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Since the French Riviera first rose to prominence in the mid 1800’s, when European aristocracy really started frequenting the area en-masse, Nice’s fortunes have always seemed to be on the upswing. As the de-facto capital of this naturally-blessed region, it offers the practical amenities and big city comforts many sun seeking visitors are looking for. Its seaside promenade is especially popular, and is the place to see and be seen along this stretch of coast. Due to the natural beauty and very agreeable climate, the stretch of coast around Nice has long attracted artists, and the city is fortunate to host many museums featuring the work of Marc Chagall and many others.
When first thinking of Nice, most visitors’ minds immediately turn to its stately seaside thoroughfare, the Promenade des Anglais. The most exclusive hotels in the city, and some of the best in France, line this boulevard, named for its popularity among 19th century English visitors. Today, travellers from far and wide flock to the walkway explore and perhaps work on their tan in one of its exclusive private beach clubs. Though the natural beach itself consists mostly of pebbles, some private clubs truck sand in and create exclusive enclaves that cater to those looking to enjoy the sun and sea in a deckchair with waiters at the ready to replenish drinks as needed. Today, the street retains its English name but is very much at the centre of the city’s local culture. Most of the city’s big parades and celebrations take place somewhere along its course. The promenade is quite long, so those who want to take it all in, and feel the sea air in their face, might consider renting a bike from one of the many bike shops along the way.
It was not only the English aristocracy that was attracted to this unique and attractive part of the world, but leading artists of various movements and periods as well, including Matisse and Chagall. It is said by those who spend a lot of time on the Riviera that there is a particular quality to the light there which really adds character to landscapes and inspires artists to new heights by allowing them, quite literally, to see things in a new light. Nice is fortunate to have benefited from this influx of great artists and contains a wealth of art galleries and individual pieces that place it second in France only to Paris in the quality of its art galleries and museums. The Picasso Museum is in nearby Antibes and can easily be reached in a day trip from Nice. No change of hotel required. It is housed in a seaside castle where Picasso had his studio, and features an excellent collection of his works, including paintings, sketches and sculptures. Back in Nice itself, the two big art museums are dedicated to Marc Chagall and Henri Matisse respectively. The Chagall Museum is housed in a modernist building and displays the full collection of his paintings depicting biblical scenes. The Matisse Museum is a more traditional gallery and features a very comprehensive collection of Matisse’s paintings, arguably the most comprehensive on permanent display to found anywhere in the world.
Eventually, some visitors tire of the sun, sea and sand along the Promenades des Anglais and yearn for a more traditional environment away from the aroma of sunscreen and the goings-on of the fashionable set. A great option for these visitors is to head to Nice’s Old Town. It consists of a warren of narrow streets and alleyways that have changed little, at least in layout, since they were set out in the 1700’s. Visitors will find a number of practical amenities such as cafes and hotels in the area. The area also has its share of historical places of interest, including the Saint Reparate Cathedral. This grand baroque property honours the city’s patron saint and has an especially exquisite interior. For a unique local experience, visitors can head to the fish market on Place St. Francois and observe chefs purchasing what may later become their dinner. In fact, this area has some of the city’s best restaurants, with seafood naturally featuring prominently on the menus. Aside from the well known Salade Nicoise, visitors might also try the Soupe de Poisson, a dish far more interesting and tasty than would be suggested simply by its English translation, “Fish Soup”.