With its reputation for glamour and the jet set lifestyle, you can be forgiven for thinking Nice has little more to offer than sumptuous villas, palm trees and sunshine. Dig beneath the surface, however, and Nice has a rich and varied past going back to prehistoric times and the Stone Age. This Easter, Sarah took her family to Nice for a week to explore the archaeology and history of the French Riviera.
1. Historical Background 2. Promenade des Anglais 3. The Old Town 4. The Old Port 5. Colline Du Chateau 6. The Cemeteries 7. Palais Lascaris 8. The Cathedral 9. Terra Amata 10. Chocolate Shop Tour 11. Grotte du Lazaret 12. St. Jean Cap Ferrat 13. Villa Ephrussi Rothschild 14. Villa Kerylos, Beaulieu-sur-Mer 15. Archaeological Museum, Cimiez 16. Monastery, Cimiez 17. Monte Carlo, Monaco 18. Where to Stay in Nice 19. Getting Around Nice 20. Top Tips for Taking Kids to Nice
1. Historical Background
2. Promenade des Anglais
3. The Old Town, Nice
4. The Old Port, Nice
5. Colline Du Chateau
6. The Cemeteries
7. Palais Lascaris
8. The Cathedral
9. Terra Amata
10. Chocolate Shop Tour
11. Grotte du Lazaret
12. St. Jean Cap Ferrat
13. Villa Ephrussi Rothschild
14. Villa Kerylos, Beaulieu-sur-Mer
15. Archaeological Museum, Cimiez
16. Monastery, Cimiez
17. Monte Carlo, Monaco
18. Where to Stay in Nice
19. Getting Around Nice
20. Top Tips for Taking Kids to Nice
Famous for its warm climate, sparkling seas, brilliant light and magnificent views, Nice is the second most visited city in France for a good reason. Having last visited Nice with a hefty rucksack and clutching an InterRail ticket over 20 years ago, I was keen to spend more time here, to explore the city beyond the hostels and backstreet cafes. Nice is a city rich in history and arts, home to a diverse population and culture. With my husband, children and mother, and armed with Riviera Passes, we spent a week just before Easter discovering the delights of modern day Nice and the wider French Riviera.
The first human settlement in Nice was 400,000 years ago, evidenced by an excavation which shows that the first settlers were transient cave dwellers who visited to hunt wild animals on the prehistoric beaches and by the earliest evidence of the domestication of fire in Europe, at the site of Terra Amata.
The actual town of Nice was founded by the Greeks in 350BC, who called it Nikia after Nike, the Greek goddess of victory after their defeat over the Ligurians from northern Italy. The Romans arrived in 14BC and built a second town, Cemeneulum on a nearby hill which was superior to Nice for the next few centuries. Primarily a military town, it had a coliseum to host gladiator battles and executions, a huge bath complex and olive groves.
Over the years, Nice became one of the busiest trading ports on the coast in direct competition with Cemenelum which gradually lost its significance with the decline of the Roman Empire. For several centuries the city was subject to invasions; ownership swung between the Italians and French with Nice being ruled by Provence and the house of Savoy and suffering through plagues and famines.
It was in the Middle Ages that the town became too big to stay within the castle walls and so was relocated to what is now the old town. Both Saracens and Ottomans tried to invade. The folk heroine of Nice is a laundress named Catherine Segurane, who in 1506 when Nice was under siege by the Ottomans, is said to have climbed the walls, killed an invader with her laundry bat, grabbed his flag and made a gesture of wiping her backside with it. The Ottomans swiftly left and the siege ended. There is a memorial to her on the side of the castle hill, showing her holding her laundry paddle, to commemorate her spirit of resistance.
Nice finally became a permanent part of France in 1860 with the Treaty of Turin, when Nice and Savoy were annexed to France in exchange for French military help against the Austrians. It was in the 18th and 19th centuries that the English aristocracy and European royalty started visiting Nice, including it on their Grand Tours and giving Nice a very cosmopolitan and glamorous air, attracting famous visitors such as artists, writers, film stars and politicians.
That all changed in WWII when first the Italians then the Germans occupied the area, but it was the locals who liberated their own town as the Allies approached. Since then the Old Town fell into disrepair until it was revitalised in the 1970s and 80s by entrepreneurial mayors which led to the vibrant and bustling town it is today.
Promenade Des Anglais, Nice
The stylish elegance of the Promenade des Anglais.
