Weekend in . . . Nice
On the southeast coast of France, Nice welcomes travellers with alluring restaurants, a broad beach, sherbet-hued buildings and gay-friendly night life
Sunset over Vieux Nice. Photographs: Chris Carmichael/New York Times
Grilled sardines at Jan
One of Nice’s ever popular beaches.
Overshadowed by megawatt Riviera neighbours like aristocratic Monaco, red-carpet Cannes and Champagne-soaked Saint-Tropez, France’s fifth-largest city is often written off as a dowdy haven of retirees. Yet Nice packs most of its neighbours’ lures – year-round sun, Mediterranean Sea, belle époque and Art Deco architecture – with the bonuses of an atmospheric old quarter, an evolving restaurant scene, the Riviera’s best museums and some high-profile public works.
Place Garibaldi, the central square, has been pedestrianised and spruced up, while the formerly lacklustre port area is filling up with the city’s coolest restaurants and bars. A city for all budgets, Nice now buzzes with an energy and diversity that often surpasses its coastal rivals.
5pm Nice 101
A crash course in the Riviera lifestyle unfolds along the seaside boulevard known as the Promenade des Anglais. Lined with blocks of ornate late-19th-century and early-20th-century edifices, the palm-lined walkway is at once a Mediterranean stroll and an open-air architectural museum.
Among the finely sculpted, sherbet-hued buildings, the standouts include Le Negresco hotel, a 1912 belle époque beauty with an iconic pink dome, and the Palais de la Méditerranée, whose chiselled neo-Classical 1929 façade depicts winged horses, nymphs and deities. The second-floor outdoor terrace of Ark is a perfect perch for sipping Corsican Pietra beer (€6) or Crazy Tropez rosé (€4.50).
8pm Drink your dinner
With its forest green walls, elaborate mouldings, plank floor, flickering candles and colourful flowers, the impeccable townhouse-style design of the year-old Jan restaurant is intoxicating. The dishes by South African chef Jan Hendrik van der Westhuizen can be equally intoxicating, thanks to splashes of booze and wine in many concoctions. A Waldorf salad, full of crunchy apple slices and topped with warm chunks of langoustine, is suffused with hints of Champagne and accompanied by a gumdrop of pastis. Pear slices poached in wine lend a Dionysian caramel lushness to a fatty-juicy rack of lamb, while a jazzed-up South African bobotie (a ground beef casserole baked with eggs, raisins and more) pairs with Cognac-soaked apricots for a French touch. Dinner for two, without wine, about €90.
10pm Have a nice night
Once a dirty doldrums of industrial-supply outlets, the area between Place Garibaldi and Nice’s port has emerged as the arty-cool district par excellence. Comptoir Central Électrique, a former emporium of electrical goods now reborn as a bohemian bar-restaurant, honours its roots with tasteful neo-industrial décor and cocktails like Le Mega Watt (vodka, lime, ginger and Red Bull, €10). Afterward, a wee-hours gay-straight dance party erupts at the Gossip Bar, where the 30-something crowd swills mojitos and cosmopolitans (€9.50).
11am View from the Water
The 11am coastal cruise with Trans Côte d’Azur is a one-hour window on to the radiant colours of the Mediterranean. Riding the waves from Nice to the historic village of Villefranche-sur-Mer to the elite peninsular retreat of St-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, you may be treated to an electric blue sky, deep blue sea, green forests, brown hills, gray cliffs and golden sands. Some of the most remarkable sights are man-made, namely the private mansions of royals and luminaries, all pointed out by the captain’s running narration (in English and French).
Did King Farouk of Egypt really inhabit the Andalusian-style villa? He did. Were the Rolling Stones really holed up for months in that seaside house to record Exile on Main Street? Indeed. Is that Elton John strolling the grounds of his hilltop chateau? Quite possibly. Adults, €17.50.
1pm An honest meal
You can’t accuse Olive & Artichaut of false advertising. Artichokes and especially olives, cornerstones of Provençal cuisine, abound on the tables, in the breads and most forthrightly in the dishes served at this bright and modern new restaurant with an ever-changing chalkboard menu. In addition to olive-artichoke risotto with Parmesan, you’ll find ample artichoke (in purée form) alongside the grilled skin-on filet of cod. For carnivores, the steak tartare is artistically scooped into three sorbet-like mounds and sewn with tiny dried cranberries for a sweet-sour burst. Fruits star in the desserts, from cherry crumble to cold white peach soup. A three-course lunch for two costs about €45, excluding drinks.
