Your Guide For The Top Things To See In Nimes
There are some fantastic cities located within Provence and Nimes is another one to be sure to visit. With a history dating to the 6th century BC, the city offers some fascinating structures that made it an important city during Roman times.
Now you can wander the city and admire its well-preserved historical monuments, incredible gardens, and immersive museums. This article gives you a full rundown of all the best things to do in Nimes.
Highlights of Nimes
1. Marvel At The Nimes Arena
Wondering what is the city of Nimes famous for? It is definitely its incredible Amphitheatre. Of the 300 Roman Amphitheatres that are known to exist around the world, the Nimes Arena is by far the most well-preserved.
Built about 20 years after the famous Roman Colosseum, the Nimes Arena was completed at the beginning of the 2nd Century AD just around the same time as the Amphitheatre in Arles. And nearly 2000 years later it still maintains 80% of its original structure!
It is worth noting that while it’s called the Nimes Arena, that name is only partially correct. The structure is actually an Amphitheatre, which according to the Oxford dictionary is an “open circular or oval building with a central space surrounded by tiers of seats for spectators, for the presentation of dramatic or sporting events”.
The arena part is the central space where the action happens. And while the Nimes Arena does have an arena, that is only a fraction of this amazing historic structure.
Amphitheatres were built to entertain the masses and so it was important that they were big enough to do just that. The Nimes Arena is one of the largest Amphitheatres in the world with a capacity of just over 23,000. It is 133 metres (436 feet) long and 101 metres (328 feet) wide. The arena itself is elliptical in shape with a length of 68 metres (223 feet) and a width of 38 metres (125 feet).
The Amphitheatre of Nimes has 2 main floors, each consisting of 60 arched arcades. Inside the Amphitheatre, 34 rows of seats are divided into 4 separate tiers, one above the other. The lowest tier was reserved for the wealthy and upper classes. The remaining 3 tiers were designated for the lower classes – the highest tier allocated to the lowest class.
We enjoyed sitting on the wooden benches half way down gazing out over the arena and pretending we were part of the upper class society.
One of the most fascinating things about the Nimes Arena is how quick it is to have 23,000 people exit the building. The gallery and stairways were called vomitoria because they were built in a way to avoid stampedes and to control the flow of people. In fact, a full Amphitheatre could be evacuated in just 10 minutes! When you are walking through these galleries this is very hard to imagine.
The primary purpose of the Amphitheatres was to provide entertainment and one of the main forms of entertainment was gladiator fights. Gladiators were professional combatants who originally performed at the funerals of esteemed people as early as 264 BC. It was thought that the defeated combatant would accompany the deceased man to the other world and be his armed guard there.
Gladiators were primarily slaves and prisoners but there were also those who volunteered. Men of high social status who had fallen into disgrace may become gladiators as the profession was well paid. Additionally, famous gladiators would become popular with the masses and sometimes receive favours from women of high society.
Gladiator fights became so popular that they began to be held on a regular basis and eventually performed at the Amphitheatres. The events were sponsored by a wealthy citizen who was given a special seat for the day. Everyone else was able to attend for free.
The Nimes Arena continued to be used well after the fall of the Roman Empire. In the 4th century, when the Barbarians invaded, the Amphitheatre was used as a protective castle, with residents living inside its walls. During the early Renaissance, the Nimes Arena was used to host bull races. Then, in the 1800s, after the Spanish arrived, the arena was used for bullfights.
It is thought that the continued use and preservation of the Amphitheatre is why it has remained relatively intact, unlike the Colosseum in Rome which was used as a quarry after the Roman Empire.
The Nimes Amphitheatre continues to be used today hosting re-enactments of the gladiator fights. Bullfights are also held here twice a year with the biggest one occurring on Pentecost Weekend during the Feria of Nimes.
And the Nimes Arena is a popular venue for some of the biggest artists in the world who love to perform here because of the fantastic acoustics and historical charm. It is an incredible place to experience and should be the first sight to see on your list of things to do in Nimes.
2. Admire The Maison Carrée
La Maison Carrée (Square House) has been a fixture in Nimes since the 1st century AD. Yet this classic Roman Monument is neither square nor is it a house.
La Maison Carrée is actually rectangular in shape with a length of 26.5 metres (87 feet), a width of 13.5 metres (44 feet) and a height of 2.8 metres (9 feet). The thing is, when the structure was given its name in the 16th century, there was no word for rectangle in Old French. Any structure with 4 right angles was a square. The only distinction was either a perfect square or a long square, but a square all the same.
And, when it was given its name, “Maison” meant any building, not specifically a dwelling as the word implies today. In fact, over the centuries la Maison Carrée has served as a temple, a church, a museum and even a livery!
