Tourism in Nice goes back more than two and a half centuries, a history no other destination in France can rival. Similarly, its current tourist numbers, its international reach, as can be seen by the diversity of its visitors, the cosmopolitanism of its past and present population and its status as a role model for many other countries around the world add to its singularity (Ill. 1). Dozens of cities have been compared to it, such as Opatija (Croatia), the “Nice of the Adriatic”, Beirut, the “Nice of the East”, Batumi, the “Georgian Nice” and Napier (New Zealand), the “Nice of the Pacific”.

Ill. 1. Nice, the Baie des Anges and the Alps (© J.-Ch.Gay, 2014)

The Niçois moment

The Treaty of Paris in 1763 enshrined British influence in the Mediterranean and its domination over the world. It was in that year that Scottish doctor Tobias Smollett (1721-1771) moved to Nice. The Swiss philosopher and mathematician Johann Georg Sulzer (1720-1779) arrived there a few years later. Both published books praising the appeal of the climate. Voltaire (1694-1778), in a letter to the intendant (public official) Daniel-Charles Trudaine, dated 12 April 1776, wrote, “I had a friend from Geneva named Lavergne […]. He had given up on life; he went to Nice and regained his health there.” Mercier Dupaty (1746-1788) wrote in his Lettres sur l’Italie (1785), “I saw some touching and even delightful English women: when they arrived they were dying; then they blossomed in the Nice air”, or “Nice in winter is a kind of greenhouse for those of delicate health”.

The birth of tourism in Nice corresponds to the rise of leisure travel, which came in the wake of the Grand Tour, a period of peace and the emergence of the Mediterranean as a holiday destination. Nice’s mild winter climate was the main draw for the first winter visitors. Added to this was as a taste for cultivated countryside, overlooked by hills and high mountains in the distance. Efforts would be made to make this landscape even more exotic by introducing tropical ornamental plant species, able to acclimatise thanks to temperatures that almost never dip below zero.

There were around a hundred foreign families staying in Nice in 1787. In this city of the Kingdom of Sardinia, with its tradition of Italian aristocratic hospitality, private mansions were able to replace inns quite profitably. Visitors also rented farmhouses in the countryside and certain floors in the palaces of Vila Nova. Some were even built for this purpose, like the Spitallieri Palace in Cessole, offering a new form of accommodation, the hôtel de voyageurs (“travellers’ hotel”), with the opening of the Hotel d’York in 1787 on a single floor of the palace. Early holidaymakers appreciated the Les Ponchettes terrace-promenade (Ill. 2), built in 1760, inspired by the principles of seaside promenades in Naples and Palermo, which became a high-society hotspot for Nice’s early tourists.

Ill. 2. Les Terrasses des Ponchettes and the Promenade des Anglais (© J.-Ch.Gay, 2008)

It was their perception of the originality and authenticity of Nice and its surroundings, isolated and poor, that attracted the English. However, with the creation of a “ville d’hiver” (“winter resort town”), the presence of these over-wintering visitors profoundly transformed the city. A new form of resort was invented. Its intense social life and specific urban fabric made it a benchmark in the second half of the 19th century.

At the end of the 18th century, a new town sprang up on the other side of the Paillon River, meeting the desire of the English to stay away from the locals. This new Croix-de-Marble neighbourhood, called “Newborough”, was soon filled up with new houses with gardens, built by local public figures who put them up for rent.

At the same time, hotel numbers increased, from two in 1808 to 13 in 1858. Nice became a “seasonal city”. In March 1857, there were 1,346 families wintering in Nice, of which 32% were British, 30% French and 11% Russian, for a local population of 44,000. (Boyer, 2002: p.159).

Urban growth due to tourism was managed by a body created for this purpose: the Consiglio d’Ornato (“beautification council”). In view of the challenges of tourism, Nice was the only city in the Kingdom of Sardinia to have its own city planning scheme, drawn up in 1831. The plan’s purpose was to ensure the harmony of the city and make it attractive to foreign visitors. A garden was created at the mouth of the Paillon and a park on hill of the Château (Ill. 3); the Terrasse des Ponchettes was split; a square was built besides the harbour basin; the neighbourhood was connected to the existing town by a new square, La Place Masséna; docks were built on the right bank of the Paillon; the Camin dei Inglesi, a modest coastal path, was transformed into a prestigious promenade. The opening of this “seaside road” from the Paillon to Magnan was added to the scheme in 1836. A grid street plan was designed.

