Fabulous France: Visit Lyon, Nimes, and Marseille by Train
Planning a trip to France? If you’ve already been to Paris, you may want to explore more of what France has to offer. But with so many fantastic French cities, it can be hard to choose just one city to visit.
Rather than picking just one, why not plan a journey between several cities and dive deeper into the diverse culture, art, and history of France?
This was exactly my approach to planning my recent trip to France.
France has an excellent rail network and most cities have efficient public transportation, so I put together a fabulous itinerary traveling between Lyon, Nîmes, and Marseille by train.
Plus, you can save a lot of money and stress when you travel by train instead of renting a car in France!
Here are my favorite things to do in Lyon, Nimes, and Marseille – plus tips for getting around.
Lace up your shoes and let’s go!
Lyon is the third largest city in France and the capital of the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region. Lyon sits at the confluence of the Rhône and Saône rivers.
Known as the gastronomic capital of France, Lyon is a delight for foodies. And, with its wealth of historical sites and museums, everyone will find something to love in Lyon.
Of the three cities I visited on this trip, I’d have to pick Lyon as my favorite. I spent three days there and I will be coming back to further explore this fantastic city!
Getting to Lyon
To start your journey in Lyon, you have two main options.
You can fly directly to Lyon via the Lyon Saint Exupéry Airport . While it is an international airport, options from the US will be a bit limited. It’s about 25 kilometers from the Lyon city center, and the best way to get between the two is by taking the Rhônexpress high-speed tram into town.
If you prefer, the Paris Charles de Gaulle or Orly airports will have many more options for direct flights from international destinations around the globe. It’s only a 2-hour train ride from Paris to Lyon on the TGV (high-speed train).
I recommend choosing a hotel either in Vieux Lyon or in Presqu’île to be closest to the main attractions in Lyon.
Best things to do in Lyon
Lyon is a wonderful city with an abundance of incredible architecture, art, and history.
One of the must-see attractions of Lyon is the stunning Basilica of Notre Dame de Fourvière. The basilica sits atop the hill of Fourvière, and the best and easiest way to reach it is by taking the funicular.
The basilica itself is a beautiful building that looks a little bit like a fortress rather than a typical church. Take in the panoramic views of Lyon from the esplanade adjacent to the church. Then head inside to marvel at the breathtaking interior, with its enormous, gilded mosaics. For breathtaking city views, take a guided rooftop tour of the basilica.
You’ll want plenty of time to explore Vieux Lyon (Old Lyon). This charming historic area is filled with colorful buildings, cobblestoned streets, and Lyon’s famous traboules.
These hidden passages through buildings connect the narrow streets of Vieux Lyon and sometimes contain picturesque courtyards.
The Cathédrale Saint-Jean-Baptiste is a popular meeting point for tours in Vieux Lyon. It features vibrant stained-glass windows and an astronomical clock dating from the 16 th century.
Don’t miss one of Lyon’s unique attractions — its trompe l’oeil murals. You’ll find many of these gorgeous frescoes in the Presqu’île and Croix-Rousse areas of Lyon. These murals cover entire sides of buildings with art that is so lifelike, you’ll find yourself looking twice. Two of the most impressive murals are the Mur des Canuts and the Fresque des Lyonnais.
Best museums in Lyon
Lyon is blessed with an abundance of top-notch museums. If you plan to visit many museums during your trip, you’ll want to get the Lyon City Card. With the Lyon City Card, you get free entry to over 20 museums in Lyon – plus free tours and unlimited use of public transportation. For me, that makes it a no-brainer!
One of the best museums in Lyon is the Lugdunum Museum, the Gallo-Roman Museum of Lyon. Lyon has a UNESCO World Heritage site designation for the way it has preserved its history dating back to Roman times. See artifacts such as mosaics and statues and look out the enormous windows onto the ruins of Lyon’s Gallo-Roman amphitheater.
My favorite museum in Lyon is the Musée des Beaux-Arts. You’ll find this fine arts museum on the Place des Terreaux housed in a former Benedictine convent. The museum has a variety of paintings including Impressionist works, and a large collection of classical statues. You can even pore through the exhibit showcasing French coins and medals.
The Musée Cinéma et Miniature is one of Lyon’s most popular museums and a two-for-one museum experience! The first part of the museum focuses on movie-making magic, such as props and costumes from blockbuster films.
The top floor features a collection of over 100 incredibly realistic miniature models of scenes from everyday life, such as a grocery store, a restaurant, or a tiny café.
Nimes, located in the Occitanie region of southern France, is by far the smallest of the three cities on this journey, both in population and in size. You can easily crisscross Nimes on foot to see all its top sights.
Nimes is most famous for its Roman history and its well-preserved Roman monuments, and these attractions were certainly the highlight of my visit. You can even take a day trip to see the nearby Pont du Gard, an impressive Roman viaduct bridge over the Gardon River.
Getting to Nîmes
Getting from Lyon to Nimes is an easy 1.5-hour trip by TGV. The TGV, or Train à grande Vitesse, is France’s high-speed train.
There are several trains per day traveling between the two cities. Lyon’s main train station is Lyon Part-Dieu. Be careful when booking your tickets to Nimes, as some trains go to the Nimes station in the city center, and some trains go to the Nimes Pont-du-Gard station.
