Provence

Arles

The history of Arles, with its gypsy charm and Provençal colours, is intertwined with that of the painter Vincent Van Gogh, who spent the last years of his life here.
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Founded by the Romans on the Rhone River, Arles retains all the charm and colours of a lost time. Tourists linger in the colourful cafés that inspired some of the most famous paintings by Van Gogh (who lived here for a long time) and stroll along the riverfront, romantic at sunset.

Wandering around the centre, you will see old houses with peeling facades, crowded squares that come alive during festivals and monuments of white stone glistening in the hot summer sun.

This languid town can be considered the starting point for visiting the Camargue, a wild and unspoilt corner of nature, alternating between marshes, windswept beaches and colourful salt marshes, where you can admire magnificent pink flamingos and untamed wild horses.

With its gypsy charm and Provençal colours, Arles enchants its visitors, who are bewitched by the picturesque views.

Things to do in Arles

The evocative streets of Arles will magically project you into a Van Gogh painting: charming corners, enchanting bistros in the shade of plane trees, where you can breathe in the atmosphere of the Impressionist period, the romantic Rhone promenade at sunset, hidden alleys, the remains of the ancient Roman city.

Roman Amphitheatre

11 Rdpt des Arènes, 13200 Arles, France (Website)

This splendid example of a Roman amphitheatre is located in the heart of the old town, in a circular square that follows its shape. It is surrounded by ancient dwellings with colourful shutters – a sight that will leave you speechless.

With its 136 metres long and 107 metres wide, its oval shape characterised by two levels and its 60 arches, it looks like a miniature Colosseum, of rare beauty and in perfect condition.

In the time of the Roman Empire, chariot races and gladiator fights took place here. Today, it has become the city’s venue for concerts, shows and even bullfights, which enliven the city and attract up to 12,000 spectators. Locals and tourists flock here to watch two types of bullfights: the tauromachie, also known as Carmagua bullfights, where the bull is not killed and the fight between man and animal is merely symbolic, and the Spanish-style corridas, where the poor bull is eventually sadly slaughtered.

Ancient Roman Theatre

21 Rue du Cloître, 13200 Arles, France (Website)

For centuries, but especially in the Middle Ages, this ancient Roman theatre was used as a quarry for the construction of the city. Because of this terrible plundering, only a few visitable vestiges remain today, including the ancient tiers of seats and only two columns, which belonged to the stage and some mosaics on the floor of the orchestra.

After seeing the amphitheatre you may be disappointed, but the Roman Theatre is at its best when it hosts the city’s summer theatrical and musical programme, becoming a fascinating and atmospheric stage.

Republic Square

3Pl. de la République, 13200 Arles, France

It is undoubtedly one of the most scenic squares in Arles. This large pedestrian area embraces some of the city’s most important buildings and monuments: the Hotel de Ville, the Saint-Trophime cathedral, the church of Saint Anne and an imposing Egyptian obelisk built of granite.

When the sun beats down on the square, it is easy to understand how the blinding Provençal light bewitched so many impressionist painters: it makes the snowy white of the stone from which the houses were built shine and lights up all the surrounding colours.

Cathedral and Cloister of St-Trophime

46 Pl. de la République, 13200 Arles, France (Website)

This wonderful church is a true jewel of Provençal Romanesque art. On sunny summer mornings, the white stone illuminates the entire square and highlights the superb portal finely carved with an elaborate biblical scene, the Last Judgement.

Take a moment to observe the finely carved details and you will spot a plurality of subjects embodying the different outcomes of the Last Judgement: alongside naked and chained figures being dragged towards the gates of hell, there are angels blowing trumpets and the blessed ascending to heaven, in the form of algid women.

Don’t miss the Cloisters, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Strolling under the arcades, from whose columns the light filters enchantingly, the Romanesque and Gothic styles blend harmoniously to create an ensemble that is unique in the whole of Provence.

