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It was my French friend Lolo who said, “Tout est beau à Arles.” She was so right. Everything is beautiful in Arles. Arles had been on my list of cities to visit in Provence, France for a long time and I had the good fortune to visit it on two separate occasions recently.
With its impressive Roman ruins, picturesque streets, and stunning architecture, Arles is a charming destination. It’s no wonder it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1981. With its provençal shutters decorating façades and lively squares shaded by towering plane trees, Arles is a true gem to add to your travel itinerary.
Arles, France: A Brief History
Arles, located in the south of France, has a rich and fascinating history dating back to ancient times. The city was founded by the Greeks around 600 BC and was later conquered by the Romans in 123 BC.
During Roman rule, Arles, which was known as Arelate, became an important trading centre and played a significant role in the development of Christianity. It is said that Saint Trophimus arrived in Arles during this time and established a Christian community there.
In the Middle Ages, Arles continued to thrive as a cultural hub with its famous school of sculpture. However, it also experienced periods of turmoil including invasions by barbarians and wars between rival factions.
The Renaissance brought renewed prosperity to Arles as it became an important center for trade and commerce. This period saw many notable artists flocking to the city including Vincent Van Gogh who famously painted some of his most iconic works while living there.
Today, Arles remains a vibrant cultural destination with its well-preserved ancient Roman architecture and picturesque medieval streets. Add it to your itinerary in Provence, France.
11 Things To Do In Arles, France
1. Flâner In Arles
The art of combining being a tourist, who wants to see all the sights, and the ability to “flâner” is the true sign of a curious traveller. In order to flâner, one has to wander without a real agenda. Here’s how. On my first day in Arles, my daughter and I turned a corner and there she was. A talented street artist filling the square with her melodic voice. Swept away, we sat before magnificent buildings and let the vibe of Arles soak in.
Arles is full of delightful winding streets. Flâner. Get lost. You won’t be disappointed.
2. Marvel At The Roman Amphitheatre In Arles
The Roman amphitheatre in Arles, France is a breathtaking sight to behold. It’s much more impressive in real life than in photos with its soaring sandstone arches. This magnificent structure was built almost 2,000 years ago and is one of the best-preserved examples of Roman engineering in the world.
With its grand arches and towering walls, it’s easy to imagine the roar of the crowds as gladiators battled to death on its sands. The amphitheatre, which held up to 20 000 spectators, would have been a central part of life in ancient Arles and played host to a variety of events from religious ceremonies to public executions.
I can’t help but ponder the brilliance of the Roman builders as I marvel at the corridors, arches and staircases that lead up to the top tiers of seating.
From the Arles Amphitheatre, the town is magnificent with its red-tiled roofs, shuttered stucco buildings and the Rhône River shimmering in the distance.
This largest Roman monument in France is still used today. Why not time your visit for a bullfighting performance, concert, or show?
The Roman Amphitheatre in Arles Hours:
March, April and October: 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.
May to September: 9:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.
November to February: 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.
3. Explore The Cloisters Of Saint-Trophime
One of my favourite discoveries in Arles was the cloisters of Saint Trophime. Built between the 12th and 14th centuries, these cloisters were originally part of a large monastery complex that served as a centre for religious and cultural life. It’s easy to imagine monks going about their daily routines here centuries ago – reading scripture by candlelight or tending to their gardens outside.
Marvel at the intricate stone carvings that adorn the walls and columns of the cloisters. These sculptures depict scenes from the Bible, as well as various mythical creatures and fantastic beasts. The attention to detail is truly impressive.
Soak up the peaceful atmosphere that pervades these cloisters and wander through Saint-Trophime Church a Romanesque-style Catholic church.
4. Stand In The Ancient Theatre
Oh, those Romans knew how to live. The Ancient Theatre, which held up to 8000 spectators, was one of the first Roman stone theatres. Two columns still stand soaring skyward. Imagine when there were 100 such columns just how grand this theatre would have been. Be sure to visit the ancient theatre or attend a play or summertime concert.
5. Follow In Van Gogh’s Footsteps
Van Gogh arrived in Arles in February 1888 and stayed until May 1889. It is no surprise with the magical Mediterranean light that he created over 300 paintings in Arles.
Look for the twelve panels in Arles showing where Van Gogh set up his easel and created a masterpiece.
Visit the Fondation Vincent Van Gogh open daily from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. There is no permanent exhibition at this gallery but temporary exhibitions that always feature Van Gogh. Each year the Foundation exhibits between one and ten Van Gogh paintings that have been lent from museums or private owners.
6. People Watch At Café Van Gogh
Place du Forum is lined with cafés but it’s the unmistakable sunflower yellow façade of the Café Van Gogh that catches your attention. It is here that Van Gogh painted his Café Terrace at Night (1888). The original hangs in the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo, Netherlands but here in Arles, you can soak up the inspiration for the painting.
