The city of Nimes is one of those fascinating towns that manages to combine ancient Roman ruins with 21st century modern architecture. It is famous for being one of the oldest towns in France, and has been dubbed “the most Roman city outside of Italy”.
A city in the south of France, Nimes is a less than hour’s drive away from the Mediterranean sea. It is located in the region of Occitanie, within a stone’s throw of the region of Provence. The city is in the Gard department with a population of about 150 000 inhabitants, which makes it the second largest city in the department.
The old city of Nîmes was very much at the center of Roman life in the South of France. With the port city of Marseille providing an important access point to the Mediterranean trade, the surrounding area was heavily built with cities and aquaducts springing up to provide for the citizens of the Roman Empire.
This historical city has several small museums and theatres where musical programs, operas, dramas and other musical events are held, continuing a long tradition of art and culture.
Each year, the city attracts over a millions of visitors with its festivals, including the Feria de Nîmes each May, a Spanish style bull-fighting festival that dates back to the Middle Ages.
These days however, Nimes is more famous for being the birthplace of denim or rather “de Nimes”. The quintessential fabric of the jean was created in Nimes with a mixture of wool and silk devised by shepherds to withstand a hard day’s work.
As someone who has been to Nimes several times (due to family in the area), I can say that if you want to experience Old France, a trip to Nîmes is essential. Not only is the city itself of huge interest, but there are also plenty of things to see and do in the surrounding countryside. Here are my top tips on top things to do in Nimes. Allons-y!
History and why it is famous
A settlement has existed here since 4000 B.C. However it is the Romans that really put Nimes on the map, along with neighboring Arles. The city was built along the famous Via Domitia road built in Gaul (ancient France), to link Italy and Hispania (Spain) across what is now much of southern France.
The city is famous for being the birthplace of the family of the famous Emperor Augustus, at a time when births of royals outside of Rome were rare. From the ruins that remain, it is clear that it was a wealthy city, with many a building constructed for the entertainment of its inhabitants, a tradition that remains alive today.
In 472AD, Nîmes was conquered by the Visigoths, who ruled the city until the 725 when it was conquered by the Muslim Umayyads. In 752, the city was conquered by Pepin the Short, the father of King Charlemagne, becoming a part of the Carolingian empire.
In the Middle ages, the city suffered greatly through several invasions, having become a Protestant Huguenot stronghold in the south, along with nearby Aigues-Mortes. During the French Revolution, the fighting continued in Nimes, with protestants and catholics taking sides between the revolutionaries and the monarchists.
It was not until the 18th and 19th centuries that Nîmes experienced a period of economic growth and modernization. The city’s textile industry thrived, and many new buildings and structures were built.
In the 20th century, Nîmes continued to grow and prosper. The city was an important center of industry and commerce, and it was also a popular tourist destination, known for its Roman heritage and beautiful architecture.
Today Nîmes is known for its unique Roman sites, including the remains of its amphitheatre and temples, which is among the best-preserved in the world.
Things to see and do
1. Arena of Nîmes (Roman Amphitheatre)
The Arena of Nimes is one of the best preserved Roman amphitheatres in the world. It was completed around 120 A.D., holding events for the residents of the colony of “Nemausus” as Nimes was called back then.
Although smaller than the Roman Colosseum in Italy which held 55-80,000 spectators, the Arena of Nimes is still one of the biggest in the world holding around 24,000 spectators. There is a similar arena in Paris, called the Arènes de Lutèce.
Today, the Arena of Nîmes is still a working amphitheatre holding events like bullfights during the Feria de Nîmes, and other public events and concerts. Tickets for a tour of the arena cost around €10, and the arena is usually open everyday.
2. La Maison Carrée
In the heart of the old part of Nimes lies the Maison Carrée dating from the 1st century B.C. It is one of the best-preserved temples to be found anywhere in the former Roman Empire.
It was previously surrounded by extensive walls around it that have since come down, but the main building that is still standing is in remarkable shape.
It was dedicated by Emperor Augustus to his two grandsons who died prematurely in their late teens. Through its history, it has been a temple, a dwelling house, a church, and even an art gallery.
Built on a high set of stairs, these days the towering temple holds exhibitions throughout the year, explaining its history and the life of the Nîmois living in that era.
3. Le Carré d’Art
Sitting across from the Maison Carrée is new building, built in its honor. Le Carré d’Art is a contemporary art museum that was completed in 1993 under the auspices of famed British architect Norman Foster.
It contains many pieces of modern art (similar to the George Pompidou center in Paris), as well as extensive library that is more than a little impressive.
It has over 29,000 documents of 20th and 21st century art, including artists’ monographs, exhibition catalogues, essays, artists’ books, etc. Topics include a range of subjects from architecture to painting, sculpture, and photography.
Admission is around €8, and the museum is usually open everyday except Mondays.
