Clustered on a bend in the river Rhone, with its back to the Mistral wind, the old town of Arles is dominated by its Roman amphitheatre. A UNESCO World Heritage site, Arles is second only to Rome with its number of Roman monuments.

On the edge of the Rhone delta and gateway to the Camargue, Arles was a bustling Roman port under Julius Caesar. Van Gogh and Gaugin lived here, Picasso came to the bullfights and fashion designer Christian Lacroix was born here. Full of history and art, it offers a unique combination of Roman monuments, one of France’s most important archaeological collections, art galleries and museums, an annual international photography festival and twice yearly bullfighting festivals.

 

“It is usually regarded as the most picturesque city in the whole of Provence”

Lawrence Durrell, ‘Caesar’s Vast Ghost’

Arles Gallery

Our Top Ten of Arles’s best sights


  • The Amphitheatre (les Arenes):  Constructed in the first century to seat 20,000 spectators, it became a fortified town after the fall of the Roman Empire until it was restored in the 19C. It now hosts concerts as well as bullfights.
  • Roman Baths (Thermes de Constantin):  Ruins of the largest remaining Roman baths in Provence, dating to the 4th century AD.
  • Cryptoporticus:  The entrance is quite hard to find, just inside the Town Hall, but worth looking for. These underground tunnels in the form of a U were part of the foundations of the Roman Forum.
  • The Romanesque carved doorway of St Trophime church:  Look for the sculptures of the damned, chained and bound, the flames of hell licking their legs.
  • St Trophime cloisters:  Richly carved 12 and 14th century cloisters.

  • Musée Départmental Arles Antique:  The muddy Rhône river bed is still yielding up surprises, including a rare bust of Julius Cesar. The museum houses one of France’s most important archaeological collections and has some fascinating artefacts.
  • Place du Forum:  Busy square with cafés, look out for the one depicted by Van Gogh in ‘Le Café le Soir’ (September 1888), the first time he painted stars.
  • Reattu Museum:  The collection includes 57 drawings given to the Museum in 1971 by Picasso.
  • Fondation Vincent Van Gogh:  Contemporary art exhibitions.
  • Arlaten Museum:  A folk museum illustrating life in Provence from end of 18C to present day. (Currently undergoing renovation – due to reopen 2019).

Discover Arles


For Kids

Arles for kids and the young at heart


  • Jardin Hortus:  At the Musée Departemental Arles Antique, with play and picnic areas – you can also borrow a box of Roman games to play (free at the ticket office but you will have to leave your passport as security). Sadly, last time we went, the instructions were only in French but there’s lots of grass to run around on and a playground for younger kids.
  • Saint Trophime church:  The tallest nave in Provence, equivalent to a six-storey building!
  • Bull games (course Camarguaise):  Not a bull fight but exciting to watch the ‘raseteurs’ trying to pull a rosette off the bull’s horns with a hook. (July and August, Wednesdays and Fridays in the Arena).
  • Velo-taco (rickshaw):  Let someone else do the pedalling! These electrical tricycles seat 2 (3 if you have a small child) and you can visit the principal sights in 30 minutes. (Summer months only, reserve on the Arles Tourist Office site).
  • Vincent van Gogh walking tour:  Find the ten easels set up by the Tourist Office at spots where van Gogh painted some of his most well-known paintings. (Download the van Gogh walk in English or get it at the Arles Tourist Office on boulevard des Lices).

