The south of France conjures up images of old world glamour and luxury. But yacht-owning Russian oligarchs, aging celebrities and wealthy retirees aside, Nice is largely a working class city and many of its restaurants and attractions cater to the roughly 345,000 residents who earn an average of 1,600 euros a month.
From free museums and affordable public transportation to fresh Mediterranean cuisine and sultry beaches, there is a plethora of inexpensive things to do in and around the city. In fact, with a bakery on nearly every corner and a number of vineyard regions nearby, some of the things that France is famous for – such as delicious wine and beautiful patisseries – cost less in Nice than practically anywhere else in the world. And southern France’s most sought after export – the laid back, sun drenched, lifestyle – does not cost a thing. Armed with such local secrets, it is absolutely possible to experience the best of the Côte d’Azur without draining your bank account.
Soak up the culture
Modern day Nice sits on what is thought to be some of the first evidence of human activity in Europe. The city’s free archaeological museum, in the upscale Cimiez neighbourhood, is situated in what was the Cemenelum – or the Roman capital of the region. Standouts of the museum are the preserved ruins of the Roman baths and amphitheatre dating back to the 3rd Century.
Also in Cimiez, found through a dense olive grove, is a 17th-century Genoese villa, which houses the Henri Matisse Museum. The collection, given to the city by the artist and his heirs, includes paintings, drawings, sculptures, photography and prints, most of which Matisse completed during the nearly four decades he spent in Nice. He lived nearby in the Hotel Regina (now a glamorous apartment building at 71 Boulevard Cimiez) from 1917 to 1954. Admission to the museum is free and the stunning setting alone merits a visit.
For more recent history, the modern art museum MAMAC, also free, has an impressive but manageable collection of works by everyone from Andy Warhol to Niki de Saint Phalle, and a whole room is dedicated to native son Yves Klein’s artworks in his famous deep blue hue. Centrally located on the edge of Place Garibaldi, the museum’s roof terrace – with its sweeping views of the ochre buildings and Mediterranean Sea below – is just as stunning as the things hanging on the walls.
If you are after glamour and sophistication, spend an evening at L’Opera de Nice, the opera house located in Vieux Nice, the city’s cobblestone Old Town. Drenched in red velvet with golden-hued frescoes on the ceiling, the sumptuous interior is a beautiful place to take in one of the ballets, operas and symphonies that grace the stage throughout the year. Upcoming shows include performances by the Nice Ballet; nosebleed seats start at just 8 euros.
Taste the Riviera
Tourist traps abound in Nice, especially along the touristy pedestrian streets of Cours Selaya and Rue de France, so it takes some sleuthing to find genuinely good restaurants that do not cost a fortune. The region’s traditional cuisine is more Mediterranean than French (think olive oil instead of butter and simple dishes using produce and fresh fish), so when in doubt, stick with understated eateries that specialise in Niçoise cooking. Soupe de poisson (seafood soup) served with garlic aioli, croutons and cheese is on most menus and you cannot go wrong with house made pastas or simply prepared fresh fish; also be sure to order the house wine.
Socca (a thin, flat, pancake made of chickpea flour) is the local specialty, and Renee Socca (2 Rue Miralheti; 93-92-05-73), a casual cafe in Vieux Nice, is the place to try it. To order your food, line up at the counter next to the brick oven and watch the huge round trays of piping hot socca being prepared. You must order a drink to sit at a table, but socca, served slightly crispy around the edges and sprinkled with salt, is best washed down with a beer or glass of chilled rosé anyway, so take a seat and enjoy a casual lunch or afternoon snack. A glass of house wine costs 1.80 euros and a steaming plate piled high with pieces of socca is three euros.