Here’s the good news. Nice boasts more museums than any other French city outside Paris.
The bad news? A bewildering array of museum passes grant free access to sights at a city, regional and provincial level. (Think that’s complicated? Try paying tax here.)
Nice is blessed with enough cultural history to make any other European capital weep with envy. It helps that Matisse set up his easel on the Promenade des Anglais back in 1919, and was soon followed Marc Chagall, Raoul Dufy plus a dozen aspiring painters, all here to take in the scene. Today’s Musée Matisse, Musée Marc Chagall and Musée des Beaux-Arts fine arts museum are world class attractions.
And there’s more. The modern art seeds sown by Matisse and his mates grew into a massive cultural movement. The MAMAC contemporary art museum and the kaleidoscopic Musée d’Art Naif are mere extensions of their artistic legacy.
It also helped that Nice has milked high-rollers for their money for a century. Queen Victoria, Tsar Nicholas II and Sir Winston Churchill railroaded in for seasons of masked balls and yacht sorties. Such prodigal exuberance is documented in the Musée Massena history museum. Moreover, this ostentatious palace that neighbours the Negresco was built with foreign funds allured by royal benefaction. Then as now, nouvelles richesses and aristocratic patronage went hand-in-hand.
Whether you’re a penniless painter or a patron of the arts, these three museum passes offer a cultural sojourn for a song.
Nice Museum Pass
Cost: €10/2 days, €20/7 days. Buy online (nicetourisme.com) or in person at any Nice museum.
Best for: City-based culture vultures
The deal: Completely free walk-in access to every museum detailed above. You’ll need to sip several grand cafés for enough energy see them all. But a lazy museum tour offers a fine geographical swoop through Nice’s most elegant quartiers.
Don’t miss: The Palais Lascaris. It’s not big but it is clever: a former palatial home built by Nice’s Genoese overlords in the middle of the Old Town.
What to pack: A copy of Chasing Matisse by James Morgan, an author who follows the city’s adopted artist from Nice’s Old Town through Corsica and beyond.
Downsides: The art-centric fun stops at the city limits.
French Riviera Pass
Cost: €26/1 day, €38/2 days, €56/3 days. Buy online (frenchrivierapass.com) or in person at any Nice Tourist Office.
Best for: Ardent sightseers who want shopping discounts and restaurant deals thrown in.
The deal: Awesome in its scope, but only if you’re planning a one, two or three day cultural blitz during your alleged ‘holiday’. Big ticket items like Monaco’s Musée Océanographique (normally €14), Nice’s Open Top Bus (normally €22) and Cannes’ boat trip to Ile St-Honorat (normally €16.50) are all gratis. If you already plan to visit these attractions, adding on a few other sights equals big savings.
Don’t miss: Best value is Nice’s Mobilboard Segway tour, where a 30-minute ride usually costs €17. More culturally alluring is St Jean Cap Ferrat’s Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild (usually €13). This pink rococo palace looks ready to welcome Lady Gaga, and offers an endearing history lesson on the Riviera’s decadent past.
What to pack: Adults with kids in tow should pair the Pass with a €35 Carte Isabelle, a one-day unlimited family rail card, available from any local train station.
Downsides: The Pass’s highlights are scattered along the French Riviera. You’ll need a vial of whatever Lance Armstrong’s drinking to make it pay.
Cote d’Azur Card
Cost: €45/3 days, €72/6 days. Buy online only (cotedazur-card.com).
Best for: Cote d’Azur visitors who plan to combine action-packed trips with beach recovery days in between.
The deal: The brainchild of the Cote d’Azur Tourism Authority is the French Riviera Pass’s bitter rival. In order to trump its competitors, the Card was recently revamped to include 180 completely free activities including a coach trip to St Tropez (normally €48). It also includes almost every sight offered by the French Riviera Pass. Cleverly, you can use your three-day Cote d’Azur Card over a six-day period (or the six-day pass over 12 days), thereby avoiding cultural overload. The Card is big on experiential adventure. Think perfume-making in Grasse (normally €12), Stand-up Paddleboarding off Cap Ferrat (normally €12) or paintballing in Fréjus (normally €18).
Don’t miss: New for 2016 is this steal: a guided tour of the Cote d’Azur (including La Turbie, Monaco and Menton) that calls at the charming Italian town of San Remo. The usual price is €49.
What to pack: A GoPro camera or an iPhone for an envious Instagram update.
Downsides: You can’t hope to fit the Card’s 180 freebies, which range from summer vineyard tours to winter ski days, into a single trip.