Known as the French Rome, Nîmes is a southern French city that is an unexpected coup de coeur. When I visited this city in the Gard department during a school trip with my Master’s program, I was surprised and delighted by the history, monuments, and charm Nîmes has to offer. Before spending a weekend here, I didn’t know much about the ancient city. The only thing I knew about it was that the textile, denim came from the area: denim= de Nîmes. It may not be as well known as some other destinations in France, but it is one you should put on your bucket list if you want to visit a less touristy city in the South of France! Keep reading to discover the best things to do in Nîmes, France, as well as some day trip ideas.
Roman History of Nîmes
Nîmes was founded by a Celtic tribe long ago in the 6th century B.C. A few centuries later, it was taken over by another group. Remember when I said Nîmes is known for being la Rome française ? Like Narbonne, Nîmes was located on the strategic Via Domitia, the road that first connected Italy to Spain by traversing France. This location allowed Nîmes to develop into a bustling colony lead by emperor Augustus in the 1st century B.C. Many of the famous monuments built in the Roman area still exist today and are some of the must-sees in the city. To learn more about the history of Nîmes click here.
Les Arènes de Nîmes
If there is one thing you must see in Nîmes, it’s the arènes, which is one of the most well preserved Roman amphitheatres in the world. My classmates and I sure were impressed by the quality of these “ruins.” This amphitheatre is a bit bigger and more intact than the one nearby in Arles. In it’s heyday, the Nîmes amphitheatre could fit around 24,000 spectators to observe events like gladiator fights.
One interesting fact I learned while on a tour of the arena, was that in the Middle Ages, houses were built on the inside and the walls of the arena were used as a a fortification. During the Renaissance, the medieval houses were destroyed and the amphitheatre was restored to it’s former appearance. Today the arènes are used for annual bullfighting events and concerts in the summer.
La Maison Carrée
Speaking of well preserved monuments, la Maison carrée, is next up on my list for the best things to do in Nîmes. This gorgeous piece of architecture is not actually a “square house,” but a Roman Temple, built in honor of Augustus’s grandsons, Lucius and Gaius. This monument actually inspired other buildings like the église de la Madeleine in Paris and the Virginia State Capitol, which was designed by Thomas Jefferson, diplomat to and lover of France.
After admiring the outside of the building, we went inside and watched a short film about the History of Nîmes. There is not that much else to do here besides admiring the longevity and design of this beloved temple.
Jardins de la fontaine
Looking for a tranquil place to take a walk or get a breath of fresh air? Check out the jardins de la fontaine.
Here you can admire the fountains of the spring where the ancient Gauls built their first sanctuary. If you follow the path in the park uphill, you will find another Roman relic called the Tour Magne. It’s possible to climb the tower to see a view of Nîmes and the surrounding area.
Here you can also find the Temple of the Goddess Diana, which is Roman. The shelves inside the temple could also indicate that is was a library.
Day Trips from Nîmes
Located in Occitanie, but on the edge of Provence, Nîmes lies between two rich regions of France. Consider wandering out of the city center to visit some other bucket list worthy sites in the South.
Only a 20 minute train ride away, the charming city of Arles is perfect for a day trip. Here you can see some more Roman ruins and visit some art museums featuring the work of Vincent Van Gogh, who once lived there. You can check out my city guide for Arles here: Provence Adventures: Two Days in Arles and the Camargue.
Olive Oil Tasting
When you think of the South of France, maybe you think of visiting vineyards and going wine tasting. But did you know you can actually visit an Olive Oil Moulin and have a dégustation ? And yes, the place where olive oil is produced is called a Moulin, which means “mill” in French. One afternoon on our trip, we stopped by Moulin Castelas for a tour and tasting. It was interesting to learn all about how olive oil is made and then get to sample some different kinds. I’ll be honest, olive oil tastes much better with some bread than in a spoonful by itself, but after the tasting I learned how to distinguish and appreciate the flavors more.
Le Pont du Gard
Another iconic monument left over from the Roman occupation of France is the Pont du Gard. This remnant of the Aqueduct of Nîmes, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is the tallest Roman Aqueduct. It crosses the river Gardon, where locals and tourists swim in the summer, and whose banks are home to thousand year old olive trees. If you want to get the full scoop on the bridge’s history, I would suggest booking a tour! Because of our tour, we were even allowed to walk across the bridge and traverse a secret tunnel.
My favorite day trip from Nîmes are les Baux-de-Provence, a scenic town in the Alpilles mountains of Provence. This village is on the list of “most beautiful villages in France.” Here we visited some castle ruins atop rocky hills. It really is one of the most beautiful places I’ve been to in France and it made me consider abandoning my studies to move there and become an artisan lavender soap maker! Kidding, but not really. Read all about my trip to this lovely village and magical ruins here: Visiting Les Baux-de-Provence : One of France’s Most Beautiful Villages
Things to Know Before You Visit
- Nîmes is easy to get to by train, but make sure you book tickets to arrive at the gare de Nîmes and not the Nîmes-Pont du Gard Station, which is actually 12km away from the city center.
- Nîmes is a walkable city and most of the monuments are accessible on foot.
- In addition to the Roman monuments, you can also visit museums like the musée de la Romanité.
- Around the city you may spot the symbol of Nîmes, which is a crocodile chained to a palm tree. This emblem dates back to Roman times and represents its defeat over Egypt.
- I don’t remember the names of the restaurants where I ate in Nîmes, but some of the local food specialties include bull meat, cod fish, almond cookies, and olive products.
- If you want to go on some day trips to Nîmes, I would suggest renting a car or booking bus tickets.
Thank you so much for reading my guide to the best things to do in Nîmes, France and don’t forget to pin it to save this travel idea for later:
What would you most want to visit in and around Nîmes?
À la prochaine,