Festivals

Arles festivals


  • International Photography Show (Les Rencontres d’Arles):  has taken place in Arles every summer for over forty years and is perhaps one of the most important photography events in the world, making Arles to photography what Cannes is to cinema. Galleries spring up all over town and there are evening projections and concerts.
  • Arelate, journées romaines d’Arles (a Roman festival):  during a week in August, don’t be surprised if you bump into a gladiator or have to avoid a chariot as the whole town celebrates its Roman heritage. There are projections of classic films such as Ben Hur in the Antique Theatre and other events such as street artists, gladiator fights and chariot races. You might get to taste some Roman food in a Roman tavern. The festival is designed for ‘all the family’ and there are normally plenty of activities for kids.
  • Costume Festival:  The women of Arles were long considered to be the most beautiful in Provence and they certainly wore the most beautiful dresses. Frederic Mistral started this festival in 1903. At fifteen, girls were considered to be of marriageable age and were permitted to wear adult costume (the ‘habit arlésienne’). Mistral was concerned that the traditional costumes were disappearing so he invited young girls to come to a ceremony where ‘the Queen of Arles’ presented them with a ribbon (part of the traditional headdress). In 1903 there were 18 young ladies taking part. In 1904 there were 350! Now, over 400 participants dressed in traditional costumes parade through the streets to the Antique Theatre. At the end of the afternoon there is a programme of (bloodless) rosette-snatching bullfights, games and dances in homage to the Queen. A new Queen of Arles is crowned every three years. The next coronation is in 2017. The costume festival takes place on the first Sunday in July.
    La Pegoulado – a nocturnal procession through the streets with paper lanterns and traditional Provençal music precedes the Costume Festival on the Friday evening.
  • Bull races:   Arles is the gateway to the Camargue where the bull is king. Between 18,000-20,000 bulls are reared each year by over 150 breeders. ‘Courses Camarguaises’ are held in July and August where young men try to outrun bulls charging through the streets and then a short (bloodless) spectacle takes place with young men trying to snatch a rosette from the bulls’ horns. There are also shows in the Amphitheatre with the Camarguais cowboys (gardiens) on horseback.
  • Bullfights (Corridas):   Arles hosts two major bullfighting festivals, one at Easter (La Feria du Pâques) and one in September (La Feria du Riz), when the whole town celebrates the ancient connection with the Camargue and bulls. The streets and bars are filled to overflowing and the atmosphere is amazing. Depending on the programme, you will be able to see bulls running in the streets, ‘Courses Camarguaises’, fireworks, equestrian shows, concerts and bullfights.

Culture

Arles cultural highlights

There’s so much to see in Arles. If you only have time for a day here, it’s worth planning carefully but of course you can also just wander around, take in the atmosphere and stop wherever you feel like. The main Roman monuments of Arles are quite close together and the Musée Départemental Arles Antique is only a 20-minute walk from the centre. The half-day walking tour ‘Following in Vincent’s footsteps’ (download the brochure in English or pick it up at the Tourist Office on boulevard des Lices) will take you past most of the main sights as well as the art museum Le Musée Réattu and the Fondation Vincent van Gogh.
Tip: Check out the ‘Pass Monuments’, which covers entry to four monuments and a museum of your choice for 11 euros full rate. (Buy the pass online in French only, or get them at the Tourist Office, boulevard des Lices).

List of principal Arles monuments:

  • Amphitheatre – les Arènes: see above.
  • Roman Theatre (théatre antique): only ghostly columns and other remains stand from what was a grand 10,000-seater Roman theatre, but today it is again being used for outdoor performances.
  • The Musée Départemental Arles Antique: contains one of France’s most important archaeological collections. In Roman times, Arles was a bustling commercial hub and the muddy bed of the river is still full of surprises. As well as things like needles, hair pins, storage jars, knives, lamps and luxury bronze vases, two of the Museum’s highlights are a first century 102ft long barge, found in 2004, and life-sized marble bust, thought to be of Julius Cesar, found in 2007. The combined collection of sarcophagi here and in the town’s Alyscamps necropolis gives Arles the biggest such collection after the Vatican museums.
  • Eglise St Trophime doorway and cloister: an 11th century Romanesque church, formerly a cathedral, in the centre of Arles, St Trophime is noted for its wonderfully evocative stone sculptures, both around the doorway and in the beautiful cloister – some of the best Romanesque sculpture in existence.
  • Cryptoporticus: see above.
  • Les Alyscamps: a famous necropolis of the ancient world, the Alyscamps is now largely ignored. It’s an alley of stone sarcophagi situated right outside the old city walls as no burial was allowed within a city. For 15 centuries this was Arles’s main burial ground. It is not spectacular but it is unique and has a ghostly atmosphere.
  • Palais Constantin (thermal baths): see above.
  • Fondation Vincent van Gogh: van Gogh came to Arles in February 1888 and in the 15 months he spent there, in spite of poverty, loneliness and hospitalization, produced some of his finest masterpieces. The Fondation Vincent van Gogh pays due homage to van Gogh’s work whilst at the same time exploring his impact upon art today. Note that there are no van Gogh paintings at the Fondation, except the small number it may borrow for one of its shows on contemporary art.
  • Espace van Gogh: very central 16th century hospital garden where Van Gogh was interned after cutting off his ear. He painted the pretty garden in “Le Jardin de l’Hotel de Dieu”. As well as the garden there are shops and a café.
  • Musée Réattu: Picasso was particularly attached to Arles because of his passion for bullfights and the influence of Van Gogh’s ‘ghost’. In 1971 he donated 57 drawings to the museum, which also possesses two paintings by the artist.
  • Le Musée Arlaten: a folk museum illustrating life in Provence from the end of the 18th century to now. It was created in 1896 by Nobel Prize-winning poet and protector of the Provençal language, Frederic Mistral. (Look out for Mistral’s statue in the Place du Forum, behind a railing of Camargue guardians’ pitchforks). Note that the Musée Arlaten is closed for renovation until 2019.

