A tradition spanning centuries, Carnival is Nice’s premier event. Music and revelry fill the streets, from Place Massena to the Promenade des Anglais, a heightened energy palpable in every crook and cranny in town.
Plan to stay in Nice for the second half of February and you can catch one or all of the events that make this extravaganza renowned all over the world. And as anyone who has attended can tell you, this is no ordinary Carnival. For the uninitiated, we’re highlighting a few reasons not to miss out on Nice’s distinctive version of merrymaking.
1. It’s one of the oldest Carnival celebrations in the world
Though many people associate Carnival with rhythmic, animated celebrations taking place on Caribbean islands, the pre-Lenten period of decadence was actually well established in Nice more than 700 years ago.
The first recorded account of Carnival comes from a letter written in 1294 by Count of Provence Charles Anjou. Based on this, many consider Nice’s event to be the world’s original Carnival celebration.
It is generally agreed that the word “Carnival” comes from “carne levare,” or “away with meat” — not surprising given the Catholic tradition of abstaining from meat during Lent, the period of 40 days of fasting before Easter.
It wasn’t until 1873 that Carnival celebrations were officially planned as a series of parades with floats, costumes and competitions. The first organized Carnival held on February 23, 1873 closely resembled the festivities still cherished today — a series of whimsical events spanning nearly two weeks. Only World War I, World War II and the Gulf War ever caused the jamboree to cease.
In 2019, Carnival will be held from Saturday, February 16 to Thursday, February 28.
2. It makes the city come alive
Nice takes on a languid vibe in the winter months, in contrast to the seaside town’s hectic summer holiday season. However, Carnival’s rollicking events bring a new spark back to Nice, filling the streets with revelers from throughout France, Europe and abroad. In addition, the town’s energetic vibe is boosted by the annual Lemon Festival, taking place at the same time in the town of Menton, located less than a 45-minute drive away, near Italy’s border. This citrus-themed show similarly features floats, costumes and a lively parade in a series of events taking place over the course of several weeks.
These two concurring events bring more than a million excited visitors to the Cote d’Azur, who can’t wait to take part in the festivities and enjoy the area’s other inimitable assets, including top-notch dining, first-rate accommodations and a cafe culture that’s second to none. Come during Carnival and you’d never guess that it’s the French Riviera’s slow season.
3. It’s a family-friendly affair
Carnival is too racy for children’s eyes, right? Wrong. Unlike other Carnival-style celebrations around the world featuring feathered, scantily clad women and all-night parties fueled by booze, Nice’s Carnival is designed to be an awe-inspiring spectacle for people of all ages.
Though it’s a stretch to say that no one ever partakes in a drink, for the most part, alcohol doesn’t play much of a role in the events.
Family-friendly floats are larger-than-life caricatures full of color and fantasy — movie stars, politicians, mythical creatures, plants and animals are represented, often with a political twist or bit of social commentary that only parents will understand.
Though the music and energy at Carnival are contagious and hard to resist, the party never develops into anything unruly or unsavory.
4. A new theme every year keeps things fresh
In order to provide a brand-new experience for spectators (and to serve as an excuse to come up with novel floats and costumes), a new theme is chosen for Carnival every year.
For 2019, the theme is “King of Cinema,” picked to coincide with the 100-year anniversary of the founding of Studios de la Victorine, a Hollywood-style film studio in Nice that has seen many cinema heavy-hitters over the years, such as Woody Allen, Alfred Hitchcock and Jean Cocteau, to name a few.
Past themes have included “King of Space,” “King of Energy” and “King of Media.” Themes are chosen not only to honor people and accomplishments of residents of the Cote d’Azur, but also to incorporate current topics to serve as fodder for the creative minds behind the floats.
4. The weather in February is spectacular
Though you will need a heavy jacket and you likely won’t want to slip into a swimsuit for a dip, one thing is for sure: You won’t need to worry about snow, ice or gray skies. Nice in February is generally mild, with cool days and nights and plenty of sunshine, resulting in brilliant blue skies. In fact, temperatures this time of year rarely drop below 48 degrees, and often reach as high as the low 60s.
There’s no comparison, of course, to the long, lovely days of summer, though some might argue that jam-packed outdoor events are much more tolerable when the weather isn’t uncomfortably hot and humid. And since attending Carnival in Nice often involves donning an intricate costume, the milder weather can certainly feel like a blessing.
Be aware that rain showers are possible and carry an umbrella with you, just in case. And don’t forget to wear sunscreen, as the sun is deceptively strong even if you don’t feel overheated.
6. The flower battles are epic
Among the most anticipated events in Nice’s Carnival are the enchanting flower battles, where models decked out in elegant floral costumes toss flowers from atop their floats. At street level, watching hundreds of fragrant blooms descend into the eager reach of spectators is quite a sight to behold.
As many as 100,000 flowers are cast into the enthusiastic crowd, while multi-colored streamers drift against the azure backdrop of the Mediterranean Sea.
Those with reserved seating get the best views; tickets are priced at 26 euros. Otherwise, 12 euros gets you standing access to the flower parade, which follows a route along the Promenade des Anglais.
7. You get free entry to certain zones if you dress up
A long-held tradition, free entry to certain events is granted to spectators who show up to Carnival in full costume. Unlike in days past, however, a simple festive hat or funky shirt won’t cut it. Only those decked out from head to toe in Carnival-appropriate attire will be granted free access, and only in standing areas near Place Massena and around Jardin Albert 1er.
Also, free entry is not granted to the flower parades. Note that certain costumes and accessories are prohibited; see the official Nice Carnival site for more information on what’s prohibited and how to ensure that your costume is up to snuff.