Through a fortunate chain of circumstances, this summer, I have spent in total one month in Nice, between my first house-sitting experience and an enthralling blog trip. Only 40 km from the Italian border, I embraced its strong local culture, whether we talk about architecture or culinary specialities, and of course, went diving in Nice. It always surprises visitors that the elegant capital of the French Riviera became French as late as 1860.
Despite being famous for its incredible shades of blue always on the horizon, it wasn’t love at first sight with Nice. We have a long history of failed opportunities for making it work. From my first time on the French Riviera in 2005 to my regular business trips, all I saw was mainly highways, airports halls and the seafront promenade in the rain.
However, this summer, everything changed. I changed. The city had changed. From the northern hills to the south of Cape Nice, I heard many times the “niçois” telling me how much their town was now “beautiful and pleasant to walk”. It seems the tram works were the starting point of the urban renewal of Nice. It was finally time for us to meet properly. I surprised myself to fall for Nice. More than a seaside city this is where the heart of the French Riviera beats.
Diving in Nice & Villefranche-sur-Mer
When you go scuba diving in Nice, you often dive off Villefranche, a small town right next to Nice. The diving area divides into 4 main zones: Cap Nice, Villefranche Bay East, Villefranche Bay West and Cap Ferrat. With the deepest point at 150 m below the surface in its centre, Villefranche Bay offers deep dive sites right by the shore. The topography above water is the same underwater, which is different from what you can find in Marseille for instance. No wonder why Villefranche became such a beloved spot of freedivers who nicknamed it “the Bay of Legends”. This is where the famous freediving champion, Guillaume Nery, trains. So, if you love deep diving, excellent visibility and warm water, you’ll love diving in Nice and Villefranche.
I had the opportunity to go for 4 dives on the east side of Villefranche Bay and Cap Ferrat. I described below my top 3 favourite ones. I will for sure complete this list in the near future because there is more to see and I have no doubt I will be back diving in Nice sooner or later.
Best dive sites in Nice and Villefranche Bay
At the south tip of Cap Ferrat, I found this dive site to be the most photogenic of all the dives I did. It was mainly due to its deep wall at 40 m covered in red gorgonians and the schools of barracudas and sea breams swirling over the posidonia fields. A couple of small groupers came to say hi but not too close. They remained shy contrary to the numerous moray eels which were half out of their hideout.
My dive parameters: max depth 37 m – dive time 52 min – bottom water temperature 20°C
“Grande Baie” / “Grotte du Semaphore”
These are usually two different dive sites. Advanced divers who are skilled at underwater orientation and fin kicking can easily do both in a one-hour-long dive. Due to the diversity of what I saw during my dive, it remained my favourite one. With my dive buddy, we started at shallow depths over a field of posidonia for 5 minutes before finding the beginning of the wall. The demarcation is evident since the wall falls straight to 40 m. All the tiny holes as we kept the rock on our left shoulder were full of marine life such as moray eels and scorpionfish. But the most exciting point of the dive was finding the Semaphore Cavern. It looks more like a short tunnel than a cavern, to be honest. We had to make a U-turn to find its entrance which is at only 9 m deep, so you need to do it towards the end of your dive when you make your way back to the boat.
My dive parameters: max depth 30 m – dive time 58 min – bottom water temperature 22°C
I’m sure it is a great dive site, but the day I did the visibility was pretty reduced below 25 m. However, this is where I saw the greatest variety of marine species. Like the other dive sites, moray eels and scorpionfish were hiding all along the wall descending at 40 m. I loved spotting around 30 m deep many big Dalmatian Doris nudibranchs laying their eggs, a few lobsters and a large forkbeard hiding in a cavity of the wall. On our way back to the boat, the cliffs above water were filtering sunshine to create magical rays of sun underwater.
My dive parameters: max depth 37 m – dive time 48 min – bottom water temperature 18°C
When to go diving in Nice?
