There is a huge amount to see and do in Nice and Villefranche – the port for Nice- so Ill cover as much as I can in this Nice Cruise Port Guide.
NICE – Côte d’Azur, France
Popular Cruise destination ‘the French Riviera’ (or Côte d’Azur) is the title given to the area of Mediterranean coastline that stretches from Toulon in the West to the French/ Italian border in the east. Although the area includes the principality of Monaco, its main town is Nice – the capital of the Alpes-Maritimes département (region).
The iconic image of Nice is its wide sweeping bay and beach, overlooked by large imposing hotels. Although some smaller ships (under 190 metres) do dock nearby at the Port de Nice where there is a small cruise terminal, most cruise ships will dock further along the coast towards Italy. Villefranche-sur-Mer in the next bay, is the main cruise anchorage, where passengers come ashore by tender. From there the ships tours are all about taking a bus out of town to visit Monaco, Cannes, Grasse or the mountain villages but to be honest you really could spend a lovely day here without heading far from the ship at all – there are so many things to see and do in the area that you will probably want to come back on another cruise or maybe four!
GREEKS, ROMANS & LES ANGLAIS – a very short history…
This area was originally settled by the Greeks in 500BC – largely due to the source of fresh water they found on what is now known as Castle Hill. The Romans settled in the area now known as Cimiez -high in the hills above the town.
Over the centuries since Nice has been part of the Genoese, Savoy and Sardinian empires before finally being ceded to the French in 1860. Interestingly, although the Italian politician Garibaldi was born in Nice and is well known for his achievements in the Unification of Italy, he never achieved his dream of Nice becoming part of that union and it has always remained part of France. The wonderful scenery and mild winter temperatures of the area meant that Nice became a popular winter ‘health resort’ for the wealthy at the end of the 18th Century, very popular with British as part of the Grand Tour that every wealthy, educated young man in the 17th Century was encouraged to take to Italy. In the early 19th century after the Napoleonic Wars, many wealthy British families began to settle in Nice so that they could spend the winter in the warmer Mediterranean climate – they built villas along the coastline and up into the hills.
The presence of the British led to a need for Anglican services so the parish of Holy Trinity, Nice was established in 1820 under the jurisdiction of the Bishop of London. One of the first chaplains of the church, the Rev’d Lewis Way, was so distressed by the influx of beggars and the general poverty in the area, that he arranged for his congregation raise funds and pay for the construction of a path along the bay, known originally as the Chemin des Anglais, to recognise the benefactors. Lengthened and broadened, it is now known as the Promenade des Anglais for this reason and not, as you might think, because the British used to promenade there!
Nice became very popular with the Russian Czar, Queen Victoria (her coat of arms is still found around town, at shops that she visited and in the Holy Trinity church), and other European Royalty, Nice became the place to see and be seen and attracted the rich and famous who built homes there. The soft clear soft light attracted many artists and writers to the region such as Chagall, Picasso, Mattisse, Somerset Maugham and Aldous Huxley and even today many film stars and musicians have homes or yachts in the area.
VILLEFRANCHE SUR MER…
is where you will probably be moored and you could quite easily spend most of the day quite close by. It has its own Port Profile with loads of information on what you can do within sight of the ship which you will find here…
Briefly, I would say that the main points of interest in Villefranche are
- The Citadel
- The Rue Obscure
- La Chapelle St Pierre
- L’Eglise St Michel
- The Villa Ephrussi on Cap Ferrat
If you do want to travel further you really don’t need to sit on a coach or take an excursion to do it.
There is an excellent train service along the coast in both directions with occasional spectacular views from its double decker coaches. The station is at the head of the bay in Villefranche – if you want to be really organised you can book tickets in advance through an online portal such as Loco2 which would save queuing time at the station. You can easily visit Monte Carlo/ Monaco or Cannes by train and there are also boat trips to Monte Carlo from Villefranche pier. We will cover both destinations in separate port profiles as they are popular cruise ports themselves, similarly we will cover Grasse, Valbonne, Lac St Cassien and other places in their nearest port profile however you certainly could do a day trip to any of these from Nice.
