Warm days lured Queen Victoria to this Mediterranean city, but there's lots more to enjoy in early spring, says Susan Griffith.
Why go now?
With sunshine levels climbing to six hours a day, no wonder Queen Victoria got in the habit of decamping to Nice each March where, according to her servants, she became cheerful, even playful. She stayed here in successive years from 1895 to 1899, during which period she celebrated her Diamond Jubilee, in 1897.
The grandstands have just been removed from the Place Masséna following the Nice Carnaval, and the city has returned to business as usual. Most hotels will be offering bargain prices until the end of March.
Nice-Côte d'Azur airport is south-west of the city, almost within walking distance. Fly on BA (tel: 0844 493 0787; ba.com) or BMI (tel: 0844 848 4888; flybmi.com) from Heathrow; easyJet (tel: 0843 104 5000; easyjet.com) from Belfast, Stansted, Luton, Gatwick, Bristol, Edinburgh and Liverpool; Bmibaby from Birmingham and East Midlands (tel: 0905 828 2828; bmibaby. com); and BA CityFlyer from London City. All serve Terminal 1 apart from easyJet (Terminal 2).
Airport express bus 98 to a number of stops in the city centre departs from both terminals every 20 minutes; the 99 is less frequent and goes only to the station. Tickets valid for buses all day can be bought from the terminals or on board for €4. Slightly slower but a lot cheaper, bus 23 links Terminal 1 with the station for €1.
Get your bearings
The Old Town occupies a triangle squeezed between sea, hill and the New Town, all within easy walking distance of the sweep of the bay. Fanciful Belle Epoque and Art Deco architecture can be admired all over town.
Locals and visitors, cyclists and flâneurs gravitate to the Promenade des Anglais which stretches for about 7km along the Mediterranean.
Moving inland, the gradient rises steeply to ritzy Cimiez where Queen Victoria stayed. Like every part of Nice, Cimiez can be reached by bus (No 17). The bus and tram system (lignesdazur.com) offers blanket coverage of the Alpes-Maritime region for €1; pay on board and validate the ticket. Transfers are allowed if your total journey lasts less than 75 minutes.
The main tourist office is at 5 Promenade des Anglais (tel: 0033 89270 7407; nicetourisme.com), and opens 9am-6pm daily except Sunday. There are other bureaux at the airport and rail station.
The elegant Musicians' Quarter, whose streets are named after composers, lies between the station and the sea. It is crammed with appealing hotels.
The dependable Hotel Gounod at 3 rue Gounod (tel: 0033 49316 4200; gounod-nice.com) has old-fashioned charm. Residents may use the rooftop pool of the hotel around the corner. Doubles start at €59, room only. Instead of paying €11 for an indifferent breakfast, pick up a croissant from the artisan bakery Banette around the corner at 10 rue Verdi.
For a serene ambience, Le Petit Palais at 17 avenue Emile Bieckert in Cimiez has a lovely garden (tel: 0033 49362 1911; petitpalaisnice.com). Doubles start at €91, room only, in low season.
Take a hike
Who would guess that within a 10-minute walk of Nice airport's Terminal 1, you find a botanical and zoological treat? The Parc Phoenix (parc-phoenix.org; admission €2) is full of surprises and variety. A peacock might pop out from behind a cactus, and small enclosures feature epic-sized porcupines from North Africa, wallabies and otters. A tropical greenhouse encompasses an aquarium, and a stunning 1970s building by the Japanese architect Kenzo Tange, who imagined it as a floating swan, houses the Asian Arts Museum. Inside are exquisite objects from India, Cambodia, China and Japan (open 10am-5pm daily except Tuesday; admission free).
Take a view
Castle Hill between the Old Town and the Port of Nice rises to nearly 100m above sea level. Panoramic views of the bay can be savoured from several observation decks. Leafy footpaths encircle the hill and from the eastern side you can gaze down on Port Lympia, home to some lavish super-yachts. Climbing the hill is not strenuous in spring temperatures; steps lead from rue Rossetti and the Quai des Etats-Unis as well as from the rue Catherine Ségurane on the other side. Alternatively take the lift inside the Tour Bellanda which since last year has been free of charge; it operates 8am-6pm daily.
Out to lunch
Nice's fast-food speciality is socca, a chickpea pancake. Try it at Chez Thérèsa in Cours Saleya.