Depending on your schedule, it may be more convenient to take the TGV to the Nimes Pont-du-Gard station and then take one of the regional trains to connect to the city center.
Note that while you can catch a regional train at the last minute, you do need reservations for the TGV.
Best things to do in Nîmes
The best things to do in Nimes revolve around its Roman monuments. If you plan to visit all of them (like I did), purchase the Pass Romanité. This pass gives you access to the top three Roman sites in Nimes and the Museum Romanité.
The top attraction in Nimes is its impressive amphitheater, the Arènes de Nîmes. This two-tiered arena is one of the 20 largest amphitheaters in the territories of Rome and could have held 24,000 spectators in Roman times.
Download the audioguide to get more historical context as you explore the arena. The amphitheater is still used for events such as music festivals and is the centerpiece of the Feria de Nîmes.
Continue your journey into Roman history at the Maison Carrée, a restored Roman temple in the heart of Nimes. It’s one of the best-preserved Roman temples, with classical columns and an elaborately decorated portico. Its stunning architecture has inspired buildings worldwide, including Thomas Jefferson’s design of the Virginia State Capitol building.
Get a little exercise and venture through the Jardin de La Fontaine up to the Tour Magne. This stone watchtower was once part of the Roman city wall. Climb to the top and enjoy panoramic views of Nimes and the surrounding French countryside!
Tip: There is limited space at the top, so visit the tower early. That way you won’t have to rush to leave to make space for new visitors.
Best museums in Nîmes
The top museum in Nimes is – no big surprise – the Museum Romanité. This museum is in the perfect location, just across the street from the amphitheater. The museum is a great place to view Roman artifacts and learn about life in Roman times.
Take a close look at the intricate mosaics, gravestones, pottery, and statues. I enjoyed the miniature models of monuments from Nimes (including the nearby Pont du Gard viaduct) and iconic monuments in Rome, such as the Colosseum and the Pantheon.
Mix things up a bit and visit the Carre d’Art, the museum of modern art in Nimes. This popular contemporary art museum sits just across from the Maison Carrée, so it’s jarring to see such a modern building next to an ancient one! (The same is true for the Museum Romanité, also housed in a very modern building.) And if you prefer fine arts, visit the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Nîmes.
Marseille is the second-largest city in France and the capital of the Provence–Alpes–Côte d’Azur region. Located on the Mediterranean coast of France, Marseilles is a vibrant port city and is a rich blend of cultures.
Getting to Marseille
It’s easy to travel between Nimes and Marseille. The fastest train option is just under an hour and fifteen minutes. If you can, get a seat on the side of the train that will be facing south during your journey – the views are better on that side!
The main train station in Marseille is the Saint-Charles station, and from here you can take advantage of several public transport options. Since the top attractions in Marseille are more spread out geographically, I recommend buying a transit pass for unlimited use of public transportation.
And when your French vacation is over, you can choose to fly out of Marseille or Nice , depending on which international airport has better flight options to your final destination.
Best things to do in Marseille
The Vieux Port is the heart of Marseille and is buzzing with activity all day long. This starts with the freshest seafood on offer at the morning fish market. Catch a ferry to visit the Chateau d’If or marvel at the natural beauty of the Calanques. The Old Port is also one of the most photogenic spots in Marseille, with dozens of sailing vessels bobbing in the harbor framing the basilica of Notre Dame de la Garde on the hill.
The Basilica of Notre Dame is the top attraction in Marseille. Visitors flock to this magnificent basilica to admire its gorgeous architecture and elaborate gilded décor. And since the basilica perches atop a hill, the views are simply phenomenal, especially on a clear day. The basilica is a 1.5 km uphill walk from the Vieux Port, so I recommend arriving via public transit.
Explore Fort St. Jean, a sprawling 18th-century fortress guarding the entrance to the Marseille harbor. A narrow pedestrian bridge, or passerelle, connects the fort with the MuCEM museum. But even if you don’t want to visit the museums, you can wander through the grounds and enjoy the rooftop views of the harbor, the city, and the Mediterranean!
Best museums in Marseille
MuCEM, short for the Museum of Civilizations of Europe and the Mediterranean, is the top museum in Marseille. This iconic museum focuses on the history and civilizations of the Mediterranean, with changing exhibitions. The contemporary design of this museum is a vivid contrast to the neighboring Fort St. Jean. You can savor a meal and stellar views of Marseille from the rooftop restaurant.
While Palais Longchamp is worth visiting solely for its dazzling architecture and elaborate central fountain, many visitors don’t realize that it also contains two museums. The northern wing houses the Fine Arts Museum of Marseille, and the southern wing houses the Natural History Museum. It’s free to visit the permanent collections of both museums, so this is a great rainy-day activity.
France has it all: incredible architecture, world-class museums, and a rich blend of culture and history. And by using the country’s convenient rail network, it’s easy to visit several of France’s best cities in one fantastic vacation.
Enjoy art and architecture in Lyon, the Roman monuments of Nimes, and the vibrant port city of Marseille.
So, what are you waiting for? Start planning your next trip to France today!
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