A handful of people gather on a nondescript side street at 123 Rue de Roquebillière, their folding chairs arranged in a wobbly oval as the afternoon sun peeks through the building’s scaffolding. They’ve emerged from the LGBT Center Côte d’Azur for an informal social gathering. I quickly realize on my first day in Nice that the city’s social nature is as identifiable as its famous coastline.
The welcoming storefront recently celebrated its 11th anniversary. If you can find it — and speak a modest amount of French — queer locals will steer you toward some of their favorite hangouts, restaurants, and nightlife. And for the city’s residents, free health and social services and get-togethers like the one I’ve happened upon have solidified the venue as a valuable community hub.
I bookmark a handful of recommended spots, cool down with a refreshing Orangina, and take to the streets. The coming days will whisk me beyond the city limits to adjacent hillside towns overlooking the Ligurian Sea. But today, it’s all about Nice.
Day 1: Essential Nice
Dismiss the notion that the south of France is only for elite travelers. While it’s true that Cannes (an hour southwest) and Monaco (30 minutes to the east) can drain the wallet as quickly as imbibing a glass of rosé on a hot summer’s day, Nice can be surprisingly affordable if you know where to look.
Discover local produce along Cours Saleya’s open-air stalls to accompany a freshly baked baguette from J. Multari. One of the best things to do in Nice is to meander to Quartier du Port for harbor views of mega yachts docked alongside traditional fishing boats and let the day melt away.
I take a break from basking in the sun to explore the Charles Nègre Photography Museum. The terracotta-colored façade dominates Place Pierre Gautier, and once inside, visitors can immerse themselves in exhibits such as the vibrant images by Patrick Hanez (through September 10, 2023).
Be sure to grab a socca to snack on as you continue exploring. The local street food — a chickpea pancake cooked in olive oil over a wood fire and finished with crunchy sea salt — is a midday must. But dinner is only a nap away and the chance to savor more authentic cuisine nissarde.
I head to Chez Acchiardo for my evening meal. The family-owned restaurant dates back to 1927 and serves local dishes celebrating the region’s culinary heritage. Sharable plates like pissaladière (onion pizza with anchovies), petits farcis niçois (vegetables with veal stuffing), and daube garnie (a Provençal beef stew that could displace its northern cousin beef bourguignon as France’s ultimate comfort food) all make an appearance. But the buzzy clamor of hustling servers, flowing wine, and clinking cutlery make Acchiardo a memorable meal, along with the alarmingly handsome Jean François Acchiardo, part of the latest generation to take the reins.
An early night is in order because tomorrow I take to the hills.
Day 2: Day-tripping
If you’re arriving in Côte d’Azur (the sexy way to reference the French Riviera) by cruise ship, you’ll likely disembark in Villefranche-sur-Mer. The deep-water port dates back to the 16th century and retains its maritime charm.
The air, briny with the day’s local catch on display at Port de Plaisance, provides a distinct olfactory backdrop for the shops about town, where you’ll find linens and home goods, boulangeries, and French-milled soaps.
But the real find is a tiny Roman-style chapel painted by queer multi-hyphenate Jean Cocteau. Known for his extensive body of work as a poet and playwright, Cocteau also explored the visual arts. His many lovers, including novelist Raymond Radiguet and actor Jean Marais, impacted his career, as did his time in Paris among literary and artistic circles.
Cocteau first visited Villefranche-sur-Mer in 1925 to overcome his opium addiction, which he struggled with throughout his life. But it wasn’t until 1956 that he left his imprint on the tiny French town, restoring the small chapel as a tribute to St. Peter, the patron saint of fishermen.
“I lived in this chapel night and day for two years. During five months, I lived in the small Saint Peter nave, fighting with the angel of perspective, rolled up by its vaults, enraptured, embalmed, so to speak, like a pharaoh worried about painting its own sarcophagus, and finally, I became the chapel, and I became a wall,” wrote Cocteau of his Villefranche-sur-Mer labor of love.