La Maison Carrée is one of the best-preserved Roman Temples in the world. In fact, a few weeks after we visited Nimes, it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was originally built as a cultic temple for the adopted sons of Augustus, both of whom died at an early age.
Unbelievably people are welcome to sit on the steps of this ancient temple and enjoy the view of the square around them. The stairs are quite tall so climbing up and down requires some effort if you aren’t a very tall person!
3. Stroll Through Le Jardins de la Fontaine
These impressive gardens were initiated by the King of France, Louis the 15th, in 1745 and during the construction, it was discovered that on the grounds was a sanctuary and spring dating to Roman times.
It is suggested that this was in fact an area dedicated to the Imperial Family where the people of the city would come to venerate the family on an annual basis. Located in this space was an altar where sacrifices were conducted, and gifts were given to the Imperial Family to show their loyalty.
The early inhabitants would come to this spring, which was thought to be magical, and pay tribute to the deity Nemesis. The city inherited the name of the deity, which was eventually shortened to Nimes.
The current gardens are spread out over more than 15 hectares, and it is known to be one of the major public gardens in Europe. Since the garden was developed during different time periods it has two styles – one being a classic 18th century garden which is very symmetrical and the other section which is a Mediterranean landscaped garden.
The garden designer’s goal was to highlight the spring and ancient ruins and create the first French garden with trees, sculptures, terraces, and places for seating to enjoy the surroundings. Here is where you can see the beautiful fountain at the end of Quai de la Fontaine (the large walking path along the canal). Unfortunately, at that time, it was never finished.
The project was reinitiated at the start of the 19th century when the mayor of Nimes created a project to develop the area. At this time many trees were planted, and paths were created so people could wander the garden and visit the Roman ruins easily.
Over the years additional plant types have been added with new gardens such as rock gardens, water plants and a maze. The gardens are beautiful to discover at all times of the year and are a popular place for both visitors and locals. Be sure to go up to the top terrace for a beautiful view of the grounds below. This is considered one of the top things to do in Nimes.
⭐️ The best way to explore Nimes is with a local guide. You can make sure to see all these sights and gain insight into the history and background of each of them. Check out this highly rated tour for making the most of your time in Nimes.
4. Wonder At The Temple Of Diane
Within the Jardins de la Fontaine, you can see another Roman ruin that is named the Temple of Diane. When it was discovered in the 1500s it was originally thought to be a temple from the same time of the Imperial Family hence the name. However, after further investigation, it was found that the structure’s design elements don’t match the same as the Greco-Roman temples.
Now the theory is that it was likely a library. There have been two other libraries found in Rome that have the same symbols and support this theory. Also, from the format of the building remains, one can see that it was originally a big room with a square in the middle and columns around the outside. There are also niches that are thought to be where the books were stored.
Unfortunately, the structure fell into disarray after a significant fire which left only a vaulted nave and two passages. But regardless it is still an impressive sight and with some imagination, you can see how grand it must have been. Be sure to have a walk-through when in this area.
5. See The View From The Tour Magne
At one end of the Jardins de Fontaine, you can take the uphill path to see the Tour Magne. It is quite a trek but worth the walk to see the tower and its panoramic view.
In Roman times, this was the biggest and most important tower of the Roman city, situated at the foot of the hill right where the sanctuary was located. It was one of eighty original towers that were part of the walls that surrounded the city.
From the top of the tower, it was thought that the city could be protected since the tower had an incredible view and provided the ability to see all visitors arriving in the town.
This structure is octagonal and was originally 3 levels that sat on top of a base. Over many years the top level has deteriorated and now the tower is a height of 32m. Even though it is smaller than it was originally, you can still climb 140 steps to the top of the tower and see an incredible view of the city.
⭐️ If you can’t stay in Nimes but are interested in the Roman structures in this area, you can take an amazing half-day tour from Avignon that shows you the most important sights. This tour is very highly rated and well recommended for making the most of your time in the region.
6. Shop At Les Halles de Nimes
Les Halles de Nimes is a centralized, indoor market that has been serving the Nimes community for more than 130 years.
Initially set up to consolidate all the themed markets that were dispersed around the city’s squares, les Halles de Nimes, provided a central marketplace with consistent standards for all of the vendors. The centralization of the city’s markets in one spot also had the added benefit of making tax collection from the vendors far easier than before.
Building les Halles de Nimes was made practical by the proliferation of steel structures that had been popularized by Auguste Eiffel and others during the late 19th century. It was now possible to build relatively large structures using steel supports somewhat quickly.
To make it easier for residents from the outlying areas to visit les Halles de Nimes, a special tramway was built around the market at the end of the 19th century. Later, in the 1950s, the tramway was removed to allow for new infrastructure that would support the use of buses and automobiles to bring shoppers to the market.
Today, les Halles de Nimes consists of over 70 vendors providing a wide assortment of fresh and processed products. There are bakeries, butchers, charcuteries, creameries, wine shops, condiment vendors, and bars/restaurants among a host of others. This market reminds us of the ones in Avignon and Lyon.
This is a great place to come and shop or just browse the myriad of foodstuffs and take in the sights, sounds and smells. And it doesn’t matter what day of the week you are in Nimes, since les Halles if open every day! If you are here during weekdays, you can shop anytime from 7:00am to 7:00pm. If you happen to be here on the weekend, you can shop from 7:00am until 2:00pm.
7. Browse The Musee des Beaux Arts
The Musee des Beaux Arts (Museum of Fine Arts) was originally housed in the magnificent Maison Carrée until 1869. It was moved to a temporary location in the new district of the Station in 1869, because the collection had become too important to stay in the Maison Carrée.
The current building, specifically designed to be a museum, is located on the Square de la Mandragore, and was built between 1903 and 1907. Unlike many museums in the south of France, this is a modern building made of metal and glass frames and canopies with steel and concrete floors.
The museum underwent a major renovation in 1987 including a change in the interior layout of the building. The new design features a central atrium and 2 levels of galleries. The upper level features the works of Italian painters from the 14th to the 18th centuries.
The lower gallery features French painters from the 18th and 19th centuries as well as the emergence of 20th century art and landscapes from Provence.
The central atrium contains one of the most significant works of the museum – the Roman mosaic depicting the Marriage of Artemis.
Like many of the other museums in Nimes, the Musee des Beaux Arts is open Tuesday to Friday 10:00am to 6:00pm as well as Saturday and Sunday from 10:00am to 6:30pm.
8. Visit The Nimes Cathedral – Currently Under Construction
The historic Nimes Cathedral, officially the Notre Dame and Saint Castor Cathedral of Nimes, was initially consecrated as a cathedral in 1096 AD by Pope Urbain II and Raymond the IV, respectively the counts of Toulouse and Nimes. It is believed that the cathedral was built on the site of the former temple of Augustus.
The cathedral was originally called Saint Marie before its name was changed to Notre Dame and then, during the revolution, the moniker Saint Castor was added. It contains the tomb and relics of a cardinal, a bishop as well as an early Christian marble sarcophagus.
The cathedral was destroyed twice having suffered through religious wars and both times was reconstructed on the ruins of the previous structure. There are 11th century remains of the base of the church, a frieze, the tower and a section of wall. There are also neogothic remains from the 17th century as well as sections of the church from the 19th century.
The church is very imposing from the outside and boasts one of the best examples of Romanesque architecture in France. On the inside, the church is simple and understated, projecting a minimalist mood.
It is important to note that the cathedral is undergoing a major renovation which is expected to be completed in early 2024. The restoration, funded by the Regional Directorate of Cultural Affairs, will cost approximately €2.8 Million ($2.94 Million USD) and is focused on restoring the tower and the western façade.
9. Explore The Musee de la Romanité
The Musee de la Romanité is a modern museum exposing the ancient history of Nimes through 25 centuries. Beginning with the Gauls and extending through the Roman and Christian periods of Nimes, this museum is considered one of the most visited and important museums in Occitaine.
The Musee de la Romanité is located adjacent to the renowned Nimes Arena, and the juxtaposition of this modern, interactive architectural marvel against the ancient Amphitheatre is striking. The museum was designed and constructed to resemble a pleated glass toga evoking the city’s Roman heritage.
But it is not just the architecture of the museum which is modern. The inside of the museum has been designed to be an interactive, immersive experience with more than 65 multimedia devices and 5000 exceptional historic pieces.
You can visit the Musee de la Romanité any day of the week between 10:00am and 7:00pm with the last entry occurring at 6:00pm.
10. Wander the Picturesque Streets
In the Old Town of Nimes, there are some lovely streets with shops, restaurants, and cafes. It is here that you can stroll and browse the shops and galleries.
There are many wide-open plazas and squares that have plenty of seating for resting, enjoying a meal or a glass of wine and partaking in people-watching.
Be sure to look around to find the emblem of the city – it is certainly an interesting icon – a crocodile with a palm tree. When it was found in the Renaissance period, it was interpreted to be a lizard chained to a palm leaf. But over time it was better understood to be a crocodile chained to a palm leaf.
The crocodile represents Egypt, and the palm leaf represents victory over Antony and Cleopatra. This eventually became the great symbol of the city, and you can see it on gates, the sidewalks and even garbage cans. See how many places you can find it!
