How much of a city can you see in five hours? That was the challenge my boyfriend and I faced in Nice, France during our recent trip to Europe. Our train arrived on a Sunday at 10.30pm and we were leaving 2pm the next day. Allowing for hotel check-in, a decent night’s sleep and returning to the train station, we had a blank canvas from 8am to 1pm. I wanted to see all the attractions I could!
Nice is the capital of the French Riviera, just 30 kilometres (18 miles) from the Italian border and about 900km (560mi) south-east of Paris. It has a long history of being a tourist centre, thanks to its mild climate and ideal location between the Mediterranean Sea and mountains. Many of today’s attractions, such as Promenade des Anglais, were actually built in the 19th Century to cater for aristocratic visitors.
Working against us was the fact we were visiting on May 8, when the French observe Victory in Europe Day. This holiday marks the end of World War II in Europe and there are formalities across the country. We’d been warned at our previous stop in Beaune that some businesses would be closed, along with government agencies and services like the post office. I was still determined to make the most of our short stay!
Here’s what we did:
first stop: 9am – Castle Hill
I set an alarm for 8am, skipped a shower and threw on my gym gear to head to Castle Hill, one of Nice’s top attractions. This was the city’s original site until King Louis XIV ordered soldiers to dismantle the castle in 1706.
Castle Hill Park, or Parc du Chateau, opens at 8.30am and it was 30 minutes walk from our hotel. We went via the winding streets of Nice’s Old City Vieille Ville before going up several sets of stairs in what seemed to be a residential area. There was no signage so it was almost a surprise when we reached a small, rear entrance to the park. It was only marked by a gate and had a list of rules fixed to it. There were more stairs beyond the gate but they only took us a few minutes.
The air was fresh and the sky was cloudy but we had the place almost to ourselves. We followed a main path, which had signs pointing to attractions and facilities. After walking for 10 minutes or so, we could hear water! We followed our ears and discovered an impressive man-made waterfall. We continued walking one viewing platform, took some photos, then went to another. The views were such a reward for our (relatively) early wake up!
You get glimpses of the city and sea from the park, so it’s easy explore without a map. While our itinerary didn’t allow for a picnic, you could easily enjoy a coffee or bring lunch here as there were lots of benches with panoramic views. Entry was free too!
How to get there
Put Hotel Süisse (15 Quai Rauba Capeu) into Google Maps as the park’s main entrance is right next to its front door. After five or so sets of steps, you’ll be directly at the park’s main viewing area. There were plenty of fitness enthusiasts going up and down the stairs and we even saw some extreme mountain bikers, but you’ll be fine in flat shoes and jeans.
Alternatively, you can take a rear entrance via some winding staircases near Montée Menica to reach Allée François Aragon. A few times we thought we were reaching a dead end or entering someone’s backyard, but we reached the park by following our instincts – it’s hard to miss the city’s biggest hill. This route worked well for our city loop.
Hours: 8.30am – 8pm April to September (6pm October to March) | http://en.nicetourisme.com
9.30am – Beachfront
There was no time for a swim and it was a cool 12°C (53 °F), but seeing Nice’s beachfront was awesome! We descended Castle Hill’s main staircase and reached the waterfront near a giant #ILoveNice sculpture. I actually saw one man snorkelling, despite the temperature! We took a short stroll among the runners, dog walkers and tourists before moving on. If you had more time, you could continue to the famous Promenade des Anglais.
10am – Breakfast
We’d skipped breakfast so by this time, I was ready for some food! I’d spotted Paper Plane cafe on Yelp the day before so we went there from the beachfront (about 15 minutes walk). Unfortunately, it was closed because of the holiday. It was also starting to rain. We grabbed a quick coffee and Earl Grey at a nearby bistro instead and adjusted our plans. We would need to get lunch before that 2pm train!
10.30am – Hotel check-out
It was time to return to our hotel near Nice’s main train station Gare de Nice Ville, shower and check-out before 12pm. Thankfully we could store our bags at reception, giving us a few extra hours to explore the city without luggage. Full accommodation details are under ‘Where to Stay’ below.
11.30am – Avenue Jean Médecin
Our hotel was close to Avenue Jean Médecin, which is one of Nice’s main north-to-south thoroughfares. It’s lined with shops and cafes and despite the holiday, most places were open and there were lots of people out. We made a quick but necessary stop at Monoprix grocery store for some healthy train snacks. I grabbed a French lentil salad, my boyfriend got a pre-made chicken poulet wrap and fruit. The pastry selection was impressive, and there were savoury tarts too. You could skip this part of Nice sightseeing, unless you’re catching a train that afternoon too!
12pm – Lunch
We saw plenty of cafes along Avenue Jean Médecin but time was limited and the French don’t rush mealtimes. We’d been in serious Bourgogne meat, cheese and bread territory for three days and were craving something fresh. I spotted a few tables of people eating big salads at So Green (11 Place Masséna), so we went inside. Choose your salad base, choose your toppings and add your sauces – I went crazy over the variety! Chick peas, raisins, sundried tomatoes, beetroot, sesame seeds, chilli flakes and rocket. Lunch was around €35 for two with sparkling water, but it was exactly what we wanted. The 20 minute break in the sunshine was a welcome bonus.
12.30pm – Place Masséna
We could squeeze in one last attraction before our 2pm train. While there wasn’t much to see in the centre of Place Masséna apart from a fountain, I was glad we could tick off another landmark. Grabbing lunch nearby and people watching was the right was to appreciate the area. But our time was up. We reluctantly returned to our hotel, collected our luggage and walked to the station for our train to Italy. We’d been in Nice just 15 hours but had seen a lot!
If we’d had a few more hours, I would’ve loved to have walked along Promenade de Anglais and looked at the shops around Place Masséna. Nice also boasts a lot of museums, including Musée Matisse (dedicated to 20th century painter Henri Matisse), and the Museum of Contemporary and Modern Art (Musee d’Art Moderne et d’Art Contemporain) or MAMAC. A beachfront dinner would’ve been nice too – but there’s always next time!
We travelled to Nice by train from Beaune, Burgundy (€62, first class). The direct journey was a pleasant, six hours on SNCF. We used the excellent website Loco2.com to book all our train travel before leaving Australia. If you’d rather fly, Nice is well serviced by air. A direct flight from London takes about 2 hours or its 1.5 hours from Paris. Nice Cote d’Azur Airport is 7km from downtown.
Where to stay
There’s a cluster of hotels near Nice Ville train station, including our choice Ibis Centre Notre Dame (41 Rue Lamartine). It was clean, modern and basic but good value for one night (€67). The location was ideal, as it was just five minutes walk from the train station and 20 minutes or so from the beachfront. Next time I’m in Nice, l’d stay by the sea for the views or Place Masséna for its centrality.
If you’re looking to add on to your Nice vacation, head north to Beaune, the wine capital of Burgundy or venture across the border to Italy’s Cinque Terre (my guide is coming soon!).
Seeing a city in five hours isn’t ideal, but when life gives you a layover… make travel lemonade! Our brief visit gave us a taste of the French Riviera, which is starkly different to the forest and villages of central France. I’d love to return to Nice and spend a few days by the beachfront, going for a morning run, having a leisurely lunch and spending my afternoons at museums and shopping malls before romantic evening meals. Merci pour un petit mais gentilé visite Nice!
QUESTION: Where’s your favourite part of France?