Nice is a city of delightful surprises and many of them are gay.
I thought this as I walked through the cobbled streets of the town in the south of France, holding an umbrella over my companion on the mild November afternoon.
It’s not just the pink pastel color scheme of most of the houses, each looking like a residence for a retired Jigglypuff. It’s not just the aesthetics, you see.
There was an undercurrent; something bubbling under the surface which hinted that there was more to this city than being a quaint seaside town. Visiting in its off-season meant it couldn’t rest on its laurels – there was nowhere to hide.
It turns out, Nice didn’t want to.
An art festival in an adorable town
We arrived at the same time as the OVNi Camera/Camera Video Festival. It absorbed most of the hotels, including my own – the Hotel Windsor. The idea is that the art becomes part of the city. The rooms of the hotels are the artwork as much as the artwork itself.
This can range from using a statement whitewashed wall in an otherwise dark room as a makeshift cinema screen, to a dimly lit tropical bedroom acting as an oceanic backdrop to a video.
This latter one worked the best: we laid on the bed and looked up to the projection, our peripheral vision taken by colors in the background. Ahead of us, sea animals and fauna floated as visual representations of dicks, vaginas, ejaculation – all the good stuff.
I weaved through the rooms, peeking into each. In some, beautiful young people lounged on the seats, dressed with the power of early 2010s NME; all short cut jeans, leather jackets, and the glint in the eye of someone who knows where to buy weed, but won’t do it all the time.
I looked at them, the art, myself, then decided to flee, upstairs and into my room to make myself presentable. This seaside town with its pebbled beach and old buildings couldn’t be edgy, yet the youthful flare from these guys hinted at one.
Even without the art, The Aesthetic is something that every hotel holds in its heart.
In the entrance to The Windsor, you’re greeted by a wooden reception plucked from Wes Anderson film. The small, wooden dining room to its left is cosy and quaint. Through white doors to the right you can see the garden, made to host parties in the summer, though this winter a giant television screen sat at the bottom. Every room has French windows, shutters, or doors, looking out onto the streets.
I felt like I needed to smoke a cigarette and speak in subtitles.
Every room is different. Walk down the corridors and you’ll find rooms of bold colors, or themed rooms with modern, historical artifacts. Mine was a monument to Philippe Perrin, a post-War boxer. The cupboards were filled with paraphernalia and a giant shirtless poster of him stared into the room, eyes following me.
Being swept off beautiful streets into a wonderland of art and design was an experience that built up an appetite. Luckily, Nice could provide. I showered, changed, and met my travel companions downstairs to walk in search of food.
As we stepped outside, a group of men bounced passed us, dressed from hat to boots in leather. This town wouldn’t let up on surprises.
France? Good at food?
The cobbled back alleys of Nice are a maze of small delights. Look past the souvenir shops of Old Town and beyond every corner you’ll find something tasty, from small art cafes to socca joints. Socca is a Nice street food: a kind of chickpea crepe that’s tastiest when its crispiest.
We found an adorable family run joint called Chez Thérésa, where we could nibble while mesmerized, watching the chefs create the stuff in their giant wood-fire ovens.
This, however, is more of an appetizer.
Weaving through more back alleys in Old Town, we found one of the best restaurants in the whole city. Acchiardo is another family-run restaurant. It has the kind of vibe where all the children and their friends and partners walk through wooden doors all the time, kissing each other on the cheek and loudly talking about their day to their parents, the owners.
It’s hard not to get swept up into an atmosphere like that. As we took our seats, the waiters treated us like guests in their homes. Plates of simple salads, alongside fish and meats filled the tables first.
While cities like Paris are about culinary showmanship, Nice’s food relies almost entirely on its ingredients.
I opted for a delicious filet de sébaste à la niçoise. It was cooked to that melt-in-your-mouth level, with the fish so supremely fresh I thought they’d nipped out to the sea to catch it themselves. Luckily, I have the appetite of Pacman after doing deadlifts, which meant I cleared the plates of my friends too.
The fact the food is great in a French city is probably unsurprising. Yet Nice takes it a step further. When out on the streets of nice, look out for the ‘Nice irisée naturellement’ hanging in certain establishments. This means they have signed a quality charter and took a training session, ensuring they are a safe space for LGBTI people.
A small gesture but a nice touch. Again, seeing a city I pre-judged as a place for straight couples to walk down the beach and stare googly eyed at each other (or whatever they do) keep their LGBTI tourists so firmly in their mind was heartening. Another surprise.
While French dining is great, Nice’s Italian influence is worth exploring. Naturally, we sat down for dinner at Sentimi – a traditional Italian restaurant. The food here is hearty; the interiors are downright gorgeous.
In the summer, its alfresco dining area looks out to Garibaldi Place. Yet walk through the corridors of beautifully tiled walls to sit in the main dining room for the real treat.
Here, the centerpiece is a stunning tree: thick branches reaching into the sky and surrounded by bar seating. Hanging bulbs illuminate the bark and instantly you’re transported to A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
The food did not disappoint. Of course I ordered a wonderful Napoli pizza, cooked on a kind of flat bread with a smattering of mouth-watering, boy-hating anchovies. I could feel the carbs being absorbed into my belly and I adored it.
Nice still held one more, non-food related surprise for me. The men walking around town in leather were here for a fetish festival: Nice So Fetiche. And I was invited to the party. The very next night, after eating a whole burger at Hard Rock Cafe, and drinking more beer than you can possibly imagine, I put on my harness and went to Club l’Omega. You can read about my night at a fetish party here…
Not just everything you expect
On the last day, we walked along the seafront. The sun shined and the temperature rose to a whopping 15C. And still waves of Nice natives descended onto the rocky shores, stripping off and taking a dip into their sapphire seas. I didn’t blame them: they looked like Scrooge McDuck diving into waves of jewels.
Avoiding the chilly Mediterranean, we walked up to Castle Hill. I could see the entire city. The beauty and charm of Nice laid out in front of me, from the opulence of the yachts to the curvature of the Apollo statue, I could see everything that attracted people for centuries.
But that’s not where it’s real beauty lies. All you have to do is look a little closer to the real city underneath. Surprises are everywhere. Art is part of its DNA. I caught a glimpse of its cool undercurrent, ready to be explored again. And most importantly, it’s not just a welcoming place for LGBTI people, it’s a home for us too. You’ve just got to give it a chance.
To find out more about LGBT events in Nice, visit Nice Tourism’s gay-friendly page.