Cours Saleyais primarily a flower market, but stalls also sell goat's cheese, honey, lavender soap and miniature marzipan fruits as well as olive dishes and spice grinders. For fashion and accessories, characterful Fashion Gallery is on rue du St-Suaire at the far end of the Cours. Jean-Louis Martinetti’s shop at 17 rue de la Préfecture (martinetti.fr) carries cards, posters and bookmarks of Nice photographed imaginatively; the shop opens 10am-12.15pm and 3-7pm daily except Monday.
Either join the tourists drinking pastis at a beach restaurant, as the orange sun drops behind the hills, or seek out Vinivore, a small, casual wine bar at 32 avenue de la République (tel: 0033 49326 9017), one tram stop past Place Garibaldi. Well-chosen wines, which cost between €4-7 per glass, are listed on a blackboard and platters of good-quality cheese and charcuterie can be ordered. Vinivore is closed Sundays and Mondays.
Dining with the locals
At Chez Palmyre, 5 rue Droite (tel: 0033 49385 7232) you can feast on three courses that change daily for €15. Dishes might include duck with olives, rocket and polenta and fig ice cream. A quarter-litre carafe of house wine will add only €2.50. The place is tiny, decorated with 1950s packaging and seats 24 people who squash in together in two sittings Monday-Saturday, so it is essential to book.
For a more chic experience, dine at La Cave de l'Origine, 3 rue Dalpozzo (tel: 00 33 48350 0960). The friendly staff will haul a blackboard in English or French to your table which lists interesting dishes such as bone marrow encrusted with nuts on a bed of salt (€9) and then recommend an accompanying wine.
Sunday morning: go to the beach
The vast, pebbly beach at Nice is divided into plages, each with its own restaurant-bar that
traps the sun in cool weather. From 9am, you can people-watch from a chair at Neptune Plage (tel: 0033 49387 1660; neptuneplage.com) while enjoying a continental breakfast for €8.50 or a three-egg omelette for €10.
A walk in the park
The hilly suburb of Cimiez is home to an order of Franciscan monks. Their ornate church and peaceful terraced gardens stand opposite the Matisse Museum at the end of a park planted with olive trees; the museum opens 10am-6pm daily except Mondays. As with all Nice's museums, admission is free. Notre Dame Monastery is closed to the public on Sundays, but you can visit the cemetery alongside, where Henri Matisse is buried.
Take a ride
Every hour on Sundays, bus 14 leaves from near Place Masséna and traverses a spectacular road up Mont Boron, the eminence between Nice and the fashionable resort of Villefranche. Get off at the final stop in a municipal forest, walk down the road until you see a trail leading to the left. As you descend you get marvellous views over Villefranche and Cap Ferrat. Eventually you come down to the coast road where you can either catch bus 82 to town or walk 45 minutes back to the Port around the Cap de Nice. A rocky footpath is currently out of bounds, with a chilling sign: “DANGER — Strictement Interdit”.
Out to brunch
Back in town, the famous salade Niçoise can be enjoyed in a sandwich called a pan bagnat, literally “bathed bread”. La Gratta is a kiosk at the end of the port at 56 boulevard Stalingrad that sells scrumptious rolls filled with tuna, lettuce, crunchy radish, onion and hard-boiled egg, bound together with good olive oil. Local working men are just as keen as visitors to hand over their €4.50 in order to sit and eat on a bench overlooking the harbour.
Near the station, the charming bistro Voyageur Nissart at 19 rue d'Alsace Lorraine (tel: 0033 49382 1960; voyageurnissart.com) dates from 1908. It serves salads and more between noon and 2.30pm daily except Mondays.
The Villa Masséna (tel: 0033 49391 1910; musee-massena-nice.org) opens a window on historic Nice, since it became the destination of choice for fashionable Europe. Fittingly, the museum is housed in a splendid late 19th-century Italianate mansion with mosaic floors and frescoed ceilings. The museum's quirky contents include an 1875 map of the Prom showing the nationality of the residents, and a health and safety notice banning unprotected hat pins. It opens 10am-6pm daily except Tuesdays.
Icing on the cake
The region is renowned for its “perched villages”, medieval settlements crouching on rocky promontories for defensive reasons. Only 12km east of Nice, the fortified stone town of Eze now guards itself against invasions of tourists who come for its film-set picturesque lanes and panoramas. The view is best enjoyed from the cliffside Jardin Exotique (admission €4).