Ancient Nemausus was a city on the Via Domitia, the first Roman road built in Gaul. Now, many hundreds of years after the fall of Rome the monuments constructed here in the 1st century are as good as new. The extraordinary amphitheatre is still used as a stadium for festivals, while the Maison Carrée is a temple facade as complete as any in the former Roman territories.
Take your conquest of Nîmes even further by venturing to the Pont du Gard, part of the stunning aquaduct that supplied the city with water from 50 kilometres away, and locating the many other ancient vestiges scattered around this thrilling city.
Fun fact: Did you know that the word, “denim” (De Nîmes) comes from this textile centre, and has been made in Nîmes since medieval times?
Lets explore the best things to do in Nîmes:
1. Les Arènes
The Roman amphitheatre in Nîmes has proudly stood the test of 2,000 years and looks great for its age.
The arena is still used for celebrations and concerts, and every May is a solemn scene for six days of bullfighting during the Feria de Nîmes.
On a visit there’s so much for you to sink your teeth into, because even the configuration of the stairwells and galleries is impressive, and would have allowed 24,000 spectators to get in and out in a few minutes without risking crushes.
From the outside, near the entrance, you can make out the sculpted heads of bulls just above the upper tier of arches.
2. Maison Carrée
An exemplary piece of Vitruvian architecture, Maison Carrée is almost unparalleled in the former Roman world for its completeness.
It has been here for more than 2,000 years and the only signs of age are a bit of weathering on the columns in the marvellous portico.
The temple was dedicated to Gaius and Lucius Caesar, two grandsons of Emperor Augustus who died in their youth.
In the next 20 centuries it became a house, granary, church and was also the mooted tomb for the 16th-century Duke of Uzès , Antoine de Crussol.
All these functions helped to keep temple in one piece for so long.
To enter you have to pass through the majestic doorway almost seven metres in height and there’s a small, unadorned chamber showing a film about ancient Nemausus.
3. Jardins de la Fontaine
Parks don’t get much grander than these 18th century gardens around the water source where ancient Nîmes was founded.
There are regal balustrades, broad stairways, statues and marble vases, but also exciting Roman monuments, which we’ll visit later.
When the Jardins de la Fontaine opened in 1745 it was one of Europe’s first public parks, and came about after attempts to channel the natural spring led to the discovery of a temple to Augustus and theatre.
Come to make more Roman discoveries and recharge your batteries on paths with cedars and horse chestnuts.
4. Temple de Diane
Almost hidden behind a copse of pines on the west side of the Jardins de la Fontaine are ruins of a chamber with a long barrel vault that caved in centuries ago.
To the sides are passageways with centuries-worth of graffiti etched into the walls, and there are fragments of expertly-carved stonework in the main room.
The site is called the “Temple of Diana” although the exact purpose of the building is unknown – it was possibly a library instead.
Just by the entrance there’s a plaque telling you the story of the site since medieval times, and how it was damaged by fire in the early modern age.
5. La Tour Magne
In its prime the tower at the top of the Jardins de la Fontaine would soar to 32 metres, dwarfing every other building in the city (it is now 18, which is high enough!). The tower is all that is left of the fortifications erected during the rule of Emperor Augustus in 15BC. From its pedestal at the highest point of Nemausus it would have been a crucial beacon and watchtower controlling the plain.
You can enter to read the explanatory panels about its Celtic origins, and climb up the stairs to the viewpoint at 18 metres where the displays show you how the panorama would have looked 2,000 years ago.
6. Musée des Beaux-Arts
Languedoc-Roussillon’s second-largest fine arts museum is a treasury of French, Italian, Flemish and Dutch painting from the 1500s to the 1800s.
The museum was founded in 1821 and at first was housed in the Maison Carrée before coming to this specially-built hall on Rue de la Cité Foulc in 1907. If you only need the headlines, head to the works by Pieter Coecke van Aelst, Rubens and Paul Delaroche.
Then you can admire the largest mosaic in Nîmes, measuring 8.80 metres by 5.94 depicting the “Marriage of Admetus”. Follow this with the beautiful glazed terracotta medallion of the Madonna and Child by renaissance sculptor Andrea della Robbia.
7. Carré d’Art
After Nîmes was hit by floods in 1988 the city decided to rejuvenate the square around the Maison Carrée and build a library and space for modern art.
Norman Foster won the architectural competition and his steel, concrete and glass creation is just across the road from the temple.
Although it has nine storeys the building has a subtle outline because the lower floors are all underground.
