11 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions & Things to Do in Arles
In the heart of Provence, Arles offers the distinctive character of this proud region along with a wealth of cultural attractions. This picturesque city is steeped in history dating back to its origins as a Greek settlement. Arles then became one of the most important cities of the Roman colony called "Gaul," founded by Julius Caesar in 46 BC. Arles was described by Suetonius as the "little Rome of Gaul." This classical city displays wonderfully preserved ruins, including the ancient Arena, Roman Theater, the Forum, and the Baths of Constantine.
Arles has a pleasant Provençal ambience found in its leafy public squares and slow-paced lifestyle. The city invites visitors to enjoy leisurely strolls and relax at the shaded terraces of its atmospheric outdoor cafés. Art lovers will want to follow the Van Gogh Trail to see the scenes of the artist's famous paintings and then visit the Fondation Vincent van Gogh to admire the actual masterpieces. Other cultural highlights are the popular festivals during the spring and summer when townspeople dress up in period costumes.
See also: Where to Stay in Arles
1 Amphithéâtre d'Arles
At the top of the tourist attraction list, the Roman Amphitheater is the largest and best preserved ancient monument in Arles. Also known as the of Amphithéâtre d'Arènes, this arena dates back to the first century A.D. With a length of 136 meters and a width of 107 meters, the arena was one of the largest in Gaul and could accommodate 21,000 spectators. The facade has a double row of arcades with 60 archways and four arches used as main entrances. Seating for the spectators was once on 34 rows of tiered steps. The arena was actually built into the bedrock of the site, and in Roman times, the stone seats were covered with wooden planks. During the Middle Ages, towers were added to the arena. Visitors can climb to the top of the tower over the entrance for a wonderful view of the old town of Arles and the nearby ancient theater. The amphitheater is still used today as a venue for bullfights, shows, and other events.
Address: Rue du Cloître, Arles
2 Alyscamps (Elysian Fields)
This extensive Roman burial place is an exceptional testimony to Arles' ancient history. The Gallo-Roman necropolis is found on the southeastern edge of the old town. According to the legend of Saint Trophime, the location was dedicated as a Christian cemetery. In the Middle Ages, the Alyscamps was so revered that the dead were brought here for burial from considerable distances. Dante refers to this necropolis in his "Inferno." Many of the site's original marble sarcophagi were not rediscovered again until the 18th century.
Along the tranquil Allée des Tombeaux (Street of Graves), the only coffins now standing are the plain stone ones from the Middle Ages; the more ornate examples are housed in museums including in the Musée d'Art Chrétien and in the Church of Saint-Trophime. At the end of the Allée, visitors arrive at the 12th-century Church of Saint-Honorat. In the side chapel on the left, lies a beautiful sarcophagus dating from the 4th century AD.
Address: Rue du Cloître, Arles
3 Cloître Saint-Trophime
One of the most intriguing attractions in Arles and a UNESCO-listed site, the Cloisters of Saint-Trophime are renowned for their ornate architecture and sculpted Biblical scenes. The cloisters adjoin the Church of Saint-Trophime and are accessible by way of the church's courtyard. Dating back to the 12th century, the cloisters feature pairs of pillars with beautifully intricate capitals. Upon closer observation, the fine sculptures reveal Biblical scenes in impressive detail. There are figures of the Apostles and saints, and in between are reliefs of stories of Christ and the saints. Constructed from the 1300s to the 1500s, the cloisters reflect various medieval architectural styles including Romanesque and Gothic elements. In the cloisters' Chapter House, visitors may admire two exceptional Gobelin tapestries and a small lapidarium. Other rooms are used for temporary exhibitions. From the terrace-like roof gallery, visitors may relax and take in the pleasant views.
The adjacent Église Saint-Trophime is another wonderful example of Romanesque architecture that shows the influence of classical art. The Church of Saint-Trophime has an impressive facade with scenes of the Last Judgment. The interior features more Gobelin tapestries and a High Gothic choir. This church was also an important stop on the medieval "Way of Saint James" pilgrimage route to Santiago de la Compostela in Spain. Both the cloisters and the church are dedicated to Saint Trophime, a Greek disciple who brought Christianity to Provence.
