In Roman times Arles was one of Gaul’s most venerated cities, home to more than 30,000 people and furnished with monuments that remain in place today. On a multi-site pass you can quench your thirst for Roman wonders and then be amazed by the works of art they left behind at the city’s museum.
Much later, Arles was where Vincent van Gogh spend a year in 1888, completing many masterpieces of scenes you can visit around the city. You could also strike out into the mythic Camargue, a land of wild horses, fighting bulls as well as widescreen lagoons and salt-pans sweeping out to the Mediterranean.
Lets explore the best things to do in Arles:
Arles’ marquee attraction is the oval arena where for more than 400 years the ancient populace would have been entertained by gladiators and chariot races.
It was modelled on Rome’s coliseum and was built a couple of decades after in 90AD. When you come, note the clever touches, like stairways regularly spaced around the arena to manage the flow of spectators in and out.
The arena is still part of the city’s cultural life, holding bullfights and concerts.
On the outside you may notice towers, and these are medieval vestiges from the arena’s time as a citadel, filled with more than 200 houses.
Arles’ theatre is still a performance venue, more than 2,000 years after it was constructed.
The lower tiers of the cavea are all still here, and in Roman times this would have had additional terraces and been able to seat as many as 10,000 spectators.
On the left side of the stage the south tower gives an indication of how high the cavea would have been.
Behind the stage are two columns, labelled “Les Deux Veuves” (The Two Widows) and they are part of what would have been a gigantic backdrop that included a three-metre-high statue of Augustus.
At Arles’ Museum you can see a large model of what the theatre would have looked like in its heyday, and how the two columns would have fitted into the scaenae frons.
3. Musée de l’Arles et de la Provence Antiques
The ideal complement to your tour of Arles ancient monuments is this museum where many of the artefacts recovered from these archaeological sites render life in Roman Arles in sparkling detail.
It’s a playground for amateur historians, overflowing with sculptures, mosaics, early-Christian sarcophagi and decorative fragments from buildings like the theatre.
One of the newer exhibits will set your pulse racing; a Gallo-Roman barge discovered in the Rhône in 2004 and now on show surrounded by its cargo of amphorae.
You’ll also be awed by the statue of Augustus that once stood in the theatre’s scaenae frons.
It measures more than three metres, with a torso found in 1750 an a head unearthed nearly a century later in 1834!
4. Van Gogh Heritage
Vincent van Gogh came to Arles in 1888 and lived here for a year, at a time when his mental health was deteriorating . As we’ll see, he completed some of his most acclaimed paintings in the city, like The Night Café, Café Terrace at Night and Van Gogh’s Chair.
But it was also where he mutilated his left ear.
The Tourist Office organises a Van Gogh Walking Tour, which will show you around all of the locations you may already know from the 300 paintings he made in the city.
On the itinerary is the Fondation Van Gogh, which tells the story of his time in Arles and how his style changed, and holds temporary exhibitions of his work.
5. Church of St. Trophime
This church on Place de la République belongs to the city’s UNESCO site, and you’ll know why when you get close to the western portal.
Here you’ll be met by one of the most celebrated sets of romanesque sculpture, carved no later than the 1100s.
They show all sorts of biblical scenes like the the Apocalypse and the Gospel of St. Matthew.
If you look up at the tympanum you can identify Jesus seated above the 12 apostles, beneath some 40 angels in the archivolt.
The interior has early-Christian sarcophagi, 13th-century plaques and epitaphs, baroque paintings and nine Aubusson tapestries from the 17th century.
6. Cloister at St. Trophime
The church’s cloister was built at the same time and deserves a separate entry as it’s one of Arles’ indispensable sights.
This part of the church was for the church’s canons, whose routine resembled that of monks, removed from life in the city.
The most captivating part is the northern and eastern galleries of the cloister, built much earlier than the southern and western ones: This is because work was halted when Counts of Provence chose Aix as their seat of power instead of Arles.
You have to study every pillar in detail as each one tells a story, whether it’s Jesus’ empty tomb after the transfiguration, Moses meeting God by the burning bush or St. Stephen being stoned.
7. Thermes de Constantin
In the early 300s Emperor Constantine lived in Arelate, and these baths were built around that time although there’s no proven connection to the man himself.
They were excavated in the 19th century and are seen as one of the most complete Roman bathing complexes surviving in France.
The caldarium (hot bath) is probably the most interesting part, suspended over the hypocaust that used to heat it, with three pools one of which is walled by a semi-circular apse with windows.
This room connects with the tepidarium (warm bath) and the laconicum (hot room). The baths aren’t extensive, but will fill you in about another aspect of daily life in Roman Arles.
