Why Spend a Day in Nîmes Sightseeing and Shopping
Tempt this gal with a big, shiny object and lunch, add a chauffeur service to the program and sign-me-up! When Gayle Padgett suggested we head to Nîmes for a day of sightseeing and lunch, I was interested but finding a suitable date looked like a challenge. Suddenly, our usually reliable car needed a day with the mechanic. Carless and looking for something to do sounded like the perfect excuse for a gals day-trip to Nîmes.
Getting to Nîmes
Driving to Nîmes from the Bouches du Rhône is easy enough, except if you don’t have a car (see above). So, Gayle’s husband (aka Ralph, the bird watcher) agreed to drop us off at the train station in Tarascon so he could spend the day spotting birds. Regional trains in France are an easy and inexpensive way to commute. The Transport express regional (TER) train from Tarascon to Nîmes takes under 30 minutes, where the station is close to all the sights and shopping.
What to See in Nîmes?
Museum de la Romanité
This new museum (opened in 2018) was the bright, shiny object that interested me. The call for proposals for this museum laid out the architectural challenge. Design a facility to house some 5000+ Roman-era artifacts in a modern, interactive envelop on a piece of land that faces the Roman Amphitheatre. The talented Franco-Brazilian architect Elizabeth de Portzamparc won the commission. Her design, shortlisted from 103 submissions, for the Museum de la Romanité is nothing short of stunning. She created with a four-story cube and wrapped it in a “folded glass toga.” The museum’s permeant collection includes many classical pieces including two mosaics — ’Achilles’ and ‘Pentheus’ from a Roman house considered on a par with those of Pompeii.
When you visit:
Make sure to head to the rooftop garden for high-level views of Nîmes
Walk through the three-level archeological garden at the rear of the museum
Grab a light bite at the Café du Musée on the ground floor
Linger over a meal (lunch or dinner) prepared by starred chef Franck Putelat at La Table du 2
Museum de la Romanité website
Open Daily: 10h – 18h or 19h (April – early November)
Although, it may not have been the most significant example constructed during Roman times the Amphitheatre of Nîmes is considered one of the best-preserved. Like many of the Roman engineering projects, this one required some smart minds. The building is an oval 133 metres long, 101 metres wide and rising 21 metres high. The four-story structure includes 60 symmetrical arches which allowed for a canvas “roof” which protected viewers from the elements.
Open Daily from 9 am
Although, the building is not accessible during special events, so it is best to check in advance.
Continue your urban stroll in Nîmes to the restored Roman temple the Maison Carré. The structure sits proudly in an open plaza, but that was not always the case. The district around the structure has changed dramatically over the centuries. Today, the Maison Carré sits on the edge of the Nîmes shopping and entertainment district. The elegant Roman design of the building and its columns influenced Thomas Jefferson’s vision for the Virginia State Capitol.
Open Daily from 10 am
Your ticket to the Roman Amphitheatre includes access to this site.
This website dedicated to the Maison Carré provides background on the history of the site and several informative videos (in French).
Take a walk to the third significant Roman site in Nîmes the Tour Magne. The tower constructed in 15 BC stands at the highest point in the city on Mont Cavalier, the site of an ancient oppidum. The Tour Magne provided a strategic lookout post and formed part of the settlement’s ramparts. Today, the tower sits on its own; the fortified walls have disappeared the stones used for construction in Nîmes. However, do climb to the top of the tower for a fabulous panoramic view of the city. Open Daily from 9:30 am
Other Sightseeing Tips for Nîmes
Designed by Lord Norman Foster Nîmes’ contemporary art museum the Carré d’Art Jean Bousquet. The modern glass cube across the street from Maison Carré houses a permeant collection of some 600 pieces.
The Musée des Beaux-Arts has an impressive collection of some 3,600 works of Italian, Flemish, Dutch and French artists. These pieces include donations from private collections.
If you have more than the few hours that we did, buy a museum pass that allows discounted access to seven (7) facilities.
Office de Tourisme de Nîmes (website)
6 Bd des Arènes
Tel: +33 (0)4 66 58 38 00
Shopping in Nîmes
Now for the good stuff! The central core of Nîmes is pedestrian-friendly and filled with independently run boutiques. Wander along Rue de l’Aspic and around Place de l’Horloge for a wide selection of clothing, leather goods and souvenir stores.
Visit Ateliers de Nîmes where founder Guillaume Sagot is resurrecting the “serge de Nîmes” and making designer jeans. He is doing so in the city that in the 18th and 19th Centuries had a thriving textile trade. This town is where “de Nîmes” – denim (sturdy fabric from Nîmes) originated, the same French fabric that Levi Strauss discovered in the 1860s.
Eating and Drinking in Nîmes
Try the local specialty the brandade de morue, made with salt cod. The dish is served hot or cold. Poaching the fish in milk extracts the salt, and then the flaked cod is mixed with olive oil to create a fluffy paste. Serve as a starter spread to eat with drinks or as a starter course. Here, is Tasha Powell’s recipe for Salt Cod Gratin Brandade de Morue.
Aix-en-Provence might have its calissons, but Nîmes has two local sweets that are worth trying with your coffee. The croquant Villaret is shaped like a small golden log, but much like the navettes in Marseille, it is a hard biscuit and should be softened, or you risk breaking a tooth. The Caladon is a soft, sweet cookie make with almonds and honey.
Have a drink in Place d’Assas.
Turn back the clock and have a coffee or meal at Brasserie Le Napoléon with its Belle Epoque décor.
Make sure to sample local wine from the Costières de Nîmes vineyards.