Straddling the transitional zone between the Mediterranean and the Alps, France and Italy, Nice bears the marks of a fascinating multicultural history. Ruled at different times by the Greeks, Romans, Genoese, Provençals, Savoyards and Piedmontese, it only became part of France in 1860. The ensuing century and a half has seen Nice's development as a legendary resort, first as a wintering ground for northern European aristocrats, and more recently as France's most popular summer beach destination.
Ancient Greeks & Romans
Nice began its life as ancient Greek Nikaïa, founded around 350 BC as a fortified settlement to protect northwestern Mediterranean trading routes. Details of the Greek town remain sketchy, but it was most likely built at the foot of Colline du Château, next to present day Vieux Nice.
In the 2nd century BC, facing attacks from the indigenous Ligurian population, the Greeks called in Roman support, and the Romans' defeat of the Ligurians in 154 BC helped them establish a foothold on the present-day Riviera. By the middle of the 1st century AD, the Romans had built their own city in the hills above Nice called Cemenelum (present-day Cimiez). Rome consolidated its influence in the region with Emperor Augustus Caesar's victory over the neighbouring Alpine tribes in 6BC, commemorated by the magnificent Trophée d'Auguste monument on the heights of La Turbie, just east of Nice. Both Nikaïa and Cemenelum continued to coexist until the mid-5th century AD.
The Nice region fell to the Visigoths in the 5th century, ushering in a turbulent millennium during which the region bounced like a ping-pong ball among different rulers, including the Ostrogoths, Byzantines, Lombards and counts of Provence.
Despite its strategic coastal position, Nice was not a large population centre for much of this period. In the 8th and 9th centuries, regular Saracen pirate raids made the coast a dangerous place, and until the Middle Ages most villages in the region were built on high rocky promontories in the Alpine foothills. Throughout this period, Nice's identity was heavily shaped by its two closest neighbours, Provence to the west and Piedmont to the east.
Starting around 1250, Nice experienced a century-long period of economic expansion and rapid population growth due to the salt trade, but the Black Death put the brakes on this in the mid-14th century.
From Fortress to Town
In 1388 Nice fell under the dominion of the House of Savoy. As Savoy's only Mediterranean port, the city grew in importance and prosperity, becoming a regional capital and ruling over the neighbouring interior mountain region which would come to be called the Comté de Nice.
Nice remained an important military settlement for the next three centuries, revolving around its castle-fortress at the top of Colline du Château. The city suffered various external threats during this period: in 1543 a Franco-Turkish alliance laid siege to Nice, and enemy troops again besieged the city in 1691, but it wasn't until 1706 that Louis XIV's forces finally succeeded in taking the hill and destroying the château.
During this period Nice's population began to move down from the hilltop and spread out into the surrounding fortified waterfront area in a process known at the déperchement. The 18th century saw the growth of Nice's vieille ville (old town) beyond the former castle's ramparts, and – in a foreshadowing of things to come – the first wintering aristocrats from northern Europe, including the Duke of York in 1764.
Union with France & Dawn of the Belle Époque
Nice remained part of the Duchy of Savoy (or the larger Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia) through the mid-19th century. It was only in 1860 that the city definitively became a part of France, when Napoleon III negotiated a deal with Vittorio Emmanuele II, allowing France to annex the county of Nice in exchange for French support for Italian unification.
In the years immediately following annexation by France, Nice's role as a winter destination for northern European aristocrats grew exponentially. The railway from Paris arrived in 1864, prompting a tenfold increase in the number of tourists. Wealthy visitors began building sumptuous villas, and Nice's Grand Hôtel, constructed along the Promenade des Anglais in 1867, was the first to emulate the luxury of Paris and London. Between 1877 and 1910, the number of hotels in Nice nearly tripled, from 64 to 182.
January 1891 saw the inauguration of the Palais de la Jetée, a fairy-tale-like casino with a giant flower of a dome built out on a pier off the Promenade des Anglais. By the end of the 19th century, Queen Victoria was spending her winters at the Hôtel Régina in the hills of Cimiez, and by 1910 hotels such as the Négresco and the Ruhl were establishing new standards of luxury, including private bathrooms and central heating.
During these belle-époque years, the wealthy and powerful made Nice into their personal playground, living a carefree life, relishing the warm climate, socialising, drinking, showing off elegant fashions, pursuing romantic intrigues, and engaging in sports, balls, concerts and gambling.
In WWI Nice lost 3665 soldiers and suffered great economic disruption, but the postwar years saw huge population growth, from 155,000 to 240,000 in just 15 years. Artist Henri Matisse, lured by Nice's Mediterranean light, was one of the newcomers, establishing his studio here just after the war.
WWII brought renewed suffering, with bombardments, large-scale deportations and a period of famine in the war's final years. The 1950s and 1960s were marked by a new surge in population and expansion of the city's borders. Throughout the past 50 years, Nice has experienced continued economic growth in numerous sectors, including banking, insurance, health care, education and – most importantly – tourism.