This post was most recently updated on June 18th, 2019
Arles, in southern France, has many interesting things to do and see! It is well worth a full day in your itinerary. We visited in March, when the temperatures were a little cool, and it was rather windy, but we still enjoyed beautiful sunshine. This is a city with rich history, the beautiful winding Rhône river, and proximity to the Mediterranean coast. There are Roman ruins, medieval churches, cobblestone streets, parks, and museums, too. Arles is very proud of their one-time resident artist, Vincent Van Gogh. Even though he only lived in Arles for 15 months, he produced over 300 paintings during that time. Arles has even created a map you can use to visit Van Gogh sites.
We arrived in Arles with a list of must-sees in hand and a desire to explore as well. The plan was to start “at the top”, so to speak, and work our way through the old part of Arles. As it turns out, old Arles is very walkable. So we parked our rental car in a free space on Avenue Victor Hugo and walked to the Arles Amphitheatre. We saw these ruins on the way as we walked through the Jardin d’été…
(Click on any photo to enlarge)
Originally built as a Roman arena, the amphitheatre also served as a fortress to a medieval village after adding three look-out towers. Since it sits on a high spot in town, it was a natural site for fortification.
Since medieval days, the amphitheatre has been restored to its original condition and is now being used as an arena for bullfights, concerts, and other special events. It is a magnificent edifice, and a testament to the building skills of the Romans.
We also found a Van Gogh site — one of the places that Van Gogh painted while he lived in Arles. His “sites” are marked with a large easel displaying a copy of the painting he created at that location.
Place du Forum
As we walked downhill on Rue des Arènes, we came to the Place du Forum. The first thing I spotted was the bright yellow Café Van Gogh — the same cafe in Van Gogh’s painting called “The Cafe Terrace on the Place du Forum” (or Cafe Terrace at Night).
The Place du Forum was the original city center of Arles and used to extend all the way to the river. There’s a bronze statue of Frédéric Mistral, a French writer who received a Nobel Prize for restoring the language of Provence. On the corner of Rue du Palais are two Corinthian columns embedded in the walls that date from the 2nd century.
Palais des Podestats
We headed down Rue du Palais and it came to a dead-end at the junction of two streets: Rue Balze and Plan de la Cour. Right there is the rather humble Palais des Podestats (a simple palace from the 16th century). You can still see the arrow slits and grated windows. It is now used for government offices, but if you walk into the inner courtyard, this is what you will find:
The sign says, “Ici ont ete incarceres les Arlesiens avant leur deportation vers les camps de la mort Nazis.” Translated, it says, “Here is where the Arlesiens were incarcerated before their deportation to the Nazi death camps”. The prison cells look both ominous and depraved, giving no sign of any kind of comfort whatsoever. This simple sign refers to unspeakable horrors, both in Arles and after the victims were deported.
Place de la Republique
If you continue along Plan de la Cour, just two buildings away is the Hotel de Ville, or City Hall, built in 1676. Walk into the entrance and it serves as a passageway to the Place de la Republique. Inside you can see a beautiful staircase with carved lions, and low vaulted ceilings.
The Place de la Republique includes a Roman obelisk originally erected under the Roman emperor Constantine II.
One of the Arles must-sees is in this plaza: L’eglise St.-Trophime (the Church of Saint Trophime). It was built between the 12th and 15th centuries and is classified as a UNESCO World Heritage site. It showcases some incredible architecture, beautiful cloisters, and art. Photos hardly show the depth of devotion and dedication that went into building this church, and it is definitely worth seeing!
The Rhône River
The Rhône River is quite beautiful, a wide ribbon of water wrapping itself around and through Arles…winding through the Camargue Natural Park…and flowing to the Mediterranean. At one time, it is what made Arles an industrial stronghold, but Marseilles has taken that place. Now Arles caters to visitors primarily, and the Rhône is part of the attraction. We strolled along the river, atop the wall, and while it was very pretty, it was also very windy and cold. This is another area that Van Gogh liked to paint, so we stopped to take some photos and later bought postcards of his paintings to match.
Baths of Constantine
Along the river, we saw some old ruins. We learned they are what is left of Constantine’s grand palace from the 4th century. The baths are well-preserved and are a UNESCO World Heritage site. There is a fee to enter, but we just took photos from the outside. Many more places to go see!
Espace Van Gogh
This is where Van Gogh painted “Courtyard of the Hospital at Arles” while he was living here as a patient. It has been carefully preserved to look just as it did when he painted it. We enjoyed the beautiful garden and colorful racks of postcards for sale in the inner courtyard, mostly with a Van Gogh theme.
Along a beautiful canal just outside of the old part of Arles is Les Alyscamps, a Roman necropolis (graveyard) dating back over 1500 years. There are lots of tombs and mausoleums, as well as a church built to honor Saint Genesius, a Roman civil servant who was beheaded because he refused to persecute Christians. It is a peaceful and quiet place to stroll and explore, and it also attracted Van Gogh. Tickets are 3,50€ each.
Abbey Montmajour is a short drive from town and still considered part of Arles. In fact, Van Gogh used to walk from town, carrying his paints and easel to paint it. This is a beautiful combination of church, monastery, cloisters, and fortress. The countryside surrounding it is beautiful, and this is where we saw a herd of graceful Camargue horses, too. The Abbey was built in the 11th century on a rocky outcropping and has served as a refuge to many. Its history is very fascinating, so I’ve dedicated an entire blog post to the Abbey Montmajour.
After leaving Arles, we drove to Château de Baux — another worthy tribute to the ingenuity and grit of those who lived in medieval times. You can read about our visit to this mountain fortress here.
Before this visit to France, Arles was not on my radar. But our day of exploring Arles turned out to be one of the highlights of my trip. I loved the mix of history, beautiful scenes, winding streets and plazas to explore, as well as some good French cheese and doner kebabs, too! I highly suggest that you include Arles in your visit to southern France.
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With all the emphasis on Vincent Van Gogh in Arles, I thought it appropriate to introduce you to a movie of his life that has been made from animations of his paintings. It’s an amazing movie!
Please…do share! What did you do in or near Arles, France?