscan Sun“.
And then a few blocks from her house, we ran into a couple of Italian musicians lingering just outside a jazz club. Moe knew them so we stopped to chat and they invited us into the club. Reluctantly, we agreed. “Just for a song or two”, we told them.
We had just stumbled into the best jazz club in Nice – Shapko – and become “groupies” for the rest of the week.
Shapko is a small, quirky place offering live music nightly. In the center of the small venue, the stage is covered with a large oriental rug with an ornate chandelier hanging overhead. (Kind of feels like you’re in your Grandma’s living room.) The upper level has comfortable couches for lounging while enjoying the music.
Moe and I grab stools at the bar, order a glass white wine, and stay until closing.
Watching the scene unfold from my perfect perch at the bar, I witness an unexpected side of Nice. Not at all stuffy like I had imagined. The eclectic crowd “danced like nobody’s watching”. They seem so joyful and uninhibited, and kind of reminded me of the blonde woman in “Under the Tuscan Sun” who ate ice cream every day just because it gave her pleasure!
The joy and energy were infectious and kept us coming back for more, night after night!
Exploring Nice – surrounding areas
Ancient St. Paul de Vence
One of the oldest villages in the Cote d’Azur area, this perched village dates back to 1540. Built on a hill with a 360-degree view of the surrounding area, it’s built in a perfect location for fighting off the enemies. The area has its roots in art and was once the base for famous artists like Picasso and Chagall. The old buildings have been perfectly renovated and now house expensive art galleries and beautiful shops.
(Catch bus 400 from the rue Verdun/Albert 1ere bus stop, which is between the Meridian Hotel and the start of the Promenade du Paillon gardens,)
Possibly my favorite spot around Nice, Eze is another perched village built on rock 1400 feet above sea level. It’s really, really old, SO cool, and extremely photogenic. The village is centered on the ruins of a 12th-century castle and parts of the village date way back to the 11th century.
Stop at a cafe, order a coffee and a croissant, and then wander slowly through the ancient stone alleys. It’s stunning!
(To reach Eze, take bus #82 or bus #112 from the bus stop on the east side of town, 2 blocks inland from the Port at the Max Barel bus stop.)
Ritzy and glitzy, Monaco is a small city-state famous for rich people who drive nice cars and sail the Mediterranean on their expensive yachts. It’s a quick jaunt from neighboring Nice and feels like a different world, a world that wasn’t quite as welcoming or as comfortable. Surprisingly, there’s a very different vibe from laid-back Nice.
After wandering near the famous Monte Carlo Casino, we took the bus up to the hilltop Palace where the royal Grimaldi family resides. As we waited at the bus stop, a local woman struts by wearing her designer thigh-high boots and expensive, beige cashmere coat. She looks me over, taking note of my hot pink jacket, practical (ugly) Sketchers walking shoes, and blonde wind-blown hair. Then she turns up her nose and struts right on by. (I didn’t really blend in there! She probably thought I was homeless!)
(From Eze, take bus 112 for the 20-minute drive to the beautifully stuffy principality of Monaco.)
For a taste of Italy, take a day trip across the border for an amazing pasta lunch. Just across the Italian border, the village of Bordighera holds a traditional open market. It takes place along the waterfront on Thursdays, selling cheap Italian goods (made in China?) and all kinds of local foods. Stock up on sun-dried tomatoes, delicious cheese, and HUGE lemons! When your shopping is done, head uphill to the Old Town area for an authentically Italian, and incredibly delicious, pasta lunch.
(Take the 40-minute train ride from Nice to the Italian border city of Ventimiglia. Change trains there for the eight-minute ride to Bordighera.)
Helpful travel links:
Bus schedules and information – click here.
For a great breakdown on specific Nice bus stops – click here.
Train schedules and information – click here.
Hotel information – check HotelsCombined.com.
Enjoy soaking up the Mediterranean vibe of this unexpectedly fascinating city! Drink the wine, hang out at a jazz club, and dance like nobody’s watching! (They probably aren’t!)
Editor’s Note: I loved this place so much I moved here! Check out these articles for the rest of the story: