In the Occitane region of southern France, Nîmes is a city known for its cultural heritage, Roman monuments, warm climate and beautiful architecture. This September, Sarah spent a long weekend here to explore what is known as the most Roman city outside Rome.
Nîmes is now really easy to get to, with direct flights from the UK, a train station, a comprehensive bus network and main roads approaching from all sides. I was astonished to find flights from London for just £14 each way, and had no hesitation in booking my trip out there.
I arrived in Nîmes airport, which is outside the town in the nearby village of Saint-Gilles, early in the morning and slightly nervous about how I would get to Nîmes from there. However, I found the shuttle bus easily, hopped on, sat right at the front for the best view, and was soon on my way to the city.
A short drive through semi-rural areas, with lots of vineyards, olive trees and distant hills saw the bus arriving outside Nîmes train station, a rather bleak area of concrete and bus stops. Knowing I had to get to the other side of the train station, I decided to just walk straight through it, in the hope I wouldn’t end up on a platform to somewhere else.
I emerged rather uncertainly into a beautiful wide boulevard stretching away into the distance, with the sound of water running through a small channel the whole way up it, trees lining the road and the sun beating down on the golden stone around me.
The Avenue Feuchères is a welcoming sight as you enter the city from the train station.
I don’t think I have ever beamed with delight on arrival in a new city before, but I truly did this time. Walking up the boulevard dragging my wheelie case behind me, I headed for a park I could see at the end, so absorbed in the sights around me that I overshot my hotel and had to head back. Dropping off my bag, I set out to explore the city.
Nîmes is just made for exploring. For my four days there, I had no need of any buses, taxis or anything other than foot power to explore the city, which conveniently has all of its major features within a short walk of each other. A mixture of wide open boulevards and narrow pedestrian side streets, beautiful tall buildings with wrought iron balconies filled with plants, huge old wooden doorways that look like they must open on to beautiful and mysterious things, this is what I consider to be France at its finest. Streets are filled with cafes full of locals sitting in the shade with a pastry and a coffee, and shops line the edges with some beautiful displays that entice you to spend money on things you know you can’t possibly fit in your hand luggage.
The old town is filled with narrow passageways that you follow with anticipation, wondering what you will find around the next corner. Many open up onto large courtyards, filled with cafes, fountains, churches or small, hidden away public gardens. Greenery tumbles down from balconies where washing flaps in the breeze, random old carvings are embedded in walls, the sound of water, or chatter, or church bells permeates your ears. The aspect I liked best about wandering through the old town was that whichever way I took, however lost I tried to get myself, it wasn’t long before I ended up seeing the Arena at the end of the passageways, those ancient arches becoming familiar to me and helping me to anchor myself within the city.
Nîmes is awash with the legacy of the Romans, which is one of the reasons the city is such an interesting place to explore. I took a walking tour of the city, which is always an excellent way to see what a city has to offer, learn more about the history as well as to find your way around and get your bearings.
The Arena is still in use today which is incredible when you think it is 2000 years old.
The tour focused on the Roman sites within the city and took us to some amazing places. The Arena is the obvious starting point for any such tour. This 2000 year old amphitheatre is at the heart of the city and is still very much in use. There are regular events such as pop concerts, French bullfighting and festivals held here, when the stone walls once again ring out to the sound of a crowd, just as they would have done in Roman times. The amphitheatre can be visited with a guided tour or an audio tour and you can walk through the ancient passageways and learn all about this astonishing building.
The Carrée Maison is a stunning building with intricate details.
The Carrée Maison is another incredible Roman monument. A temple with the best preserved exterior in the world, this gleaming white building is in a modern day forum where the Roman one once was. A few foolhardy teenagers climb the steep terraces at the side and sit nonchalantly watching the visitors take endless photos and exclaim with delight over the facade.
Inside, the temple has sadly been gutted and now is just a space to show a film for tourists about the history of the city. It is the exterior which is so impressive, with its carved pediment, columns and intricate ceiling, and really is essential viewing for anyone in the area. There are several cafes around the square from which to sip a drink in the sun and admire its beauty.
The Jardins de la Fontaine are a beautiful place to visit. The bubbles in the pond show the source, where the water rises in the 'cradle of Nîmes'.
The Jardins de la Fontaine are another area of the city with a Roman heritage. In this beautifully landscaped gardens are the remains of the Roman sanctuary which was built around the source of the spring in Nîmes, and where you can see the source itself, with bubbles fizzing to the surface while two dignified swans glide by.
