Whether you fancy roaming through Nice’s archaeological Roman remains, ambling through historical artefacts from the Belle Époque period of French history or hunting down Niki de Saint Phalle’s Shooting Paintings from the 1970s, Nice has a staggering range of museums to discover.
Nice’s museums cater mostly to art lovers, with a multitude of museums that house everything from classic 15th-century paintings, right through to Pop art from the 1960s. Whatever your taste, Nice offers an opportunity to see art in sublime settings – in grand villas perched high on hills overlooking the town or in state-of-the-art buildings with a roof terrace to die for. It’s as easy to find work by the well-known masters (a gouache painting by Henri Matisse, Marc Chagall’s stained glass windows or an Andy Warhol, perhaps) in Nice as it is to delve into ornate carvings and mosaics from the 19th century.
Henri Matisse is one of the most iconic French painters and this museum in Nice offers the chance to get to know both the artist and his work. The sumptuous 17th-century villa in which the collection is housed was Matisse’s home from 1917 to his death in 1954 and affords an intimate look at the painter’s life. Villa des Arènes includes a number of Matisse’s personal objects, such as his furniture. The museum houses many of his early paintings as well as his later sketches, plus numerous engravings and sculptures offering a chronological perspective on how the artist’s work developed over the years. The Musée Matisse is in the leafy residential neighbourhood of Cimiez, which was the site of a Roman encampment called Cemenelum as well as the magnificent Cimiez Monastery, which is where Matisse was buried.
Built in 1898 on the famous Promenade des Anglais as a winter residence for the flamboyant aristocrat Victor Masséna, the Musée Massena offers an interesting insight into late-19th-century life for the French nobility. The former house now belongs to the city, having been donated to Nice by Victor Masséna’s son upon his father’s death, on condition that it was preserved as a local museum. The museum was heavily restored in 2008 and holds many ornate carvings and paintings from the Belle Époque period and its collection includes one of many copies of Napoleon’s death mask.
The Musée National Marc Chagall in Nice is a must-visit for any Chagall enthusiast. The museum holds the largest collection of Chagall’s work in the world and features a delightful range of artworks, from practice sketches to enormous paintings. Perhaps most importantly, the museum features The Bible Illustrations, a series of striking paintings inspired by crucial events from the Old Testament and which reflect Chagall’s own Jewish heritage. The museum is the perfect place for visitors to enjoy a spiritual and religious ride through Chagall’s extraordinary paintings, and the stained glasses and sculptures for which he is best known. The artworks on display depict religious characters and scenes which Chagall developed for The Bible Illustrations series after spending time immersing himself in the Holy Land of Israel in the 1930s and later, studying Rembrandt’s biblical paintings in Amsterdam between the wars.
Built in 1878 for Ukrainian Royal Princess Kotchoubey, the Musée des Beaux-Arts is situated in an Italianate villa, which will leave you breathless both because of its divine architecture and because of the steep uphill climb needed to reach it from the centre of Nice. Get your breath back wandering through the museum, which houses an impressive and expansive collection of art spanning from the 15th to the 20th century, featuring everything from French and Italian classics, through to post-Impressionist paintings. The artwork is so varied that the Musée des Beaux-Arts has been the target of various heists throughout the years – the last one was in 2007, when thieves made off with four paintings: Monet’s Cliffs near Dieppe (Falaises près de Dieppe); Sisley’s The Lane of Poplars at Moret sur Loing; and Brueghel’s Allegory of Water and Allegory of Earth. All of the paintings were later recovered in Marseille and the FBI Art Crimes department hunted down the five-man team responsible.
The MAMAC is dedicated to modern American and European art from the 1960s and beyond, including Pop art and New Realist work. There are over 1,300 pieces of art on display here, including work by renowned Pop artist Andy Warhol. The first permanent exhibition displays a series of plain blue canvases by Yves Klein, which are part of his monochrome works from the 1960s, and which represent his utopian vision of the immateriality and boundlessness of society. The other permanent exhibition is by Niki de Saint Phalle showing a spectacular series of Shooting Paintings completed in the 1970s where she literally took aim at social injustice by firing paint onto her canvases. She said that “by firing the gun myself, I was taking aim at society and its injustice” (“en tirant sur moi, je tirais sur la société et ses injustices”). The gallery also holds a number of temporary exhibitions on painters like conceptual artist Bernar Venet or contemporary dance photographers from New York in the 1970s. After immersing yourself in the art, head to the roof terrace, which offers wonderful panoramic views of the city.
The Romans founded an encampment called Cemenelum in the first century AD as a staging post for their army’s movements in the region in what is now the neighbourhood of Cimiez, a residential area on the hill above Nice’s town centre. The encampment’s remains have been incorporated into the Musée Archéologique de Nice-Cimiez, which celebrates this history by providing a delightful overview of Roman life at the exact spot where the amphitheatre and Roman baths used to stand. The remains are nowhere near as preserved as in other parts of Provence, such as in Arles or Nîmes, but that’s essentially its joy – visitors are free to roam over the ancient stones imagining themselves as Roman gladiators. This site is linked to a sister museum, Musée de Paléontologie Humaine de Terra Amata, which is located in the centre of Nice and which explores Nice’s older inhabitants, the Homo erectus Niçois, or prehistoric man from over 400,000 years ago. The ticket covers admission for both.