The Promenade is a four mile stretch of promenade which runs from the airport to near the base of the Colline du Chateau and is a prominent feature of Nice. With the sea on one side and shops, bars and hotels on the other, it is a wide walkway used by locals and tourists alike, famous for its blue chairs and seafront views over the soft grey pebbled beach and sparkling sea.
It was built in 1820, when a particularly harsh winter saw an increase in the number of beggars and vagrants forced south by the weather. The English residents of Nice proposed a walkway by the sea, which was funded by the local Anglican church and constructed by those in need of employment and food. An iconic boulevard where visitors would stroll wearing elegant white and twirling their parasols against the heat, it has been extended over the years and is now a popular place for locals and tourists alike, with bike paths, scooters and a great many joggers to add to those who just like an amble by the sea. In 2016 it was the scene of a tragic act of terrorism and there are now barriers and regular patrols by heavily armed police, none of which fazed the children whose only comment was that their machine guns were ‘just like the ones on Fortnite’.
It’s a lovely place for a stroll and one I highly recommend to get a true flavour of Nice as the Promenade really is synonymous with Nice. There are many landmarks and parks along the way, as well as easy access to the sea, making it an ideal place to take the kids. The famous Hotel Negresco is worth stopping to admire with its distinctive pink domed roof, liveried doormen with red plumed hats, statue of a jazz trumpeter and the vestige of fame, as this is where the rich and illustrious have been staying since its doors opened in 1913. It was outside here that the famous dancer Isadora Duncan died in 1927, strangled by her lengthy scarf when it got caught in the axle of her car.
Behind the Promenade is the Promenade du Paillon – a long 12 hectare park that has a variety of attractions including fountains for kids to run in and out of, play areas, statues and monuments, a tropical garden complete with water misters and plenty of open spaces which are used to host regular events. It’s very pretty and is a great place to let the kids roam free, all against the backdrop of the beautiful baroque skyline of old Nice.
The Old Town, Nice
Shop displays in the Old Town showing colourful soaps, herbs, dried fruit, alcohol and salts.
The original old town of Nice has changed little since the 1700s and is a maze of tall, colourful Baroque buildings painted in reds, yellows, ochre and sienna with big windows, contrasting doorways and windowsills and red tiled roofs, all facing each other across narrow winding streets that lead to surprising open squares. There is a diverse and eclectic mix of both shops and people. The shops were a source of much fascination for us. There were very few typical tourist shops selling the usual key rings, tea towels and pens, instead these were mostly specialised boutique shops selling soaps, herbs and spices, couture, vintage items and food, all with the most incredible displays that were just so visually appealing that for the first time ever I found myself taking photos of shop displays. There is a lot to explore and I was in my element with narrow winding paths leading to unknown places, with surprises around every corner including random churches, brass bands, beautiful baroque windows and lines of washing hanging out.
Top Tips for taking kids to the Old Town
Bear in mind that even though it’s a pedestrian only zone, you will still find plenty of motorbikes, scooters and even the occasional vehicle forcing its way through the crowds.
There is a pirate themed sweet shop (L'escale des Pirates) that will truly impress the children, full of life-size pirate figures and barrels of brightly coloured sweets that they can 'pick n mix' from. It is expensive but is a great way to keep them motivated for a trip exploring the old town. Just make sure they don’t choose any chilli sweets as we learnt to our cost!
The Old Port, Nice
Nice port - the super yacht is mercifully hidden behind trees when you take photos from the top of Colline du Chateau.
Our apartment was actually one road away from the old port, so we walked through it regularly. It is very beautiful; we could see that even with half of it behind boarding due to the construction of a new tramline. Surrounded by baroque buildings and with a view across the boats out to the lighthouse and the sparkling sea beyond, it is worth a visit. On one side is a row of super yachts, nothing too ostentatious until you see one boat that dominates everything, a massive super yacht that has its permanent moorings here. It towers over the buildings, blocking out the beautiful view with its brash white plasticity, casting shadows over the homeless who sleep in the doorways next to it. It looks completely out of place against this long-standing baroque view and it is such a shame that it is allowed to moor there.
Colline du Chateau, Nice
The steps at the end of the Promenade to the Tour Bellanda which is half way up. Keep on going for the best views over Nice!
