A Road Trip to Nîmes for Roman History Highlights
Nîmes Road Trip
Just west of Provence, across the mighty Rhône River, lays the Gard department of France. The Gard and Provence share a deep Roman history, from the days when both were part of the Roman region of Gallia.
Because it is so close to Provence, a visit to the Gard makes for a nice day trip from Avignon or St-Rémy-de-Provence or wherever you might be staying. And one of the highlights of a visit is the city of Nîmes, once called Nemauses and known as “the most Roman city outside of Italy.” Emperor Augustus made Nemauses his local capital and today Nîmes is filled with sites and monuments that make it a must-see for any lover of Roman history.
Nîmes Roman History Highlights
Nîmes’ best-known site is hard to miss. Right in the middle of town lies the arena, one of the largest Roman arenas in the world and possibly the best preserved. It once seated 24,000 spectators and, because Nîmes can get very hot in the summer, it had a sophisticated cooling system. This included a kind of retractable roof, plus there were canons that shot thousands of gallons of water in the air to create a cooling mist. Today the arena is used for everything from concerts to bullfights to “gladiator battles” where ancient weapons and fighting techniques are showcased.
Next to the arena is the Maison Carrée, considered one of the world’s most perfect Roman temples. Its classical form, with a deep portico and majestic Corinthian columns, inspired Thomas Jefferson when he designed the Virginia State Capitol. The Maison Carrée has been cleaned over the last few years, restoring lustre to its gleaming white marble walls and columns. You may need to wear your sunglasses when you visit!
During the Roman period, a ring of ramparts four miles long surrounded the city of Nemauses, reinforced by 14 watchtowers. One of these, the Tour Magne, still exists and you can spot it from time to time as you wander through the city. A climb to the top of the tower—it’s 100 feet tall—will reward you with excellent views of both the city and the surrounding countryside.
Next to the Tour Magne is the Jardins de la Fontaine, a public park full of fountains and monuments. It was originally part of a large Roman bath complex but fell into disrepair after the empire collapsed. It was restored and remodelled in the 17th century and today is a beautiful mix of art and architecture from two different periods. The ancient Temple of Diana is —especially beautiful.
The newest addition to the city’s tourist attractions is the wonderful Roman history museum. The Musée de la Romanité opened in 2018. It sits directly across the street from the arena, clad in a kind of funky metal scarf that its designer likens to a toga.
The museum is well laid out and brightly lit and makes excellent use of digital technology, employing things like interactive maps and 3D reconstructions to bring history to life. One highlight is the museum’s collection of mosaics that once decorated the homes of wealthy Romans. Several of these mosaics were discovered only recently and are so well preserved that one expert calls them, “The finest examples after those of Pompeii.”
The museum does an unusually good job of making the museum fun for kids, with games and special exhibitions throughout. Perhaps the most popular is the one that lets you see what you would look like in Roman clothes…or with a Roman hairstyle!
Not Far from Nîmes
If you have time, a good side trip is to the Pont du Gard, 15 miles northeast of Nîmes. This gigantic aqueduct was part of the system that brought water to ancient Nemauses. Nearly 200 feet tall and spanning a wide valley, the Pont du Gard is truly a site to behold. Next to it is an excellent museum that explains its history and how it was used.
Practical Visitor Information
Nîmes Tourist Office (website)
6 Bd des Arènes
Telephone: +33 (0)4 66 58 38 00
April 1st – October 31st
Monday to Saturday: 9 am to 7 pm
Sunday and Holidays: 10 am to 6 pm
November 1st – March 31st (the office closes one hour earlier)
To access the three Roman sites the Amphitheatre, Maison Carrée and Tour Magne there is one combination ticket. Check the website for opening hours
Musée de la Romanité (website)
16 Boulevard des Arènes
Hours: Open daily (closed Tuesdays)
April 1st – November 4th – 10 am to 7 pm
November 5th to March 31st – 10 am to 6 pm
All the images of the city monuments are from the Nîmes tourist office
The mosaic is from the Musée de la Romanité
The Pont du Gard photo is under the Creative Commons License (attribution: Benh Lieu Song)