For years the city of Nice has been seen (unfairly perhaps) as simply a gateway to the more glamourous cities along the Cote D'Azur like Monte-Carlo, Cannes and St Tropez. But, as I witnessed recently, more and more tourists are flocking to France's fifth largest city and they are not leaving disappointed.
Nice has an exciting mix of the old and the new — the historical buildings combined with designer shops and elegant restaurants.
We stayed in Villa Antoine, a modern four-bedroom villa based up in the hills in Saint Antoine de Ginestiere, a picturesque village where you felt you were hidden away from the hustle and bustle of city life, yet only a 10 minute drive from the centre of Nice.
The villa has four double bedrooms, a fantastic outdoor terrace and 10 metre swimming pool so it is ideal for groups or families. And there was no need to hire a car because Nice has a fantastic bus service which only costs €1 for every trip. The buses leave every 10 minutes during the day and are always on time. The only downside is coming home at night — the bus service finishes at around 9.30pm and taxis are expensive so it is best to agree a figure with your taxi driver before heading home.
So where to visit? Well the hop-on, hop-off bus is not a bad place to start and find your bearings. It leaves every half hour from Promenade des Anglais and you get some great panoramic views of Nice as you head up towards the exclusive area of Mont Boron to the east of the city. It stops at several places of interest — the Matisse Museum and Marc Chagall Museum are well worth a look — but the highlight is the spectacular Russian Cathedral of St Nicholas (closed between noon and 2.30pm every day so time your visit well).
Remember to sit on the left hand side of the bus — as sitting on the right will get you a face full of palm trees from time to time as the bus wanders the tree-lines streets as I found out!
On foot, the best place to start is Vieux Nice (or the old city). You can spend hours here wandering the narrow streets with plenty of shops, antiques, restaurants and bars to keep you entertained. Cours Saleya is the main street in Vieux Nice where various markets take place throughout the week (Bargain Hunt fans will love the flea market on a Monday). And just down from Cours Saleya is Promenade des Anglais, Nice's most famous street which wanders all the way along the coast to the airport. Here you will find people wandering up and down enjoying the scenery, roller-bladers strutting their stuff or people heading to the beach. I say beach in the loosest terms because there is no sand, just stones and more stones, but it does not seem to put people off.
If you want proper sand, Villefrance-sur-Mer just 10 minutes up the coast is much nicer.
Generally food and drink in the old town is more expensive compared to the rest of Nice but finding good quality restaurants is not a problem. I recommend La Maison de Marie, down a tiny side street off Rue Massena, where you can eat outside under the crawling lavender bushes. Also, Au Petit Gari in Place Garibaldi offers really authentic food at reasonable prices (the sea bass was to die for) while Sarao on Promenade des Anglais has a really friendly atmosphere with food and service to match.
If you take a one day-trip while in Nice, then you must visit Monaco. It really does live up to all expectations and the bus journey is only 30 minutes from Nice (€1 again). We stayed in the excellent Columbus Hotel and from there it is only five minutes drive up to Monaco-Ville (the old town) which is set on a huge rock overlooking the famous marina and grand prix circuit — make sure you bring your camera!
A tour of the Prince's Palace (with headsets) is only €8 and well worth doing to learn all about the Grimaldi dynasty and how Princess Grace (Kelly) was integrated into the royal family.
In the evening, Cosmopolitan restaurant is an ideal setting to relax before hitting the casinos, just a five minute walk away. Also the Hotel de Paris is well worth a look with its spectacular furnishings and ornate ceilings but bring your credit card — it costs €22 for a cocktail!