‘Castle Hill’ is a bit of a misnomer, as there is very little left of an actual castle at the top of the hill, but it is still a 'must visit' location for anyone visiting Nice. Located at the end of the Promenade des Anglais, there are several ways to get to the top, including taking the tourist train and a lift. We opted for the steps which are behind the Hotel Suisse and schlepped our way up there on a very hot day in full sun. You can stop halfway up at the Tour Bellanda for views and a rest, and then keep on going to the top, where there is plenty to explore, and fortunately a small shop selling bottles of water for people like us who forgot to take any and really regretted it after those steps.
There is very little left of the original castle. Built as a citadel for military use which once dominated Nice from the 11th – 18th centuries, it was besieged several times over the years until it was taken by the French in 1705 and then destroyed by King Louis XIV in 1706 so he wouldn’t have to conquer it again. There are a few remains, the odd wall, one with evidence of canon ball damage in it which was interesting, but the whole area now is mostly a large park with incredible views over the rooftops of Nice. There is a children’s play area, cafes, the historic cemeteries, a rather neglected waterfall built in the 19th century from the remains of the keep, a few ruins to explore and best of all, an archaeological dig taking place at the top which is uncovering an 11th century Romanesque cathedral and which we watched with interest.
Near the excavations is a small building that has some possibly Roman colonnades and sculptures on the outside. There was no explanation for what this building was or if the items were replicas or genuine (there is purportedly archaeological evidence for both Celtic and Roman remains in the area) but it was very pretty, even if we weren’t quite sure what we were looking at.
The Cemeteries, Colline Du Chateau, Nice
Graves and monuments jostle for position in the Christian Cemetery where the great and the good of Nice are buried.
On the side of the Chateau du Colline are two cemeteries, Christian and Israelite. These are definitely worth a visit, particularly if like me you are used to British graveyards which could not be more different to these ornate and extravagant monuments to the departed. What struck me first about the Christian cemetery was not just the sheer whiteness of most of the tombs, which looked amazing against the brilliant blue of the sky, but the way they were all crammed in together, each seeming to jostle and fight to outdo each other with their grandiose and flamboyant designs. Some had their own private chapels, complete with locked grilles through which you can peer to see memorial plaques and dusty ceramic flowers, some were tall monuments and sculptures, many had photos on them, which again was very unusual for my British eyes. I didn’t find it as peaceful as the graveyards I’m familiar with, but it was fascinating to see the great and the good of Nice at rest with their impressive views over the old town and the sea.
The urns, one containing ashes from the gas chambers and the other with soap made from human fat of those killed in the Holocaust.
The Israelite cemetery was less flamboyant for the most part, although not without its occasional towering columns. What it did have however was a truly moving memorial to the Holocaust, one of the most poignant ones I have ever seen. A small building behind the entrance gate, which looks a bit as if it was hastily erected not long after WWII, has two plaques and urns on either side of the wooden door. As the plaques tell us, one contains the ashes of those killed in the crematoriums of Auschwitz, the other contains soap made from human fat of those killed by the Third Reich. It was heartbreaking to see it so vividly and yet simply depicted and is not something I will ever forget.
Visiting Colline Du Chateau and the Cemeteries
April - September 08h30 – 20h00
October - March 08h30 - 18h00
Good to Know
Take water with you if its a hot day as those steps can be tiring. Alternatively use the lift or the tourist train. The park is closed on the dot so don't get stuck up there. There is a charge to use the loos.
Palais Lascaris, Old Town, Nice
Extreme Baroque decoration in the 17th century Palais Lascaris.
We stumbled upon this quite by chance as I explored the old town one afternoon with my mother and the rains suddenly started. Thanks to our Riviera Passes we were able to go in, even without really knowing what to expect. It turned out to be a 17th century palace which currently houses the second most important collection of musical instruments in France. Not being a musical aficionado, a lot of it was lost on me, although I was grateful for the English translations which did help me to appreciate the instruments better, some of which seemed to date back to 1500, but it was the palace and its furnishings which intrigued me.
In high Baroque style, very frilly and flouncy, rich with tapestries, gilt and curious frescoes that looked a bit as if they had been coloured in with crayons, it was a good way to wait out the rain and get to see a place that we would not normally have chosen if we hadn’t had free entry thanks to our Riviera cards.
Visiting Palais Lascaris
January - December 11h00 – 18h00
Except for 23rd June - 15th Oct - 10h00 - 18h00
Closed every Tuesday, Christmas Day, New Years Day and Easter Day
Free with the Riviera Pass or €10 with the 24 hour Museum Pass
Free for children and students
Good to Know
This isn't really one for the kids, unless they have an interest in musical instruments. Mine would have found this rather dull.
