With Nice having been home to the pre-Neanderthal man as early as 200,000 BC, it comes as no surprise that the stunning European city is full of beguiling historical spectacles. From palaces once inhabited by French nobility, to mysterious grottos previously occupied by cave people, history lovers can be sure to find an enchanting site dating from every time period here. We’ve narrowed it down to the top 10 historic sites in town, areas which will make for a truly cultural day of exciting exploration in Nice.
Boasting the best views over the city and its coastline, a hike up to Castle Hill will please both history buffs and those looking to take some jaw-dropping photos. Atop 300 feet of stairs, the journey to the castle is not for the faint-hearted, though visitors will be rewarded with seeing the fascinating ruins dating back to the 16th century, once a fortified structure built into a rocky hillside to prevent attacks. Subject to a number of sieges including one by François I of France and his troops in 1543, the castle was eventually destroyed by order of Louise XIV in 1706. Now only some of its walls remain, and visitors can take a fascinating tour around the ruins and enjoy its views over the Bay of Angels. The castle is set within pristine park grounds which feature a beautiful waterfall, a great setting for some leisurely strolling just minutes from the beach.
Also referred to as Nice Vielle Ville or the Old Town, Vieux Nice is one of the city’s most beautiful and historically significant areas. Once a busy trading port founded in 350BC by the Greeks of Massilia, walls were hastily built around the region to protect it from invasion. Within these walls a medieval city was built, with some of its structures still remaining today. Having once been a Roman settlement before becoming part of the Savoy House of Northern Italy, visitors here can view architecture and historical sites exhibiting a number of stylistic influences. The most notable of these is the old town’s baroque architecture, with most of the buildings being a picture postcard representation of the style, with colorful mismatched buildings lining the winding lanes. Today a hub of shops, restaurants and bars, guests can enjoy the buzz and unique atmosphere of the old city before tasting a variety of traditional Nicoise dishes. These include the much-loved socca, a delicious chickpea dish which is cooked in olive oil and melts scrumptiously in the mouth.
Built between 1650 and the beginning of the 18th century, Cathedrale Sainte Réparate takes pride of place in the heart of the Old Town. The first church built on the site was named Sainte-Marie du Château which was consecrated in 1049 before being demolished and redesigned, in order to enlarge the size of the space in conjunction with the city’s growing population. Modelled on the famous Church of Saint Susanna in Rome, the cathedral of today is an imposing structure which dominates the surrounding landscape, with a stunning multi-colored copula stretching 39 meters into the sky. The interior consists of a series of ten intricately decorated chapels dedicated to important saints and religious figures, all ornamented in the delicate Baroque style. Officially classified as a French monument historique in 1906, this tranquil and peaceful historical gem is a must-visit when exploring the Medieval old city.
Situated within the boundaries of the old city, the Palais Lascaris is another Baroque masterpiece in Nice. Belonging to the noble Vintimille-Lascaris family in the 18th century, this opulent mansion was once the marital home of Peter I of Ventimiglia and Eudoxia Lascaris, daughter of the Byzantine emperor Theodore II Laskaris. A regal labyrinth of lavishly decorated rooms, frescoed ceilings and mythological 17th century ornaments, the palace was eventually bought over by the city of Nice and turned into a museum. Today it is home to a world-renowned collection of musical instruments bequeathed to the city by Antoine Gautier, a Nicoise violinist and collector who, during his lifetime, was associated with some of France’s most notable musicians, including violinist Jacques Thibaud. Music lovers will marvel at the vast collection of rare classical and baroque pieces here, ranging from Naderman harps to original French keyboard instruments, all made in the 18th century.
Today home to a small group of Franciscan friars, the Cimiez Monastery and Franciscan Museum carries its historical legacy into modern times. The monastery has a small museum attached to it, a venue which interestingly explains the daily life of French monks throughout the ages. This place is largely off the beaten tourist track, providing a unique insight in to Nice’s religious heritage in a more secluded area. Once home to the Shroud of Turin, a famous linen cloth believed by some christians to be the burial cloth of Christ, a small part of the museum is reserved for the cloth’s history, with it having been kept in Nice during the 14th century. Situated in the quiet historical neighborhood of Cimiez, and surrounded by an idyllic 500-year-old olive grove, the monastery provides a wonderful sense of peace and quiet. Afterwards visitors can explore the area’s ruined Roman arena, amphitheatre and thermal bath site, all of which date back to the 6th century.