11. Relax At The Esplanade Charles de Gaulle
Yet another garden that is worth visiting while in Nimes is the Esplanade Charles de Gaulle. Right in the middle of the city is a lovely municipal garden with paths, trees and many seating areas. This is a wonderful spot to come when it is hot to relax in the shade.
In the centre of the park is a large fountain made of white marble – Fontaine Pradier. It was designed and carved by James Pradier and has been in the park since 1845. If you look closely, you will see the woman (Nimes) in the centre of the fountain and has the Maison Carree perched on her head!
She is surrounded by two giants and two nymphs. It is very detailed and has many spouts that stream water. It is definitely worth having a look at.
12. Check Out The Musee du Vieux Nimes
The Musee du Vieux Nimes (Museum of Old Nimes) is in a beautiful 17th century building in the heart of the historical part of town across from the Nimes Cathedral. The building was originally the Episcopal Palace and the museum was established here in the early 1920s and is designated a Historical monument.
The artifacts of the museum date from the Middle Ages and later, with a particular emphasis on the culture and art of early Nimes. Of particular importance to Nimes, the history of textiles is a highlight of the museum.
The museum is open Tuesday to Friday 10:00am to 6:00pm as well as Saturday and Sunday from 10:00am to 6:30pm.
13. Admire The Eglise St Paul
This church was completed in 1849 and built in the neo-Romanesque style. It was classified as a historic monument in 1909. The architect Charles Questel who designed the Palace of Versailles had his design chosen from more than 30 that were submitted.
It was a very collaborative process with many artisans providing their expertise for specific decorations within the building. Intricate stain glass work was completed and the ironworker who designed the hinges on the beautiful Notre Dame in Paris, also created all the hinges and locks of the exterior and interior doors for this church.
One of the notable things to see inside are frescoes painted by Hippolyte Flandrin who was a famous French painter from Lyon.
14. Be Inspired At The Carré d’Art
In 1983 the Nimes mayor put forth a project to develop the city into a cultural centre. With this focus in mind, the Carré d’Art was created to showcase contemporary art. The museum opened in 1986 and is a partner of a larger network of art museums in the region that work to promote contemporary art around the Mediterranean region.
Carré d’Art houses a collection of close to 600 pieces. The collection spans art from the 1960s to current day. Its main focuses are on the artistic movements that started in the South of France, and Mediterranean artwork from France, Spain, and Italy.
The building itself is also an interesting structure. With nine levels and a central atrium that is made of glass, it brings beautiful light to the inside.
Also, part of the museum is an expansive bookstore that offers a wide range of books on contemporary and modern art and architecture. They also hold events with meetings and book signings. The museum celebrates its 30th anniversary in 2023 so be sure to check out the event schedule and its many temporary exhibitions.
Check its website for details as it is sometimes closed when new exhibitions are in the process of being installed.
The Museum is closed on Mondays. Open from 10:00am – 6:00pm Tuesday to Friday and 10:00am – 6:30pm on Saturday and Sunday.
Is Nimes Worth Visiting?
Nimes is a city with a vast amount of history and incredibly well-preserved monuments. That coupled with the beautiful gardens and wide-open spaces make Nimes a wonderful stop while visiting Provence.
How Long Should I Spend In Nimes?
There are some very interesting sights to see in Nimes. We would recommend at least two days at a minimum to see most of the major points of interest. Nimes is also well positioned for doing day trips to other cities in the area such as Arles, Aix en Provence and Avignon.
Is Nimes Walkable?
The Old Town of Nimes is very walkable. Everything is located within the same area with most of the sights centred around either the Arena or Maison de Carrée.
Where To Stay In Nimes
✦ Hotel de l’Amphiteatre – a boutique property with 11 rooms located in the central part of Nimes with easy access from the train and bus stations. The neighbourhood is quiet, and safe and has many restaurants and attractions close by.
✦ Margaret Hotel Choleur – located in a historical building that has been restored to include 10 bedrooms in this lovely property. Beautifully decorated rooms offer guests a comfortable stay. You can also enjoy the onsite restaurant and pool!
Where To Eat In Nimes
✅ La Nocturne – located in the centre of Nimes but on a quiet street you will find a hidden gem. This intimate, romantic restaurant serves incredibly fresh, well-prepared food in an inviting environment with friendly staff.
✅ Brasserie de Napoleon (Le Napo) – an institution since 1813 this is the perfect spot to come for a snack with coffee or a drink. They have patio seating outside but also take a look inside to see an ornately decorated traditional bistro.
The Final Word On Things To Do In Nimes
Nimes is an incredible city with so many sights, a rich history, amazing museums and wonderful restaurants. It is a location that you could easily enjoy for several days exploring the surprises around every corner. Be sure to put this charming city on your list to visit when in the region.