There are many Carnivals in France, but the event in the city of Nice is very well-known and one of the oldest in the world. It's also the biggest winter event on the French Riviera, attracting over 1 million visitors each year from around the world. From pagan and humble beginnings back in the 13th century, the event in Nice has become a glorious, annual party for two weeks in February. Held every day except Mondays and Thursdays, the Carnival fills Nice with excitement from the parades of floats, street events, and stalls, culminating with Mardi Gras on the last day.
Carnival begins with a grand parade of around 20 floats making their way through the crowded streets. At the head is the Carnival king in his Corso Carnavalesque (Carnival Procession). The floats take on the theme of the year using about 50 giant puppets (called grosses tetes, or big heads).
Making the papier-mache figures is a work of art in itself, using centuries-old techniques involving layers of paper glued one by one inside a special mold. Once the puppets are created, they’re painted by specialist craftspeople. The figures move and weave as the floats advance, joined by hundreds of global dancers, musicians, and street artists. At night, it's an extraordinary sight.
The Battle of Flowers
The Bataille de Fleurs, known around the world, takes place on a variety of dates throughout the Carnival. The battles began in 1856, specifically aimed to entertain the foreign visitors who were beginning to flock to the south of France. Today, people on each float throw flowers into the crowd—approximately 100,000 fresh-cut and mostly locally-grown flowers are used throughout the festival—as they make their way along the Promenade des Anglais beside the azure blue sea of the Mediterranean. Finally, the floats arrive in Massena Square.
Colorful Stalls and Fireworks
The streets are full day and night with stalls selling gifts: Provencal items, lavender, brightly colored fabrics, and food. Carnival is designed to make you feel that winter is behind you and the spring season is beginning on the French Riviera.
On the last night, King Carnival puppet is burnt and an impressive fireworks display set to music goes on over the Baie des Anges.
The Origins of Carnival
The earliest reference dates back to 1294 when Charles d’Anjou, Count of Provence, noted "some joyous days of Carnival" on a visit he had just made to Nice. It’s believed that the word "Carnival" comes from carne levare (away with meat). It was the last chance for rich dishes and excess before Lent and its 40 days of fasting. Carnival was wild and abandoned, offering the chance to disguise your identity behind fantastic masks and enjoy pleasures forbidden by the Catholic church during the rest of the year.
For centuries it was a private event, with balls in grand surroundings attended by the rich aristocrats and their friends rather than street entertainment. In 1830 the initial procession was organized; in 1876 the first Flower Parades took place, and in 1921 the first electric lights were installed for nighttime activities. Carnival has been an annual event since 1924.
Many of the events around Nice Carnival are free, but there are charges for the parades. For the best view of this perfume-filled, colorful extravaganza, buy a ticket for a seat in the stands or for the designated standing area along the road. Children 5 and under are free.
As you plan your trip, check with the Nice Côte d'Azur Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau for additional information. In terms of lodging, see Top Nice Hotels and recommendations on TripAdvisor.