Many visitors don’t realise that, until the 1920s, the French Riviera was exclusively a winter-time resort, with royals, artists and celebrities drawn here by the clarity of light, the gentle winter climate, and the mesmerising views of the snow-clad Alps and the sparkling winter sea.
Holiday fashions may change but the winter scenery, bustling city life and the lack of crowds still make Nice the perfect place for an enchanting winter getaway. If you want to be in the centre of the action, baking on the beach and dancing under the palms until dawn, then yes, obviously visit the French Riviera in summer – nothing else will do. But if you’re hoping for an entrancing experience of local French life and spectacular Cote d’Azur scenery, then you’ll almost certainly find winter in Nice rather glorious.
Nice hosts spectacular Carnival celebrations each year. In 2019, they will be dedicated to the world of cinema coinciding with the 100th anniversary of the iconic Studios de la Victorine where Brigitte Bardot, François Truffaut, Hitchcock and Jacques Tati filmed some of their hits. Dates are dependent on Easter, but 2019 sees Carnival fall from February 16th to March 2nd. In addition to the Flower Parades and the Parade of Lights, there is an 'Off-Carnival' programme which features exhibitions, parties and themed events throughout the duration of the festival. The parades are ticketed, with prices starting at €5.
Enjoy the view
Nice has some wonderful sunny spots to soak up some warm winter rays, whether it’s a beach club, taking a pew on the promenade, sitting on a bench at Place Massena, or strolling along the public park of the Promenade du Paillon. Further up from the centre are the museums of Chagall and Matisse with their pretty gardens offering views down to the coast. The old town, Vieux Nice, offers many characterful cafes to while away the time, or take a wander through the colourful market Cours Saleya.
Indulge in some culture
Nice has more than 15 museums and public art galleries to explore, and all remain open during the winter (check for Monday or Tuesday closing though). The most popular ones are the Matisse and Chagall museums, where you can follow the artistic development of each artist in a dedicated space. There's also a modern and contemporary art museum (MAMAC) and a fine arts museum (Musee des Beaux Arts) as well as more specialist museums for Asian Arts, sports memorabilia, archaeology, natural history and photography.
The centre of Nice is filled with elegant architecture and Baroque-style palaces, so take a walk a couple of streets back from the promenade and admire the historical facades. The Russian Orthodox church should be on your list of buildings to see, as should the pink domes of the landmark promenade hotel, Le Negresco. Nice also has a famed Opera House, where productions of classic operas take place year round.
From fresh Provencal produce at the markets to chic jewellery boutiques and designer neighbourhoods, the shopping in Nice is wonderfully diverse. The main shopping strip can be found on Avenue Jean Medecin which runs through the city centre. The tram line goes straight down the middle so you can easily access it from end to end and, of course, there are always plenty of cafes and wine bars to punctuate your walk along. There are also several daily markets in Nice. The main outdoor market, Cours Saleya, is open every morning and is a fun place to experience traditional day-to-day shopping. Vegetables, fruit, freshly caught fish, oysters, paté and olives are all available and very fresh. A flower market and artisan stalls also form part of this area.
Enjoy the great outdoors
The winter is the perfect time to try some coastal walks, with the crowds long gone and no summer haze. They give you breathtaking views back across the bay to the snow-capped Alps, and the wintry sea has a crystal clear clarity that you’ll simply never see in the summer months. Plenty of walking trails will allow you to make the most of the views and coastline. Mont Boron lies just above the port of Nice and has very accessible walking paths through forests, including a 1.5km fitness trail with exercise stations. If you want to explore further, the countryside around Nice is second to none with rolling hills, rivers, gorges, lavender fields and rows of vines. A walk or cycle gives you the perfect opportunity to enjoy the wildflowers, colours and fragrances of the region.
Visit the perched villages
The marvellous perched villages of Provence-Alpes Maritimes are blessedly free of crowds in winter. This makes it a great time to visit, whether you’re exploring fabulous St Paul de Vence or enjoying the spectacular view from the cliffs of Eze. Many of the cafes and galleries are closed, of course, but those who have had to use their elbows to move through the summertime throng would probably argue that this is a very reasonable sacrifice to make.
Nice is one of the few places in the world where you can wake up on a sunny winter’s day and drive 90 minutes to ski in the Alps, before driving back down to the coast to spend the afternoon lazing on the beach, looking back up at the mountains that you just skied down. Life doesn’t get much more wonderful than that. Try the main Cote d'Azur ski resorts of Auron, Isola 2000 or Valberg. You can take a bus from Nice during the ski season.