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The south of France is not known as a cheap destination but you can manage to experience Nice on a budget and live well. There are places to go and eat that won’t break the bank and remember, the views are (normally, but not always) free.
Once you’re in Nice, you can walk most places or take the bus to nearby villages (it’s cheaper than the train in most cases). Local French buses are always less expensive if you buy a book of tickets (in multiples of 10, usually) but they won’t always give you this information; you’ll need to ask. It’s worth doing and will save a few euros.
If you arrive at the International Terminal, the cheapest way into town is to take the bus (6€) but it’s even cheaper if you take the free shuttle over to the domestic terminal and get a local bus into town (1.5€).
The tram makes travel around town fun and cheap. Buy a ticket for 1€ to get to your destination and you can hop on and off different lines for 74 minutes before the ticket becomes invalid (so long as it’s in the same direction).
Breakfast like a local
France isn’t big into breakfast, and if you go looking for eggs or something else cooked, it will eat into your time, budget and patience (the French don’t usually do cooked before 11am). Go local and find a café/bar in a cool spot. If they have standing tables, they will be cheaper, as you won’t be charged for service (and ironically, the service will be much faster). If it’s a bar and they don’t do food in the morning, most places will let you eat croissants from the local bakery, no problem. It’s every French person’s right to have an inexpensive coffee, so “un café” always means a black espresso and it will normally be about 1€. The cost starts to escalate when you want any kind of milk added, no matter the quantity.
Discover the fresh markets
Everyone’s idea of “being on a budget” is different but France is known for its great market produce and everyone wants a fresh baguette and local cheese and tomatoes at some point during their stay. If you want to make the budget stretch, buy lots of snackable things that you can put together into sandwiches yourself. Make sure you buy lots of fresh fruit to eat in the mornings until lunchtime.
Nice’s Flower Market (marché aux fleurs) on the Cours Saleya is well loved by tourists for its traditional awnings and central location but it can also be a tourist price trap (you’ll often find you pay more than the French, until market sellers get to know you). Head to the Marché de la Liberation instead. It’s much cheaper and the fish stalls are great value.
Socca is a chickpea pancake, particular to the region, and you’ll find one for about 3€ at the markets and around Le Vieux Port (the Old Port). It’s filling and probably a better alternative to fast food (which incidentally isn’t as cheap as in other countries. The famous McDonald’s meal might come with mayonnaise here but it costs the equivalent of a good local bar lunch).
Find a poulet rôti
If you’re a meat eater, at various points around town you’ll find stands full of roasted chickens (if you’re lucky, they might also have potatoes cooking underneath) which cost about 5€ and are a great way to fill up. Delicious, too. Eat them with fresh baguettes. Take your picnic to the nearest amazing square (there are lots to choose from) and dine like a king, al fresco.
Obviously the price will depend on when you go, so if you’re looking to economise on room rates, go off-season (November to April). At any time of the year, there are lots of inexpensive boutique hotels to stay that are wonderful (starting from around 50€ a night). If that’s too steep though, there are other alternatives.
The Meyerbeer Beach Hostel
The Meyerbeer is a common favourite among the hosteling crowd; clean and funky with a party vibe. Every room has its own bathroom, so no need to fear walking through the corridors in search of a toilet or standing in long lines for showers. The location is ideal (just off the Promenade des Anglais), there’s a communal kitchen to cook the yummy things you buy in the market and there’s free internet access in the lobby. Rooms start at around 40€ but shared dormitory bunks (in mixed rooms of four, eight or 16) can be found for 20€.
15 rue Meyerbeer, Nice +33 (0)4 93 88 95 65
La Maioun Guesthouse
La Maioun is situated centrally, just off the Coulée Verte. It might be small (12 beds in two dorms of six) but it’s clean, friendly and has everything you need to explore the town. Breakfast is included and tea/coffee are free. Beds start at 20€.
50 Rue Gioffredo, Nice + 33 (0)6 51 38 15 81 (book direct)
Visit (most of) the museums for 10€
Nice has a wealth of art, ranging from the 15th century to the 20th, from the old masters to impressionist wonders. A €10 ticket will allow unlimited admission into many of the museums over a 24-hour period. (A €24 ticket will do the same over a seven-day period). The pass includes the MAMAC (Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art), the Matisse museum, the Beaux-Arts and the Musée Masséna, as well as several smaller museums around the town.
Wander the streets
Cities are meant to be walked but unlike some, Nice has ideal temperatures, great places to stroll and wonderful sea views. They don’t cost a thing. Amble around the Roman area of Cimiez, hike up Castle Hill (the highest point in Nice) or just sit and chill in one of the main squares in town. The Place du Palais de Justice is a good start, where you can watch the buskers, the skaters or just read a book over a coffee.
Use a public beach
The sun is fierce in the south of France and while it might be common not to wear much on the beach, remember your lotion, a very big hat (à la Brigitte Bardot) and if possible, a travel umbrella (if you’re planning extensive beach time). Don’t become a cheap gag from the Noel Coward song (“only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun”) and get under the shade, or the rest of your trip will be ruined with sunburn, not to mention the longer term damage.
There are public beaches dotted in among the private ones along the Promenade des Anglais. Stay here or walk 20 minutes east, out of town (or take the bus) to La Réserve or Coco Beach. Both are beloved by locals and “in the know” tourists. They offer a little more of a remote, natural experience (they may still be busy though). A picnic is essential. If you don’t mind taking the bus, Villefranche-sur-Mer has an almost sandy beach (the shingle is smaller).