The galleries host temporary exhibitions by contemporary artists , while there’s also a collection of 480 works and the permanent exhibitions are refreshed every year.
Come for 20th-century movements from the south of France and the Mediterranean, like Nouveau Réalisme and Italian Arte Povera.
8. Pont du Gard
The magnificent construction that traverses the Gardon River is 20 kilometres from Nîmes, but is part of the ancient city’s infrastructure.
The aqueduct brought water all the way from the Fontaine d’Eure, bypassing the high plateau directly north of Nîmes with a 50-kilometre crescent.
Pont du Gard is the most astonishing section, standing at almost 50 metres, with three tiers of arches.
And despite the awesome scale of the aqueduct there’s a difference in gradient of just 2.5 centimetres from one side of the Pont du Gard to the other, 275 metres away on the opposite bank.
9. Castellum Divisorium
Behind the railing on Rue de la Lampeze is something you can only see in two places in the world: Pompeii and exactly this spot.
It might not look like much, but as the information panel will inform you, this was the terminal of the Aqueduct of Nemausus.
It’s mind-boggling to remember that water would have travelled 50 kilometres to this location.
Still visible in the structure are ten holes, to which would have been fastened lead pipes supplying water to public fountains, amenities and homes that could afford the privilege.
10. Les Halles de Nîmes
You can tell a lot about a French city at the stalls of its covered market.
You’ll be wowed by the sumptuous displays of regional produce, and in Nîmes that’s picholine olives and fish such as bream or oysters, caught overnight and sold from the fishmongers’ counters a few hours later.
But since so much of the city does its shopping at Les Halles, you can see local people going about their lives in a way you can’t at more touristy sites.
Bring an appetite too because at lunch there’s a selection of food bars with local dishes like brandade, cassoulet and even paella.
11. Nîmes Cathedral
The cathedral is a document to the tumultuous history of Nîmes, and as soon as you see the western facade you’ll know that it has taken a lot of punishment in its time.
There has been a religious building right here since the Roman temple of Augustus, and the northwest tower and a few arches on the facade were constructed in the 1100s.
They are all that survived the French Wars of Religion in the 16th and 17th centuries, so the rest of the building has a 19th century neo-gothic design, while the interior also got a neo-byzantine overhaul.
Stop by to see the organ inside, dating to 1643 with a carved buffet that is protected as a French historical monument.
12. Place aux Herbes
If you study the cathedral’s facade you can make out a row of holes above your head to the left of the portal; these were made by medieval market sellers, who would fix their stalls into the wall.
Place aux Herbes was also where some of Nîmes’ darkest moments during the French Wars of Religion took place, most notoriously the massacre of Catholic priests and monks during Huguenot rioting in the Michelade in 1567. This triggered the Second War of Religion.
But now, instead of religious blood-letting you can have a chat at a cafe terrace, potter around the flea market and treat yourself to an ice cream from the glacier.
13. Esplanade Charles-de-Gaulle
Just next-door to the amphitheatre is a handsome open space, trimmed with plane trees hackberries, and decorated with the marble Fontaine Pradier.
The fountain was added in 1851 and is one big allegory for the city and region.
The woman on the pedestal represents Nîmes because the Maison Carrée is on her head (in the Roman style) , while the four figures below are for each of the major bodies of water in the region: The spring in Nîmes, the Gardon, the Eure (chanelled to Nîmes by the aqueduct) and the Rhône.
After that little geography lesson you could pause at a cafe on the north side of the esplanade or go for a dignified stroll below the hackberries and plane trees down one of the avenues.
14. Roman Gates
The Via Domitia Roman road passed right through Porte Auguste on its way down to Cadiz in Spain, so linking the southern tip of Iberia with Rome.
There are two arches in the middle, which would have been for road traffic like carts, and flanking these are two smaller openings for people on foot.
If you look down you can see the marked locations of the two towers that would have defended the gateway two millennia ago.
The less conspicuous Porte de France is to the south of Nîmes, with a single arch above a road and capped with a blind gallery (pillars and lintels without an opening).
Brandade is Nîmes’ hallmark dish, and is a kind of emulsion made with salt cod and olive oil, accompanied with potatoes or bread.
It’s a warming winter dish and is often cooked in a pastry pie.
Picholine olives are a local staple and are eaten raw as a snack with drinks.
They make delicious olive oil and are the main ingredient of tapenade, which is an olive paste with anchovies and herbs that goes great with crusty bread.
And for a satisfying traditional meal, Gardiane de taurea is a red wine stew made with slow-cooked bull meat and served with rice and black olives.