The tres gay town of Nice along the French Riviera is a chic playground


The French Riviera, or Côte d’Azur, ranks among Europe’s most enduring — and alluring — gay playgrounds. While this stretch of rugged Mediterranean coastline at the southeastern tip of France doesn’t generate quite as much buzz with LGBT travelers as Sitges, Ibiza or Mykonos, the sunny and sophisticated French Riviera is ideal for a romantic getaway, and the most gay-popular communities — we’re covering Nice this month, Cannes next — abound with beautiful beaches, chic shopping, exceptional art museums and atmospheric cafes and open-air markets.

The largest city in the region, with about 350,000 residents and an international airport with direct flights from North America, Nice supports an active gay organization, AGLAE, which sponsors Gay Pride each July and produces a gay guide that’s distributed free at many businesses. The city is also home to several fine museums, including the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art and the Matisse Museum of Nice. This is also a fine town for shopping, with dozens of upscale boutiques set along Rue Pastorelli and Rue du Marechal Joffre, including the famous Galeries Lafayette department store.

For great views of the city and harbor, climb the stairs to Castle Hill and stroll among the botanical gardens and medieval ramparts, soaking up the views of the bustling port neighborhood — you can see for miles up and down the coast. At the base of the hill, bustling Old Town’s narrow streets, classic architecture, esteemed galleries and open-air flower and food markets contain a number of the city’s gay-frequented businesses.

Old Town fringes the city’s shoreline, where you can stroll along the broad, palm-shaded Promenade des Anglais, which lines the miles of pretty (but pebbly) beaches. A couple of the many beachside restaurants along here fly rainbow flags to welcome their sizable gay clienteles: the beach at Castel Club, which lies in the shadows of Castle Hill, and the beach club run by the trendy HI Hotel, a favorite see-and-sun spot of the Nice A-listers. The clothing-optional section of rocky shoreline right below Restaurant Coco Beach, a short walk beyond the Port of Nice, is another favorite gay hangout.

Continue east around Cap de Nice to reach the exclusive village of Villefranche-sur-Mer, immortalized in the Bond movie Never Say Never Again. It’s also home to St-Pierre Chapel, whose restored interior contains murals painted by famed gay novelist Jean Cocteau. Across the bay is one of the world’s wealthiest enclaves, Saint Jean Cap Ferrat — everybody from Tina Turner to Bill Gates have homes around here. Head farther toward the Italian border, and you’ll reach the ancient cliff-top village of Eze and beyond that the Principality of Monaco, with its exclusive casinos and ritzy shopping.

The French Riviera enjoys a fabled culinary reputation — you’ll find no shortage of superb restaurants in every town, plus markets and gourmet shops specializing in local olives, oils, cheeses, pastries and every other imaginable treat.

In Nice’s pedestrianized Cours Saleya district in Old Town, you’ll find dozens of sidewalk cafés, most of them specializing in local seafood and pizzas, among the flower and food markets. If you make it around the Cape to Villefrance, do not miss the wonderful seafood restaurant La Mère Germaine, which has tables right on the bay. If you’re seeking a lunch spot in Vallauris, try cozy, gay-owned Le Clos Cosette, which turns out traditional Provencal cuisine, or fashionable Cafe Marianne. The interior village of Saint-Paul de Vence is one of the country’s finest small towns for dining — it’s home to a handful of Michelin-star restaurants.

Gay nightlife in the region is relaxed and very friendly. In Nice, consider Bar Le Fard, a snug spot on Promenade des Anglais — it’s a good place to start the night. Other good bets include centrally located Le 6 Bar, which draws a stylish mix for cocktails, conversation and dancing; and Le Glam club, a small but lively spot for dancing to pop tunes. Fairly near the harbor is the Eagle, a typical leather-oriented and cruise bar, and the fetish/sex club called Le Block.

Nice also has a few very popular gay saunas, including the small but quite clean and attractive Les Bains Douches, and the large and always-crowded Sauna du Chateau.

Nice has the best variety of lodging options, which include reasonably priced gay B&Bs like Blue Angels and ThyJeff Guesthouse, both of which are close to the train station — the owners of the latter also run a cheerful gay café nearby, Le ThyJeff. Also consider the upscale four-room guest house, Mas des Oliviers, a gay-owned retreat set amid quiet gardens in the foothills above Nice — amenities include a pool, fitness room and two terraces with lovely views.

Among larger properties, the chic and artfully designed HI Hôtel — with its bold color schemes, rooftop pool and stellar sushi restaurant — is a favorite of trendy and discerning gay travelers. The hotel also operates the previously mentioned HI beach club and restaurant. Other Nice favorites include the opulent Hôtel Palais le la Méditerranée, a grand dame with a magnificent Art Deco facade overlooking the sea, and the elegant and smartly updated L’Hôtel Beau Rivage, an 1860s beauty overlooking Promenade des Anglais — it’s been a favorite accommodation of such arts and literary figures as Matisse and Chekhov.

— Andrew Collins

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 9, 2011.