Not long ago, it wasn't easy being Nice. Travelers shunned it, electing not to spend their Riviera holidays in a listless community of shuffling retirees whose last wish before dying was a perfect hazelnut tan. Until recently, even the French didn't have much use for Nice. Historically, France's fifth city has been denigrated as isolated and passé not just by Paris but by its eternal regional rival, Marseilles.
Far from languishing beyond some imagined sell-by date, Nice is being reinvented by an inspired citizenry of artists, hoteliers, chefs, and designers. That's only half the story. The other half is the city's joyous, vigorous rediscovery of its past (better late than never). Together, they're making Nice the destination for restless, heat-seeking Europeans. Even Parisians have changed their song—Nice has become their favorite weekend bolt-hole. I visited for the first time 23 years ago, and I think I must have stopped counting the number of return trips when I hit 12. Tracking the city's metamorphosis has sometimes been agonizing, but more often thrilling.
Nice today has three faces: Grand, Young, and Authentic. That's how I've broken the city down, but remember, the whole point is to mix it up. Cocktails in a monument to the Belle Époque, lunch at a restaurant where live images are beamed in from the kitchen, a little retail therapy at a traditional Provençal pottery shop: it's the new way to do Nice.
For decades leading up to its relaunch last year, the Palais de la Méditerranée was the one thing that allowed every Niçois fishwife to believe the city could reclaim its grandeur. There had been many false starts. Built in 1929 as a casino and theater, and shuttered in 1978, the Art Deco landmark was at one point being developed as a hotel by a prime minister of Lebanon. One of the project's harshest critics was Jeanne Augier, the fiercely territorial proprietor of the Hôtel Negresco down the street. Madame Augier was incensed that anyone should try to steal a piece of her pie. She and other opponents cost the Palais four years.
It took $159 million and the Taittinger family to prevail, to revive the casino and create a hulking luxury hotel that sits not a little imperiously on the Promenade des Anglais. The Taittingers are best known for champagne but also happen to own Baccarat crystal and world-class hotels: the Crillon in Paris and the Martinez in Cannes. Like these, the Palais affects a brittle glamour.
As I learned looking out the window of my seafront suite at the hotel, you can't say you've been to Nice these days if you haven't walked down the boardwalk in the broiling sun and pretended not to notice the amazon women in gladiator stilettos and other boîte de nuit wear slithering out of Jaguars and into the Palais at 11 o'clock in the morning. The second part of the ritual involves lifting your head and snapping a picture of the façade, the only element that remains of the original building. Bas-reliefs depict horses rising from the ocean, their manes shaved in stylish Mohawks.
The rest of the place—all the new bits—adheres to the heartless tenets of classic Côte d'Azur apartment-block architecture. Something went wrong with the pool area and the dining terrace of Le Padouk, a bells-and-whistles restaurant gastronomique with serious ambitions. This extravagant alfresco zone is practically the hotel's whole reason for being and was obviously meant to have colossal views of the Mediterranean through its 31-by-17-foot windows, which were glazed in the days when Josephine Baker swanned around with her pig and are now spectacularly open to the sky. But somebody miscalculated the floor level. It's too low. From most places you can't see the water. Crazier than this screwup is the fact that, as with the piped-in birdsong in the elevators, no one seems to notice.
The Palais and the Negresco, which opened at the height of the Belle Époque, are as different as two hotels can be that use grandeur as their chief sales and marketing tool. The Negresco's ballroom-sized main public space has a glass dome made in Gustave Eiffel's workshops and a French chandelier ordered by Czar Nicholas II for the Kremlin (the revolution held up delivery, so it remained in France). The bellhops, hired for their youthful adorableness and beauty marks, wear red britches and white gloves. Jeanne Augier and her poodle lunch every day like clockwork in an alcove with Regency paneling, under a portrait of Louis XV, in the hotel's Restaurant Chantecler. The Chantecler is one of the most illustrious and closely watched tables in town, the question being, Will new chef Bruno Turbot fly or fail?
A lot of people write off the Negresco as fusty, a too authentic relic of a time they don't understand or find heavy, kitsch, and burdensome. Another group, the Wallpaper* crowd, can only relate to it ironically. Call me peevish, you can even call me a bore, but I find this insulting. The Negresco should be taken for what it is: a good, old-fashioned hotel.
Once you start thinking grandly in Nice, grandeur (which, to be honest, sometimes just means vulgar and expensive) is all you see. The Negresco hawks Niki de Saint-Phalle pool toys and molded-plastic bra tops. Harter Antiquités sells floor-to-ceiling paintings of cavaliers dressed like Puss in Boots, and bronze tripod tables with marquetry tops made from 120 swatches of marble, alabaster, and porphyry. Maison Auer is a fifth-generation sweet shop where the nougat is set out on mock-Versailles bombé chests freighted with garlands and cherubs. The specialty is fruits confits: whole figs, cherries, clementines, and plums that are blanched, then boiled in progressively longer baths of sugar syrup. One bite of a magnificently intact Cavaillon melon, the apotheosis of the confit confectioner's art, is exquisitely sweet to some, excruciatingly so to others.
La Tête au Carré ("The Square Head"), Sacha Sosno's new sculpture monumentale habitée housing the administrative headquarters of the Bibliothèque Louis Nucéra, is grand but not sweet. More than 30 years ago, the artist used the term obliteration to explain his work; he's still obliterating. La Tête au Carré is a four-story glass-and-steel box resting on, and lifted off the ground by, a three-story human bust that cuts off at the mouth. The uneasy suggestion is that the rest of the head is trapped, suffocating, inside the grid of offices.
It looks strenuous on paper, but do try the triple shot of after-dark grandeur that begins with a performance at the Opéra de Nice, followed by dinner next door at Le Grand Balcon, followed by a nightcap (and iced oysters as an early breakfast) at the Café de Turin. The 1885 opera house is adorned with frescoes of Apollo so lyrical you'll leave the theater humming them. Decorated by Jacques (Hôtel Costes) Garcia as the tufted salon of a lesser Rothschild, Le Grand Balcon has a promiscuous kitchen grinding out everything from tempura to tagines. The Café de Turin is falling apart, and the waiters aren't just gruff, they're mean, but it's still grand.