A Roman Ruins Road Trip Through France

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A guide to driving through France in search of unmissable Roman buildings.

The Roman Empire played an important part in France’s history and left an indelible mark on the country’s culture and language. There are lots of Roman structures that are still standing in France, so why not head out on a Roman ruins road trip?

On arrival in Calais, drivers are usually keen to hit the highways and start seeing some of the beautiful French countryside. But for those looking to marvel at some ancient Roman buildings, there stands a question of where to start. To point you in the right direction, we’ve put together a list of some of France’s most popular sites to visit when on the hunt for awe-inspiring Roman ruins.

The Gallo-Roman ruins of Champlieu

Where in France: Orrouy, Hauts-de-France
Distance from Calais: 240km / 2h 55m

The remains of the theatre at Champlieu on a summer’s day
The remains of the theatre at Champlieu on a summer’s day.

The first stop on our historical road trip! Orrouy is home to the Roman ruins of Champlieu and is a delightful town to visit in Northern France, whether drivers are keen on ancient artefacts or not. Officially recognised as a ‘Gallo-Roman’ site, these ruins are surrounded by beautiful French countryside, making them a joy to drive to. The ancient structures are well preserved, making it easy to imagine the baths, theatre and temple as they would have been in the 2nd century. The site is free to visit and usually not very busy due to it being quite the hidden gem! An insider’s tip is to take a detour to the nearby chapel of Champlieu, where a marvellous mixture of Carolingian, Romanesque and Gothic architecture awaits.

Lyon

Where in France: Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes
Distance from Calais: 760km / 6h 30m

The Ancient Theatre of Fourvière is France’s oldest Roman theatre
The Ancient Theatre of Fourvière is France’s oldest Roman theatre.

Travelling south in France means edging closer to Italy, so naturally there are more surviving Roman structures to discover. Lyon is a prime example of this southern Roman influence as there are plenty of spectacular ancient ruins to see there. France’s third largest city in fact owes its existence to the Romans, being established as a settlement for Roman refugees of war in 43 BC.

There are a number of Roman buildings to explore including the Ancient Theatre of Fourvière, one of two remarkably well-preserved Roman theatres in Lyon, and France’s oldest Roman example, completed in 17 BC with a capacity of 10,000 people. Today it’s part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Lyon.

Equally well preserved are Lyon’s Roman baths. Found on Fourvière Hill, the ancient Roman buildings were discovered during the 1970s and date as far back as the 2nd and 3rd centuries.

Lyon is also home to an impressive Museum of Gallo-Roman Civilisation, where visitors can learn more about this fascinating period in history.

Orange

Where in France: Vaucluse, Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur
Distance from Calais: 950km / 8h 40m

The Roman Theatre of Orange is one of France’s greatest Roman structures
The Roman Theatre of Orange is one of France’s greatest Roman structures.

As drivers approach the Mediterranean coast, the number of Roman ruins starts to increase, again with proximity to Italy and the heart of the empire.

The commune of Orange began life as a Celtic settlement but was taken under Roman rule after the Battle of Arausio. As for the Roman buildings and ruins in Orange, the commune’s pièce de résistance is the Roman Theatre of Orange. Perhaps the highlight of a road trip through France, the stunning 1st century theatre is one of the best preserved Roman sites in the world. The façade wall of the theatre is an impressive 338 feet long and 121 feet high and the structure even has its original stage, which is still in use today! As well as the Triumphal Arch of Orange, the Roman Theatre of Orange is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There are audio guides and 50-minute guided tours that set off throughout the day. For opening times and prices, check the website ahead of visiting.

Pont du Gard

Where in France: Vers-Pont-du-Gard
Distance from Calais: 990km / 8h 55m

The Pont du Gard is a testament to Roman engineering
The Pont du Gard is a testament to Roman engineering.

Near the town of Vers-Pont-du-Gard in southern France, is the Pont du Gard, an ancient Roman aqueduct built over the Gardon River in 60 AD. The three-tiered structure is the tallest of any Roman aqueduct ever built. It was constructed to carry water from a spring at Uzès to the Roman colony of Nemausus (Nîmes) and was added to UNESCO's list of World Heritage Sites in 1985 due to its historical importance. It’s been a tourist attraction for centuries with restoration efforts and stairs for tourists approved by Napoleon III in 1850.

Nîmes

Where in France: Occitanie
Distance from Calais: 1000km / 9h 0m

Maison Carrée in Nîmes is a glory to behold
Maison Carrée in Nîmes is a glory to behold.

Modern-day Nîmes was once the capital settlement of a Gaulish tribe that surrendered to the Roman Republic in 121 BC. Then known as Nemausus, its name derives from the Celtic god of the spring that once provided the town with water. The city’s historic hot spot is the Roman architectural remains of the Maison Carrée (Square House), a Corinthian temple commissioned by Marcus Agrippa during the 1st century BC. Visitors today can enjoy a short film on the founding of Nîmes that repeats on the hour and half hour, every day. See the official site for admission prices and opening times.

The Amphitheatre of Nîmes or ‘les Arènes’ is also worth a visit. It’s one of the best-preserved amphitheatres in Europe and was built around 70 BC. The marvellous structure once sat upwards of 24,000 spectators and was remodelled in 1863 to serve as a bullring. These days the amphitheatre serves as a venue for large concerts and events.

Glanum

Where in France: Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur
Distance from Calais: 1,000km / 9h 0m

There’s no experience quite like walking among the Roman ruins at Glanum
There’s no experience quite like walking among the Roman ruins at Glanum.

Glanum is nearby to Nîmes and is practically unmissable when on a road trip through France. The Roman ruins are open to the public and sit just outside Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, amidst the beautiful Alpilles mountains. The site has seen over a century of archaeological excavation, and during this time has revealed many secrets. Once visitors are finished taking in the history, there’s the opportunity to gaze upon the sacred spring, which is believed to be the raison d'être for this ancient settlement. Check the site for opening times and admission prices before arriving.

Arles

Where in France: Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur
Distance from Calais: 1,035km / 9h 20m

The amphitheatre in the French town of Arles has stood the test of time
The amphitheatre in the French town of Arles has stood the test of time.

Arles also boasts a UNESCO World Heritage Site with a large collection of monuments in its city centre. A true treasure trove for those in search of Roman ruins in France, Arles is regarded as a prime example of an ancient city that evolved into a medieval European civilization.

The city is home to Arles Amphitheatre, The Roman theatre, a Cryptoporticus and Roman forum, the Thermes of Constantine, the Alyscamps, the Church of St. Trophime, to name but a few. It goes without saying that it’s best to stay in Arles for at least a few days if the plan is to see as much of the Roman ruins as possible. These historical sites have varying entry costs, although some can be enjoyed for free.

France truly is a dream for those with an interest in Roman history. Visiting the many sites by car grants holiday makers the freedom to take their time at any particular stop. So, pack your bags today and book your Eurotunnel tickets now to guarantee the best price!