The downside is that the Café Van Gogh is jammed with people. I sauntered by admiring the sunny yellow café but preferred to sit under the plane trees in Place Voltaire. The Café Bistrot de Pitchounet had a decidedly local feel with residents greeting each other and sharing stories. I found the people watching here rather mesmerising.
7. Attend A Festival In Arles
- Féria d’Arles: The Festival that starts the bullfighting season. Bullfighting takes place in Les Arènes most Sundays in May and June. Visit the official website here. Next dates: March 29 to April 1, 2024
- Fête des Gardians: Takes place every May 1 with parades, games, and features the Camargue cowboys that herd the bulls. The animals are blessed, locals dress up in traditional clothing, and there is a grand spectacle in Les Arènes.
- Les Suds: This world-music festival takes place every July (July 10 to 16, 2023). Visit the official website here.
- Les Rencontres d’Arles Photographie: Calling all photography fans! This International photography festival, founded in 1970, runs from July 3 through September 24, 2023. Visit the official website here.
- Féria de Riz: This annual festival to celebrate the beginning of the rice harvest take place on September 9 and 10, 2023. Find plenty of vendors selling paella and dishes using the local red rice from the Camargue. Look for bullfighters in costume, music and in 2023, Picasso prints will decorate the arena as it is the 50th anniversary of his death. Visit the official website here.
8. Take A Tour Of The Camargue Countryside
Just south of Arles, is the protected wetland the Camargue. If you love birds, this is a non-negotiable stop. Over 500 species of birds can be found here with the superstar being the pink flamingo. Wild white horses, roaming bulls and pink salt flats add to the charm of a visit to the Camargue. If you have a rental car, the Camargue is easily accessible. If not, take a guided safari tour from Arles to this unique spot in France.
9. Musée Réattu
This contemporary art museum, named for Arles-born painter Jacques Réattu (1760 – 1830), is housed in a 15th-century grand priory overlooking the Rhône River. The Musée Réattu offers visitors a journey through time, showcasing 57 sketches and two paintings by Picasso, an art collection of 18th and 19th-century painters from Provence and an impressive sculpture and photographic collection.
10. Browse The Arles Market
A trip to Provence is not complete without a morning spent at a Provençal market. These open-air markets are not just places to shop for fresh produce and local delicacies but are an integral part of Provençal culture and a sensory feast for all who visit. The lively market at Arles is unforgettable with delectable local foods, gorgeous Provençal baskets and linens. What will you tuck in your suitcase?
Market in Arles: Wednesday and Saturday mornings
11. Search Out The Smaller Churches
Somehow we ended up on Hauture Hill in Arles before Notre Dame de la Major. We had a seat and soaked up the calm energy emanating from this 12th-century church. Originally built on the site of a Roman temple, Notre Dame de la Major has seen a lot of transformations over time. Although the doors of the church remained closed, the priest’s comings and goings held our interest.
If you happen to be in Arles on May 1st, it is here that the Festival of the Gardiens (the Camargue Cowboys) starts each year.
Arles France: Practical Information
How To Get To Arles
Arriving by Train:
From Paris Gare de Lyon: A 3 to 5-hour trip depending on the train with a change in Nîmes Pont du Gard, Avignon or Marseille St-Charles.
From Avignon Centre: Note: There are 2 train stations in Avignon. A 25-minute trip to Arles.
From Aix-en-Provence: Note: There are 2 train stations in Aix-en-Provence. Between 1 hour and 2 hours with changes in Avignon or Marseille.
From Marseille St-Charles: About 45-minutes
Arriving by Car: It’s ideal to have a car if you are visiting Arles for a short time and as part of a longer itinerary in Provence. There is plenty of street parking and numerous car parks in Arles.
From Avignon on the D570N (23 miles/ 37 km). About 45 minutes
From Aix-en-Provence: A54 (autoroute) or the D7N or the D113. 51 miles/ 83 km. From 1 hour and 10 minutes to 1 hour 50 minutes, depending on the route taken.
Guided Tours Of Arles
A guided tour can often give you a great overview of a city.
If you are based in Avignon, Aix-en-Provence, or Marseille, there are plenty of day trips that include Arles such as Van Gogh in Provence, and this one that includes both Arles and Les Baux-de-Provence.
Best Time To Visit Arles
Oh là, là…Provence is a very popular destination in France, especially in the summer months. Try to plan your trip to Arles in the spring or the fall seasons.
Is It Worth Visiting Arles?
When planning a trip through Provence France it can be hard to prioritize stops along the way. I loved the time I spent in Arles, Provence. There are plenty of places to visit in Arles France so go for an afternoon, a full day and if you have time linger longer. I highly recommend visiting Arles. As my friend Lolo told me, “Tout est beau.”
I hope you love Arles, France as much as I did. I can’t wait to return.
Until next time,
More Travel Info…
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