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Nîmes is one of the great cities of Southern France and should be on everyone’s itinerary for its spectacular Roman monuments, gardens, fountains, boulevards, shops, outdoor cafés, restaurants and bullfights.

Although not technically part of modern Provence (PACA), the eastern half of the Gard département, of which Nîmes is the capital city or Prefecture, is often referred to as Gard Provençal because it links Provence with Languedoc-Roussillon.

A very important city in Roman times, Nîmes or Nemausus has a splendid Amphitheatre as well as the superbly preserved Maison Carrée and the Tour Magne, an ancient watchtower built by the Emperor Augustus. The main road to Spain from Italy, the Via Domitia, passed by the town designated as a colony for veterans of the victorious Roman Army in Egypt.

No visit to France’s sunny South is complete without spending at least a day in this ancient city founded by the Romans. Named Nemausus after a local Gallic deity, the city prospered and has lots of Roman buildings.

Wearing denim? If you’re wearing jeans, well this is probably the most appropriate place in France to do so – read on!

Blue Jean City

Nîmes is no stranger to religious struggles being involved in the medieval Albigensian Crusade against the Cathar Heretics and also the 17th century Wars of Religion. Nowadays Nìmes is an industrial city famous for its blue serge material from which jeans are made. Hence the brand name ‘denim’ meaning ‘from Nîmes’

Don’t Miss: any of the above sites or the Cathédrale Nôtre-Dame-de-Castor, the Fontaine Pradier, the place aux Herbes which are all included in my Water and Denim itinerary below. If you’re into ‘le shopping‘ then try rue de la Madeleine!

Things to see and do in Nîmes

Les Arènes

The Amphitheatre at Nîmes was constructed in 70 AD at around the same time as its counterpart in Arles. Although not the largest, it is arguably the best preserved of all the amphitheatres in France. Locals refer to it as Les Arènes.

The Roman Amphitheatre or Arènes at Nîmes in the Gard Languedoc Roussillon France
From bread and circuses to rock concerts

When fighting between gladiators was banned in the early 5th century, the Arena was converted into a fortress by the Visigoths. Later, like at Arles, the locals built a castle and a small settlement grew up within it. Eventually, during the 19th century, the Authorities demolished the buildings and restored the Arena to a bullring. As well as the Corrida, the Arena hosts concerts and Dire Straits, Rammstein and Metallica have performed here.

Note: A combined ticket for the Maison Carrée, Les Arènes and the Tour Magne can be obtained at a discount – see website.

The Chained Crocodile

The visitor to Nîmes is often puzzled by the emblems of the chained crocodile found around this old Roman town. Indeed, on walking through the place du Marché one is confronted by a very real looking crocodile. This frighteningly lifelike creature apparently emerges from the pool of the fountain there!

The Chained Crocodile in the Place du Marché at Nîmes in the Gard Languedoc-Roussillon

Gifts from Julius or Augustus? Many historians believe that Julius Caesar, or perhaps Augustus, as no one really knows, awarded plots of land in Nîmes to the veterans from the Roman army. These men helped to subdue the Egyptians during the Battle of the Nile (47BC). The chained crocodile, so familiar to today’s visitor, represents the defeated Egyptian soldiers led into captivity.

Maison Carée – the Long Square House
Things to do and see in Nimes France
The 1C BC Maison Carrée at Nîmes in the Gard Languedoc-Roussillon France

Generally considered the best preserved of all Roman Temples, the Maison Carrée was built in 16 BCE during the reign of the Emperor Augustus by Marcus Vispanius Agrippa.

The 1st C BCE Maison Carrée at Nîmes in the Gard Languedoc-Roussillon FranceThe Maison Carrée conforms to the Classical pattern of a portico with Corinthian columns under a triangular pediment with an inner room. Twice as long as it is wide, its name derives from the old French, carré long, meaning long square.

Often referred to as the ‘Square House’, it avoided destruction by Christians who converted it into a church. Later it became a meeting hall and, during the French Revolution, a stable. In 1823 it became a museum.

Note: A combined ticket for the Maison Carrée, Les Arènes and the Tour Magne can be obtained at a discount – see website.

Nôtre-Dame de Castor Cathedral

The Cathedral stands at the eastern edge of the historic centre in the delightful Place aux Herbes. This square is an ideal spot to take a little refreshment at the pavement cafés before continuing your tour.