Leaving Cocteau’s painted arches behind, I travel along Moyenne Corniche, one of the three Corniche Roads of the French Riviera. The winding road offers dramatic coastal views, as seen in Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief and the James Bond installment GoldenEye, among others. My destination is the village of Èze.
Èze, as it stands today, was rebuilt during medieval times by the French, its narrow stone pathways still intact, lined with art galleries and boutique retailers. Scale your way to the top, and you’ll discover Jardin Exotique d’ Èze, a stunning botanical garden created by André Gianton and Jean Gastaud after the end of World War II.
For those that want to experience sunset and sunrise in Èze, consider spending the night at Château de la Chèvre d’Or, a luxurious five-star property with an on-site Michelin star restaurant. Each room and suite, scattered throughout the village, is unique, with many including outdoor terraces and Ligurian Sea views. The property’s namesake restaurant has maintained two Michelin stars, helmed by chef Arnaud Faye and pastry chef Julien Dugourd.
For a final flourish in Èze, I visit Galimard & Studios des Fragrances, one of France’s first perfumeries, which dates back to 1747. Founder Jean de Galimard provided scents to the court of Louis XV, and over the centuries, the house has cultivated its own orange blossoms and jasmine, built distilleries, and in 1986, arrived in Èze, adding traditional soap manufacturing to its accolades.
Under the watchful eye of master perfumer Yusuke Masuda, I explore my inner top and bottom — notes, that is. Along with heart notes, I create a unique perfume that will mature over the following weeks before reaching its full potency.
My impatience will likely get the best of me. Tomorrow is a gay-all-day affair, and I hope my new scent may attract a Frenchman.
Day 3: Gay all day… and night
The day starts with carb-loading at Mama Baker, where you can have the best breakfast in Nice with freshly brewed coffee and stuffed focaccia. A ten-minute walk brings me to Librairie Vigna LGBT et féminisme, a lesbian-owned used bookstore brimming with archival volumes, vintage magazines and posters, and classical works. While most books are in French, bibliophiles of all languages will relish Françoise Vigna and her wife’s well-curated collection. Once an art gallery, the unassuming, stark white storefront showcases hundreds of titles, its quiet ambiance the perfect stop for a meandering morning.
Typical of a day in Nice, the sun shines bright, and I have yet to spend time on its pebbly shore. Lunch at Plage Beau Rivage offers al fresco dining as one of the best restaurants in Nice, France, with a view. The menu offers typical coastal cuisine, a beautiful marriage of French and Italian influences like buffalo mozzarella and simply prepared sea bream.
The pièce de résistance, though, is the direct beach access and sun loungers, where you can let the day drift away sipping an Aperol spritz, catching some rays, and checking out the fit and fabulous runners along Promenade des Anglais.
A late afternoon refresh rejuvenates me for a night in Nice, beginning with dinner at LGBTQ+-owned and operated Le Sunset. The casual menu offers typical fare ranging from tapas to cocktails, with an upstairs space where you may stumble upon a party or DJ.
Nice is a walkable city, and exploring its queer nightlife simply requires a good pair of shoes and a joie de vivre attitude. I find locals along the way friendly but not overly interested in chatting up an American. Most people I encounter speak a bit of English (compared to my futile French) and, refreshingly, could care less what I do for a living.
Malabar Station is a great spot for people watching along the bustling rue Bonaparte. For a craft cocktail, head to Doris Carabetta and Solene Canpion’s Hacienda Bar y Cocina. The lesbian-owned and operated hotspot features a Latin menu by chef Marco Antonio and a downstairs speakeasy.
The botanically-inspired Le Swing’s long, narrow space opens to a small dance floor and DJ in the rear, where the intimate space hosts karaoke and drag shows. For a show of a different kind, head to Le 6. A small annex and balcony provide nooks to chat with friends, and numbered old-school phones installed throughout the perimeter enable customers to flirtatiously call one another to break the ice. For a final late-night stop, head to Le Glam, where you’ll discover one of France’s legendary DJs, Mademoiselle Lucy, in residence, spinning pop classics and remixes.