The Temple of Diana was actually used as a library, but retains its more fanciful name. The picture on the right shows how close it was to the Roman Sanctuary, now adorned with statues on the left of the picture, and the Source, which is on the right.
The Temple of Diana sits nearby, a romantic looking ruin of thick walls and part of a barrel vaulted ceiling that was once actually a library and then a monastery, now tumbling down in a haphazard fashion, with nature doing its best to reclaim the area. The remains of the Roman sanctuary were uncovered when the gardens were created in the 18th century, and you can see the channel they built from the source, funnelling the water around a small island which held the sanctuary and an altar. Today the island has neo-classical statues and balustrades, all of which lend a very cultured air to the already immaculate landscaped gardens.
The Tour Magne is a Roman tower which was built to encompass a now demolished Iron Age tower. A new spiral staircase has been built inside so visitors can climb to the top for the views.
A walk up the sweeping neo-classical steps and through the Mediterranean landscaped area of the Jardins leads you to the Tour Magne, the Roman tower which was once part of the city walls. Built on top of the original Iron Age tower, you can pay to enter and climb up the steps inside to see some incredible views over the city.
The views from the top of the tower stretch far across the area and show just how green and leafy the city is.
Other Roman sites in Nîmes which are definitely worth a visit are the Castellum Aquae and Porta Augusta, which are both Roman ruins that are open air and just by the side of a pavement. To see such remarkable monuments in a city, free for all to view is refreshing, when you know full well that in other countries they would be covered up with a roof and visitors charged to have a look.
Not much is left of the Castellum Aquae (water castle), but it is lucky there is any left at all, as the wall behind it was built for a 17th century citadel that narrowly avoided being built on top of it.
The Castellum is far more exceptional than it looks, being one of only two left in the world, and is where water would arrive in the city from the aqueduct and be divided out into the rest of the city. Now it is home to a small colony of cats and well worth a visit on your city tour.
The Porta Augusta, or Porte Auguste, was the main entranceway to the Roman city.
Porta Augusta is equally as impressive, being the main entrance to the city from the Via Domitia. With two large central gates for horses and carts, and two smaller side gates for pedestrians, it is still easy to imagine how it may have looked as an imposing entrance to those entering Roman Nemausus for the first time.
Nîmes is not just about the Romans, with plenty of other cultural sites on offer.
I spent a delightful few hours at the Musée des Beaux Arts, Museum of Fine Arts, right in the centre of town. With a wonderful Roman mosaic as the centrepiece of its huge atrium, the museum contains many works of art and sculptures. Laid out in rooms with plenty of space against walls of soothing colours, with the requisite seating in the middle from which to contemplate the art, this was a very peaceful way to spend some time surrounded by high culture.
The Museum of Fine Arts is a wonderful place to spend a few hours contemplating the art in peace.
The Musée de la Romanite is right next to the Arena, a large modern building covered in glass panels like a mosaic, wrapped around to emulate the folds in the cloth of a toga, something I had my doubts about until I saw it one evening with the light creating deep shadows in the ripples. The museum tells the story of Nîmes from the Iron Age, through the Romans and Medieval times, right up to a look at how the ‘Romanness’ of Nîmes has an impact on them today. It is a beautifully designed contemporary building and has a huge array of artefacts.
The Musée de la Romanité is essential viewing when visiting the city.
Everything is available in several languages and I spent a fascinating few hours here. There is a small cafe on the ground floor, but up on the top is a fantastic restaurant, La Table du 2, where I sat next to the balcony, eating delicious food and drinking wine with a view over the Arena and rooftops in the distance. It was shady, peaceful and a truly civilised way to end a visit to such a fantastic museum.
Good views over the Arena and some excellent food are on offer from La Table du 2, at the top of the Musée de la Romanité.
The Contemporary Art museum, Le Carrée d’Art, is next to La Carrée Maison, designed by esteemed architect Norman Foster and opened in 1993, it is a modern building which provides a stark contrast to the Roman temple opposite. Nine floors in total, most of which are underground, it houses the local municipal library, and city archives as well as the Museum of Contemporary Art. It also holds free exhibitions of modern art, one of which I visited and spent some time admiring the work and watching a video about its creation. There is a restaurant near the top where you can sit in the shade and eat a good meal while watching the crowds below and admiring the sun glinting off the temple facade opposite.
The Carré d'Art provides a modern contrast to the Roman temple opposite, and is used as library and modern art museum.