Things to do and see in Nimes
The Cathédrale Notre-Dame-et-Saint-Castor at Nîmes in the Gard Languedoc-Roussillon

Best seen in the evening when the sun falls on the west front, the Cathedral boasts a partly Romanesque, frieze. An extraordinary 40 m high bell tower with nine bells and terraced Gothic final storey complete an unusual structure.

Constructed during the late 11th century and consecrated by Pope Urban II in 1096, it is dedicated to the Virgin Mary and local holy man St.Castor, the Cathedral is today the seat of the Bishop of Nîmes, Uzès and Alès. In the interior there is an interesting organ constructed in 1643.

Jardin de la Fontaine

The Jardin de la Fontaine was constructed around a sacred spring known to the Gauls. The Romans named it Nemausus for the God of Rivers.

Things to do and see in Nimes
The 18th C Jardin de la Fontaine at Nîmes in the Gard Languedoc-Roussillon France

During the Roman period this was a sacred area complete with a temple and baths. The so-called Temple of Diana at the edge of the modern Garden was probably not a temple but is nevertheless well worth seeing.

Much later during the 18th century Jacques-Philippe Mareschal, Louis XV‘s military engineer, designed the Gardens we see today which include balustraded walks, pools and a canal. Above the pools the path leads to the imposing Tour Magne located on the top of Mont Cavalier.

The Gardens are a very pleasant place to spend an afternoon well away from the bustle of the city. As it happens, they are in fact only a short walk (about 500 m/550ds) from the centre.

Tour Magne

Constructed by the Emperor Augustus who simply added to an existing structure at the top of Mont Cavalier as part of the ramparts around the city, the Tour Magne or Great Tower, used to command the Via Domitia road linking Italy to Spain.

Things to do and see in Nimes
The Roman Tour Things to do and see in Nimes on Mt Cavalier in the Jardin de la Fontaine at Nîmes in the Gard Languedoc-Roussillon France

It remained important during the Middle Ages when it helped to defend the City against the English during the Hundred Years’ War.

Check out a great view! Even today the Tour Magne still dominates Nîmes. The view from the top of this 34 m/112 ft high octagonal tower is magnificent. Not only the City but also Mont Ventoux and the surrounding area can be appreciated.
Note: A combined ticket for the Maison Carrée, Les Arènes and the Tour Magne is obtainable at a discount. Check out the website.

Nearby attraction – the stunning Pont du Gard

The stunning monument to the Roman era is only 26 km (16 miles) so, if you have time, this is a ‘must see

Pont du Gard things to do Provence
The spectacular Pont du Gard aquaduct near Nîmes

The Pont du Gard was part of the irrigation system which brought water from the nearby Cévennes Mountains to the City. All the information you need for this visit is available in my Provence’s Best App

Suggested Walking Itinerary – Water and Denim in a Day!

Why not enjoy my itinerary around the City to ensure you don’t miss any of the the splendid sight and attractions? You can complete this easily in a day and moreover, Nîmes boasts a wonderful park to relax in at the end of your itinerary.

Morning

Nîmes is a large city but all of the sites are within walking distance. If you have travelled here by car then head for the city centre where there are several underground car parks. Parking Arènes on Esplanade Charles-de-Gaulle is a good choice because it is adjacent to one the main sites of the city, the extremely well preserved Roman Amphitheatre known as Les Arènes.

Things to do and see in Nimes
The Fontaine Pradier (1848) symbolising the city and Eglise Ste. Perpetue at Nîmes in the Gard Languedoc Roussillon France

Before you head for the Amphitheatre admire the striking white marble Fontaine Pradier in the centre of the Esplanade which is a large urban garden.

A Chained Croc and a Square House

After exploring the Amphitheatre, head along the Rue des Arènes leading to the Place du Marché. At the eastern end of the Place discover the famous and very lifelike Chained Crocodile languishing in its fountain.

Things to do and see in Nimes
The Chained Crocodile in the Place du Marché at Nîmes in the Gard Languedoc-Roussillon

Walk wast out of the Place du Marché, (opposite end to the Croc!), about 50m till you come to the Rue de l’Étoile. Turn right and proceed for about 800 m and you will arrive at probably the best preserved Roman temple of all. The Maison Carrée (Square House), still in use today, exhibits classical architecture at its best and is stunning in its completeness.