Montmajour Abbey

5Rte de Fontvieille, 13280 Arles, France (Website)

A few kilometres north of Arles there is a truly unique place, surrounded by lush nature, punctuated only by the chirping of cicadas: a fortress abbey standing on a hill and enclosing one of the most beautiful cloisters in Provence, portrayed several times by Van Gogh.

Founded in 948 A.D., the abbey condenses no less than eight centuries of monastic architecture inside with a harmonious fusion of Romanesque, Gothic and classical styles. The complex is very large and articulated: it includes the Church of Notre-Dame, partly unfinished and characterised by the charm of timeless places, the hermitage of St. Peter, the oldest building in the complex with pre-Romanesque forms and the magnificent finely sculpted cloister. In its embroideries, one can admire a universe of demonic, disturbing and monstrous figures that mingle with profane scenes of domestic animals and those that draw on the fantastic imagination such as tarascae, dragons and chimeras. A true jewel of Romanesque and Gothic art.

The Cryptoporticos of Arles

64 Plan de la Cour, 13200 Arles, France (Website)

Beneath the cathedral square, an immense underground quadrangle of Roman colonnades is hidden. This huge forum was used as a grain store and you can still see the areas used as shops, water pipes and sewers.

An unusual yet fascinating visit, ideal on torrid summer days to find some refreshment but not recommended for those suffering from claustrophobia.

Museum of Ancient Arles

7Presqu'île du Cirque Romain, 13200 Arles, France (Website)

To learn more about the history of Arles in antiquity and in particular during the period of the Roman Empire, we recommend a visit to the Museum of Ancient Arles, a must-see for all art and archaeology enthusiasts.

The museum boasts a collection of 30,000 original pieces, of which only 18,000 are displayed to the public on a rotating basis. You can admire sarcophagi, statues, everyday objects from the Roman era and magnificent, perfectly preserved mosaics.

Van Gogh’s places in Arles

The history of Arles is strongly intertwined with that of a great figure of Impressionist painting, Vincent Van Gogh, who spent some years of his life in Provence before his illness consumed him for good.

It was in Arles that he painted some of his most famous works such as The Sunflowers, The Chair and The Café la nuit . Bewitched by the colours, light and landscapes of Provence, enchanted by the sunny fields surrounding the city, the Dutch artist unfortunately found no peace even in the company of his friend Paul Gauguin. His mental health deteriorated sharply, culminating in the episode of self-harm that led Van Gogh to cut off his ear and voluntarily recover first in Arles and then in Nimes.

Lovers of Van Gogh’s painting will be able to retrace the stages of his stay in Arles, visiting some of the picturesque corners that animated his most significant works. Unfortunately, of the 300 works that the artist painted in this corner of Provence, not a single one remains in the city.

Le Café Van Gogh

811 Pl. du Forum, 13200 Arles, France (Website)

Our tour of Van Gogh’s places can only begin here: the tormented Dutch painter loved this brightly coloured café overlooking Place du Forum, a typical and exquisite Provençal square shaded by large plane trees. In the centre of the square stands the statue of Frédéric Mistral, the French poet awarded the Nobel Prize in 1904.

It was at the tables of this café that Van Gogh quarrelled with his friend Paul Gauguin, throwing a glass at him. Here Van Gogh often sat, observing life around him and drawing inspiration. Indeed, he immortalised the outside of this café in the painting Café Terrace in the Open Air, and its interior at the time, desolate and lonely, in another painting, Café by Night.

Langlois Bridge

913200 Arles, France

On the outskirts of the city of Arles is another iconic glimpse of Van Gogh’s work, The Langlois Bridge, of which there are five versions, in which the artist played with variations of perspective, light and colour.

This small bridge was chosen by the artist for its naturalistic context. In fact, the view stood out for the intense blue of the sky and the yellow of the sun and the wheat fields: these elements reminded him of the resemblance to certain Japanese landscapes to which the artist was particularly attracted, although he had never been there. The influence of Japanese art and prints on Van Gogh was substantial and we find similarities with Ichiryusai Hiroshige’s Sudden Waterfall on the Ōhashi Bridge in Atake.

