One of Europe’s most glamorous, star-studded corners, the sun-kissed Côte d’Azur can take a toll on your wallet. Yet there are many ways to enjoy its largest city, Nice, without having to spend a single euro.
From panoramic hilltop vistas to some of the world’s most famous beaches, this seductive city isn’t short of fine things to see on a budget. So if you need a break from multiple museum entry fees and overpriced tourist menus, here’s a look at the best free things to do in Nice.
Say a prayer in the Cathédrale Orthodoxe Saint-Nicolas de Nice
The ornate Cathédrale Sainte-Réparate is right in the heart of the Old Town, but for a unique church visit we recommend making the trip to the Cathédrale Saint-Nicolas, one of Nice’s more unusual sights. Located a couple of streets behind Nice-Ville train station, this Russian Orthodox church has five tiled onion domes that are unlike anything else in the city.
Considered one of the most important Orthodox buildings outside the Russian Federation, the church has a surprisingly small interior filled with delightful floral blue patterns and icons in decorative gilded frames. The grassy grounds outside are a peaceful spot for sitting back and admiring the architecture.
Bask in the beauty of Nice’s beaches
The arcing blue sweep of Nice’s coast is probably the first thing that strikes you as your plane makes its final descent into the city’s Côte d’Azur Airport. Thankfully, it’s a moment you can revisit again and again every day.
While the stones of Nice’s beaches aren’t quite as soft as the sand further down the Riviera, the views are beautiful, and you can spend a whole afternoon stretched out in the sun (just be sure to bring a towel to lie on). If you’re craving sand, then take the short bus ride around the bend to the sheltered shores of Villefranche-sur-Mer.
Saunter down the Promenade des Anglais
Taking its name from the 19th-century English aristocratic infatuation with Nice’s pleasant climate, the Promenade des Anglais is an elegant palm-tree-lined walkway stretching 4 miles (6.5km) along the city’s seafront. It gets busy during the summer with joggers, cyclists and wide-eyed tourists, yet no trip to Nice is complete without a stroll to admire the grand hotels and casinos along the waterfront (including the famous Hôtel Negresco) while the Mediterranean gently rolls in over the beach’s pebbles.
In the evening, the lights flicker on and the hills to the east become stunning silhouettes, while the metronomic flashing light from the distant lighthouse at Port Lympia makes for an evocative scene.
Look up to admire la Maison d’Adam et Eve
One of Nice’s most unique architectural curiosities is surprisingly hidden away in the most tourist-choked part of town. Head to the Rue de la Poissonnerie to find the Adam and Eve House, one of the oldest structures in Nice.
Still in fine condition, it has a beautiful first-floor relief fresco featuring the characters of Adam and Eve that really captures the imagination. Dating from 1584, the house can be easy to miss among the Old Town’s narrow streets – so remember to look up.
Stop and smell the roses at Marché aux Fleurs Cours Saleya
The Cours Saleya in the Old Town is a well-trodden tourist spot with restaurants spilling into the street, and it’s also home to one of France’s most famous flower markets. From Tuesday to Sunday, flower arrangements, bouquets, and plants of all colors spring out from the stalls of the Marché aux Fleurs.
The market at Cours Saleya has been in operation since 1861, making it a traditional shopping spot for locals since long before the jet set and holidaymakers discovered the charms of Nice. In addition to the flowers, the market also offers fresh fruit, colorful vegetables, local artisan products and gourmet specialty stalls.
People-watch at Place Masséna
Squares are the perfect place for people watching, and Nice’s grand Place Masséna is one of the best in France. Vast and always alive with activity, this plaza was designed by Joseph Vernier in 1843. Today, modern trams glide through the square and past the water jets of the glimmering Fontaine Miroir d’eau.
Take a seat on the marble rim of the Fontaine du Soleil and watch the world go by while admiring the bright peach and pink Italianate architecture surrounding the famous square. Place Masséna is also just a stone’s throw from the narrow meandering streets of the Old Town, making it ideal for a rest after a long stroll.
Check out the contemporary art scene at Villa Arson Art Gallery
Nice’s Villa Arson is far more than just a few high-ceiling corridors lined with pleasant paintings. It’s an institution that’s deeply and actively involved in the cultural and artistic life of the city, and as such makes for a fascinating visit.
Set inside a brutalist building hidden away in Nice’s northern neighborhoods, Villa Arson has housed a national center of contemporary art, a national school of art, a media library and a residence for artists for over 40 years. When you’ve finished admiring the art inside, head out to the hanging garden to enjoy an overlook with a view of city.
Enjoy panoramic views from la Colline du Château
Nice is a spectacular city at ground level, but to truly appreciate its allure you need to scale the stone steps up Old Castle hill, one of the top things to do in town for any price. The climb at the city shore’s eastern end is surprisingly short; as you ascend, the turquoise coast’s curve becomes more pronounced and the crooked apricot-colored roofs of the city start spreading out before you almost immediately.
The snow-dusted peaks of the Alps are visible in the far distance, while the other side of the summit gives grand vistas looking down towards the bobbing yachts and sails of the Old Port. Grab a coffee from La Citadelle Cafe – if you’re lucky, you’ll snag a table with perfectly framed views through the trees down to the beach.
Stroll through Cimetière du Château
Just a 10-minute walk from the busy hill summit is the more contemplative space of the Cimetière du Château. This terraced hilltop cemetery is a quiet spot with fine city views and some occasionally elaborate tombs, including that of prominent republican politician Léon Gambetta.
Next door is a smaller Jewish cemetery that houses some unique Romanesque-style and neoclassical monuments, as well as a poignant Holocaust memorial with small marble urns on either side of its door.
Find serenity at Jardin du Monastère de Cimiez
A secluded escape from the bustle of Nice, the Garden of the Cimiez Monastery (Jardin du Monastère de Cimiez) hasn’t changed much since it was first built 1546 by the monks as an orchard and vegetable garden.
The pretty climbing roses add sprinkles of pink and red to the lush green terrace, with fabulous views across the rooftops and toward la Colline du Château. The gardens are free to enter and offer a serene spot in which to unwind after a busy morning exploring.