Address: Place de la République, Arles
4 Roman Theater
Another interesting ancient site, the Roman Theater was built in the first century BC during the rule of Augustus. The theater could accommodate an impressive crowd of 8,000 people in 33 rows of seats. The back of the stage was decorated with columns and statues. Most of the relics excavated on the site can be seen in the Musée d'Art Païen. However, the most precious archaeological discovery, the "Venus of Arles," a representation of the goddess Diana, is now in the Louvre Museum in Paris. During the early Middle Ages, the theater was used as a quarry and the town wall was built with the material it provided. Today, the theater serves as a pleasant venue for outdoor performances and events during the summer.
Address: Rue de la Calade/Rue du Cloître, Arles
5 Musée Départemental de l'Arles Antique
A top tourist attraction in Arles, the Departmental Museum of Ancient Arles will be appreciated by anyone interested in ancient history and archaeology. The museum displays the cultural heritage of Arles' past. The wealth of art and everyday objects reflects Arles' status as one of ancient Rome's most important colonial outposts. Exhibits feature classical mosaics, statues, and other objects offering insight into daily life during Roman times. The museum occupies a striking contemporary building on the remains of the ancient Roman circus.
Address: Presqu'ile du Cirque Romain, Arles
6 Fondation Vincent van Gogh
The Fondation Vincent van Gogh displays many of Vincent van Gogh's famous paintings. The museum has a noteworthy collection of van Gogh's artwork as well as exhibits and documents covering his life. There are also tributes by other artists paying homage to van Gogh. The museum realizes van Gogh's dream of creating a flourishing artistic community.
Address: Hôtel Léautaud de Donines, Arles
7 Van Gogh Trail
Tourists can retrace the steps of Vincent van Gogh by following the trail of painting sites to see the scenes where the artist created some of his most well-known works. One of the sites is the Pont de Langlois drawbridge, which once stood at the end of the Avenue du Plan-du-Bourg and was made famous by van Gogh, but no longer exists. The drawbridge on the rue G. Monge, often referred to as the Pont de Langlois, located two kilometers away from the original bridge, is a later copy. Other sites on the Van Gogh Trail include the Van Gogh Café with its lively outdoor terrace on the Place du Forum that provided the scene for the Café Terrace at Night painting, the hospital at Place du Docteur Félix-Rey and the location of the celebrated Starry Nights painting.
8 Thermes de Constantin
Since Arles was a well-established ancient town, the Romans created an extensive bathing complex. The Thermes de Constantin (Baths of Constantine) date back to the 4th century AD. and are situated near the banks of the Le Grand Rhône River. The once-grand complex of buildings resembled a palace. However, the only remains include the Caldarium (warm bath) and parts of the Hypocaust (underfloor heating) and the Tepidarium (warm air room).
Address: Rue du Grand-Prieuré, Arles
9 Musée Réattu
A small and inviting museum, the Musée Réattu is housed in a beautiful Renaissance building that was once the Grand Priory of the Knights of Malta. This museum exhibits paintings by Réattu and artwork by Provençal artists of the 18th and 19th centuries. There is also an excellent collection of contemporary art, including pieces by Pablo Picasso, making a stop at this museum particularly interesting. Many of the Picasso pieces on display feature happy scenes and figures with loving or amused smiles, evidence of the humanity and sense of humor of the artist.
Address: 10 Rue du Grand Prieuré, Arles
10 Place de la République
At the center of historic Arles, the Place de la République in Arles has an ancient Egyptian obelisk that is 15 meters high. The obelisk was found in the amphitheater and placed here in 1676. On the north side of the square stands the Hôtel de Ville (Town Hall), an elegant building constructed in 1673-75. Its bell tower dates from 1553 and came from the building that previously stood on the site.
11 Place du Forum
A tour through the Place du Forum allows visitors to get a feel for life during the Roman era. With a little imagination, tourists can recreate scenes of the bustling market and meeting place at the center of town. The best-preserved part of the Place du Forum is the "Cryptoporticus." Built in 40 BC, this horseshoe-shaped loggia is a partly subterranean arcade of the ancient Roman Forum. Entrance is accessible from the Musée d'Art Chrétien.
Where to Stay in Arles for Sightseeing
The historic center of Arles is compact and easily walkable, and most of the tourist attractions lie within an easy stroll of each other. For sightseeing, this is the best place to stay. Many of the hotels here offer parking nearby, some for a fee. Here are some highly-rated hotels in this convenient and central location:
- Luxury Hotels: A five-minute walk from the amphitheater, the pet-friendly Hotel Jules Cesar Arles MGallery Collection blends old and new in a former 17th-century convent with chic decor designed by Christian Lacroix. Other amenities include an outdoor pool, a spa with a sauna and hot tub, and a gourmet restaurant. A few blocks away, the Grand Hotel Nord-Pinus features uniquely decorated rooms with period details, while the pricier Hotel Particulier offers plush rooms dressed in crisp-white classical decor, a four-minute stroll from Fondation Vincent van Gogh.