Those interested in prehistory will be enthralled by the story of the Grotto du Lazaret, a 35-meter-long, 14-foot-wide cave at the foot of Mont Boron. Thought to have been inhabited by pre-Neanderthal man and used as a hunting base, archeologists have found over 20,000 pieces of bone from both humans and prehistoric animals within its grounds. First excavated in the 1950s, the skull of a nine year old child was found in the cave which can be dated back to around 130,000 BC. Since then a number of examples of tools and bones have been pulled from the site and used to improve modern knowledge of the prehistoric period. Guests can wander around the cave or take a guided tour, marveling at the grotto’s almost unimaginable history, before exploring the beautiful Mediterranean surroundings encompassing the area
At the foot of Castle Hill lies the Monument aux Morts de Rauba-Capeù, a homage to Nice’s soldiers who gave their lives in World War I. Designed by the French architect Roger Pierre Honoré Seassal, visitors can enjoy viewing a site made by a former member of the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris, a man who is also a Prix de Rome scholar. Reaching 32 meters in height, the large dome structure is carved into a rocky hillside and exhibits two detailed bas-reliefs on the theme of war, designed by praised sculptor and Legion of Honor officer Alfred Janniot. The first stone of this commemoratory site was laid in 1924 before the whole thing was inaugurated in 1928 by the mayor of Nice. The monument has been a meeting point and place of reflection for almost a century, and with beautiful views out to sea, the site is a poignant place creating stirring memories for its visitors.
What started as a small wooden theater in 1776 has since blossomed into the renowned Opéra de Nice, a citywide institution inviting huge productions and names to perform within its walls. After functioning as a small town playhouse for almost 50 years, the building was bought by the city of Nice upon the advice of King Charles Felix. His idea to convert the space into a grand opera soon became a reality, with the building being redesigned by the city’s architect Benoît Brunat in the classical Italian style. In 1881 the venue was badly damaged in a fire which alighted during a performance, and the venue was subsequently rebuilt and reconceptualized by François Aune. It is this design that remains today, with its glamorous interior design displaying a stunning high painted ceiling, and a number of symbolic sculptures which aim to call to mind the theater’s colorful and successful past. The opera attracts huge global acts from all over the world in disciplines such as orchestra, ballet and internationally-renowned choirs.
Situated on Port Lympia within bustling urban surroundings, Notre Dame du Port church is a historical beacon which stands out against the backdrop of Nicoise modernity. Also known as the Church of the Immaculate Conception, the church was built in the mid 19th century and designed by architect Joseph Vernier in the Neoclassical style. Elegant and impressive to look at, with its four soaring granite columns dominating the front of the exterior, it is hard to believe that this church once collapsed in 1841 due to torrential rain. The venue was then rebuilt in 1845 before the facade was redesigned in the Greek style and the columns added by architect Jules Fèbvre, making it a collaboration of architectural triumphs, as well as the influential building of its time. On the inside a peaceful and contemplative space featuring a host of beautiful ornamentations and a large master-alter, Notre Dame du Port is one of the city’s greatest monuments.
The oldest museum in Nice, having been founded in 1846, Le Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle is somewhat of a historical artifact in itself. Founded by botanists Jean Baptiste Barla and Jean Baptiste Verany, the venue was established with the help of scientist Antoine Risso, the famous author of the Ichthyologie de Nice, a book explaining the city’s marine life. Today the museum is a series of geological, zoological and plant collections exhibiting the earth’s habitats from Africa to South America. Those interested in local natural history can view the venue’s particularly extensive collection of plants and animals, all sourced from the Mediterranean region surrounding Nice. The museum presents specimens of animals unique to the region including wolves, deer and wild boars, and it highlights both the importance of and the challenges faced by the area’s conservation projects. With a number of regularly changing exhibitions and ongoing research projects, the museum showcases a contemporary relevance as well as an appreciation of its rich heritage, and as such makes itself an unmissable local gem.