On the large boulevards such as the Promenade des Anglais, a seven-metre greenified buffer, was mandatory. No city in France had experienced a similar tourism-centred town-planning policy. The policy extended beyond 1860, with the principles of the Consiglio d’Ornato continuing to apply into the 1880s and even as late as 1914 (Thuin-Chaudron, 2002).

Ill. 3. The park on the Château hill (© J.-Ch.Gay, 2015)

The consequences of becoming part of France

In 1860, Nice became French. By joining a much more powerful country than the Kingdom of Sardinia, the former county of Nice and, more generally, the new Alpes-Maritimes department saw a flow of national capital attracted by tourism and land speculation.

The arrival of rail in 1864 led to a rapid increase in the number of arrivals and a change in the scale of tourism and urbanisation. From 8,000 winter visitors in 1861-1862 to 20,000 visitors staying over one month and to 130,000 spending a few days in the city on the eve of the First World War. The clientèle diversified with the arrival of North Americans (1 in 6 tourists in 1895), Germans and Austro-Hungarians.

Tourists were looking for the kind of entertainment (shows, shops, sporting events etc.) that could only be found in the big cities. The municipal casino opened in 1884, followed by the Jetée-Promenade pier in 1891. The popular and sometimes violent carnival held in the old town became a tourist attraction in the 1870s, when it was staged in Place Masséna and along the Promenade des Anglais. The appearance of “flower battles”, floats and confetti transformed it into a popular festival for winter visitors that served as a model for the Viareggio and Rio de Janeiro carnivals.

The population of Nice tripled between 1872 and 1913, as shops and services expanded, while the construction workforce, composed mostly of Italian immigrants, exploded. From the 1880s, development in Nice took the form of housing schemes in its hills, especially in Cimiez, where Société Foncière Lyonnaise, a subsidiary of Crédit Lyonnais, took over the city’s regulatory activities.

People regrouped around neighbourhoods, with the Russians in Saint-Philippe or Piol, for example. Winter visitors would conduct their businesses affairs in Nice, such as Emil Jellinek (1853-1918), an Austro-Hungarian founder of the Mercedes brand, who conducted several real estate operations there. Raphael Bischoffsheim (1823-1906), a banker of Dutch origin, had Charles Garnier build the Nice observatory on Mont Gros, a society hotspot during the Belle Époque. The Swiss were very active in the hotel industry.

There were 34 hotels in 1865, 97 in 1885 and 255 in 1914. They were clustered along the Promenade des Anglais and in the hills of Carabacel and Cimiez. The latter became home to some of the most prestigious of these, such as the Riviera Palace, the first hotel to fit the category of “palace” (luxury hotel), or the Excelsior Regina Palace with its 450 rooms, which hosted Queen Victoria for three consecutive winters, from 1897 to 1899 (Ill. 4). New villas were also springing up.

The religious buildings are the finest testimonies of niçois cosmopolitanism and the social interactions within the foreign communities residing there for several months a year: besides the famous Orthodox cathedral, these include an Anglican temple, an Episcopalian church for American Anglicans, an Evangelical American Baptist church, a Lutheran church for Germans and Scandinavians, a Vaud church, a Greek Orthodox church, a synagogue, etc., in addition to Catholic places of worship. Visitors were even organised by nationality when they died, with English and Russian cemeteries, or dedicated “carrés” (squares) within municipal cemeteries.

Ill. 4. The former Excelsior Regina Palace today (© J.-Ch. Gay, 2015)

From winter to summer

Nice’s considerable accommodation capacity was used during the First World War to receive thousands of wounded soldiers in requisitioned settlements, as well as 6,000 refugee families from the north and east of France.

Undermined by the Russian revolution, the collapse of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires and the economic crisis, luxury tourism did not bounce back at the end of the conflict. The revolution of the sun, with sunbathing and warm-water sea bathing, came in 1923, but Nice had neither pine forests nor a sandy beach, and its urban development became a hindrance, preventing it from offering what Juan-les-Pins, Golfe-Juan or the resorts in the Var department could.

Nice tried to adapt by creating a summer festival committee in 1926, but it was difficult for a city of this size to change quickly, as the hotels closed in summer and some of the staff went to work in the seaside resorts of northern France or in spa resorts. Summer attendance increased slowly throughout the 1920s, with a tourist tax collected in summer rising from 9% in 1921 to 16% in 1929.

The trend continued into the 1930s, with the rise of the middle classes. Nice lost over 2,000 rooms. The luxury hotels on the hills did not withstand the 1929 economic crisis, which spread across Europe, nor the loss of a clientèle increasingly drawn to the seaside. Half of Cimiez’s rooms disappeared during the conversion of its luxury hotels (Regina, Majestic, and Grand Hotel de Cimiez) into apartments or retirement homes between 1934 and 1938.