The best season to visit Nice for scuba diving goes from May to September, for the best weather with the air temperature between 20 and 29°C. This summer, the south of France went through a severe heatwave, but somehow the region of Nice was still enjoying temperatures between 28 and 29°C when the district of Marseille was well above 30°C.
The water is never colder than 13°C in the middle of the winter. But if you want the water to be divable comfortably in a 5 or 7 mm wetsuit, the months of July, August and September will be your best bet. At that time of the year, surface temperatures can be up to 26°C, and 22°C at 15 m deep. Advanced divers who want to take the opportunity to dive deep must be warned that the thermocline around 20 m can be impressive. All we got at 40 m deep was 18°C.
One great advantage of Villefranche Bay is whatever the winds, dive sites are always sheltered. As a result, diving in Nice, with the adapted exposure suit, can be done all year long.
Who to dive with in Nice?
To scuba dive in Nice, you can directly depart from the harbour where you will find not less than 5 scuba diving centres. Right in the heart of the city centre, this is the most convenient solution if you are visiting the capital of the French Riviera especially with the direct tramway service now available. The CIP Nice is the historical partner club of Aqua Lung whose head office is located 20 minutes north of Nice. On their large aluminium boat, the boat ride along Cape Nice is comfortable thanks to the shade.
Rand’Eau Evasion is a friendly and professional dive centre located on the Royal Harbour of Villefranche, only 15 minutes by bus from Nice Harbour. They use a semi-rigid boat for a quick ride to most dive sites in less than 10 minutes.
Both dive centres can speak English and welcome international scuba divers.
Dive centres usually go for one dive at 8.30 am and another in the afternoon at 2.00 pm. I recommend you to book in advance as the spots on their boats fill fast, especially in the summer peak season from 14th of July to the 15th of August.
What to do in Nice?
- Climbing on Castle Hill: It is my absolute favourite spot about re-discovering Nice. Castle Hill or “Colline du Chateau” in French is to Nice what Arthur Seat is to Edinburgh, the best view in town if you’re brave enough to climb there! Well, not precisely since, contrary to Arthur Seat, there is a free elevator which can take you almost to the top. It was the perfect place to escape the heat in the shade of the trees or the mist of its impressive cascade.
- Getting lost in the old town: Escape the few streets filled with tourist traps and imported souvenirs, and stumble upon hidden gems scattered across the old town by taking the sides streets. There is an antique book market on every 1st and 3rd Saturday of the month, with a large selection of books in English (Place du Palais de Justice, Nice). If you are looking for souvenirs, I recommend “L’Art Gourmand” (21 Rue du Marché, Nice) for a selection of biscuits and candied fruits, or “Nice Organic” (24 Rue Pairolière, Nice) for a selection of zero waste, locally produced, organic cosmetics and essential oils. At lunchtime, while you are touring the old town, stop by the flower market (Cours Saleya, Nice). Buy some “socca” (chickpea pancake) and fresh fruits (Provence peaches and apricots are the best in the summer) for an improvised picnic.
- Riding a bicycle along “Promenade des Anglais”: Grab one of the “vélo bleu” public bicycles and hop on your tour along the seafront promenade for only 1,50€ the 24h ticket. I recommend going back to your starting point via “Place Masséna” and “Promenade du Paillon”. You can easily find the “vélo bleu” stations along the seafront promenade.
- Going on a boat tour: If you feel tired and want to see a bit more while taking a break, you can hop on a one hour boat ride. The view of Nice old town from the sea is not to be missed. Many interesting comments are given in French and English. The 1 hour-coastal tour costs 18,50€ for adults. Trans’ Côte d’Azur, Quai Lunel, Nice
I couldn’t test it myself, but I found the initiative interesting. You can book a tour with a volunteer local guide to discover Nice authentically with one of its inhabitants. Have a look at Nice Greeters website; you will find the list of local guides who can speak English, Italian, German, Spanish, Portuguese, and even Chinese or Japanese!
Where to eat in Nice?
Being a large French city with an Italian influence, eating out in Nice is just one of the best thing you can do while exploring the heart of the French Riviera. Hopefully, I was scuba diving in Nice during the day to compensate the number of calories I indulged myself to every night!