The promontory between above Villefranche, separating it from Nice is known as Parc du Mont Boron. This is a great place if you want a quiet day away from the crowds . There are over seven miles of hiking trails ranging from an easy hour-long excursion to more strenuous paths that take almost an entire day to complete! The summit of Mont Boron offers spectacular views or you can climb Mont Alban for the opportunity to explore the ruins of a military fort – but you need to be fit, with proper footwear and take provisions with you as there as no facilities.
HOW TO GET TO NICE…
there are basically five ways to reach Nice from Villefranche…
- The fastest and most expensive is a transfer by Water taxi… enquire at the port about the price – remember this is the most expensive stretch of coast in the world!!
- The slowest and second most expensive is the HOHO bus of which more later…
- Local Bus #100 which costs cost 1.50€ for a 10 minute trip to the Old Port, where you will have a short level walk to reach the Old Town
- Local train from the Gare de Villefranche-sur-Mer, the SNCF station, 10 minutes walk from the tender dock takes train journey is about 8 minutes to Nice Gare. The station is a little out of town but the new tram system will quickly take you to the edge of the old town.
- A taxi for four from Villefranche to Nice would be about 50€.
A DAY ASHORE IN NICE
Nice is large with plenty to see and do. The town, market, parks and port areas are level and easy walking but any further afield will involve some very steep hills so you may want to use some transport – options around town include the tram system and local buses both of which are cheap and efficient, although obviously their routes are more aligned to local commuters than to cruisers!
A small foot passenger ferry across the Old Harbour saves a long walk right round the edge. This free service operates every day from 10.00 to 19.00 – from the end of May until the beginning of November. This is a very small rowing boat with an outboard engine that takes six passengers so it is not for the nervous! Look for signs to the Lou Passagin to find the crossing point. There are also boat trips out from the port to Villefrance but oddly only as a round trip… a little ferry service back and forth between the two would be very useful and very popular !!
There is a Petit Train which does a short circuit along the sea front and up Castle Hill where it has its only stop. The Petit Train is the only transport up to the top of Castle Hill – the HOHO bus skirts arounds its base on its route on to the harbour and towards Villefranche.
Although the HOHO is reasonably expensive it does have the advantage of showing you a scenic route and also of visiting some of the museums and galleries in the hills above the town. A complete HOHO circuit takes an hour and stops include the Acropolis, the Matisse Museum, the Chagall Museum, the Natural History Museum, the station, the Russian Cathedral ( built in memory of the Czars son who died in Nice), the Promenade des Anglais, the Museum of Modern Art and the Palais des Congres – so you could do a fair bit of hopping off and on within the town and probably get to see most things of note! Basically if you want to visit any of the museums it is probably worth buying a HOHO ticket and making it your main mode of transport for the day.
It you feel like being a bit brave then other transport options include the Velo Bleu system of bikes which is very good. You pick up and drop off bikes at racks around the city and can use them as much or as little as you want for a for 1Euro a day – download the app before you leave home for a map of all the bike stations and to register a credit card. If you wanted to hire a ‘better’ bike for the day you will find many bike hire shops, especially around the port – either way the city has 125 kilometres of cycle tracks to explore.
Less energetic but equally adventurous is a drive around or out of town in a Nice-Car. These are cool little open-top, three-wheelers, with an iPad-style screen on the dashboard. Drivers can select a pre-planned itinerary in one of four languages, these vary from a €35 blast around Nice’s top sights, to a €130 full day bespoke tour. (nice-car.fr).
Nice is a beautiful city to walk around, a nice route is from the harbour area with its cafes and bars, up the Rue Cassini, across Place Garibaldi up to the Palais de Congress. Here you enter the park for a lovely section through the park, past the lovely fountains and Mirroir d’eau water feature, into the Place Massena. Here, at its unveiling in 1956 the Statue of Apollo caused quite a stir – it was thought to be a little too ‘virile’ and the sculptor was called back to ‘reduce’ things a little! From here head to Jardin Albert, a shady fountained park overlooking the sea front then right to the beach (Plage) and the smart hotels lining the Promenade des Anglais – maybe even stop for high tea at the famous Negresco Hotel. Otherwise you could head left towards the Old Town and the Cours Saleya market. It is quite mixed – flowers, fish, vegetables, souvenirs and antiques on a Monday – surrounded by bars, restaurants and shops, the area is well worth a visit. High above the market is Castle Hill and the Nice Chateau – you can avoid the climb by taking the free lift up through the cliff – the entrance can be found just across from the ‘# Love Nice’ sign by the road – look for the neon ‘Ascenseur de la Chateau’ sign.
