48 Hours In: Nice

Now is the time to soak up the sun in this vibrant city on the French Riviera, but beyond the beach there is art, food – and bicycles to enjoy too
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Why go now?

"It is hot, the sun is shining, the windows of my bedroom are wide open – and those of my soul" wrote Chekhov when in Nice. August is the month for maximum warmth and exuberance, partly due to a recently thriving gay scene in the country's fifth-largest city.

Touch down

One of the many joys of Nice is how easy it is to get there, with direct flights from all London airports in around two hours as well as many direct flights from regional airports. Aer Lingus (0870 876 5000; aerlingus.com) has very keen fares from Gatwick. British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) flies from Heathrow and City airport; easyJet (0905 821 0905; easyjet.com) flies from Stansted, Luton, Gatwick, Liverpool, Bristol, East Midlands and Newcastle. Nice airport pokes out into the Med, handily on the edge of the city. Express bus 98 runs every 20 minutes from just outside the arrival hall into key points in central Nice, terminating at the station (1) and costing €4, which includes all other bus journeys in the city that day.

Taxis are a luxury bordering on fraud for tourists and to be avoided. For example, the relatively short run into the city centre from the airport costs around €35.

Get your bearings

Coming out of the airport, you'll head towards Nice along the palm-lined Promenade des Anglais, with the sparkling Baie des Anges (Bay of Angels) on your right towards the south and the city arching round the bay on your left to the north. This main coastal road was built in the 19th century, apparently bankrolled by the British expatriate community so they would have somewhere to take their afternoon strolls. The road eventually makes an Anglo-American switch to become the Quai des Etats-Unis, and takes you as far as the Colline du Château (2) at the top end of the bay. It was at the base of this hill that the ancient Greeks set up a trading post in the 4th century BC called Nikaïa (meaning "victory", as in Nike) and Nice was founded; take the lift for €0.90 or, via the Old Town, climb the 90m to the top to see the city sprawled out before you and, in the distance, Elton John's villa.

The harbour area is just to the east of the Colline du Château; the heart of the city, Vieux-Nice (the Old Town) is just to the west. The newer quarters spread west from here, with Place Massena (3) the pivot betweeen old and new. To the north, looking down over the city, are the villas and former grand hotels of the well-to-do suburb of Cimiez. The main tourist office (4) is at 5 Promenade des Anglais (00 33 892 707 407; nicetourisme.com) and opens 8am-8pm daily (9am-7pm on Sundays).

Check-in

The grande-dame of Nice hotels has to be the Hotel Negresco (5) at 37 Promenade des Anglais (00 33 4 93 16 64 00; hotel-negresco-nice.com), said to be the last privately-owned luxury hotel in France. Not many hotels can boast chandeliers designed by Gustave Eiffel, mink bedspreads in every room or a portrait of Louis XIV, whose only counterparts are in the Louvre and the Palace of Versailles. Its best claim, though, is that the pink domes of its grand façade were modelled on the chest of the Folies Bergère dancer and famous courtesan, La Belle Otero. Standard doubles start at €297 a night, including breakfast. If that is not quite to your taste, La Pérouse (6) has the best position in town, tucked under the Colline du Château at 11, quai Rauba-Capeu (00 33 4 9362 34 63; hotel-la-perouse.com), with spectacular views over the bay on the Quai Rauba Capeu. It has a dramatic open-air pool on the roof right up against the sheer rock face of the hill – redolent of the Amalfi coast, only slightly cheaper, with doubles from €195, room only.

Alternatively, the charming Hotel Villa Rivoli (7), minutes from the seafront at 10 rue de Rivoli (00 33 4 93 88 80 25; villa-rivoli.com), has double rooms starting from just €62. This Belle Epoque building, dating from 1890, has recently been completely renovated, with each room unique and a sun-trap of a garden courtyard in which to breakfast (buffet €8.50 per person extra).

Take a hike

Start in the harbour. Admire the buildings around the port decked out in their Ligurian shades: ochre, Sardinian red, yellow and pink with the standard faded blue and green shutters. The visiting superyachts dwarf the local fishermen's boats, called les pointus due to their, well, pointed shape. From here wind around the seafront past the war memorial (8) carved in stone overlooking the sea. Continue past the Hotel Pérouse (6) and briefly along the Quai des Etats-Unis, dodging the joggers and roller-bladers to cross through the Cours Saleya (9) into the Old Town; on Mondays an antiques market takes place here. Walk up the cool and shaded Rue Droite, lined with art galleries.

Pop into the Palais Lascaris (10) at 15 Rue Droite (00 33 4 93 62 72 40, free entry, open 10am-1pm and 2-6pm daily except Tuesdays) to see how the Niçoise used to live. Explore the labyrinth of narrow streets to make your way back to the Cours Saleya to absorb the colour and smells of the flower and fruit market, which operates daily except Monday.