- La Table “à” Julie: People in Nice are so proud of their local cuisine that they created the quality label “cuisine nissarde“. It is only given to the restaurants who respect the tradition and the standard of quality. This label is controlled every year. La Table à Julie is one of these restaurants which has won the label. A bit outside of the touristic area, between the old town and the harbour, I found the address to be more authentic and enjoyable. With her big smile, Julie was more than happy to compose a vegetarian plate of her local bites including socca (chickpea pancake), zucchini flowers fritters, roasted red peppers and pissaladière (a kind of onion pizza) – 50 Rue Arson, Nice.
- Le Bistro du Port: It is the place to go for a lovely dinner by the lights of Nice harbour. José, the owner of Bistrot du Port, stresses with generosity on the local sourcing and freshness of the ingredients he uses every day to compose his menu. He asked me if I could trust him, saying I can’t eat meat, and he came back with roasted salt-crusted sea bass. With a drop of olive oil and lemon juice and a side a fried garlic mushrooms and mashed fennel, it melted in my mouth. I thought I hated fennel because of the slight anise taste it has, thanks to José I know I love it now – 28 Quai Lunel, Nice.
- Utopia: A fabulous address to discover if you’re on a strict vegetarian or vegan diet, or you are just curious about what Italian food can taste like without any animal products. Utopia defines itself as a Veggitalian restaurant. Yes, it’s a vegan Italian restaurant. In the kitchen, Emilia and Francesca are magicians and serve surprisingly delicious plates of smoked tofu carbonara pasta or faux-meat filets. Reservation is highly recommended – 35 Rue Bonaparte, Nice.
- Sentimi: If you prefer traditional Italian food, head to “Place Garibaldi”, a recently elegantly renovated square with many restaurants and cafés. The super friendly waiter team of Sentimi serve all the best recipes of pasta and pizza, and with some more innovative options, made of fresh and organic ingredients – 2-4 Place Garibaldi, Nice.
How to go to Nice and get around?
If you are coming from overseas, you may fly direct to Nice International Airport. There are direct flights from all over Europe, the US (New York JFK), Canada (Montreal) and the UAE (Dubai).
If you are already in France or Europe, why not keeping your carbon footprint low by taking the train? From Paris, you can take the high-speed train with Ouigo and travel to Nice in 6 hours for as little as 19€ if you book 3 months in advance. Regionally, you can go from Lyon in 4 hours or Toulon in 2 hours with Ouigo from 10€.
Public transportation has dramatically improved in Nice very recently with the arrival of a new tram line that links the city centre, the train station and even the harbour with the airport. You can get a 10 ride card for only 10€ at any machine of the tram stations. Tickets can be shared between several persons. These cards give you also access to all the buses in town — more information on Lignes d’Azur website.
Where to stay in Nice?
The Hotel Saint Paul is a newly renovated hotel on the seafront right after the harbour, which makes a perfect location for scuba divers who want to stay in Nice. The building used to be a school for catholic priests and still features a lovely chapel.
What catches the eye immediately with this hotel is its location and breath-taking view. The rooms are minimalist but stylish with all the comfort you can expect, including a fridge and a kettle with tea and coffee. After my dives, I loved taking my shower while still being able to look at this fantastic view. I don’t know if it’s even possible to have a better view in town. On a clear day, not only you will see the Nice harbour, Castle Hill and the Bay of Angels but you can see as far as Cap d’Antibes or Cap Esterel.
For dinner, you can easily walk to the harbour area in less than 15 minutes or if you feel lazy, dine at the restaurant of the hotel. Double rooms from 116€ if you book at least 3 weeks in advance.
If you are travelling on a budget, there is the option of this stylish hostel right in the city centre near the TGV train station. Bed from 16€ a night in a dormitory.
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This article was written in partnership with the tourism board of Côte d’Azur. As always, all my views and opinions are my own and reflect my experience honestly.
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