From manicured French estates, flowery Italian-style gardens, a lush botanic jungle, a forested oasis, to cactus and even a little-known bird sanctuary; where to find your secret garden in Nice.
Stroll the length of the Promenade du Paillon gardens, where you will traverse 5 continents of botanical bliss within a leisurely 20 minute walk, finishing on the seaside. Between the fountains, statues, and people-watching, you’ll spy carefully chosen planet-wide plant-life, all neatly grouped in a logical fashion and with small interpretive panels. And a free audioguide is even available if you have a Q-reader on your smartphone.
Continue down the Promenade des Anglais, and right next to the iconic Hotel Negresco, discover the sumptuous gardens that surround the magnificent belle epoch villa that is now the Musee Massena. The elegant gardens were designed by renowned French botanist Edouard Andre. Closed Tuesdays; the gardens are free, museum interior is not.
Continue a little farther along the Pron, turning inland at Boulevard de Fabron and follow it until you see the sumptuous pink Chateau Sainte Helene (now the Museum of Naive Art). This villa was built for the Coty perfume founder Francois Coty, and as such, the vast surrounding gardens were designed with an eye to, or actually, nose to, the delicate perfumes of the flora. With plants and trees imported from as far away as Australia, he carefully curated his garden to blend the rarest scents. To get there, take bus #9 or 10 getting off at the Fabron Musee d’Art Naif stop. From here walk up Boulevard de Fabron for 10 minutes until you see the rose-colored villa. Closed Tuesdays, gardens are free, museum is not.
Up on Cimiez, you can visit the stately flower-filled gardens behind the Franciscan Monastery, that after 500 years, are still lovingly tended by monks. The gardens are surrounded by panoramic views, and just steps from a monk museum, a 500-year-old olive grove, the Matisse Museum and the Roman Ruins. Free, and here’s how to get there.
While up on Cimiez, check out the gardens surrounding the Chagall Museum, which were actually designed by… Marc Chagall! Small but worth a look. Closed Tuesdays; the gardens are free, but the museum is not (except on the first Sunday of each month).
Just 15 minutes up the coast from Nice, the magnificent manicured gardens on the immense Villa Rothschild estate in Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat will transport you to another era with the ancient statuary, hidden gazebos, dancing fountains, not to mention the historic villa. The estate is covered with 9 immaculately cared for themed gardens including French, Florentine, Japanese, Spanish, and Exotic styles. Admission charge.
Outside of the more classical gardens, see also…
The Nice Chateau/Castle Hill used to be a fortress, but is now a wonderfully peaceful forested oasis peppered with ancient ruins and stunning views. Walk around the site and you will discover quiet trails, an impressive waterfall, and a stunningly beautiful cemetery around the back. To get up to the Chateau, you can walk up from Old Nice or Place Garibaldi, or just take the free elevator up, which can be found just across from the seaside; look for the neon ‘Ascenseur de la Chateau’ sign. Free
Parc Phoenix in Nice is an enormous lush indoor botanical garden filled with exotic orchids, wild palms, diverse habitats, and surprising species of all sorts (plant and non-plant!). Their botanical audioguide e-beacon is in the form of a free app which you can
download onto your smartphone in the free wifi zone at the entrance, and then it automatically alerts you as you approach notable flora or exotic fauna. Located at 405 Promenade des Anglais, near the airport. 3€ for adults, free for children under 12, and your ticket includes admission to the nearby Museum of Asian Art. Hours are 9:30am to 6pm in winter, and open until 7:30pm in summer. 2 hours free parking offered at the Arenas parking lot if you drive, or take bus #9, 10 or 23, or train to Nice St-Augustin.
Nice has a vast and little-known Botanical Garden, with 3500 Mediterranean species and a killer view over the Bay of Angels. It can be found up in the hills above Parc Phoenix, at 78 avenue de la Corniche Fleurie; to get there take Bus #65 or 73, getting off at the Jardin Botanique stop. Free and open every day.
Another little-known spot is the Bird Sanctuary in Nice, most improbably located between the Nice Airport and the Cap 3000 Shopping Center. It is a protected marsh area where the river Var meets the sea, a perfect habitat for migratory birds. It’s free and you just wander in to find the walking trail with interpretive drawings to help you spot the 264 species seen in the sanctuary, including 69 threatened with extinction, and 43 that nest in the springtime. Try not to be distracted by the grey-breasted Easyjet tail swooper, a rather loud and obnoxious species that seems to migrate to Nice at incredibly frequent and regular intervals.
Gardens Outside of Nice
Outside of Nice there is so much more, including the Exotic Gardens in Eze and and the Monaco Jardins Exotique: If cactus is your bag, you will love these surreal prickly landscapes. And the Monaco gardens even have a stalactite-filled grotto to explore, a sort of jardin mineral! Admission charge, closed Tuesdays.
And in Monaco alone, there are seaside Japanese gardens, the Casino gardens, plus The Princess Grace Rose Gardens.
In Menton, the lemon capital of France, stop by the Menton tourist office to arrange a visit of Le Domaine de La Citronneraie, a sumptuous garden of exotic citrus fruits, plus an aromatic orchard of 450 Menton Lemon trees, prized by the top European chefs for their aroma of their zest and the saveur of their pulp. 5€ entrance fee.
In the town of Mouans-Sartoux (along the train route to Grasse) you’ll find the International Perfume Museum Gardens and plant conservatory, featuring 5 acres of flowers and plants used in making perfume, plus plant tutorials. 4€ entrance fee.
…In fact there are so many more extraordinary gardens in the surrounding towns, that I can’t fit them all in, but here is a great list from the Ministry of Culture (albiet in French) covering even more of the best gardens on the Cote d’Azur.
Garden Events around Nice:
Peak Weeks to See the Taneron Mimosa Forest – February
Festival des Jardins, a Riviera-wide Garden Party and competition – All of April
ExpoRose de Grasse, Late May – A weekend rose festival in the perfume capital of Europe
Rendez-vous aux Jardins, Early June – A Europe-wide garden festival with guided tours, animations, and best of all, certain private gardens opened up for visits. Check with the Tourist Office for the local schedule.
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Photo credits: Villa Massena by Georges Jansoone, Monastery Gardens by Edouard Hue, Villa Rothschild by , all licensed under Creative Commons; Villa Sainte-Helene by Therese Pouget licensed under Fair Use; Nice Chateau from Ministre de la Culture et Communications; Heron by Thomas Bewick, History of British Birds published 1847.