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.
First, stroll the length of the Promenade du Paillon gardens, where within 15 minutes you will traverse 5 continents of botanical bliss, finishing on the seaside. Between the fountains, statues, and people-watching, you can spy carefully chosen planet-wide plant-life, all neatly grouped by continent, and with small interpretive panels. The most unusual plants have a flashcode where you can get the full story on your smartphone (albeit in French).
Once at the seaside, continue down the Promenade des Anglais, and just before 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. The gardens are free, but museum interior is not; closed Tuesdays.
Continue another 15 minutes farther along the Prom, turning inland at Boulevard de Fabron and follow the boulevard for 10 minutes until you see the sumptuous rose-colored villa 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. The gardens are free, but the museum is not; closed Tuesdays; tram stop Fabron.
Up on Cimiez hill, 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. Access to these magnificent gardens is free, and here’s how to get there.
While up on Cimiez, visit the gardens surrounding the Chagall Museum, which were actually designed down to the smallest detail by… Marc Chagall! This is the only museum in Nice with an outdoor snack bar, so give those weary feet a rest and grab a bite or just sip a glass of rosé in these peaceful zen-like gardens. The gardens are free, but the museum is not (except on the first Sunday of each month); closed Tuesdays. Since the museum and gardens are small, capacity is limited, so just to be on the safe side click here to reserve your entry time… even just for the free garden visit.
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 into a Bronte novel. The immense estate is covered with 9 lovingly cultivated rosaries and gardens including French, Florentine, Japanese, Spanish, and Exotic styles. There is an admission charge which also gives you access to the Villa. Tickets: 16€ for adults, 15€ for seniors over 65, 11€ for children ages 7-25, 13€ for students of all ages with student ID, and there is also a family pass for 45€ which is good for 2 adults and 2 children under 25. Tickets are available at the door or online via the website. If you are around in early May, don’t miss the annual Rose Festival at Villa Rothschild. In the summers they also open at night on Mondays and Tuesdays for a rare opportunity to spend an evening and picnic in the moonlit and candle-lit gardens. click the link above for more details.
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 the steps from Old Nice or 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, tram stop Parc Phoenix. 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 the tramway to Ferber, then take Bus #51, 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 are so many extraordinary gardens; in Monaco alone, visit the seaside oasis of the Japanese gardens, the manicured Casino gardens, the Princess Grace Rose Gardens, and the Jardins Saint-Martin on the Palace promontory (all free). If cactus is your bag you will love the surreal prickly landscapes the Exotic Gardens in Eze and and the Monaco Jardins Exotique, and the Monaco gardens even boast an incredible stalactite-filled underground grotto to explore, a sort of jardin mineral if you will. Both exotic gardens have admission charges.
In Menton, don’t miss the superbe Serre de la Madonne (the greenhouse of the Madonna) gardens, open every day. Another is the Jardins de Palais Carnoles with a modern sculpture garden and one for the largest collection of agrumes in Europe, open weekends only. Menton is the lemon capital of France, and you can visit 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. Visits are by appointment only, so stop by the Menton tourist office to arrange a visit or call +33 4 92 10 33 66; Entrance fee 5€.
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.
Farther afield above Grasse, there is the purple-hued lavender fields and floral park at La Lavanderaie de la Source Parfumee in Gourdon, which fuels the lavender needs of the Galimard perfumery.
Above Antibes, visit the vast Villa Thuret Botanical Gardens, free and open to the public on weekdays, with the possibility of free guided tours with the botanists working at the Institute.
…There are so many more extraordinary gardens in the surrounding towns, that I can’t fit them all in! The regional council has published a super guide that includes them all, so just pop by any tourist office and ask for the brochure Les Jardins et Parcs de la Cote d’Azur, available in English and Italian as well, with great maps and a listing of over 72 gardens and parks open to the public!
Garden Events around Nice
February – Peak Weeks to See the Taneron Mimosa Forest
In May there are garden and flower festivals up and down the Cote…
- Festival des Jardins, a Riviera-wide Garden Party and competition – All of May
- Les Fetes des Roses at Villa Rothschild, Early May
- ExpoRose de Grasse, Late May – A weekend rose festival in the perfume capital of Europe
June – Rendez-vous aux Jardins – 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.