Increasing dangers and the rise of totalitarian regimes in Europe in the 1930s again brought Nice’s capacity for hospitality to the fore, with the city welcoming Italian exiles from the fascist regime and Germans fleeing the Nazis, such as the writers Heinrich Mann and Joseph Roth. During the war, it is estimated that 20,000 Jews, both French and foreign, many of whom were former tourists in Nice, sought refuge there.

Following the landing in Provence in 1944, the American army replaced the modest airfield with a 1,350 m hard runway. This was a rare facility in France, and played a major role in reviving tourism from 1946 and boosting the prestige of the region. The trend that had started in the interwar years continued: tourism became increasingly democratised, and the summer season took over from the winter. Of the 311 hotels in Nice in 1961, 274 were one- or two-star establishments.

Off-season offers succeeded in attracting honeymooners, while the number of trips organised by tour operators exploded. The number of second homes also grew significantly, threatening the hotel industry, whose number of rooms had dropped from 12,000 in 1955 to less than 9,000 in 1968. However, luxury hotels, now fewer in number, became profitable again, attracting an overwhelmingly foreign clientèle. Many people with second homes, a significant number of whom were in the tourist areas, settled permanently in Nice upon retirement.

Diversification and metropolisation

The 1960s saw a functional form of diversification with repatriates from Algeria arriving to settle in Nice and numbering around 20,000, or 1/12 of the total population. The municipal population increased from 244,000 in 1954 to 344,000 in 1975. The hills became more urban (Ill. 5).

This economic shift resulted in an increase and multiplication of services, a phenomenon embodied by the creation of the university in 1965. The Nice-Cote d’Azur Airport played an important role in this development. The first airport outside Paris and France’s third airport, behind Roissy and Orly, with 14.4 million passengers in 2019, far ahead of Lyon (11.7 million) and Marseilles (10.1 million), makes this metropolitan area very accessible, both from the rest of France and from abroad, given that two thirds of its traffic is international, with a quarter from outside the Schengen Area. It has greatly facilitated the development of travel for meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions (MICE), activities that help counteract the strong seasonality of hotel attendance, now summer heavy.

An exhibition centre was built in the late 1950s on the bed of the River Paillon, now covered. The Palais des Congrès d’Acropolis conference centre opened in 1984, further expanding this segment which is complementary to tourism for a significant part of the hotel sector. The new Arenas business district also became a hotel district.

Ill. 5. The Promenades des Anglais and the Fabron hills (© J.-Ch.Gay, 2015)

The tourism of past centuries has shaped Nice into a landscape like none other in France. It has served as the backdrop for numerous film productions, thanks to the Victorine Studios, where many films were made, including by Jacques Tati, Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Donen and many other great directors. As “Hollywood à la niçoise”, Nice was able to project an enchanting image of itself to the rest of the world.

Its tourism-focused urban design has become one of the city’s major assets, with visitors not only admiring Vieux Nice and the beach, but the Promenade des Anglais, the Russian cathedral, Mont-Boron and the Cimiez Hill, with their sumptuous villas and old palaces, as well as the many museums (e.g. the Chagall and Matisse museums, the Musée d’Art Moderne et d’Art Contemporain or MAMAC, and the Musée Départemental des Arts Asiatiques), testimony to the countless artists (painters, writers, etc.) who have lived there over the years, and bestowed a legacy of over 800,000 works as of 2019.

Eminent art historian André Chastel called the Côte d’Azur “modern art’s great studio” After 1945, the avant-garde took up residence in Nice, with Arman, Yves Klein, Ben, Niki de Saint Phalle, César, etc., succeeding or rubbing shoulders with Bonnard, Matisse, Picasso, Dufy, De Stael and Dubuffet. Their presence and fame have made Nice and its surroundings the second largest artistic centre in France, both in terms of museums and the intense creative activity of what became known as the “École de Nice” or “Nice School”. This mise en abyme of tourism is one of the key points in the proposal for adding the Promenade des Anglais and the “ville d’hiver” to the list of cultural heritage sites.

Nice, therefore, has enjoyed an accumulation of various types of strictly metropolitan capital, which has facilitated the city’s adaptation to economic and societal changes, affording it the flexibility that tourist destinations need if they are to successfully endure. In addition to economic capital, Nice offers: a symbolic capital, based on its worldwide reputation; artistic capital; the intangible cultural capital associated with the Nice Carnival; rich and eclectic architectural capital; diplomatic capital based on the cosmopolitan nature of the wintering foreign tourist communities, religious and political tolerance; professional capital, with know-how in tourism and hospitality; and technological capital, as a site of pioneering technical innovation.