- Mid-Range Hotels: On a quiet street, a stone's throw from the amphitheater, the pet-friendly Hotel De L'Amphitheatre exudes old-world charm, with its antique beds, rich color schemes, and leafy courtyard. Some rooms have rooftop views. Right nearby, overlooking the amphitheater, Hotel Spa Le Calendal references Provençal style with its warm color schemes. Guests can use the Roman-style spa and relax in the garden courtyard. A three-minute walk from the amphitheater, the pet-friendly, contemporary Hotel du Cloitre is known for its welcoming staff, whimsical style, and delightful rooftop terrace. Baths in some rooms have free-standing tubs.
- Budget Hotels: Near the Rhône and opposite the Musée Réattu the quaint, family-run Hotel Du Musee serves breakfast (for a reasonable fee) in its private courtyard garden. Steps from the amphitheater, in an evocative manor house built between the 12th and 15th centuries, the charming Logis Hotel de la Muette sits in the heart of the historic center. Ensuite bathrooms come with rainfall shower heads. The pet-friendly Ibis Budget Arles Palais des Congres, with a pool and free parking, is a short taxi ride from the historic center, and its rooms are fresh and modern.
Day Trips from Arles
Camargue Nature Park
A wild and rugged region of Provence, the Camargue Nature Park is classified by UNESCO as a Biosphere Reserve. The Camargue is characterized by its vast open spaces. This natural environment has diverse vegetation, and the marshlands are inhabited by an incredible variety of 340 bird species. The beautiful pink flamingos are the most famous. The sight of these rare birds make the visit worthwhile for any bird lover. Herds of native bulls also roam freely in the Camargue; these are the same bulls used in traditional bullfighting.
Awarded the title of one of the "Most Beautiful Villages" in France, this quaint village affords sweeping views of the Provence countryside and interesting cultural attractions. In its idyllic setting, the town boasts a majestic medieval fortified castle and beautiful Renaissance palaces. Les Baux-de-Provence has an impressive Hôtel de Ville (Town Hall) and an interesting church dedicated to Saint Vincent, the 4th century martyr. The Church of Saint-Vincent combines Romanesque, Gothic, and Cistercian styles. Entering the church offers a surprising impression of space that inspires spirituality. The town is well-known for its tradition of Christmas shepherds, who come to celebrate midnight vespers here. Les Baux-de-Provence also has a wonderful Museum of Santons that displays an extensive collection of Christmas nativity figures.
In the countryside a few minutes' drive from Arles, this monumental abbey is the perfect spot to meditate and soak up the fascinating history. The former Benedictine Abbey of Montmajour is perched on a rocky hill like a fortress. The abbey was founded in the 10th century and throughout the Middle Ages was an important place of pilgrimage. The abbey has an immense Romanesque crypt dating back to the 12th century and an austere single-aisled church. Built in 1369, the abbey's cloisters exemplify serene Romanesque design with rows of double pillars. The cloisters also boast a superb view of the surrounding countryside from the rooftop.
Address: Route de Fontvieille, Arles
Festivals in Arles
Fête des Gardians, May 1st
This annual festival held on May 1st features a parade of "guardians," the men of the Camargue region who herd wild horses. The guardians ride on horseback through the old town of Arles, while townspeople dress in beautiful traditional costumes. The festival also incorporates folk customs and music. One of the highlights of this event is when a new Reine d'Arles (Queen of Arles) is elected.
La Pégoulado, July
A traditional festival that draws thousands of participants, La Pégoulado is an evening of vibrant celebration. The event features the ancient customs of Provence and a night parade illuminated by lanterns. Townspeople wear traditional costumes, and school children perform classic dances taught to them by their elders. This festival takes place in July on the Friday before the Fête du Costume.
Fête du Costume, July
Held on the first Sunday of July, this festival pays tribute to the costumes of Arles. In the morning, participants and spectators gather at the ancient theater to celebrate the Queen of Arles and her Bridesmaids. Later in the afternoon, the "Tribute to the Queen" event entertains spectators with traditional Provençal bullfighting and dancing.