4. Place du Marché
In the heart of Nimes lies the Place du Marché, and its cute crocodile fountain and flourishing palm trees.
There are several restaurant terrasses in this area, so if you are looking for lunch, this is a great place to find some of the local specialties. With everything from pizza to bouillabaisse, there is something to please even the pickiest of eaters.
5. Pont du Gard
About 25 km (15 miles) away is an ancient Roman aqueduct known as Pont du Gard. Built over a period of 5 years in the 1st century, the aqueduct was built to carry water to over 50 km (31 miles) to the Roman colony of Nimes.
With 3 tiers of arches, it crosses the river Gardon and is the highest of all Roman aqueduct bridges, as well as being one of the best-preserved.
After the Roman empire collapsed, the Pont du Gard remained in use as it also served as a toll bridge for people looking to cross the river. The bridge remained mostly intact, with the Ducs of nearby Uzès being responsible for maintaining the bridge.
Rather than delivering water, the bridge instead became a tourist attraction, with everyone from French Kings to apprentice masons making their way to the bridge to admire its architecture.
In the early 2000s, traffic around the area was rerouted to preserve this UNESCO world heritage site and from pollution and maintain the tranquil nature of the area. Today, it is one of the most popular destinations in France after the Palace of Versailles and Mont Saint Michel. You can read more about visiting Pont du Gard here.
You will need a rental car to visit, or alternatively you can book a tour with transport.
6. Les Halles de Nîmes
If you have never been to a French covered market, a visit to the Halles de Nimes is a must. A covered market near the Maison Carrée, the market is brimming with local specialities from the Occitanie.
The market has air-conditioning (important in the south of France where air-conditioning is not always a given) and has a couple of restaurants, as well as food stalls selling everything from cold meats, rotisseries, poultry, triperies, seafood, sushi, dairy, cheese, baked goods, and flowers.
7. Le Musée des Beaux-Arts
A couple of streets away from the amphitheatre lies the Musée des Beaux-Arts. This important art collection used to be located in the Maison Carrée before it was moved to its own building in 1907.
It holds over 3600 works from the 15-18th centuries, from artists like Rubens, Paul Delaroche, and Jacopo Bassano. The museum is usually open everyday except Monday, and costs around €5 to get in.
8. Les Jardins de la Fontaine
The Jardins de la Fontaine is a public park near the center of Nimes, that has been a park since ancient times, making it one of the oldest public parks in Europe.
With a nearby water source and canal system, many a Roman ruin has been found in the park, including a temple to Diana and the Magne tower. There are many statues along the pathways with many different specimens of plants from across the Mediterranean.
These days, the Jardin de la Fontaine is a great example of a formal French-style gardenn. The gardens, which are free to enter, are classified a historical monument by the French Ministery of Culture.
About 15 miles (25km) from Nimes is the charming little duchy of Uzès, complete with its own castle and ducal family.
At one time the Dukes of Uzès were the highest title in the land, coming in just after the French royal family. The family managed to survive with their heads during the French Revolution, and bought back their castle in the 1800s and restore it to its former glory.
Today, you can visit the castle, which is at once a home, a museum, and a performance hall. (We managed to see the Duke and his family there at a concert during the summer holidays).
But the real attraction is the town. With charming cobblestone streets and large squares packed with cafés and shops, Uzès is a smaller, more intimate version of Aix-en-Provence. The streets are lined with utterly chic art galleries and high-end restaurants known for their gastronomy. You can read more about visiting Uzès here.
You will need a rental car to get there, or you can book a tour with transport.
10. Canal du quai de la Fontaine
Even if you don’t have time to walk through the Jardin de la Fontaine, you can check out the Canal du quai de la Fontaine that links the Jardin to the Nimes town center.
This expansive canal is just a few meters away from the Maison Carrée. The waters were previously used for industry, to operate nearby mills or as detritus of nearby washhouses. These days, it is quiet and tranquile part of the city.
11. Place d’Assas
If you are coming to Nimes by car, you will likely park at the large parking lot that is below the Place d’Assas.
This quiet corner of Nimes is just outside the city’s pedestrianized area, and official tourist office. If you are coming with kids, there are a few bars and restaurants in this area, with a wide open terrasse that kids can run around in.
How to get to Nimes?
If you are coming from Paris, Nimes is accessible by high-speed TVG train in less than 3 hours, or 8 hours by car. It also easily connects by train to other big cities in the South of France, like Marseille, Avignon, Nice, and Montpellier.
The closest airports are in Marseille and Montpellier. You can also take a tour to Nimes from Avignon, which will transport you in comfort.
How many days should you spend?
I would recommend spending a day in Nimes. It has a lively restaurant and bar scene in the evenings, so I would suggest staying overnight.
Where should you stay?
If you enjoyed that post, you may want to read more about traveling around Provence and the French Riviera. A bientôt!