On the borders between Provence and Languedoc, Nîmes looks both back and forwards. It has some of the best Roman remains in Europe, and some of the best modern architecture from the likes of Norman Foster, Philippe Starck and Jean Nouvel. It’s lively, has a rich culture, special events and is the city where denim was born.
Exploring the city
The main attraction is without doubt Les Arènes, the 1st-century Roman arena where the boulevard de la Libération meets the boulevard Victor-Hugo. It’s one of the best preserved Roman arenas in the world, filled in the summer by crowds watching the great events: bullfighting; concerts and the spectacular Roman Games.
La Maison Carrée is one of the best preserved Roman temples in France. Built in 5 AD, it was dedicated to the sons of the Emperor Augustus.
If you’re in Nîmes in the height of summer, one of the most refreshing places is the Jardin de la Fontaine gardens, constructed in 1750 on a Roman site. It's a delightful oasis in the city with various Roman remains left, including the romantic Temple de Diane.
Walk through the grottos of the wooded slope up to the Tour Magne which was once part of the city walls built by Augustus. Climb to the top for the view over the countryside.
North of the Roman arena, take to the warren of little streets where you’ll find the Hotel de Ville and the Musée Archéologique (Archeological Museum) housing Roman artefacts which help fill in the details about life in Gallic France, and the Musée sur Vieux Nimes, full of domestic treasures from Renaissance furnishings to local shawls worn by ladies in the 18th century. This is the place to discover the story of the cotton cloth 'de Nimes' that one Levi Strauss bought to import into the USA in 1848.
A Little History
Nîmes, or Nemausus as it was called, became a Roman colony around 40BC. Its rise happened 9 years later when Caesar Augustus settled veteran soldiers from his battle against Mark Antony and Cleopatra in Egypt. The town was laid out in Roman-grid fashion and flourished. The inevitable water shortage was solved by Claudius’ 50 km long canal, which passed over the great Pont du Gard.
When the Romans left, Nîmes was taken by different peoples, first the Visigoths then the Muslims, then small Germanic states. Nîmes became part of France in 1226, harbouring Protestant ambitions and the Protestant money ethic. It became a silk and cotton centre, its most famous production being the cotton cloth ‘de Nîmes’.
Outside the City
If you have the time, you must take a trip to the extraordinary Roman Pont du Gard.
Where to Stay and Eat in Nimes
Where to Stay
Try the 4-star Hotel Marquise de La Baume in a beautifully converted 17th-century mansion with a delightful open patio. 21 rue Nationale, 00 33 (0)4 66 76 28 42; Website. 34 rooms €65-€300 (breakfast €14).
For a good 3-star choice, try the Royal Hotel 3 minutes from the main tourist sites, with Spanish-style rooms. 3 bd Alphonse-Daudet; 00 33 (0)4 66 58 28 27; Website. 22 rooms from €72.
Hotel Côté Patio with a charming terrace for a leisurely breakfast and its location in old Nîmes. 31 rue de Beacaire, 00 33 (0)4 66 67 60 17; Website. 17 rooms from €55 to €80 breakfast €10).
I stayed in Hôtel de l’Amphithéatre, tucked into a quiet lane just a few steps from the Amphitheatre. It was charming, with good sized rooms and an excellent breakfast. 4, rue des Arenes, 00 33 (0)4 66 67 28 52; Website. 14 rooms from €55.
You'll find many of the cheap hotel chains in Nimes.
Where to Eat
You’re spoilt for choice in Nîmes, with Spanish food proving an influence. You‘ll also find Gard cuisine, Mediterranean style, and top classic dining.
Aux Plaisirs des Halles is the place for a traditional meal cooked with verve and generosity. Wooden walls, menus chalked up on blackboards and a lively atmosphere at this local favourite. 4 rue Littré, 00 33 (0)4 66 36 01 02; Website.
La Grand Bourse ticks all the boxes that a good brasserie should. It’s open all hours, serves food all day and is bar, brasserie and restaurant. This is the place to try the local delicacy, Nîmes brandade (salted cod purée) and Camargue bull stew with rice. Or you could opt for salmon tartare and rack of lamb with equal success. 2 bd des Arènes, 00 33 (0)4 66 67 68 69; Website.
La Bodeguita in the Royal Hotel offers good Spanish food and tapas and has the bonus of a view of the Maison Carrée.
For cheaper restaurants, try the boulevard Amiral-Courbet and the Place du Marché.
Practical Information on Nimes, transport and tips
A Few Facts
- In the Gard (30) department
- Around 145,000 inhabitants
6 rue Auguste
Tel.: 00 33 (0)4 66 58 38 00
Buy the Roman Pass for a special deal which includes one night in a hotel with breakfast; entrance fees to monuments and museums of Nîmes, an audio-guide for a day, access to the Pont du Gard site with parking included, and strangest of all, a Roman oil lamp with wick (a reproduction not the real thing) in your room. The Roman Pass costs from €60 per person.
How to get to Nîmes
Nîmes is an easily accessible city with air links from the USA into nearby Marseille and good train travel from there. There are also good connections to two other nearby airports with cheap flights from the UK and other European countries as well as good connections from major French cities.
There are major rail connections to most French cities. Nîmes is on the main rail line between Bordeaux and Marseille (which you can now reach from St Pancras in London without changing trains in 6 hours 27 mins). The time by train non-stop from Paris is 2 hours 59 minutes.
Getting around Nîmes
The centre is compact and is now traffic free so it’s easily walkable.
There are good bus services in Nîmes running daily except for May 1. Buy tickets from the main Esplanade bus station and shops.
There are plenty of taxis in Nîmes as well as car rental. If you rent a car, you may want to do that from the airport.
- If you want a long term rental, check out Renault Buy Back Car Leasing