Visiting the glamorous French Riviera does not need to need to break the bank. Here are five great free things to do in Nice.
Bonjour Nice La Belle! With your clear air, soft Mediterranean light, beachfront promenade and the seductive Italianate old quarter, your status as one of France’s top tourist destination is secure. However, your beauty and glamour can come with a price tag to match. But here’s the good news … visitors can enjoy your attractions without spending a single euro.
So put on that sunhat and those sunglasses, and an air of sophistication, and let’s explore five great free things to do in Nice.
1. Take a stroll along the Promenade des Anglais
Built in the 1820s and running the length of the Baie des Anges (the Bay of Angels), the Promenade des Anglais is Nice’s main artery. Couples stroll hand in hand; joggers pound its 7km length; rollerbladers and skateboarders weave through families taking in the sea air.
If active pursuits aren’t your thing, take a seat on one of the iconic chaises blueus (blue chairs) under the shade of a pergola or palm tree. Or admire the public art, including a mini Statue of Liberty. Unless you choose to have a drink at one of the many cafes lining the beachfront, it won’t cost you a cent.
Relaxing on one of Nice’s public beaches is also free. But a word of warning. Nice does not have the Med’s best beach. It is pebbly – not much sand here folks – which makes lounging and getting in and out of the sea uncomfortable. A thick mat to lie on and water shoes are in order here. Also in the summer months, the beach can be rammed with locals and visitors alike.
2. Wander around the old town (La Vielle Ville)
With its warren of pedestrianised alleys crammed with local shops, galleries, restaurants and boutiques, the old town is enchanting. The best thing that you can do is to simply wander without an agenda. A good starting point is the food and flower market in Cours Saleya and then head down one of the streets leading away from this square. There’s no chance that you will get lost. The old city does not cover a large area and you will always find your way back to the seafront or one of the main squares. If you are not pressed for time, explore as many of the streets as you can.
The Italianate architecture is no accident. Nice has only been part of France since the Treaty of Turin was signed in 1860, when Italy ceded the city to repay French assistance in their defence against the Austrians. All street names are in French and Nissart, the local dialect of Nice and Monaco.
3. Visit the Cathedrale Sainte-Reparate
The religious heart of Nice, the Cathedrale Sainte-Reparate was completed in 1699, and is in Place Rosetti in the Old Town. Its cupola, clad in brightly coloured tiles, is a city landmark. Inside, it is in-your-face grandiose baroque with ten ornate chapels dedicated to different saints.
But who was Saint Reparte? She was a 15-year-old girl who lived in Palestine in the third century. Condemned to be burnt alive for her religious beliefs, she was saved by rain. Instead, she was beheaded, and it is said that her soul turned into a dove and flew away. Her mortal remains were placed in a boat which was blown by angels’ breath across the sea to arrive in Nice. This is how the Baie des Anges (Angel Bay) gets its name.
4. Climb up to Castle Hill (Colline du Chateau)
Dominating the eastern side of the old town of Nice, Castle Hill is a bit of a misnomer. The original Chateau de Nice has long since crumbled away, and what you are left with is a park area at the hill’s summit. At 92 meters above sea level, there are sweeping panoramic views of the old town and Promenade des Anglais to the west, and Nice Port to the east.
To get there, it’s an easy climb along 200 or so steps, passing an artificial waterfall (Cascade Dijon) to reach the hilltop plateau. There is also a free lift that will take you most of the way. But where’s the fun in that?
5. Watch the world go by in Place Massena
At the heart of Nice, adjoining both the old town and the beach, Place Massena is where it’s happening. With its sublime Sun Fountain, red terraced buildings and black and white marble mosaic floor, it is a great arena for people watching from the terrace of one of its many restaurants or cafes. Or if you are in the mood for a spot of window shopping, check out the stores along Jean Médecin Avenue, which bisects Place Massena and is Nice’s main shopping street.
Who said the French Riviera is expensive? Armed with these five great free things to do in Nice, you won’t need to take out that second mortgage.
The practical stuff
- Nice is well served by air, road and rail links. It is also a popular stop for Mediterranean cruises.
- Getting from the airport to the old town is easy and cheap. The Nice Airport Express Bus costs €6; you can buy your ticket from the driver. There are two express buses; #98 for Nice’s beach hotels and #99 for the train station and old town. Cheaper still are the local buses that you catch from the Promenade des Anglais, a few steps from the airport’s exit.
- Accommodation options are plentiful. For a less expensive experience, consider renting an apartment. We had a great stay in the heart of the old town courtesy of Airbnb.