Cathedral, Nice Old Town
Consecrated in 1699, on the site of an older church which had been there since 1049, and with several additions and embellishments over the years, including a bell tower, the main Roman Catholic cathedral of Nice is free to all when it’s open. When we visited, the clergy were busy getting ready for the imminent Easter celebrations so the place was a hive of activity with displays of greenery being assembled by busy workers.
The sides of the cathedral are separated into smaller chapels, the most interesting of which was one dedicated to Sainte Reparata, the patron saint of Nice and which contained relics of the Saint herself, said to have arrived in Nice in 1060, and paintings depicting her torture and subsequent martyrdom.
A Catholic virgin from 3rd century Palestine, she refused to recant her beliefs and was tortured for them. Initially burnt alive, she was saved by rain, forced to swallow boiling pitch and then decapitated, a dove appearing to symbolise her departure for heaven. Her body was put on a boat and blown by angels to the Baie des Anges in Nice (the main bay around which Nice is located). All of this is depicted in some rather wonderful paintings in that small chapel, along with the reliquaries.
Top Tips for visiting the Cathedral
When we looked online it had said that the Cathedral was closed, but it was very much open when we got there on the off chance, so take the online opening hours with a pinch of salt.
Outside the Cathedral is a large square, Place Rosetti, with fountains, restaurants, ice cream shops and lots of people. It's a great place to sit and people watch and reward the kids with an ice cream after a visit to the Cathedral.
Admiring the plaster cast of the ground surface of the prehistoric beach of Terra Amata.
Terra Amata (Italian for ‘Beloved Land’) is an archaeological site of some significance, as it has evidence of the earliest domestication of fire, particularly in Europe. An open air site that was found at the foot of Mount Boron in Nice, it was discovered during construction work in 1966 and now sits beneath a museum and an apartment block. Many of the finds from the site are now on display in the museum along with a large plaster cast of the ground surface which showed the finds in situ.
The site was a prehistoric beach and finds include evidence of tools of the Lower Palaeolithic, bones of hunted elephants, rhinoceros and deer, as well as of huts on the beach, each of which contained a fireplace with ashes. Each fireplace had a wall of stones and pebbles on the north west side to protect the fire from the strong Mistral winds. There are only three other sites in the world that have evidence of fire domestication this early on. The site is not without its controversies as some archaeologists have said that the layers were mixed and the dating of the site should be later. Finds also include stone tools and a stone pick.
The museum is quite basic and not particularly child friendly as there is a lot of objects in glass cases with all the text in French and only a couple of interactive areas. I did like the small models of how the site and others nearby would have been used throughout the ages, and there was a good interactive screen that could be used to interpret the plaster cast of the ground covered in finds.
Visiting Terra Amata
January - December 10h00 – 17h00
Except for 2nd May - 31st Oct - 10h00 - 18h00
Closed every Tuesday, Christmas Day, New Years Day and Easter Day
Free with the Riviera Pass or €10 pp with the 24 hour Museum Pass
Free for children and students
Good to Know
The museum is pushchair friendly.
Chocolate Shop Tour, Nice
Admiring the jams, jellies and chocolates in Patiserie Florian.
Confiserie Florian is near the old port (it’s hard to miss as it’s directly opposite the super yacht) and is where they make handmade chocolates on site. There is no need to book, you just walk in and ask for the tour. They will ask if you want it in French or English and find the appropriate guide for you. They explain a little about the business, show you displays of the most amazing looking sugared fruits and explain how they make them, you can watch the chocolatiers pour chocolate into moulds with great proficiency, see them being hand decorated and then get taken to their upstairs shop where all the items are laid out in a mouth-watering display for tasting and buying.
There is no obligation to buy anything, and the chocolate isn’t cheap as its all handmade, but it’s hard to resist, especially as our visit was the week before Easter and there were some amazing looking eggs and rabbits on display. Its great fun for kids and adults alike; even the teenager really enjoyed it as it’s a short but interesting tour and you leave clutching bags of delicious chocolates.
Visiting Confiserie Florian
Monday to Sunday 09h00 – 12h00 and 14h00 - 18h00
Closed on Christmas Day and New Years Day
Grotte du Lazaret, Nice
The illuminated walkway inside the cave tour, a cast of a pile of bones and tools, and the area outside the Grotte du Lazaret. Definitely a site worth visiting.