For restoration purposes, the bridge was moved after the Second World War, 3 km away from the original exact spot, and today stands on the canal that connects Arles to Port-de-Bouc. Be warned that it is rather difficult to find: it is best to ask the tourist office for detailed information on the exact spot.

Place Lamartine

10Pl. Lamartine, 13200 Arles, France

A lilac house, once painted yellow, overlooks this square. This building was immortalised by Van Gogh in the painting The Yellow House: it was here that he lived, sharing the rent with his friend Paul Gauguin, and inside was Vincent’s famous Room in Arles, one of his most significant works.

Trinquetaille Bridge on the River Rhône

11Pont de Trinquetaille, 13200 Arles, France

It was from this very spot that Van Gogh painted one of his most striking pictures, Starry Night on the Rhone .

During his nocturnal walks, he came across this view of the Rhone River. From that moment on, a long creative process began, leading to the production of several versions of the same subject and numerous sketches that he sent to his brother Théo. In this sublime painting, one can see how the painter used colours, perspective and starlight to translate into images all his emotional turmoil and passions that he could not manage rationally.

The banks of the Rhône are a magical place at sunset: it is really a must to stroll unhurriedly under the slowly fading street lamps and choose one of the many small restaurants to dine.

Espace Van Gogh

12Pl. Félix Rey, 13200 Arles, France

It used to be called Hôtel-Dieu and was the main hospital in Arles, where Van Gogh was hospitalised between December 1888 and May 1889, after having his ear cut off. During his stay, the painter never stopped his painting and immortalised the interior gardens of the building in The Courtyard of the Hospital of Arles.

In the 1990s, the complex was transformed into a city cultural space and since then the inner courtyard has been open to the public.

Alyscamps

13Av. des Alyscamps, 13200 Arles, France (Website)

This large, ancient Roman necropolis called The Elysian Fields was a burial place in the time of the Gauls and Romans first and later in the Middle Ages.

It was a fixed stop for pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela and was considered one of the most sacred places in all of Europe. Its decay and ruin began when monks began to reuse the marble from the tombs and tombstones to build new churches and holy places, giving rise to real plundering.

However, this large complex comprising the Avenue of the Sarcophagi and the Church of Saint Honorat has retained a decadent and melancholic charm, in which the symbols of death and nature coexist sadly. Its evocative appearance could not fail to attract Van Gogh, who used to go to these places to meditate in autumn, at nature’s most recollected time. From these walks came Les Alyscamps, a painting from 1888.

Map

In the following map you can see the location of the main places of interest mentioned in this article

Arles City Pass

For those wishing to make an in-depth visit to the city, it may be worth purchasing the Arles City Pass, available in two versions.

The Advantage Pass is valid for 6 months and includes access to the Amphitheatre, the Alyscamps, the Saint-Trophime cloister, the thermal baths of Constantine, the ancient theatre, the cryptoporticos, the Réattu Museum, the Museum of Ancient Arles, and the Camargue Museum.

On the other hand, the Liberty Pass, valid for 1 month, allows access to 4 monuments to choose from: the Amphitheatre, the Alyscamps, the Saint-Trophime cloister, Constantine’s thermal baths, the cryptoporticos and the ancient theatre, and 1 museum of your choice from the Arles Antique museum, the Camargue museum and the Réattu museum.

Tickets can be purchased at the Arles tourist office or one of the museums and monuments mentioned.

Events in Arles

The city of Arles comes alive during certain annual events that attract tourists and visitors. From Easter to September, it is a succession of ferias, the events that mark the taurine season: thousands arrive to admire the spectacle of the bulls and celebrate the return of the pagan cult. The whole city is transformed into an immense river of people with street vendors, orchestras and stalls crowding the streets of the centre. Reservation of hotel accommodation is compulsory as it sells out.

The Easter Feria

One of the most eagerly awaited events is certainly the Easter Feria: at the Roman Amphitheatre, both the courses camarguaises, the non-blood competitions, and the real bullfights take place, two types rooted in Provençal culture and much loved by the population.