Transport

Getting to Arles


Car:  The principal monuments are all quite close together in the centre so we advise you to find a space in an underground car park, Le Parc du Centre, for example. Or, park across the Rhône in the Parking P5 (between le quai Kalymnos and l’avenue de Camargue), which is only a 15-minute walk over the Trinquetaille Bridge to the centre of Arles.
Train:  Arles station has a high-speed (TGV) train service twice a day to Paris and other connections to Bordeaux, Marseille, Clermont-Ferrand and Marseille as well as Luxembourg, Strasbourg and Nice.
  Bus:  Bus routes to Saintes Maries de La Mer, Aix-en-Provence, Cavaillon, Saint-Rémy de Provence, among others.
  Plane:  Lots of choice with NImes airport 20 minutes away, and three other airports about 50 mintues away: Avignon, Marseille Provence and Montpellier Méditerranée.

Getting around Arles


Walking:  The best way to get a feel for the centre of the town is on foot. All the principal monuments are in a relatively small area.
Electric vehicle:  Alternatives to walking around town: the green Baladine electric vehicles can be hailed, they follow a circular route and you pay the driver.
  Bike hire:  Various bike rental companies charge from 10€ a day for visiting Arles and the Camargue by bike.
Vélo-taco (rickshaw):  Let someone else do the pedalling! These electrical tricycles seat 2 (3 if you have a small child) and you can visit the main sights in 30 minutes. (Summer months only, reserve on the Arles Tourist Office site). Vélo-taco also rent bikes at the train station for hire on a half day, full day or weekly basis. They also offer a luggage storage facility.

To Note

Things to note


  • A common sight at the Fondation van Gogh is a confused look as a visitor wonders: “Where are all the van Goghs?” This is an exhibition space named after van Gogh but it has none of his paintings. It does borrow a small number for exhibitions to put an artist in context and show van Gogh’s influence, but that is all.
  • Some museums are closed on Mondays, but this can vary according to the time of year so check online for the museum in question.
  • If you are attending a popular exhibition or event, a good time to go is at 12, when the French drop everything for lunch.

We Like

What we like


  • Roman remains:  Arles is so rich in Roman remains that something as unique as the Alyscamps necropolis is almost forgotten – anywhere else it would be a headline act.
  • Vincent:  In truth Arles somewhat overplays the van Gogh connection: there are no van Gogh paintings permanently in Arles. But if you are a fan it is really interesting to follow the walk around town passing the spots where he painted his masterpieces, or take in the former hospital where he stayed after cutting his ear off and painted the courtyard garden.
  • The Camargue:  Arles is the gateway to the Camargue, the wild and unique natural park between Arles and the sea, with its bulls, flamingoes and white horses, salt flats and beaches.