Day 4: A final farewell by way of Vence and Renoir
I’ve heard that there’s one more taste of the French Riviera not to be missed before I depart, so I kiss the sea goodbye and head northwest toward the mountains and the village of Vence. The bold Armenian flavors of restaurateurs Brigette Simonian and Marie Jeanne Boulanger are a palate-awakening compared to the subtle cuisine nissarde I’ve been eating all week.
Aromatic spices punctuate Restaurant Chez’Elles‘ range of small dishes, and the energetic couple — both in life and love — are on hand to guide diners through a feast. Mainstays of the town square since 2016, the couple also hosts and welcomes queer-friendly parties in the restaurant’s subterranean space, which dates back to the 13th century.
From food to art, Côte d’Azur has long attracted creatives. In addition to Cocteau, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso and Pierre Auguste Renoir all found inspiration in the French Riviera. I leave Vence and make one final, majestic stop: Renoir’s home in Cagnes-su-Mer, which has been transformed into a museum of his works. The villa was part of the last chapter of the artist’s life, built in 1907, where he remained until his death in 1919.
The queer connection to Renoir’s work requires only minor excavation. One of his closest friends, Gustave Caillebotte, was a patron of the artist, even naming Renoir the executor of his will. Caillebotte was also a painter, primarily focused on the male form (check out “Man at his Bath,” 1884), and is thought to have been gay by many art historians. Renoir’s financial success and the beautiful grounds on which he was able to spend his final days are intrinsically connected to his friendship with Caillebotte — a gentle reminder that our queer existence can be found in the most unexpected settings, including the French Riviera.
How to get there and where to stay
Several carriers offer direct flights from the U.S. to Nice, but one company, in particular, has reimagined international flights to France through a boutique business model. La Compagnie’s tiny fleet of two customed Airbus A321neo planes may be small in size but big in concept.
The aircraft, which can typically accommodate up to 240 passengers, have been configured to business-class-only and feature 76 full-flat beds and all the amenities you’d expect. Lounge access, champagne and wine curated by French wine critics Michel Bettane and Thierry Desseauve, and free high-speed Wi-Fi are among the perks. And while it’ll cost you more than an economy ticket, fares are considerably cheaper (starting at $2,900 RT) than business class fares on major airlines.
I opted for the aisle, given the two-by-two configuration, which makes it awkward for those in the window seat to get out when seats are fully reclined. But even at capacity, the reduced passenger load creates a spa-like environment on board, with mood-shifting lighting throughout the flight, noise-canceling headphones, and a meditation channel in addition to typical movie selections.
For those with other destinations to check off their bucket lists, La Compagnie also flies to Paris and Milan.
Nice has plenty of hotel options, depending on your budget and preferences. Boscolo Nice Hotel & SPA, located on Boulevard Victor Hugo and just steps away from the city’s main shopping street, Avenue Jean Médecin, combines historical details with modern amenities.
The property, built in 1914, features a Belle Epoque-style façade that lures guests into an atrium lobby featuring bold, contemporary art and sculpture. The bright rooms, decorated in cream and ivory, feature plush linens, soaking tubs, high ceilings, and an airy quality that echoes the Nice’s relaxed energy. Be sure to allow time to head to the BClub Rooftop, where you can take a dip in the pool, enjoy the city views and nibble on Mediterranean cuisine. For even more rejuvenation, head to the lower-level spa, where you’ll find an indoor pool, hydromassage, sauna, and massage treatment rooms.
If a cozy bed and great location suit your needs, the Yelo Jean Médecin offers small but well-appointed, tech-enabled rooms ranging from 131- to 244 square feet. The bustling area is steps away from the Nice tramway for getting across town, and the Nice-Thiers station, the city’s central railway hub for day-tripping. The property is also irisée naturellement–designated, a city-wide program for LGBTQ inclusivity and training.
Transportation, accommodations, and experiences were provided by La Compagnie, the Office de Tourisme Métropolitain Nice Côte d’Azur, and partners.