The Grotte is a cave site that was occupied by prehistoric humans during the Lower Palaeolithic era, discovered in the 1970s with evidence of a shelter, tools, animal bones, hearths and the human skull fragments of a nine year old male of either Homo Heidelbergensis or proto-Neanderthal.
It’s easy to find, just follow the coastline away from the old harbour with the sea on your right until you reach a park area at the foot of Mount Boron, it is well signposted. Tours can be booked but we showed up rather hopefully late one afternoon and were given free access to the museum and the cave tour. The museum itself is tiny, but it’s the cave that people visit for. The guide takes a group into the cave, gives a brief introduction and then sends you off to follow the sound and light tour, which is done very well and very informative, with various sections of the cave being lit up at a time, and films projected onto the cave wall. Unfortunately it is all in French, but it was easy enough to get a basic understanding of what was going on. We were then able to walk back at our own pace and examine some of the finds and information boards at the entrance to the cave.
The tour introduces you to some of the finds and shows you exactly where things were found. The area of occupation was only small being 36 x 11 feet, with 3 walls marked by cave walls and the fourth by a series of stones in a line, which was probably where the nomadic occupants kept the packing stones for the side of their animal hide shelter which would have been pitched against the cave walls. Stone flakes and animal bones are concentrated in areas that could have been entrances to the tent, and tiny seashells have been found which could indicate that seaweed was brought in for use. The cave represents a fascinating stage in the development of humankind and was an incredible find, bearing in mind just how much has vanished from the archaeological record for that time period.
I really enjoyed the tour even though it was solely in French, I thought it was skilfully done and a good way to show such an important site. We didn’t take the children to this one, leaving them behind with Granny as it was at the end of an already long day, but I do think it would be good for older children as it was quite short and the way it was done would have been good enough to cover the language barrier, so long as parents explained in advance to them what they would be seeing. The staff were really helpful and all in all it was a fantastic visit.
Visiting Grotte du Lazaret
October - May 10h00 – 17h00
June - September 10h00 - 18h00
Closed on Mondays and Tuesdays and Christmas Day, New Years Day and Easter Day
St Jean Cap Ferrat
St Jean Cap Ferrat has long been on my list of places I want to visit. Renowned for being home to the rich and famous, it is said to be the second most expensive location in the world after Monaco. Full of luxury villas, this was the world of Noel Coward, Somerset Maugham, Winston Churchill and Charlie Chaplin, and is now home to the mysterious super rich who live behind high walls with maximum security.
Cap Ferrat didn’t receive its reputation of glamour and wealth until the 20th century. Before that, it was a rocky peninsula along the coast from Nice, referred to as Anao by the ancient Greeks. In the 6th century AD it was home to a recluse, Saint Hospitius, who lived in a dilapidated tower and performed miracles. His hand bone is believed to be in the Cathedral St Reparte in Nice. Occupied over the years by Lombards, Saracens, pirates, Dukes of Savoy, Sardinians and French, it wasn’t until the Belle Époque that the area came into its own, when King Léopold of Belgium bought up several villas there and other wealthy families and film stars moved to the area, to make it what it is today.
My interest in the area, other than its renowned beauty, was to see the famous villa once owned by David Niven, one of my favourite writers, and it’s one of the few that hasn’t been hidden away behind walls. This led us to walk some of the coastal path around the Cap to find it, which we did on a glorious sunny day when the sky was a brilliant blue and the sun was beating down. The coastal path, which we started in Beaulieu–sur-Mer, winds the whole way around the Cap, going through the town of St Jean, which has a lovely harbour and plenty of bars and cafes to drink a beer and admire the view. Most of the villas are hidden from view which does detract from the beauty of the place, but looking out to sea and admiring many of the exotic plant species introduced by King Leopold is what makes it such a beautiful walk anyway.
The pink villa Rothschild and the formal garden with the musical fountains having a rest.
Villa Ephrussi Rothschild, Cap Ferrat
This vast, sugary pink villa was built in 1912 by the immensely wealthy Baroness Beatrice Rothschild in Cap Ferrat, starting out as little more than rough terrain with a mule track to become the extensive Italian palazzo villa and nine landscaped gardens that are there today. It took seven years to complete and involved dynamiting the rocks and bringing in tonnes of earth. She used it as her winter residence and filled the house with an eclectic art collection including old masters, sculptures, antiques, rare porcelain and assorted objets d’art. Bequeathed to the Academy of Arts on her death, the villa and gardens are now open to the public and give an insight into the life of a super-rich resident of the Cap.
