From car rental tips, French freeway etiquette, Riviera speed traps, and tips for driving downtown, here is the sad scoop on driving in Nice.
The magazine Auto-Plus rated French cities for the rudest drivers, and our city distinguished itself by taking first place honors in two different driving disciplines: The Pedestrian Challenge (also known as Frogger), where the the test team observed a tourist nearly run down by no less than 10 cars while valiantly trying to cross the Promenade des Anglais in a crosswalk. Nice also took the gold for Red Light Aggression, clocking the quickest time for drivers to rudely start honking once the light turned green.
Driving in Downtown Nice
Nice is crisscrossed with poorly indicated one-way streets, and with the constant road work, the city is full of detours that your GPS knows nothing about. Lane markings are only seen as “suggestions”, local drivers rarely use their turn signals, cars double-park everywhere without a second thought, and motorcycles swarm through traffic like flies.
Turning onto a street in Nice, you might find yourself trapped in a bus-only lane with giant uncrossable barriers, which are sometimes in the middle and sometimes on the side, and although there are lots of bike lanes (locally known as ‘parking places’), the poor bicyclists are forced to zig-zag out into traffic at the most inopportune moments.
The stoplights are not in front and above you, they are low on the sidewalk and easy to miss, so you really have to watch for them. And they are sometimes at very odd places where there is not even a cross street!
Not only is Big Brother out to get you with radar speed cameras (the tunnel under the Promenade du Paillon and another on the freeway to Monaco are both in the top 20 biggest money-makers in France, dinging over 200 cars a day), but little brother is out to get you as well, with the Nice crime-specialty vol a la portiere, where they yank open your unlocked passenger door at red light, snatch your backpack, phone or purse, and take off on a scooter! The Mayor himself even had an attempted vol a la portiere a few years ago when he was sitting in his car on the Prom!
And don’t even get me started on Parking in Nice!
Okay, you’ve been warned. If you still want to drive in Nice, here’s everything you need to know.
French Traffic Rules
Americans take note: No free right turn on red… It’s maddening but you just have to sit and wait.
At unmarked intersections, the priority is always to the car on the right (who probably won’t even pause, much less stop).
This is sometimes even the rule at round-abouts! …Which means that all entering cars would have the priority over cars already in it, and why the famous Arc de Triomphe round-about in Paris is such total chaos! Most of the time, however, reason prevails, and if you see the sign ‘Vous n’avez pas la priorité‘, you know that you yield on entering (and once in, just to be on the safe side, stick to the right!)
Pass only on the left; if you are passing on the right and a car hits you, you are automatically at fault.
The best GPS app for driving in France is the free Waze app, by far.
Driving on the Freeway in France
To find the freeway (which is not free), follow the blue signs for the A8 autoroute. The green signs take you to the national highways or RN route nationale which do not have tolls, and the voie rapide is a multi-lane affairs like a freeway, but with no tolls.
The French are famous for being undisciplined drivers, but on the freeways and multi-lane highways, it’s another story: you stay to the far right and move into a left lane only when actively passing. Yes, this constitutes an enormous amount of back-and-forth lane changing, …and means that you have to stay really alert: no zoning-out in the middle lane!
A little vocab: Sortie is an exit, aire is a rest stop, and a péage is a toll booth… you’ll see this word a lot!
French Toll Booths
Plan ahead to avoid a stressful toll-booth honk-a-thon. Chose the line with a drawing of a human toll taker, but if there isn’t one or it’s closed, choose a lane with a big green arrow, which means all payment types. These automated toll booths take coins (which you toss into a basket and it will make change) and euro bills. and credit cards. Here is a site in English where you can calculate the cost of the tolls on any given route in France… to make sure you have enough dosh!
Exiting the Freeway to Nice
Coming from the south, take exit 50 for Nice Promenade des Anglais. Exit to the right, then once off immediately go all the way over to the left lane, and within moments you’ll find yourself on the beautiful Promenade des Anglais.
Coming from Italy, take the first exit that says Nice: sortie 55 Nice Est Port (it’s not very well marked and you don’t get a huge amount of advance notice). If you want to come to the Old Town, follow the signs to the Acropolis.
Renting a Car in Nice
First thing to know is that most European rental cars are stick shift, so if you want an automatic transmission you need to request it ahead of time. And this is the one time when you might want to refuse an upgrade to a bigger roomier model: smaller is definitely better, both for parking and driving down impossibly narrow lanes, of which there are many.
You can avoid the expensive insurance coverage if you rent with an American Express Gold Card or a Gold MasterCard or Visa (worth the yearly fee even if you rent cars just a few times a year), but check ahead of time to be sure you are covered by your card before declining the coverage.
Note the kind of gas your rental car takes: Gazole may sound like regular ole gas, but it actually means diesel! There are very few gas stations in town, they are mostly on the way out of the city towards the airport; the free Essence Pas Chere App not only shows you where to find the closest filling station but lets you compare prices to find the best deal.
And whereas the airport does have a gas station (expensive) right before the rental car return, they don’t have any signs telling you which terminal your airline is in, so check ahead of time which airline is in which terminal or download the Aeroport Nice Cote d’Azur App.
Even getting out of the airport is confusing and poorly signed; to get onto the Promenade des Anglais toward Nice, look for the round-about with the giant stone man in the middle.
Getting back to the airport is much easier now, since they made dedicated left turn lanes with stop lights to both terminal one and also two.
Just to be on the safe side, when you drop off the car, take a photo of it from all sides, as disputing an erroneous damage claim can be difficult if it’s your word against theirs.
Driving in Monaco
Visitors to Monaco are always so impressed at how courteous Monaco drivers are, always graciously stopping (unlike in France!) to let pedestrians cross. Want to know why? Because the fine for not stopping for a pedestrian is 150€ and if you don’t pay up in 5 days, it goes to 300€! And even if nobody sees you, the principality is literally covered with cameras, so believe me, you’ve been seen… and the ticket is already in the mail.
Monaco is a challenging place to drive and is full of winding tunnels, unexpected turns, and confusing signage. Avoid gawking at the yellow Lamborghini next to you and try to stay focused. Here’s a cautionary tale: a few years ago in Monte Carlo’s Casino Square, a convertible Bentley Azure rear-ended a Ferrari F430, pushing it into an Aston Martin Rapide, which slid against a Porsche 911 Carrera S, damaging a Mercedes S-Class in the process. A million dollar fender bender in front of the Monaco Casino… oops, guess I shouldn’t have been texting! For more photos, click here
Alternatives to Renting a Car
For around Nice, why not just take an Uber?
Or, for a longer trip, consider carpooling with Bla Bla Car, a ride-share service which is kind of like Airbnb on wheels. If you are still in the US, read all about it first on their global site in English, then go the French Bla Bla Car site to sign up for France; even though it’s in French, it is very intuitive and easy to sign up and navigate even for non-French speakers. You pick a front or back seat in a car that is already going to your destination, and you don’t even have to drive.
And it’s super cheap! For instance for the 2 1/2 hour ride from Nice to Aix-en-Provence you could expect to pay 9€ for a seat, as opposed to 30€ for the bus, 40€ for the train, and you don’t even have to pay tolls! This kind of economical carpooling is very popular locally, so you will have your choice of cars, and can choose your ride based on the type of vehicle, the driver’s ratings and reviews, and see the profiles of the other passengers. It’s not only cheap and eco-friendly, but it’s a great way to meet new people!
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