8. Montmajour Abbey
Minutes northeast of Arles is a medieval monastery set on what used to be an island.
There are several sections to the complex, the oldest being a hermitage cut from the rock in the 1000s, and this is accompanied by a 12th-century cloister and the fortified monastery of Saint-Pierre, which dates to the 14th century.
This final ensemble features the Pons de l’Orme tower, 26 metres high and fitted with crenellations to help defend the monastery against the Free Company, a mercenary army that plundered Italy and southern France in the 1300s.
As the surrounding terrain was marshy, this former island was used as a cemetery: In many instances tombs were hewn from the rock, and these cavities are still visible at this site.
9. Alyscamps painted by Van Gogh and Gauguin
In a city less replete with ancient marvels the necropolis, Alyscamps would be a headline attraction, but in Arles it falls by the wayside of many tourists.
Starting in the Gallo-Roman period it was one of the occidental ancient world’s eminent cemeteries.
As was the Roman style, it was placed along Aurelian Way just before it entered the city and was such a coveted burial site that sarcophagi were shipped from around Europe to be interred here.
By the 300s there were thousands of tombs, three layers deep.
Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin had a tetchy and competitive companionship in Arles, and Alyscamps was the first location that they painted next to each other.
10. Place de la République
Arles’ town hall is on this stately square, as are the churches of Saint-Trophime and Sainte-Anne, opposite each other.
But after exiting Saint-Trophime you’ll find your attention drawn to the monument in the middle of the square.
This is a Roman obelisk that originally stood in the spina (the long central barrier) in Arelate’s circus.
It was found in the 1300s and erected here on a plinth in the 17th-century.
The stone for the obelisk has travelled a long way when you consider the time it was erected and that it measures more than 15 metres.
It’s made of a specific type of granite found in Asia Minor, and most likely Ancient Troy.
11. Place du Forum
There aren’t many signs of the Roman forum that stood roughly on this square, save for fragment of a temple portico integrated into the facade of the Hôtel Nord Pinus.
Now Place du Forum is filled with lively restaurant terraces under the shade of plane trees, and takes on extra meaning because Vincent van Gogh set his easel in northeast corner of the square to paint Café Terrace at Night in 1888. Come in the morning when the tables are empty to spend a moment with the statue of Frédéric Mistral, the Nobel Prize-winning author who lived and worked close to Arles.
12. Musée Réattu
Arles main art museum is named after Jacques Réattu who was born in the city and bequeathed a large collection of his paintings and drawings to the museum when he died in 1833. There are some 800 pieces by the painter, displayed in 12 rooms, and three rooms for Pablo Picasso, who donated drawings in the early 70s.
You can also check out a massive photography collections with contributions by the likes of Richard Avedon and Man Ray, as well as sketches by the fashion designer and Arles native Christian Lacroix.
The building is a former monastery for the Order of Malta, built right next to the Rhône.
On a hot day you could descend below the old Roman forum and enter a network of tunnels constructed by the Greeks.
There are three twin tunnels arranged in a U-shape and you might be surprised to see how well they’ve survived the years.
Their purpose is a matter for debate: In other Roman cities, tunnels like these would have been used as granaries, but the ground is too damp here in Arles for that.
So it’s likely they’d have been made to support the monuments above as well as possibly housing the city’s public slaves.
14. Camargue Nature Park
Arles is seen as the capital of the Camargue, and is on the northern reaches of this special region.
You can book a safari tour to venture into this area of low-lying marshes, lagoons, rice paddies and reddish salt pans between the mouths of the Gard and Rhône.
These extend out to the Mediterranean, so the Camargue is famed for spectacular open spaces extending from horizon to horizon.
In this harsh environment the camarguais horse breed lives in semi-feral herds, and is used on farms to help rear fighting bulls for Spain.
The brackish waters of its wetlands offer one of the only habitats in Europe for greater flamingos.
15. Barbegal Aqueduct
A few minutes east of Arles you get an idea of the resourcefulness that allowed Roman cities like Arles to develop.
The Roman Aqueduct of Barbegal is in the Alpilles Regional Park and delivered water from the Alpilles Range to Arles several kilometres away.
The structure is mostly in ruins and you have to use your imagination a little more than at say, the Pont du Gard, but it also was the scene of one of the Roman world’s most creative uses of hydropower: On a craggy rock here are the remnants of an ancient flourmill, which had 16 waterwheels.
So not only could the aqueduct provide water for all of Arles, it was part of a system that could make 10,000 tons of flour a day, enough to feed a third of the city’s population.