Soon after I arrived in Arles I realised I knew very little about it! I chose to go there because it has good connections with other towns in the region and because of the Roman sites. But it was even better than I expected!
Visiting the monuments:
The best way of seeing most of the monuments of Arles is by buying a pass at the Tourist Office (16€ for the Pass Avantage which gives you entrance to all the monuments and museums owned by the city – it’s valid for six months). Then you just need to follow the map and check everything out.
Amphitheatre: Arles’ most famous monument was just a few steps from where I was staying, so I took advantage of this and visited early in the morning. The theatre is beautiful and really well-preserved, and aside from seeing the building itself, you can climb one of the towers and get great views over Arles and nearby countryside.
The theatre is still is use today – they stage fake gladiator battles and it’s also a popular site for bull runs (different from bullfighting in that the bull doesn’t die, but not cool if you ask me).
Theatre Antique: This is a Roman theatre which is still impressive but has suffered a bit over the centuries. The great thing about it is that it’s still in use today, so you can visit during the day to see the grounds but also when there’s something on.
I was lucky that when I visited Arles the Peplum festival was on. This is an annual event in the ancient theatre in which you can see sword-and-sandal films (tickets for 7€). I watched Asterix with the local crowd, and it was a great way of experiencing the theatre in use.
Cryptoportiques: This is an amazing site – the old Roman forums required massive underground tunnels to be built, and here you can visit an example of this. The most impressive thing is how massive it is, it is a huge maze of large tunnels and it’s very well-preserved.
Alyscamps: This old necropolis is another impressive site. There’s a big avenue of tombs, and there’s also a big church on the site. Van Gogh and Cezanne both came here for inspiration.
Saint-Trophime Church and cloister: On the main town square, this church and its cloister are both really nice. The church is ample and has some interesting stained glass windows. The cloister is a beautiful building and there is a good film explaining how it was built.
Les Thermes de Constantin: Here you can see the old thermal baths, and there are good notes explaining how the building worked. I visited early when it was just me and the local cats.
Musee Departamental: This museum is about 20min from the centre following the Rhone, so you get nice views on the way there. It has an impressive collection of ancient artefacts and tells the story of Arles from its foundation with a focus on the Roman times.
The most interesting exhibit is a 2,000 year-old boat which was rescued from the bottom of the sea and painstakingly rebuilt for display – and there’s a great film explaining how they’ve managed to recreate it.
Reattu museum: This is a great local museum with lots of different modern art exhibits. It’s set in an ancient building, so the contrast between the old architecture and the new pieces makes it more interesting. It’s right by the Rhone, so you also get great views of the river from within the museum.
Van Gogh in Arles:
Van Gogh lived in Arles, so there are some interesting places around to see his work and where he used to paint.
Vincent Van Gogh Foundation: The Van Gogh Foundation (tickets for 9€) hosts exhibitions featuring some of Van Gogh’s paintings as well as works by other artists (when I visited there was a big Alice Neel retrospective). It’s all presented in the context of Van Gogh’s art, so the exhibits are made relevant to the site.
L’Espace Van Gogh: Back when it was a hospital, Van Gogh used to come to this place to paint. Nowadays it’s a cultural centre, and the artistic appeal definitely remains – it really is an ideal place to be artsy (even though my attempt wasn’t up to scratch). It’s a small space but it’s nice to walk around the garden and spend a few minutes lounging about.
Van Gogh Walk: Van Gogh painted a few of his pieces in Arles, and you can see these scattered around town. They are all marked with plaques, and you can download a map of where everything is here.
Arles hosts two markets, on Wednesdays and Saturdays. The Saturday one is the most famous, as it covers the whole of Boulevard Lices and beyond stretching over 2,5km. It’s a great market, offering not only lots of choice in local produce and handicraft, but also North African delicacies and spices. I found the prices here were a bit better than what I was paying in Aix.
The Rhone goes right through Arles, and you can get amazing views over the river by following a promenade. It is also the best place to watch the sunset.
HOW TO DO IT:
- Stay: I stayed in this nice Airbnb which was ridiculously close to the Amphitheatre, and the host provided me with lots of useful tips on exploring the town. Arles is pretty small so as long as you’re in the city centre you can walk anywhere.
- Go: Arles is very well-connected by train to other towns in Provence. It’s also only about 30min from Marseille, so you can easily fly there from London and get the train from the airport.
- How long to stay: I stayed in Arles for 9 days, and I used a lot of my time to travel around. There are quite a few highlights in Arles, so you need a few whole days to see everything, and it’s also a great base from where to explore Provence by train.