There are several other museums in Nîmes, such as the Musėe de Vieux Nîmes which contains items of ordinary life in the city long after the Romans, with a history of their famous textile industry and regular temporary exhibitions. It is small but well worth a visit, particularly if you have bought the Nîmes city pass, meaning the cost of the visit is included.
Nîmes has a cathedral and several churches, all of which are free to visit when they are open. The Cathedral of Notre Dame et Saint Castor is good for a quick visit. It is thought that this stands on the site of the Temple of Augustus, with the original cathedral occupying the site since 1096. It was seriously damaged during The Wars of Religion and was mostly rebuilt in the 19th century, now being a mixture of Gothic and Romanesque style, with a part-Roman frieze above the entrance. Dimly lit and with its own relic, it has a Baroque chapel behind the chancel and modern internal doors of gold spotted glass which are worth a look.
This part Roman frieze depicts scenes from the Old Testament.
The Church of Saint-Baudile was built in 1877 and inspired by French Gothic architecture. Saint Baudile was the first apostle of the church in Nîmes.
Take the time to visit the Mairie or City Hall, which has a pretty courtyard and an excellent map of how Nîmes looked in the Middle Ages. At the top of the staircase, four huge stuffed crocodiles hang from the ceiling. These were donated or bought by the city between 1597 and 1703, in recognition of the symbol of the city, a crocodile chained to a palm tree. These four crocodiles are a part of Nîmes life - as its the town hall where everyone must have their civil marriage ceremony, getting married is known to the locals as ‘going under the crocodiles’.
Four crocodiles hang from on high in the Town Hall.
Crocodiles and palm trees are everywhere in Nîmes, on logos, in studs in the pavements, gates, doorways, there are crocodile fountains, confectionary, ornaments and souvenirs; they are pervasive. The reason for this is that the first coin minted in Nîmes had a crocodile chained to a palm frond on one side - the palm represented victory, the crocodile signified Egypt, and it commemorated the victory of the Battle of Actium in 31 BC, when the Egyptians were conquered. The symbol became the emblem for Nîmes in 1535, when the city was awarded a new coat of arms by Francois I, based on the coin. It was updated in 1985 to the more modern logo that it is today.
This crocodile fountain is in one of the main squares in the old town and combines two important aspects of life in Nîmes - water and their Roman heritage.
The War Memorial is near the Arena, in the Square-11-novembre-1918. Commemorating World War I, World War II, the Indochina Wars of 1946-1954 and Algeria (1954-1962), it is a large monument with a round floor inlaid with mosaic in homage to the city’s Roman heritage. This is worth going to have a look at; it is very moving and yet very pretty, with the colourful tiles blazing in the sunshine.
The war memorial is a striking monument to the fallen.
Water is a very important feature of Nîmes and one that is inescapable as you wander around the city. There are fountains everywhere, from random spouts that appear up in the middle of a courtyard, to a huge fountain in the park near my hotel, the Fontaine Pradier, which had statues representing the four rivers that flow into the region. There is a lovely tree-lined canal that runs right through the city, and narrow water feature canals that run the length of whole roads. Wherever you walk, it feels like you are not far from the sound of running water, and it brings a uniquely calming and cordial air to the city.
Water features are ubiquitous in Nîmes, giving the city a very civilised feel.
Nîmes by Night
The Carrée Maison looks incredible at night time and is still very much in use by the locals.
Nîmes at night is something special, and I did an evening walk each evening after eating out, to see the monuments illuminated against a dark sky. Maison Carrée is a must at night as it looks stunning, the gleaming white against black was a very impressive effect. The Arena looks fantastic too, and with red lights on the ground in the area outside it, they clearly show you where the old Roman walls ran, giving you a good idea of how this amazing building was very much just fitted in to the edges of the old Roman town.
The water chanel which runs the length of Avenue Feuchères is illuminated in the evenings with constantly changing coloured lights.
The centre of town feels very safe at night, even though I was a woman on my own, and I didn’t have any concerns. The streets were busy with some thronging cafes, full restaurants and plenty of families dining out. The running water of the canals and other water features provided a congenial backdrop to the happy chatter and I felt that this would be a very romantic place for couples who visit. The narrow canal that ran the whole length of the boulevard my hotel was on, lit up each night, and I would lean over my hotel balcony to listen to the flowing water, watching the colours changing and reflecting in the stream.