Castle Hill is a peaceful forested area peppered with ancient ruins and stunning views from all sides. The daily noon cannon is fired from here and a walk back down from the top will take you past a massive waterfall, play and picnic areas, ruins of the original Cathedral, stone mosaics dating back to the areas Greek origins and overlooking the town, two 2 interesting cemeteries. The various paths down will take you either back to the Old Town or to Place Garibaldi with its cafes, museums, galleries and Garibaldis statue looking back towards Italy.
If you have visited Nice before you may want to explore a little further afield. There are many wonderful locations that you might want to visit, all are accessible by local transport, taxi or car and are covered in more detail in our free downloadable e-book available here…
Briefly, towns you could consider include…
1) To the East towards Monaco and Italy…
Eze: a beautiful medieval village, with lovely gardens perched on a rocky peak.
Menton: colourful houses hug the cliffs looking more like Cinque Terre than France
Monaco: this principality is a tax haven home to the rich and famous for its Casino and Grand Prix
2) To the North and inland
St Paul de Vence: ancient medieval town, home to artists including Chagall, Matisse & Renoir.
Baou de Saint Jennet; hike to the summit for a view of Corsica on a clear day.
3) To the West towards Cannes and St Tropez
Antibes: cobblestoned streets is enclosed by 16th C ramparts of Fort Carré.
Platea d’Antibes: for its Cathedral and panoramic views
Juan-les-Pins: the best private beaches in Cotes d’Azure, set in a pine forest.
Biot: medieval village and world famous glassmaking centre, high above Antibes.
SHOPPING in NICE…
There are lots of things that would make great souvenirs of a visit to Nice. The shops in town are excellent with all the main French Fashion houses represented but for more ‘local’ colour look for…
Lavender is grown locally and makes good souvenirs – I like to buy little lavender bags for wardrobes and drawers and also Essential oils…both are small, light and easily packed. You will also find lavender soaps, bath salts pillows, eau de toilette and perfume for sale everywhere locally. The freshest stock and lowest prices were in the Cour Saleya market.
Herbes de Provence mix in pretty bags or jars.
Local Honeys and Olive Oils.
Ceramics and table linens in Provencal colours
Embroidered bed linens and towels
Olive wood bowls and pepper grinders.
Anything from the local but internationally famous perfume company Fragonard – they have a shop in Cours Saleya – it is as if they have bottled the Cotes d’Azur and all its scents! I really love their perfumes, room fragrances and soaps. You could always plan a visit their factories in Grasse or Eze, or for a really special and personal souvenir you could join a perfume workshop in Grasse…book a visit beforehand on their website.
EATING OUT in NICE
Food in the South of France and particularly in Nice has a strong local tradition with what we would consider to be Italian and Arabic influences. Villefranche, has some lovely restaurants tucked away in shady courtyards or down on the seafront. In Nice the picturesque Cours Saleya market is surrounded by restaurants or you will find good fish restaurants in the Old Port area.
Local Specialities include:
Salade Nicoise – literally a Nice Salad with tomatoes, hard boiled eggs, olives and anchovies or Tuna.
Socca – a chickpea crepe – filling and cheap!
Tapenade – a paste of olives, capers, fish and herbs served on bread croutons.
Pissaladière, a small flat pizza-like onion tart.
Bouillabaisse, a traditional fish stew, originally from Marseilles but popular among the Cote d’Azure, served with a rouille (garlic & saffron sauce) and large bread croutons.
I hope you enjoyed reading about how to spend your cruise stop in Nice and that it will be useful on your cruise. Nice features on many Mediterranean Itineraries – if you are looking for inspiration you should start here…
I would love to know what you think so it would be great if you commented below and if you find that any of our information is out of date, or if you know of anything you think we should add, please let us know!
Don’t forget to share this to anyone who may be interested and pin us on Pinterest for future reference. You can subscribe to our newsletter below for future updates!
You will also find some small affiliate links in the blog that help towards the cost running of the website – if you click through and buy anything from them it gives us a few pence but doesn’t cost you any extra! It’s a great help and huge thanks to all those who do!
And here are links to all the other places you can find us online!
Thanks for reading!
Cathy & Emma