Nice, France: Explore the best of the French Riviera

Arrive in Nice by train and you'll wonder what the fuss is about. It's a long, dowdy walk past supermarkets and cinemas before you arrive at Place Masséna, noteworthy for its pretty pink buildings and pleasant gardens where fountains gurgle. But this is the start of the great and good in Nice, of which there's plenty.

Ideally, you should arrive here on a billionaire's yacht. Nice sits on a peacock-blue bay lined with beaches and backed by grand hotels and jaunty palm trees. At its northern end, a ruined castle sits atop a rocky crag. Most of what you want to see is near the waterfront.

A small cruise ship could provide the same arrival experience in this popular Mediterranean port, sailing into the compact harbour tucked beneath the castle. (Big ships dock five kilometres along the coast at Villefranche.) Hoof it up to the ruins for a conqueror's look over the old town's terracotta roofs and the turquoise waters of the Mediterranean stretching as far as Cap d'Antibes.

Alternatively, a half-hour stroll takes you around the shoreline, topping a modest rise with a "I Love Nice" logo that's just the spot to admire this seaside city and its distant backing of Provence mountains, before taking you down onto the famous Promenade des Anglais.

The "English Promenade" is an eruption of Belle Époque hotels and apartments that recalls Nice's early heyday as the playground of indolent British and later Russian aristocrats. It runs for a flower-filled six kilometres, along which you'll find fine cafes and bouillabaisse restaurants. Rollerbladers zip between shuffling Arab ladies and joggers. Seawalls look down on topless bathers and sun-wrinkled men playing badminton.

Casual visitors don't explore much further, but Nice has an impressive pedigree. It was founded by the Greeks in the 4th century BC, and all through the Middle Ages did a brisk trade between France and Italy. Nice was only absorbed into France in 1860. Old-town architecture is Italianate: think pastel-painted squares, baroque chapels and decaying palazzi. Only Palais Lascaris is open to visitors, featuring rococo ceilings and dusty armour. Back alleys have none of the Riviera's glitter and glamour. Simple bistros dish up roast lamb or pissaladière, the southern French version of pizza. Rubbish bins, balcony washing and the clunk of cutlery through open windows are a reminder of the old town's continued residential nature.

Pretty but work-a-day Cours Saleya is the place to linger, opening up just beyond alley canyons to catch the Mediterranean's sparkling sunshine. In the early morning, market stalls hawk food and junk and a bedazzlement of cut flowers and potted plants. Later, cafe tables spread out under parasols, tempting you to rustic Provence platters of stuffed sardines and onion quiches and rough, satisfying wines. There are shoals of wandering tourists, but plenty of locals as well. By evening, cafes become bars with live bands and bouts of dancing under the stars.

As an antidote to the Riviera's bling and hedonism, drop into the Musée des Beaux-Arts for 19th- and 20th-century painting, or the bold Musée d'Art Moderne, if nothing else for its sculpture-sprinkled, view-ogling rooftop terrace.

The best, though, is the free-entry Musée Matisse for lovely, typically colourful paintings and cut-outs from the Fauvre master. Matisse lived in Nice for years, first in a yellow-painted building on Cours Saleya, then in Cimiez district. He's buried in the cemetery behind the museum.

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Don't take the art too seriously though. Nice isn't that kind of place. Even Matisse was keen to be outdoors most of the time. He loved the limpid Mediterranean light and outings in his canoe around the harbour. Maybe that's the best way to arrive, with the dip of a paddle and the city titillating you with a slow and seductive reveal.

Brian Johnston travelled as a guest of Silversea Cruises and Driveaway Holidays.

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/france

nicetourisme.com

FLY

Emirates flies from Sydney and Melbourne to Dubai (14.5 hours) with onward connections to Nice (6.5 hours). See emirates.com/au

STAY

Newly renovated Le Negresco is a Belle Époque palace and Leading Hotel of the World on the seafront, and has sumptuous art-filled rooms and a Michelin-star restaurant. See lhw.com

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