The Pont du Gard was built in the 1st century AD and carried water over 50km to the city of Nîmes. It is an awe inspiring place to visit.
My only excursion out of the city was to the Pont du Gard, a Roman bridge that supported the 50km aqueduct that supplied Roman Nemausus (Nîmes) with water. A UNESCO heritage site, it was a fascinating place to visit and the sense of history from visiting such a momentous ancient building is palpable; it dwarfs you as you walk its length on the foot bridge below, the golden arches with their well weathered edges, the ancient graffiti carved into the stone, the views over the garrigue that lines the valley.
The beautiful countryside around the Pont du Gard is both fragrant and pretty.
A walk to the top of the valley to admire the bridge from above takes you through the garrigue, Mediterranean scrubland that grows on the limestone rock of this area of France, and the scent of rosemary, thyme and lavender fill the air as you climb, to be rewarded with views over the river, the bridge and acres of rural landscape. It really does feel special and is most definitely a place that should be on everyone's French bucket list. It is easy to get to by car, although public transport is also available, and with a good museum and a very nice restaurant, Les Terrasses, it was an excellent afternoon out.
La Nimoise specialises in brandade, a delicacy of the city, and will let you try samples before you buy.
So many food shops are Aladdins Caves of culinary treats.
Like much of the south of France, Nîmes has a rich culinary tradition. Restaurants and cafes line the pavements, with specialist food shops, delicatessens and markets providing much local flavour. A traditional culinary delicacy of the region is brandade, a salted cod and olive oil paste that is often eaten on croutons, bread or potatoes. I visited the delicatessen, La Nîmoise, which specialises in this delicacy and tried several of the types on offer. I was very uncertain what to expect but actually really liked it, finding it not too fishy and with quite a subtle taste. If I hadn’t been travelling hand luggage only, I would have bought some to take home. It is definitely worth trying this if you visit Nîmes, the locals all love it and it features on many menus around the city.
The large hall of Les Halles food market may not look like much, but is an amazing place to spend time, particularly for foodies.
I visited the food market in Les Halles, having been advised to have a look, but not really knowing what to expect. How could a market be anything special? Well, I quickly changed my tune within a minute of stepping through the doors. The large windowless hall may have pipes and harsh electric lights running across the ceiling, but the stalls are picturesque, filled with a wealth of colour with food of every type you could imagine.
Locals queued up by the stalls, squeezing dark green avocados, prodding giant tomatoes, brandishing bunches of plump radishes, chatting to the stallholders who carefully selected the items they were pointing to. One stall was surrounded by mounds of potatoes, with strings of chilis and garlic hanging above them, the stallholder barely visible behind the tower of food.
There were stalls with seafood and fish resting on trays of crushed ice, others with piles of gutted rabbits and other meats, all perfectly pink behind their glass casings. Others had rows and rows of every cheese imaginable, pale mounds of grey, white and yellow, shaped like logs, or cones, or pats. There was plenty of pre-prepared food on offer, with massive pans of paella, salads, lasagnes, gratins and dauphinoise dishes, all freshly prepared in little wooden trays.
I saw vats of olives, pickled garlic, spices, beans, salts, herbs and oils, even cream, with one stall displaying huge bowls of deep purple raspberry coulis next to bowls of silky chantilly cream. This market is a foodie paradise and I walked around it several times, staring in amazement and frankly, jealousy. I thought of the supermarkets in my hometown, their anemic looking produce all wrapped up in plastic and covered in bar codes, and I was utterly envious of people who can walk across a leafy town to choose their fresh food, from people they know and can chat to.
The market is attached to the La Coupole des Halles, a standard shopping mall. Don’t bother with that, it looks like every mall you’ve ever been to. The food market is on the bottom floor of it through some doors and just spend your time there instead.
Where to stay
I stayed in the Apartcity hotel and I have to say it was ideal (there are two Apartcity Hotels in Nîmes, I stayed in Nîmes Arènes). A wonderful location, just opposite the Arena and a park, a short, straight walk to the train station and the bus to the airport, with a bus stop right outside the building, it’s on a quiet wide tree lined road which has the water feature running the length of it, providing relaxing water sounds when you open your windows. My balcony overlooked all of it and I would spend time just people-watching from on high, every morning watching the unhurried morning commute of pedestrians as they walked slowly towards the centre of town.
Apartcity Hotel has well kitted out rooms and lovely views.
