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Visiting the south of France is always a good idea right? That was my thinking anyway upon finding a cheap flight to the city of Nimes last year. Not familiar with the city, I assumed I’d only stay a couple of days there before moving on to somewhere more well-known like Marseilles. I actually ended up spending a full week in Nîmes, getting work done in my delightful Airbnb and sightseeing. As a bonus, I managed a day trip to the stunning Pont du Gard.
March may seem like a strange time of year to visit the south of France but it was already starting to warm up. Plus, it was very light on tourists. Despite how long I was there, I saw most of the sights in one of my first days there. Nimes is a moderate-sized city, with a rich history but even then you can hope to see most of its major landmarks in 24 hours. Would I recommend staying only one night? No, but if that’s your only choice, here are the sights in Nimes that should be your priority.
1. Nîmes Arena
Without question, Nimes’ main attraction is its immense Arena. Similar in look to Rome’s Colosseum and Pula’s Arena, this massive Roman amphitheatre stands out among the rest of the city. Built in 70 AD, the amphitheatre was symbolic of Nimes’ important and size then, when it was known as Nemausus.
So great is Nimes’ Roman heritage and preserved connection to the era, that the city is often auspiciously dubbed “The French Rome“. No small honour that!
After the fall of the Roman Empire, the Arena was re-purposed a number of times, housing a palace and later an entire community within its 21m-high walls. Since the 19th century, it has served as the local bullring, capable of hosting up to 24,000 spectators.
Today, it also regularly hosts concerts which I can only imagine have a pretty special atmosphere. Tickets can be bought separately online here or included in the 13€ “Nîmes romaine” pass.
2. La Tour Magne
Among the other impressive Roman remains is La Tour Magne. In English as the “Great Tower” this tower is the last remnant of the Roman city walls built under Augustus Caesar. Situated on Mont Cavalier, this 18m-high stone tower was one of 14 towers built in 15 BC to defend the increasingly important Roman city.
Somehow, the Tour Magne has managed to survive the test of time, despite still being in use during the Hundred Years’ War. Another example of the Romans building things to last.
The tower was almost destroyed though, by a Nostradamus prophecy of all things! The prophecy hinted at treasures beneath one of the city’s ancient buildings and local Francois Traucat, believed it to be the tower. With permission, he stripped the tower’s interior and destroyed original sections of the tower’s foundation. Worst of all, he never found anything, despite all the damage done.
From the top of the tower, you’re treated to views right across Nimes, including places like the Arena and other city landmarks. The tower’s view also makes you appreciate just how flat the countryside beyond the city limits is. Entry to the tower costs 3.5€, but is included in the “Nîmes romaine” pass as well.
3. Les Jardins de la Fontaine
Flowing down the slope of Mont Cavalier back into the city is the almost palatial Les Jardins de la Fontaine. This grand park features monumental staircases, elegant gardens and exquisitely carved statues. Built in the 18th century under request by King Louis XV, the formal gardens range from parkland on the hillside to canals below.
They’re a particularly scenic place to stroll about or get off your feet for a bit. If you’re visiting Nimes on a weekend, expect there to be plenty of locals about. You might even see people playing petanque, a French variant of boules.
4. Temple of Diana
Off to the side in the Les Jardins de la Fontaine you’ll find the open-air ruins of the Temple of Diana. What’s interesting is, that despite its name, it likely wasn’t a temple nor devoted to Diana, goddess of the hunt. As part of a larger sanctuary, the remains here were more likely that of a library. Still, the ruins make for a nice attraction that you’re able to freely explore and admire up close.
5. Quai de la Fontaine
As Nimes is an inland city, the closest that you’re going to get to the water is the Quai de la Fontaine. This canal that passes between noble old houses, flows from the spring below Les Jardins de la Fontaine that actually gave the city its name. The waterways were heavily expanded in 1740 with the building of the wide canals, in order to collect more of the spring water. There’s a real sense of grandeur to the canal as you walk along its gentle cascades and fountains.
6. Maison Carrée
One look at the Maison Carrée roman temple of Nimes and you’re sure to be impressed and a little surprise by its sudden appearance. The third of Nimes’ trinity of Roman monuments, the temple was built around the year 2 AD and is said to be one of the best preserved Roman temples in existence. This is because for much of its life, the temple was used for one function or another.
A lot of restoration work has gone into the building, including in the late 2000’s. The temple’s windowless interior is now used as a cinema of-sorts to show a film on the history of Nîmes. Entrance to the Maison Carrée costs 6€, but is also included in the “Nîmes romaine” pass.
7. Nimes Old Town
The centre of Nîmes is unsurprisingly where you find the city’s old town and it’s a loveable mess of pedestrian streets and side alleys. Every once in a while, you spy a grand old building, but for the most part the old town oozes nonchalance in an utterly endearing way. Here and there are squares that break things up, like the Place du Marché with its crocodile fountain or the cascading pools of Place du Chapitre. There’s also the Tour de l’Horloge, the city clock tower, to be found.
Regarding the several images and mentions of crocodiles around Nimes, this relates to the city’s coat of arms. Featuring a crocodile beneath a palm tree, the symbol traces back to bronze coins minted in the region during the Roman conquest of Egypt. So don’t stress, there aren’t crocodiles in Nîmes!
8. Esplanade Charles-de-Gaulle
On arrival from the bus station or train station, the Esplanade Charles-de-Gaulle is likely the first place that’s going to draw your attention. A grand old boulevard that opens to a wide square, it is the fountains and greenery border that lends this park a welcoming presence.
It doesn’t hurt that the square is surrounded by grand neoclassical architecture, as well as the beautiful Église Sainte Perpétue church seen above. Barely removed from the square is a touching memorial commemorating the end of World War I.
Travel Tips for Visiting Nimes
As mentioned I had a great experience here with Airbnb, staying in a spare room of a friendly couple’s apartment. If you’ve never tried Airbnb, I wholly recommend giving it a go, especially as there are affordable Airbnbs in Nimes. Otherwise, you’ll find Nimes has lots of accommodation options available in and around the city centre.
You’re presented with a number of choices when it comes to getting to Nimes independently, rather than visiting with a guided tour. Firstly, there’s the city’s small airport with connections to London Stansted and Brussels Charleroi. There is a shuttled service from the airport into Nimes to Nimes bus station, timed to each flight arrival and departure.
More likely though, you’re going to be arriving in Nimes by train. There are regular train connections with nearby major destinations like Avignon, Marseille and Montpellier. Local destinations like Pont du Gard and Arles are also reachable by bus.
Of course, you can always just hire a car and freely drive about the countryside of the south of France on your own. Europcar have a special deal that gives you 2 free days hire on any booking of 7 days or more in France, which is kind of perfect for visiting this region.
Would you be interesting in seeing the sights of Nimes France? Have you been elsewhere in the South of France? Please share your thoughts in the comments below
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What a lovely place!
That arena — wow! I would love to explore the old architecture here and walk around the old town. Pinned your post for future travel planning!
Oh wow, this town is amazing!! I’ve never heard of it before but I like that it definitely looks and feels like a French version of Rome and probably with not even a fraction of the tourists! I can definitely get on board with that!! Thanks for linking up with #TheWeeklyPostcard!