We walked there from the coastal path of the Cap, it was easy to find. We heard music playing as we approached the villa and wondered what was going on. Once we had entered, it turned out to be musical fountains which play classical music every 20 minutes with the fountains ‘dancing’ in time to the music. I couldn’t decide if it was charming or tacky, but stood fascinated for quite some time. After visiting the house however, I veered towards the latter. The house itself is very OTT, very pink and flouncy, not very comfortable looking, and proof for me that all the money in the world can’t buy taste, as it was only the views which elevated the house to something special.
The gardens however were an absolute joy, with nine different themed gardens including French, Spanish, Florentine, Japanese, stone, and rose. Incredible landscaping, planting and features against the backdrop of stunning views over the blue sea were truly wonderful to explore and I loved them. I could easily have spent the whole day just exploring and wandering around outside, ignoring all of the historical artefacts inside the house.
Visiting Villa Ephrussi Rothschild
July - August 10h00 - 19h00
September - October 10h00 - 18h00
November - January 14h00 - 18h00 on weekdays
February - June 10h00 - 18h00
Children aged 7-25 €10
Under 7's visit for free
Concessions and family tickets available
Good to Know
Unusually, there is a restaurant on site, but it is pricey and I would highly recommend taking food with you for an excursion here, especially if you are taking children. There are limited food shops in the area.
Audio guides are available once you are inside the house. Collect them free of charge from the main desk - you will be asked to leave an ID card while you have the guides. They are useful because there is very little literature to tell you what each item in the house is, so you get very little information without the audio guide. The garden however has little tags telling you the names of the plants.
Children are unlikely to appreciate the house but should enjoy the garden and fountains.
There is a bus stop right at the bottom of the main driveway, so it is easy to get a bus back to Nice (the number 81).
Villa Kerylos, Beaulieu-sur-mer
The beautiful peristyle, inside one of the rooms and my son listening intently to the excellent audio guide.
Villa Kerylos is a 20th century villa created by French archaeologist Theodore Reinach in an Ancient Greek style. Unfortunately a part of it was closed for renovations so we didn’t get to see the antique gallery, but that actually didn’t matter as I loved what I was able to see. There was an excellent audio guide in English that was very comprehensive and interesting and definitely made the visit a success.
He had tried to recreate a 2nd century noble villa based around an open peristyle courtyard and it was a wonderful recreation. What I particularly liked what that things such as mirrors and other ‘modern’ inventions were kept hidden from view, so that the overall look could remain as accurate as possible. There were mosaics everywhere, lots of marble and the rooms and furniture was laid out as it should have been. It was simple and uncluttered and really did feel as I imagine a Greek villa could have done. The views were beautiful, even though we couldn’t see much from all of the rooms due to the scaffolding for the renovations.
My son was very interested by the villa and listened dutifully to most of the audio guide – he’s quite an expert on Greek mythology (thank you Percy Jackson novels!) and we found ourselves having an intense discussion about Dionysus and who was the god of what when we were examining some of the mosaics.
Visiting Villa Kerylos
January - December 10h00 – 17h00
Except for 2nd May - 31st August - 10h00 - 19h00
Closed 1st Jan, 1st May, 1st, 11th and 25th November
Free for Children and students
Free with the Riviera Pass
Good to Know
The 81 bus from Nice will take you right to the Villa Kerylos bus stop and it's just a short walk to the villa itself.
When visiting Beaulieu we found that most of it wasn’t open (which could have been a seasonal thing). We were unable to find a suitable place to have lunch – everywhere was either linen tablecloths and very expensive or just selling pastries. So I would advise taking food with you if possible, particularly if you are taking kids with you.
The beach is worth a visit with good views.
The Archaeological Museum, Cimiez
The Roman site against a backdrop of trees and the Matisse Museum, looking impressive even on a grey and rainy day.
In what is now a suburb of Nice, Cimiez, are the ruins of the ancient Roman military garrison of Cemenelum and an excellent museum about the ruins containing the finds. You start with the museum before heading through the doors to the outside ruins of the baths and a Palaeo -Christian basilica.
