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A Sunday trip to Nîmes – a delight in Roman architecture

Nîmes is one of the most well preserved examples of Roman architecture outside Italy. Indeed, it is home to the most intact amphitheatre in the world, more so than the Colloseum in Rome itself.

We drove from Montpellier (a 45 minute journey) for the day and saw some of the key sights without exerting too much energy. But what is a trip to a new city without a bit of a walk?

First of all I’d like to suggest the all-in-one ticket package for the following 3 attractions. It is very good value and all are within 15 minutes of each other:

  1. Les Arènes de Nîmes (the roman amphitheatre)
  2. La Maison Carrée (roman temple and forum)
  3. La Tour Magne (a roman tower at the highest point of the city)

We paid 11€70 each. On a day like this one, where the temperatures were in the mid-30Cs, bring plenty of water as there is not a lot of shade around.

Getting there

If coming from Montpellier like us your best bet is probably to use the train as it would have cost us (1 adult and 2 60+) 25€ return for all 3. Nîmes train station is about a 2 minute walk from the first attraction and it’s a nice scenic journey through wine country and hills.

We had a rental car so to make use of it went straight to the amphitheatre as we had read there was good parking availability. For a 4.5 hour stay we paid 9€90 in the underground car park. However, as it was a Sunday I suspect lots of the pay-and-display street parking leading up the the car park is free.

1. Les Arènes de Nîmes

To go along with being elevated to the status of Colony in the Roman Empire this vast amphitheatre was built in the first century AD. With 2 stories fewer than its counterpart in Rome it is no less grand. You can even explore further too, as the seated sections are open to the public. Free audioguides are given in a multitude of languages but on such a hot day we chose not to listen all the way through. Walking around the inner perimeter I was in awe of the detail and the ingenuity as well as the brutality of the Romans. It is beautifully maintained and cleaning has begun on the outer walls. Usually covered with sand (interestingly Arène or Arena in English are derivatives of the latin word for sand), the floor had been covered with tarmac for the music festival that was in progress during July.

When exiting the arena we headed straight to one of the restaurants opposite the exit as they are really nicely located, shady, and picturesque. We chose the leftmost restaurant called La Brasserie de la Grande Bourse. I would recommend against going there. My mum’s burger was pretty much raw, and the cut of meat my dad and I ordered was almost flavourless, not to mention we didn’t know from which animal it had come. Just behind these building are a great looking strip of restaurants, albeit without the view of the arena.

Les Arènes de Nîmes
Les Arènes de Nîmes

2. La Maison Carée

An important temple and place of discussion of politics La Maison Carée is elevated by 2 levels, supposedly to add prestige. Inside you watch a reenactment of the history of Nemausus (now Nîmes) in French with English subtitles, from the formation of an alliance with tribes in Southern Gaul to the subsequent development of the land into Nemausus and finally it’s prosperity of a grand colony of the Roman Empire. It was the heart of the Gallo-Roman culture, and it was the Romans in Nîmes that constructed Le Pont Du Gard, a grand aqueduct to carry fresh water 50km from a spring to the city.

The CGI animation of the city icons developing gives a good idea of the scale. A really interesting video, shown every 30 minutes on the hour and half hour.

Parents: it is safe to take your children to watch this. Despite there being footage of battles in the arena, no blood is spilled.

3. La Tour Magne

Situated at the highest point of the city, your ticket will give you access to the tower. There are about 100 steps, and there is not much room at the top. Give yourself a breather to take in the sights whilst others hog the photography space. An abundance of green spaces and residential areas lie below. You get the feeling that the Roman guards would be able to see a threat coming from miles away.

The view from La Tour Magne, Nimes
The view from La Tour Magne

Don’t rush to get up there though. As you’ll find, you’ll walk through the magnificent Les Jardins de la Fontaine before you get there. Every level is spectacular and I found it frustrating not being able to sit on the grass on the lower levels. This is common in French parks, and many provide seating around the grassy areas. However, to my joy and probably to yours, the 2 levels before the tower are accessible to our bums. And mine was more than grateful for a sit down in the shade. The lower levels have fountains-galore and what looks like the remains of some outdoor Roman baths. For a Sunday in July the city was very quiet. You could get lost for the day, picnic, walk and relax before heading home.

Colourful tree in Les Jardins de la Fontaine
Colourful tree in Les Jardins de la Fontaine
Canal in Nimes
Canal in Nimes
Roman baths in Les Jardins de la Fontaine
Roman baths in Les Jardins de la Fontaine

Summary

If you’re staying around Montpellier or Marseille, Nîmes is a fantastic city to visit for the day. I can’t wait to go back and see more.

Published inDestinationsEuropeFrance