2pm Riviera retro
You can hardly hurl a beret in the timeworn narrow streets of the Vieux Nice neighbourhood without hitting some olde shoppe stuffed with lavender soaps, chintz-print tablecloths and other ubiquitous Provençal products. More original, some excellent vintage and retro boutiques hide quietly alongside them. The Riviera glam of the Princess Grace era remains alive at Caprice, a haven of women’s fashion. Round out a 1970s black and silver Yves Saint Laurent evening gown (€2,500) with strappy silver Charles Jourdan heels from the 1960s (€35) and a space-age Sixties orange leather jacket by André Courrèges (€420). Men can score beachwear at Galerie Motus-Art Picking, which sells Sixties sunglasses (€160) and reissues of Seventies concert jerseys by Worn Free (€38). Popart is a funhouse-like store where you can get a 1960s Raoul Raba lamp (€7,000) or a Necchi whale-shaped sewing machine (€1,500).
4pm Design within beach
Hi Beach, the most playful and design-conscious of Nice’s beach clubs, comes from the drawing board of France’s most playful and prolific architect-designer, Matali Crasset. The outdoor compound is awash in bright candy-hued furniture and umbrellas – turquoise, eggplant, lime, royal blue – and serves up a daylong mix of effervescent electro music, massages, fresh juices, light foods, artisanal ice creams and cocktails. Half-day admission and sun-bed rental: €17
8pm Far East France
The name Les Deux Canailles – “The Two Rascals” – alludes to the Japanese chef Tsumoru Takano and French maître d’hôtel Laurent Inoue, who have created a discreet, velvety little spot to showcase Asian-accented French cuisine. Elegant but unstuffy, the restaurant turns out small triumphs like a succulent stuffed quail that contains foie gras, mushrooms and raisins, and a tangy sea bream carpaccio whose sesame seeds, marinated eggplant discs and onion tempura evoke the land of the rising sun. Impressive local wines enhance flavours, but the marquee drinks are the Japanese whiskies. Prix fixe menus at €49 and €79, excluding drinks.
10pm Madmen and Porn Stars
Come night, the young (and age-resistant) fill the bars of Vieux Nice. Other than the minimalist white angular space, little feels pure at Pure, a sultry den of strong cocktails and electro-soul music where naughtiness seems to bubble from every flute of Bora Bora (Champagne and strawberries; €13). Don’t expect a remedy at Apotheka, name notwithstanding. The underground bunker-chic club ups every ante – louder music; lengthier drinks list; shorter dresses; fewer scruples. The crowd grooves to R&B music while draining concoctions like Le Porn Star (vodka, white wine, lemon, passion fruit, sugar and Champagne, €14.50) and Américain Psycho (bourbon, rye, almond liquor, ginger, rose, grapefruit juice, lime, orange bitters and absinthe, €16).
10am Tree time
Can’t tell a ficus from a fig tree? You’ll learn along the Promenade du Paillon, an ambitious new park, botanical garden and recreation space. Extending three-quarters of a mile between blocks of Beaux-Arts, Art Deco and Italianate buildings, the green expanse is traced by pleasant walkways surrounded by some 1,000 trees and 55,000 plants. Ambling northeast from Place Massena, you’ll pass a vast reflecting pool, elaborate playgrounds, photo displays of 19th-century Nice, manicured lawns and all manner of exotic flora with identifying plaques.
Noon Pictures and polygons
More exotic global specimens – from the art world – illuminate the galleries of the Musée d’Art Moderne et d’Art Contemporain, at the top end of the park. “A picture is worth more than a thousand words,” read the words painted across an untitled 1992 work by Barbara Kruger. Depicting a man splicing film with scissors, the self-referential creation is by turns arch, thought-provoking, challenging, playful and sinister.
One or more of those adjectives apply to many of the other works in the excellent (free) collection, from Frank Stella’s wall- size Damascus Gate (1969) sculpture – five abstract forms crossed by five bands of pastel colours – to the octagonal room scattered with white aluminium irregular polygons by Sol LeWitt. Ellsworth Kelly, Donald Judd and Andy Warhol add doses of Pop and Minimalism. Then bid au revoir to Nice from the rooftop, where a final panoramic vista of sea and city await.
Following a full renovation that ended last year, Hotel Massena (58 rue Gioffredo; 33-4-92-47-8888; hotel-massena-nice.com) sports colourful new rooms with funky wallpapers and bright fabrics. The main draw is the courtyard garden. Doubles start at €115 (low season) or €175 (high season).
The plush Villa Victoria (33 boulevard Victor-Hugo; 33-4-93-88-3960; villa-victoria.com), which occupies an ornate 1906 Beaux Arts building, has also benefited from an ambitious recent renovation. The lobby exudes bachelor-pad chic – red velvet chairs, black leather couches, abundant mirrors – while the sleek rooms mix Mediterranean colours with black-and-white photos of classic cinema and music legends. Doubles from €89 (low season) or €139 (high season).