Lunch on the run

While you're on your walk through the Old Town, grab a pan bagnat (literally "bathed bread") – a salade Niçoise stuffed in a bun doused in olive oil. Otherwise, there is pissaladière which is an onion tart pizza topped with olives and anchovies – like Nice itself, a bit of an Italian and French mix. Sitting almost next door to Italy and at one point in its history under the control of Sardinia, a big Italian influence in Nice is natural and it's particularly tangible in its cuisine.

The speciality snack of Nice, though, is socca, a rather tasteless chickpea pancake covered in pepper. Go to Chez Thérèsa's stand in the Cours Saleya (9) where a motorcyclist delivers it fresh from the oven to be sliced by the formidable Thérèsa.

Window shopping

Some quirky finds can be made in the flea market, Les Puces de Nice (11), in the harbour area at place Robilante, Vieux Port; it opens 10am-5pm from Tuesday to Saturday. For gifts, stroll along the Rue St-François-de-Paule (12), where you'll find the parfumiers Molinard at nu 20; the olive emporium Alziari at 14 and opposite the beautiful gilded 19th-century confectioner Auer, which hand makes its candied fruits. Founded in 1820, it has kept its original floor tiles and stained glass.

An aperitif

To enjoy a sublime view of Nice at the end of the day, treat yourself to a cocktail on the roof of Le Meridien Hotel (13) at 1 Promenade Des Anglais (00 33 4 97 03 44 44; lemeridiennice.com).

Dining with the locals

La Zucca Magica (14) at 4 Quai Papacino (00 33 4 93 56 25 27) is a good example of the fine Italian food that can be found in the city – and €29 buys a seven-course dinner. The restaurant serves only eggs, dairy, and seasonal vegetables. Dishes include cannellini beans served with rocket and pastry; stuffed peppers with olives; ravioli with ricotta; goat's cheese with pearl barley; and tomato and lemon zest. Finish with crème brulée ice-cream with apricot and rhubarb strudel.

Sunday morning: Go to church

The 17th-century Sainte-Réparate (15) in Nice's prettiest square, Place Rossetti (00 33 4 93 92 01 35), is the city's impressive, if rather gloomy, cathedral. For a church with more character visit L'Eglise du Jésus (10), a tiny Jesuit-built church in the place du Gésu that is a masterpiece of Baroque architecture .

Out to brunch

It's not really very French to do brunch, but there are a number of cafés around the Old Town to watch the world go by, grab a mid morning pastry, including Le Pain Quotidien at 1 rue St-François-de-Paule (12) (00 33 4 93 62 94 32). For additional energy, grab an ice-cream from Fenocchio's (16) at 2 Place Rossetti (00 33 4 93 80 72 52; fenocchio.fr), which has almost 100 flavours. Try pink pepper vanilla or chewing gum or mint chocolate sorbet.

Take a ride

Following the example of Paris and other French cities, this summer Nice has installed almost 1,000 bikes to rent around various points in the city. The first half hour is free, the second half hour costs €1 and every additional hour thereafter is priced at €2. Call 00 33 4 30 00 30 01 or visit velobleu.org to subscribe to the rental scheme.

Cultural afternoon

Ride a bike or take bus 22 up the hill to Cimiez to visit the Musée Matisse (17), housed in a grandiose 18th-century Genoese villa at 164 Avenue des Arènes de Cimiez (00 33 4 93 81 08 08; musee-matisse-nice.org). Inspired by the mineral light of the Côte d'Azur, artists have flocked to Nice from all over the world, including Matisse – who lived nearby at the Hotel Regina – and Chagall. Painted in red and decorated with trompe-l'oeil, the villa stands amongst gardens of cypress and pine trees that rattle with the noise of cicadas at midday. It opens 10am-6pm daily except Tuesdays; admission €4. The museum is home to a great number of Matisse's paintings and paper cuttings, including Blue Nude (IV), as well as pencil drawings and sculptures. Until 27 September, there is a temporary exhibition of which explores the influence of Rodin on Matisse's work.

Just down the hill, set in lavender-scented grounds, is the minimalist Musée National Message Biblique Marc Chagall (18) on avenue du Dr Menard (00 33 4 93 53 87 20; musee-chagall.fr). It was purpose built to display Chagall's work by Le Corbusier's collaborator André Hermant and was opened by Chagall himself in 1972. Highlights include his huge vibrant canvases of vivid blue, red and yellow depicting Chagall's interpretation of the Old Testament, a mosaic of astrological signs and deep blue stained glass windows in the museum's amphitheatre. It opens 10am-6pm daily (from November-April until 5pm, closed Tuesdays), admission €9.50.

The icing on the cake

Treat yourself to a brief sojourn on one of Nice's private beaches. The best is, without doubt, the sheltered spot at the far eastern point of the beach: the Castel Plage (19), billed as "a beautiful beach for beautiful people" at 8 Quai des Etats-Unis (00 33 4 93 85 22 66; castelplage.com; open 8.30am-8pm daily). Pay €10 for half a day on a cushioned lounger and enjoy the attentions of the impeccable staff. With drink in hand, lie down and soak up the sunshine. It's going to be another long winter.

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