Wi-Fi is included, there is underground parking, a breakfast room, sauna and spa centre. The rooms come with a small kitchen area which include a fridge, hob, microwave, utensils and even a mini dishwasher. With high ceilings, floor to ceiling windows, large bathrooms and both French and English pillows on offer, it was the perfect place to stay.
Where to eat
There are some fabulous restaurants in Nîmes with a wide range on offer. It is impossible to walk down a street without their being a choice of where to eat, and I enjoyed some really good food everywhere I ate. I found a lot of it was reasonably priced too, especially compared to some of the other areas of France I have visited.
La Bodeguita was colourful, welcoming, had great food and served the biggest profiterole I've ever seen.
I particularly enjoyed my meal at La Bodeguita, which was lit up with coloured lights and eclectic artwork on the walls. I had an excellent salad that came with a type of cold tomato drink which was delicious, and followed that with the most enormous profiterole I have seen. Sadly it defeated me and I wasn’t able to finish it. Right outside the restaurant was a lovely water feature that looked amazing in the dark, so replete with food, wine and chocolate, I sat in the warm night and admired it for quite some time.
The pavements are filed with cafes serving drinks, meals and snacks. This was one of my favourite as it looked so pretty.
Nîmes also has plenty of what I consider to be quintessentially traditional French cafes. Filling up the pavements and surrounded by greenery, my favourite was one on the corner by the Arena, where I had a wonderful lunch admiring the Arena and people watching. The waiter may have been secretly horrified that I only ordered a starter, but it was plenty for me as it came with bread, and sitting in the shaded sun eating fresh salad and drinking wine was a real pleasure for someone about to get back on a plane to a very cold and wet UK.
Even a simple meal tastes delicious when eaten in the sunshine surrounded by plants.
When to visit
I visited in September, which meant it was hot but not unbearably so. The skies were blue, the trees were still green and the autumnal sun gave a delightful glow to the city. In the summer months, temperatures can get into the 40s, and combining that with large crowds may make it less of a pleasant experience. The only months it gets cold there is December to February, so I would say that Spring and Autumn are the best times to visit. The city hosts a wide variety of events, all of which sound fun, including some where everyone dresses in togas and Roman games take place in the Arena, so it would be a good idea to see what is on when you are making your decisions.
How to get to Nîmes
The airport just outside of Nîmes is served by many airlines from a number of European cities. From the airport there is a bus, called a navette in French, that leaves about 20 minutes after the arrival of each flight and goes directly to the Nîmes train station.
Waiting outside the airport, the shuttle bus is ready to take passengers to the city centre.
Exit the airport from its one door, turn right onto the one road outside and walk a short distance, maybe 20 yards. You will see the bus parked next to a taxi rank. You pay €6.80 on board, and fortunately the drivers speak some English. Ask the driver for a timetable, as they have printed copies which will tell you the time of your bus back for your return journey. There are no stops to worry about as it goes direct. When you get off the bus, walk into the train station and out the other side - Nimes is laid out like a postcard in front of you.
The shuttle bus from the airport arrives here at the train station.
Train - You can get to Nîmes train station direct from the St.Pancras terminal in London. Journeys take anywhere between 8-11 hours with just one change in Paris. Book early enough and tickets cost around £60. If you leave it too close to your departure date, they can cost well over £200.
Coach - A coach from central London to Nimes, with once change in Paris, will take about 21 hours but cost only about £30.
Car - Autoroute A9, A54 and the N106 all go directly into the city.
Is it worth going to Nîmes?
'Rush hour' of students and workers coming from the train station to the city centre is a very relaxed affair.
If you’ve read the rest of my article, I think it will be obvious that I will give a resounding yes to this question. It is a city of high culture, incredible history, and beautiful surroundings, all under the Mediterranean sun. Nimes is a very vibrant city, and despite its incredible history, it has a very young feel to it, probably because it is a university town. Money is being heavily invested in the town, with older buildings undergoing restoration, with few closed shops and derelict buildings compared to many other places. There is a very unhurried atmosphere, with no packed pavements or people rushing around frantically. Even during rush hour, people sit on the benches, chat with friends and take their time. I’m sure it’s a different matter on the outer roads, but in the town centre it just seems so calm.
It really is the perfect place for a long weekend away, and I would particularly recommend it for couples or solo travellers. Without any hyperbole or exaggeration, Nîmes is the best city I have visited in France, not just for its climate and cultural offerings but for its beauty and its relaxed and convivial atmosphere. I felt like I was living in a delightful cultural bubble for three days, and I can’t wait to return.