Cemenelum was founded at the end of the 1st century BC and was the provincial capital of the Alpes-Maritime. A military centre, it was the permanent base of at least three cohorts of infantry (anywhere up to 2000 soldiers). The town was also the administrative and political centre of the region, with an amphitheatre that could hold up to 10,000 people and a complex of public baths that originally filled 20 hectares, of which only 1.5 survives.
The Museum was really good, well laid out with some really fabulous finds and a good interactive area for kids where they could try on a helmet, dig in sand and build various things. There were also explanations in English in this area. There was a large model of how the ruins would have looked, and an interactive screen where you could see yourself dressed in togas. Downstairs in the museum was a little more baffling with some stele and an exhibition about plastic, which I think was highlighting how long plastic survives in the earth. Instead, we went outside to the actual ruins themselves and were really impressed, as there was one really tall building still standing, the frigidarium or cold room of the baths. They are in a lovely setting surrounded by trees and greenery and even the grey skies and rain didn’t stop us from exploring the area thoroughly.
The Palaeo-Christian basilica is a highlight of the ruins. At the end of the 3rd century, Cemenelum lost its role as provincial capital, but was given a new lease of life in the 5th century when a cathedral and baptistery were built inside the western baths complex. The baptistery, a hexagonal chamber used for immersion during baptism, is well preserved and is now a listed national monument in France.
The amphitheatre is outside the museum area so has free access and nothing to stop people clambering over and under it and investigating every nook and cranny. It was interesting to know that here were gladiator battles, wild animal hunts and public executions and it kept the children entertained until the rain got just too much and we headed off to find shelter.
Visiting The Archaeological Museum Cimiez
January - December -10h00 – 18h00
Closed on Mondays
Adults €10 with the 24hr Museum Pass
Children and students free
Free with the Riviera Pass
Franciscan Monastery, Cimiez
My family failing to appreciate the frescoes outside the church at the Monastery, Cimiez.
A short walk from the Roman amphitheatre, through the park of ancient olive groves and lanes named after jazz musicians, is the 16th century Franciscan Monastery, church, gardens and a small museum. Sadly the museum was closed on the day we went, but the church and gardens were open and are free to visit. The church was very dark with incense wafting through the air, adorned with frescoes and a rather unusual statue of Mary. There were signs asking for silence and no photography and our visit inside was rather brief as it was of little interest to the children. There was a small, verdant cloisters open to the public which also made for a quick, interesting visit.
The gardens however were a different story as they were lovely, even on the rainy day that we had unfortunately chosen to visit them on. I can imagine that they must be stunning in the summer months when everything had bloomed. There was plenty to explore, made even more enjoyable watching a fashion photo shoot in one of the smaller gardens – a poor bedraggled model in a very thin dress was surrounded by cameras, equipment, assistants holding umbrellas and issuing orders in strong American accents. The kids had a great time copying her rather daft poses from a distance, with lots of giggling.
Visiting Franciscan Monastery Church, Museum and Gardens
Daily except Sundays 10h00 – 12h00 and 15h00 - 18h00
Closed on some public holidays
The Museum is currently closed on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays
Monte Carlo, Monaco - a Day Trip from Nice
Some of the more modest yachts in Monte Carlo harbour. You can just see the grandstands being built for the Grand Prix behind them.
Monte Carlo is a 45 minute bus journey from Nice and was somewhere the family was keen on going – the children because it was another country to add to their ‘lists’ and the husband because he is a huge Grand Prix fan. Monte Carlo is full of very tall buildings, very posh shops and very loud, expensive cars. The residents are glossy and shiny and all wear designer clothing, leaving trails of expensive cologne behind them. The port is filled with super yachts, including one that was the size of a small cruise ship and cost $600 million (I just had to Google it!).
We walked the entire Grand Prix route and watched as preparations were made for the next one which is in a month or so. The roar of super cars can be heard approaching from miles away and most of the cars are Ferraris, Lamborghinis and their ilk. We were entertained on our walk watching the liveried doormen of hotels scuttling around behind the guests and holding umbrellas over their heads, which sadly heralded the arrival of a torrential downpour. Thunder could be heard rolling in from the hills and within minutes we were drenched. Unfortunately we had to abandon our plans to explore the old town and the historic buildings of Monte Carlo, and caught a very steamed up bus back to Nice and the safety of our flat. Sadly my family’s impression of Monte Carlo is not of its fine palaces, historic streets and ancient churches, but instead is one of ostentatious displays of wealth, loud cars and downpours.