Nice played a decisive role in the development of motor sports, such as the motor car, and of aviation with Ferdinand Ferber (1862-1909), Auguste Maïcon (1891-1974) and the Aviation Meeting in 1910. The Automobile-Club de Nice (ACN), the world’s first regional motoring club, was founded in 1896. This precocity can be explained by the presence, in winter, of the world’s greatest fortunes, that would very soon acquire a motor vehicle.

However, tourism is still a key engine of Nice’s economy today. A new clientèle appeared in the 1990s, in the form of rich tourists from the Persian Gulf and Russia, following the breakup of the USSR. Out of Nice’s 9,700 hotel rooms in 2018, almost half were four- or five-star. The city recorded 3.8 million stays, of which two thirds by foreigners. Nice has 155,000 beds in second homes.

The increase in low-cost tourism, accounting for a share of 44.9% in 2019, is partly responsible for the shortening of the average length of stay, given that more than a quarter of tourists visiting the French Riviera come by plane. The Chinese are a significant client group (over 3% of foreign visitors). President Hu Jintao’s visit in 2010 and the visit of 6,400 employees of the Tiens Group conglomerate, in 2015, at the invitation of their CEO, are no stranger to the city’s appeal.

Indians also come in significant numbers, as well as North Americans, whose attendance fluctuates depending on the political context, the wave of attacks in France, in particular. The fact that Nice is France’s second city most affected by Islamist attacks, after Paris, seems to demonstrate the global dimension of this destination and the sinister showcase it represents for terrorists.

Another aspect of this metropolisation of Nice is the existence, within the carnival, of Lou Queernaval, France’s first gay carnival, launched in 2015. Its inclusion in Nice’s events calendar gives the destination an up-to-date image, since major tourist centres must now offer events linked to the LGBT community, which symbolises their dynamism and hospitality.

Serving the same purpose is the Central Tourist District (CTD), reinforced by the defining of a Zone Touristique Internationale or ZTI (“international tourist zone”), incorporating the Promenade des Anglais, the old town, the port, the “Coulée Verte” green space along the stream bed of the Paillon River and more. The location of Airbnb accommodation corresponds fairly faithfully to this area. With over 11,000 active listings in 2019, the same number as Cannes, Nice is far ahead of the other cities outside Paris (Marseilles with 8,600, Lyon with 6,800 and Bordeaux with 5,100), while Paris boasts nearly 42,000.

Jean-Christophe GAY


  • Azorin Lisa et Reynes Julie, 2015, Promenade(s) des Anglais. Nice, Ville de Nice, 328 p.
  • Bottaro Alain, Cavalie Hélène et Arrivé Guillaume, 2013, Trois Siècles de tourisme dans les Alpes-Maritimes. Milan, Conseil général des Alpes-Maritimes et Silvana Editoriale, 213 p.
  • Boyer Marc, 2002, L’Invention de la Côte d’Azur. L’hiver dans le Midi. La Tour d’Aigues, Éditions de l’Aube, 379 p.
  • Callais Alain et al., 2019, Hôtels & Palaces. Nice, une histoire du tourisme de 1780 à nos jours. Nice, Gilletta, 196 p.
  • Castela Paul, 2002, Nice, une capitale historique. Nice, Gilletta, 567 p.
  • Graff Philippe, 2017, «Un regard urbanistique sur les mutations du tourisme à Nice lors des trente Glorieuses», Recherches régionales. n° 212, p. 87-104, en ligne [pdf].
  • Musée Masséna, 2019, Nice cinémapolis. Paris, In Fine, 192 p.
  • Observatoire du tourisme de la Côte d’Azur, études et statistiques diverses.
  • Thuin-Chaudron Véronique, 2002, La Construction à Nice de 1860 à 1914. thèse de doctorat d’histoire, université Nice Sophia Antipolis.
  • Ville de Nice, 2020, Nice, capitale du tourisme de Riviera, Proposition d’inscription sur la liste du patrimoine mondial de l’humanité. 356 p.
  • Violier Philippe, Duhamel Philippe, Gay Jean-Christophe et Mondou Véronique, 2021, Le Tourisme en France 1, approche globale. Londres, ISTE, 275 p.
  • Violier Philippe, Duhamel Philippe, Gay Jean-Christophe et Mondou Véronique, 2021, Le Tourisme en France 2, approche régionale. Londres, ISTE, 221 p.