The Buttery Festival

Other events not to be missed are the traditional festivals, linked to popular culture. First and foremost is the Day of the Guardians, the herdsmen who guard the bulls and horses living in semi-freedom.

During this day, the guardians parade through the town, towards the Church of the Major, the headquarters of their confraternity dedicated to Saint-Georges. Here, a blessing takes place in the church, a new captain of the Brotherhood of Guardians is elected and a new queen of Arles is elected every three years.

The day ends with a great spectacle in the Arles arena, where the herdsmen and their horses compete in audacity and dexterity during the games.

The Pegoulado

The Pegoulado is an ancient tradition in Provence. During the evening, the inhabitants of Arles parade in traditional dress by the light of‘pegos‘ (lanterns) and to the sound of chips and galoubets. During this night parade, traditional dances learned from the elders are performed.

The parade ends in the arena for a grand farandole. The Pégoulado takes place on the Friday before the Costume Festival and brings together more than a thousand participants.

The Costume Festival

The Costume Festival is a popular event held on the first Sunday in July. The inhabitants of the city don their finest traditional costumes and after parading in the summer sun, participants and spectators meet in the ancient theatre to celebrate the Queen of Arles and her bridesmaids.

At the end of the afternoon, a grand Provençal spectacle honouring the queen takes place, complete with bullfighting, games of the guardians, dancing and the Camargue race.

The Rice Festival

As summer draws to a close, the Rice Festival takes place: while the harvest is in full swing, Arles celebrates this cereal grown all over the world. Neighbourhoods, villages, associations and families are busy preparing for the festival, decorating the city streets and parading with floats.

Why is rice so important in Camargue and Arles? Rice is not only a cereal, it has shaped the region by making the land fertile. Its cultivation is therefore necessary in Camargue, as the supply of fresh water from the Rhone helps to maintain the ecological balance between salt and soft soil, indispensable for the diversity of flora and fauna.

Where to stay in Arles

During the Easter Feria, the Pegoulado, the Costume Festival and the Rice Festival there is a maximum concentration of visitors, who come from all over Europe to experience the magic of traditional festivities. At these times, it is necessary to book well in advance to access the most advantageous rates.

The historic centre of Arles is obviously the most exclusive and picturesque place to find accommodation. For the same reason, it is also the most expensive and luxurious.

Cheap solutions can be found across the river, past the Trinquetaille bridge: we are in the Quais du Rhone . The area is very quiet and an evening stroll along the Rhone will make you feel like in a Van Gogh painting.

To savour the whole Provençal atmosphere, halfway between French, Spanish and gypsy culture, head for the La Roquette district: you will find yourself immersed in a labyrinth of narrow alleys with colourful houses and decadent old buildings. In the bars, you will encounter many faces marked by time, clearly gypsy. Here you will find the true soul of Arles, far from tourists and foreigner trap restaurants.

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How to get to Arles

Arles is located on the edge of the Camargue, very close to Occitania. To get there by plane, the closest and most convenient stopover is Marseille airport. From there, you can rent a car and continue your journey to Arles.

By car

The town of Arles is about 1 hour from Marseille, following the A7, and 2 hours and 40 minutes from Nice, where the second closest airport is located, accessible via the A8 motorway.

Please note that motorway tolls are very frequent in France, even a few kilometres away. Be careful when choosing the lanes reserved for credit cards or cash: in the latter case, you will need to be supplied with coins and not banknotes, to be placed in the bins provided. We advise you to avoid the motorways, to enjoy more scenic views by taking alternative routes.

Arles Weather

What's the weather at Arles? Below are the temperatures and the weather forecast at Arles for the next few days.

Saturday 2
16°
Sunday 3
12°
Monday 4
12°
Tuesday 5
15°
Wednesday 6
15°
Thursday 7
14°

Entrance tickets and activities

The following are the most popular tickets and tours in Arles that we recommend you don't miss.

Where is located Arles

The city of Arles is nestled between the natural oases of the Camargue and the picturesque villages of the Les Alpilles massif. Its strategic location makes it perfect for discovering and exploring the different souls of Provence, divided between sea and mountains.

Location around