Visiting Monte Carlo
Take the 100 bus from Nice port for a beautiful journey that takes you through Villefranche and other coastal towns. Get off at the Tourist Office in Monaco and go straight in for a map - the staff all speak very good English. The maps will show the whole Grand Prix route as well as all of the other attractions. The return bus to Nice leaves just down the road from the tourist office outside the banks.
Good to Know
Monte Carlo was the one place we found plenty of good reasonably priced cafes that sold ideal snack food and sandwiches which was quite a surprise. If you go in one of the more expensive and popular cafes, particularly near the casino, expect to be scanned with some form of detector on entry and to have your bags searched.
Where to Stay in Nice
We stuck to our policy of staying in the centre of town and found an apartment right on the edge of the old town near the port. Being in an old building we did suffer from no lift and having to climb nearly 100 steps every time, but it was perfect in terms of location, as we were close to all of the bus stops to get everywhere we needed to, easy walking distance to the other sites and with a big choice of supermarkets and cafes. I would highly recommend finding something similar in terms of location. If you go too close to the airport end of the Promenade, there will be a lot of travelling involved to get to any of the sites, which is never good if you have children with you.
Getting Around Nice
Using the buses in Nice - inside one of the modern buses, how to use the validating machine and a standard ticket.
The buses in Nice are cheap, regular and easy to use and in fact they were the only public transport we used as they went everywhere we wanted to go. Some of the buses we went on were very new and even had USB charging points which was really handy. Each journey costs €1.50 for adults and children. You get on the bus, tell the driver how many tickets you want and either get given the requisite amount of tickets or a slip of paper that covers all of you. If you get given the separate tickets, make sure you validate them in the machine, which is either next to the driver, or further back in the bus if its one of the new ones. Press the button by your seats to let the driver know that you want to get off at the next stop.
Top Tips for taking kids to Nice
We found food to be a bit of an issue in Nice. The cafes are very expensive, with even a starter costing up to €20 and a small beer can cost €5. There are limited vegetarian options and the kids menus tend to have few choices. My son chose kids steak well done for one meal and wasn’t impressed to receive barely cooked mincemeat. We ended up making use of the multitude of excellent supermarkets instead of eating out, as it’s a lot of money to risk on a meal if you’re not sure that the kids will actually eat it. The supermarkets have a great selection of fresh fruit and vegetables.
There are limited snack places available compared to the UK, so it’s a good idea to take food with you when you do day trips as it can be hard to find places that are affordable and that everyone is happy with, as nothing makes kids more miserable than being hungry and it can ruin a days sightseeing. None of the museums had cafes and there don't seem to be many places where you can just pick up a quick sandwich.
Although we did't see many people walking dogs, there was certainly a lot of evidence of them on the pavements. Unfortunately this does mean that looking down as you walk is a good idea.
Pedestrian crossings have their own red/green lights so you can't just step out on to one and know that the traffic will stop as you would in the UK. This is definitely something to forewarn the children about.
Nice Cote d'Azur Airport
If you get a choice, sit on left hand side of plane on arrival to get best views as you land as Nice is meant to be the second best airport in Europe for views.
Although there is an airport bus to and from Nice, use a private transfer if you can, as the pavements aren't ideal for dragging your wheeled suitcases along, especially if they are heavy.
I found that the online information for a lot of the sites was very limited, vague and often inaccurate in terms of opening hours, days that a site is closed and prices. In several places we found that the information available at a museum was entirely different to what we had just been reading on their official website. Bear this in mind when researching your itinerary!
As our stay was in April before the hot weather had really started, we only visited a couple of beaches. Nice beach is mostly pebbly but is huge and had various bars setting up for the summer - I can imagine it is very popular in peak season. It did have some excellent pebble hills to climb that kept my son entertained. We also spent some time on the beach at Beaulieu-sur-Mer which is a sandy beach with excellent views and again, a bar was being setting up for the summer season. That would probably be the one I would spend time at when the weather was hot enough for a day at the beach.
Listen out for the traditional Noon Day canon if you are around the castle or in the Old Town and warn your children what to expect if you are very close by. It's a peculiar tradition originating from 1861 when an Englishman living in Nice was getting fed up with his wife's tardiness in producing his lunch on time, so he got permission to sound off a canon at noon every day to remind her. When they left Nice, the locals were so used to it that it was reinstated and is now a fixed occurrence, (although it is now a firework instead of a canon) and takes place every day except for Bastille Day.