Exploring Nice’s History
Within the French Riviera lies the ancient and historical city of Nice. Not only is Nice the region’s largest city and unofficial capital, it is also the second most visited place in all of France (the first, of course, being Paris).
Nice has a rich and unique history that cannot be found in just any European city. Around 350 BC, Greek warriors founded a permanent settlement here. In honor of their success, they called the new city Nikaia after the goddess of victory Nike.
If you visit Nice, you’ll notice many Greek landmarks still littered around the city. The main Massena Square for example is home to a glorious marble statue of the Greek God Apollo. Similarly, climb the stairs of the castle hill and you’ll find yourself walking upon 13 mosaic decorated steps summarizing Homer’s Odyssey.
After the Greeks came the Romans, who settled in Nice’s historic neighborhood of Cimiez, which is calm and secluded, wafted by gentle sea breezes and blessed with incredible views. Head up to the gorgeous Jardins de Cimiez and you’ll discover the ruins of a what was once an ancient Roman Colosseum, a still-operating monastery, a cemetery, and a gorgeous 500-year-old olive garden. You can freely walk through the entire complex and immerse yourself in the city’s enriching ancestry.
In the 9th century, the Brothers of the Abbey of Saint-Pons (Franciscan monks) built the Monastery of Cimiez. In 1543, the convent of the Franciscan brothers was destroyed during the siege of Nice. Three years later, they bought the Monastery from the brotherhood of the Benedictines.
After the Revolution, the army turned it into a barracks and later into a military hospital. It would subsequently resume its original vocation under the Sardinian Restoration, and becomes a parish church under the direction of the monks. In the 19th century, the addition of neo-gothic facades and porches, gives it its current style.
In this 15th century church, you can admire three major paintings of the primitive Niçois painter Louis Bréa: a Pietà, the Crucifixion, and the Deposition. Also worth seeing is the imposing carved wood baroque altarpiece. The museum traces Franciscan life in Nice from the 13th century onwards and houses fascinating frescoes and works of art.
The garden of the Monastery, with its rose garden and Mediterranean plants, is beautiful with a view that embraces a large part of the city, all the way to the sea. Henri Matisse, Roger Martin du Gard and Raoul Dufy are buried in the adjacent cemetery.
Following the collapse of the Roman Empire, Nice still remained a part of Italy. That changed however in 1860. As a gift of sorts, the Italian Provence offered France the city of Nice for their help in the Second Italian War of Independence.
Having changed hands from Italian to French rule, the city of Nice developed its own language. A mixture of both the French and Italian languages, Niçan was born. While Niçan is no longer commonly spoken in Nice today, you will notice that all street signs in the Old Town are in both French and Niçan.
Check out our list of Nice’s main historic sights and our guide to the best art museums in Nice and along the French Riviera, to explore the city’s most impressive historic sites.