From the Maison Carrée, walk west along the Rue de l’Horloge for 200m and turn right into the Place d’Horlage.

If you are intending to spend the full day here you may want to seek out some lunch. There are several good restaurants in the area around the place aux Herbes – take the opportunity to explore and visit the Cathédrale which overlooks the place aux Herbes.

A shopping opportunity? Make your way to the Rue de la Madeleine, the main shopping street of Nîmes and enjoy some window shopping.

Afternoon: Jardins de la Fontaine

Retrace your steps back to the Maison Carrée and continue to rue Racine. Turn right and in a few metres bear right into rue Gaston Boissier which brings you to the Quai de la Fontaine and the entrance to the Jardins de la Fontaine.

Things to do and see in Nimes
The 18th C Jardin de la Fontaine at Nîmes in the Gard Languedoc-Roussillon France

The Gardens are extremely peaceful after the bustle of the city. You can easily spend a couple of hours here just chilling and strolling along the balustraded walks beside the canals. Before you leave though, another stunning Roman monument awaits. Climb the path to the top of the garden and be amazed by the Tour Magne or great Tower.

What about the water and denim? Well, you’ll have seen plenty of water in the Jardins de la Fontaine and you may have seen, or even be wearing, some denim. The word ‘denim’ actually derives from the fabric ‘Serge de Nîmes‘ made here many years ago and dyed with indigo dye to make it blue. So whenever you wear your jeans just think back to your wonderful day strolling in the sunshine around Nîmes.

Bars and Restaurants

Bar Hemingway
Maison Albar Hotels – L’Imperator
Quai de la Fontaine,
15 rue Gaston Boissier,
30900, Nîmes

Tel: +33 4 66 21 03 74

Part of the Hotel Imperator Concorde, this swish Coctktail Bar is associated with the American writer Ernest Hemingway whose love of bullfighting is evoked here. Menus in the adjoining Brasserie are from €30 – 60 and offer superb fare celebrating  ‘Provence and the Camargue’

Le Cheval Blanc Wine Bar
1 Place des Arènes,
30000 Nîmes

Tel: +33 4 66 76 19 59

This ancient vaulted wine bar and restaurant is where you’ll find the locals. Banquettes and wooden tables add to the traditional ambience of this establishment beside the Amphitheatre. Menus from €15 – 30.

Le Palmier
18 Place du Marché,
30000 Nîmes

Tel: +33 4 66 26 96 19

Just a short walk from the Amphitheatre in the Place du Marché , this small restaurant offering traditional Provençal cuisine and sea food is good value for money.

Tourist Office

Office de Tourisme de Nîmes / SPL Agate
6 Boulevard des Arènes,
30000 Nîmes

Tel: +33 4 66 58 38 00
Website

Driving distances from Nîmes to nearby Southern French cities
  • Aix-en-Provence – 110km /  68 miles
  • Arles – 33 km /  21 miles
  • Carcassonne – 200 km /  124 miles
  • Toulon – 186 km /  116 miles
  • Marseille – 122 km / 76 miles
  • Montpellier – 56 km / 35 miles
  • Nice – 279 km /  173 miles
Other articles featured in this Southern French series are:
More about Nîmes and the Provençal region

Check out more exciting things to do and places to see locally in the wider Provençal Région here.

An app for your smart device?

Much more about Nîmes and the surrounding area can be found in Paul’s App Provence’s Best the ideal travel guide to France’s sun-drenched traveller’s paradise. It details key DESTINATIONS; outlines several ITINERARIES; and suggests great places to EAT and DRINK. All content (200+ points-of-interest and 400+ pics) is original & independent; no recommendations are ads.

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Paul Shawcross

Paul is an author, editor and photographer who has penned city guides for Thomas Cook and revised as well as writing new content for several Michelin Green Guides. He has also authored pieces for in-flight magazines and coffee table books besides contributing articles to several leading periodicals including Everything France, Living France, France Today and France Magazine. Recently he has written a series of travel apps for Touch Screen Travels featuring such diverse destinations as Provence and his local city Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Since 2015 he has been Regional Acquisitions Editor (Europe) for Bindutrips.com, the travel planning website, travelling widely in Europe visiting just about all its countries over the years with the exception of Greece which is definitely on his list!

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