NICE, France — Fair warning: Spend all the hours you want gazing over the red-tiled roofs of Old Nice, but it’s highly unlikely a Cary Grant look-alike will come scrambling over the chimney pots as in the scene from “To Catch a Thief,” which was set on the Riviera.
Not to worry. There are plenty of other diversions in Vieux Nice, from strolling its narrow streets to shopping the famous flower market or dipping a toe in the Mediterranean, just steps away.
Set on the azure crescent of the Bay of Angels, Nice is the second-largest city in Provence after Marseille and easily accessible. Its international airport offers direct flights from the U.S. or connecting flights through Paris. Getting around is quite easy, too, with tramway and bus systems as well as regional trains serving the coast.
Old Nice, the historic part of the city, is a maze of alleys and small squares in a roughly triangular shape bordered by the sea, a hill that once was home to a castle and Boulevard Jean Jaures. It’s near the Opera or Cathedral-Vieille Ville tram station and offers a few lodging options, including Hotel Beau Rivage and Hotel Suisse.
A few caveats. Old Nice is not without crime, especially at night, so watch your valuables and be careful, especially if you’re alone. The weather is generally mild year-round, but the best beach days are in summer, and the biggest crowds are in August, when the French and other Europeans take their holiday. The Nice Jazz Festival takes place each July (this year, it’s set for July 8 through 12) and for winter fun, Carnival unfolds in February, ending on Mardi Gras with parades and “flower battles” in which costumed characters on floats throw flowers into the crowd.
Notable residents have included Henri Matisse and F. Scott Fitzgerald; Angelina Jolie gave birth to her twins in a Nice hospital in 2008. But the local celebrity factor is really amped up each spring during the annual film festival in the once-sleepy fishing village of Cannes, about 15 miles southwest of Nice (this year through May 27). You need credentials to get into the official events, but you can get a taste of the bustling festival by walking along the Croisette, the street that runs next to the beach and is packed with upscale hotels, shopping and cafes.
Eavesdrop on suited executives traveling in pairs and talking distribution deals in New York accents, watch the harassed “gendarmes” as they try to bring order to traffic, and look on as local photographers make like paparazzi and shoot passers-by. Don’t be too flattered if they take your picture; a sales pitch for the photo is the usual follow-up.
Festivals aside, there’s plenty to do in Old Nice year-round. Start in the Cours Saleya, a pedestrian zone that runs parallel to the Quai des Etats-Unis on the waterfront. This is where the famous flower market is held (daily, except Mondays) and is also a good place to put together a picnic of bread, cheese, olives and wine from various stalls and shops.
One place to enjoy your spread is the Colline du Chateau (Castle Hill) above Old Nice. There’s no chateau, but there are ruins, green spaces and a fabulous panoramic view of Nice and the curving sweep of the waterfront. Depending on how enthusiastically you’ve been going at the local cuisine, you could walk up the 200-plus steps. Or you could just take the elevator. Monuments in the nearby cemetery tell the stories of residents long gone.
Options for a sit-down meal in Old Nice range from casual cafes, such as Cave de la Tour, to restaurants such as Le Bistro Gourmand, which won a Michelin star only a year after opening.
As you wander the city, you’ll find buildings in pastel yellow, ocher and pink in the Old Town, most of them hundreds of years old. Take a walk on the Promenade des Anglais, a seaside pathway that got its name in the 19th century from British tourists who would come for wintertime visits on the advice of their doctors to escape the English cold. The walkway stretches for miles, lined with hotels and cafes. You also can rent a chaise lounge and umbrella at one of the private beaches along the promenade.
Back in Vieux Nice, perhaps the best way to appreciate the timeless glamour of the town is to find your way to high ground and enjoy a cocktail or a glass of the local Provencal pale pink rose wine. Just across from Old Nice is the Clarion Grand Hotel Aston, with its Seven Blue Bar boasting views of the city and the sea beyond. Sit, sip and relax as the sky softly glows orange, rose and lavender above ruddy red roofs
Who needs Cary?