In our latest Travel France article Mark Browne is enchanted by Nice, its attractions and the boutique, spectacularly situated Hotel la Perouse.
The Côte D’Azur, or French Riviera, is a name that immediately evokes images of sunshine, glamour and Mediterranean panache – and Nice is often viewed as its gateway, in particular for international visitors. However, the city itself boasts many attractions and is well worth a visit in its own right.
Now the fifth largest city in France, Nice has a long history of tourism and this remains one of the city’s main commercial activities. British aristocrats began frequenting the city during the winter months as far back as the late 18th century to enjoy the mild climate and escape the northern frosts. Following the demise of Napoleon, the popularity of the city and surrounding area increased among rich international visitors – and following the later re-attachment of the area to France this increased further.
As the 19th century progressed, Nice became one of the foremost destinations for the international aristocracy, including those from England, Russia and Germany, particularly in winter. During la Belle Epoque (1880-1914) many impressive new buildings were erected, and the number of hotels grew to nearly 200 to serve this glamorous international clientele.
The city itself has a far older history. Dating back to around 350 BC, Nice was originally founded as a Greek colony before falling to the Romans in the first century BC. In the Middle Ages the city was governed by the counts of Provence and then those of Savoy. Indeed, Nice had been occupied by France on a number of occasions and ceded to the country in 1860.
Since the Second World War, tourism in the city has become more democratised, with shorter stays during holidays from work becoming the norm rather than visitors staying for entire seasons. However, the history of the city, as well as the development of tourism in it, explains many of the features we continue to see and enjoy today – including beautiful municipal buildings with a strong Italian influence and high quality international cuisine to suit all tastes.
What to see
Naturally a city with such an illustrious history of international tourism boasts an impressive array of imposing sites, many with interesting backstories. The Cathedral of Saint Nicholas has a distinctly Russian feel – and with good reason as it was built in honour of a young prince of the Russian royal family who died in the city in the early 19th century. It initially appears in stark contrast to the more austere exterior of the city’s main cathedral, until the interior of this 17th century baroque masterpiece is revealed.
The city is renowned for its artistic heritage and visitors can enjoy galleries celebrating this such as the Marc Chagall National Museum, the Matisse Museum, the Museum of Asian Art, the Place Massena museum of modern and contemporary art or the Museum of Photography, for example. The Musée Massena, former residence of the Duke of Rivoli and conveniently located by the Promenade des Anglais, celebrates local history and stands as an enduring monument to the Belle Epoque and its grand mansions.
Those wishing to experience cultural events will also enjoy the Theatre de l’Opera, or Nice Opera, an architectural masterpiece rebuilt after the old theatre was destroyed in a fire in the late 19th century. It regularly hosts spectacles including not only opera but also ballet and concerts.
For those wishing to relax after all the cultural excursions, taking in the sun and bathing in the Bay of Angels is the perfect tonic. Later in the evening, after enjoying one of the numerous restaurants in the city, engaging in people watching along the Promenade des Anglais is a popular choice. There is also a lively contemporary cultural scene in Nice. This includes events and concerts on the artistic side, but also sporting occasions in the local stadium. A great way to experience the real buzz of the city is to combine a trip by attending one of these events.
With so many interesting places to see, visitors on a shorter break would be advised to just pick a small selection and then enjoy the ambiance of the city and the architectural gems which reveal themselves around every corner. Just walking around and taking in the sights at arm’s length is a joy in itself, as is soaking in the ambiance in the numerous bars and restaurants of the old town or flower market in particular.
Where to stay
As a prominent tourist destination, Nice is well served by accommodation at all levels. Our location was Hotel La Perouse. A boutique hotel of only 56 rooms, it has an intimacy and charm lacking in many larger establishments. It is a member of the ‘Small Luxury Hotels of the World’ network and fits this title perfectly.
One of the primary features of the hotel is its spectacular setting on the cliffs on the promontory at the edge of the old town. This enables unrivalled views overlooking the Bay of Angels as well as the Promenade des Anglais at the water’s edge further along the coast. From this spot guests can savour the same incredible views enjoyed by many celebrity visitors over the years, including author James Joyce, who started his literary masterpiece Finnegans Wake here in October 1923. A nearby plaque marks this today.
The view is so celebrated that many members of the public climb the adjacent tower, ‘Le Bellandrium’. This construction originally formed part of the city’s defences around Castle Hill but has now been renovated and reborn as a point of interest. Hotel guests can enjoy the view from the comfort of their room, balcony or even the hotel’s rooftop terrace, with the added bonus of being able to access the vistas by elevator.
The setting of the hotel, built into the actual corner of the hillside, means that it features an irregular layout characterised by multiple connected levels and a number of angles. In practice, this means that each guest room is quite different in terms of layout. Some have views out to sea rather than along the coast, while others have both – so you may wish to state your preference when booking.
The hotel has also used a variety of styles, giving each room its own character and further emphasising the boutique nature of the accommodation. The courtyard dining terrace in the heart of the hotel and the heated rooftop pool and jacuzzi, hewn into the rock side, are other lovely features to be enjoyed, regardless of the room chosen.
How to get there
Nice is well served by the local airport, Nice Côte D’Azur. Conveniently located at the edge of the city right by the sea, this ensures that as planes arrive and depart passengers can enjoy fantastic views over the city and surrounding seas as well as the foothills of the nearby Maritime Alps. The airport serves multiple airlines including budget carriers. There are numerous other airports in the broader region which allow access to the city by train or hire car.
Nice is easily reached by local and high speed Intercity trains: for example from Toulon (2 hours), Marseille (2 hours 40 minutes), Avignon (3 hours, 28 minutes), Lyon (4 hours 30 minutes) and Nimes (4 hours 15 minutes). And the main station, Gare De Nice Ville, is conveniently located within walking distance from all main attractions and the beachfront promenade.