11 Top Tourist Attractions in Arles & Easy Day Trips
In the heart of Provence, Arles offers distinctive Provençal character along with a wealth of cultural attractions. This charming small town 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 boasts wonderfully preserved ruins, including the ancient Arena, Roman Theater, the Forum, and the Baths of Constantine. These archaeological sites make Arles one of the best places to visit in Provence for a glimpse of the region's Roman heritage.
Thanks to its relaxing slow-paced atmosphere, Arles is a pleasant town to explore. The narrow pedestrian streets and tree-lined public squares invite visitors to enjoy leisurely strolls, then relax at the shaded terraces of its outdoor cafés.
Art lovers will want to follow in the footsteps of Vincent van Gogh to see the scenes of the artist's famous paintings. Other cultural highlights are the popular festivals during the spring and summer, when townspeople dress up in period costumes. For more ideas on things to do, read our list of the top attractions in and around Arles.
See also: Where to Stay in Arles
1. Amphithéâtre Romain (Arènes d'Arles)
The UNESCO-listed Roman Amphitheater (Arènes d'Arles), dating back to the 1st century AD, is the largest and best preserved ancient monument in Arles. 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 an open-air venue for bullfights, shows, and other cultural events.
Address: 1 Rond-Point des Arènes, Arles
2. Les Alyscamps (Elysian Fields)
Another UNESCO-listed site, Les Alyscamps reveals the remains of ancient Arles' vast Gallo-Roman-era necropolis. This site was also an important stop on the Way of Saint James medieval pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, because of a priory installed here around the year 1040.
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. Only the plain stone tombs remain; more ornate examples are on display at 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: Avenue des Alyscamps, Arles
3. Cloître Saint-Trophime
Also among the list of Arles' UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the Cloître Saint-Trophime is renowned for its ornate architecture and sculpted biblical scenes. The medieval cloister adjoins the Church of Saint-Trophime and is accessible by way of the church's courtyard.
The cloister features pairs of pillars with beautifully carved capitals. Upon closer observation, the finely detailed sculptures reveal biblical scenes, including the life of Christ and Saint Trophime. Constructed between the 12th and 14th centuries, the cloister is considered a masterpiece of Provençal Romanesque art.
The adjacent Eglise Saint-Trophime also exemplifies Romanesque architecture with its marvelous intricately sculpted portal, featuring a theme of the Last Judgment. Along with Les Alyscamps, this church was a stop on the Chemin de Saint-Jacques medieval pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela.
The cloister and the church are dedicated to Saint Trophime. An important local historical figure, Saint Trophime was the first bishop of Arles during the early Christian period.
Address: Place de la République, Arles
4. Théâtre Antique
Not as well preserved as other ancient sites in Arles but still interesting, the UNESCO-listed Théâtre Antique (Roman Theater) was built in the 1st century BC during the rule of Augustus. The theater could accommodate a crowd of 10,000 people in 33 rows of seats.
Archaeologists have discovered that the theater's stage was sumptuously decorated with marble columns and statues. The Musée Départemental Arles Antique displays some of the objects that were excavated here, including an enormous statue of Augustus.
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 Arles Antique
The Departmental Museum of Ancient Arles will be appreciated by anyone interested in ancient history and archaeology. The museum's wealth of art and everyday objects reflects Arles' status as one of ancient Rome's most important colonial outposts.
Featuring a wide range of exhibits, the museum's collection includes 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: Avenue Jean Monnet (presqu'île du Cirque Romain), Arles
6. Van Gogh Self-Guided Walking Tour
Tourists can retrace the steps of Vincent van Gogh by following the trail of the sites where the artist created some of his most well-known works. Highlights of this self-guided walking tour include the outdoor café on the Place du Forum that provided the scene for the Café Terrace at Night (Le Café Le Soir) painting, and the location of the celebrated Starry Nights (La Nuit Etoilée) painting.
7. 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), dating back to the 4th century AD, is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Visitors can see remains of the Caldarium (hot baths), parts of the underfloor heating system, and the Tepidarium (warm air room). During Roman times, this bathing complex served as a place where people could socialize, exercise, bathe, and relax.
Address: Rue Dominique Maïsto, Arles
8. Musée Réattu (Musée des Beaux-Arts d'Arles)
The Musée Réattu (Arles' Museum of Fine Arts) is housed in a magnificent Renaissance building that was once the Grand-Prieuré de l'Ordre de Malte (Grand Priory of the Knights of Malta). The building is found in an inspiring spot, overlooking a bend in the Rhone River that flows out to the sea.
The museum exhibits paintings by Jacques Réattu, who purchased the Grand Priory building in 1796 and lived here for about 30 years. Réattu was a renowned Peintre d'histoire, the esteemed French classification for a History Painter. Réattu painted historical, biblical, and mythological subjects in a realistic yet aesthetically pleasing way.
Contemporary art is also well represented at the museum. There is a noteworthy assortment of artworks by Pablo Picasso. Many of the Picasso pieces on display are painted in his characteristic whimsical, humorous style. Several paintings feature Picasso's evocative images of musketeers and harlequins.
Address: 10 Rue du Grand Prieuré, Arles
9. Place de la République
At the center of historic Arles, the Place de la République in Arles centers around 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.
10. Fondation Vincent van Gogh Arles
Fondation Vincent van Gogh Arles pays homage to the famous painter by exploring the impact of his work on 19th-century and 20th-century art. The gallery space displays themed exhibits. Many exhibits feature contemporary art works alongside influential paintings by Van Gogh.
Not to be missed, the rooftop terrace affords beautiful views of the city. The Fondation also has a gift shop/bookstore.
Address: 35 ter, Rue du Docteur Fanton, Arles
Official site: http://www.fondation-vincentvangogh-arles.org/en/
11. Place du Forum
On the pleasant tree-shaded Place du Forum, the Café Van Gogh is perhaps the most emblematic sight of Arles. The café's bustling outdoor terrace still has the same enchanting ambience that Van Gogh depicted in his famous painting Le Café Le Soir.
The Place du Forum is the site of the Roman-era town center. Part of an ancient building with weathered Corinthian columns is visible in one corner of the square.
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: About a 10-minute walk from the Roman Amphitheater, the five-star Hotel Jules Cesar 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.
L'Hôtel Particulier is a five-star hotel that features luxurious modern guest rooms in a historic building. The hotel has a delightful garden courtyard (where breakfast is served) and an outdoor pool. Other amenities include a spa, concierge, and room service.
- Mid-Range Hotels: On a quiet street near the Roman Amphitheater, the Hôtel de l'Amphithéâtre offers comfortable accommodations in a renovated 17th-century building. Some rooms have rooftop views.
Near the Roman Amphitheater, the Hôtel Spa Le Calendal features cheerful contemporary-style decor. Guests will appreciate the hotel's spa and hammam, sandwich bar, and garden courtyard dining.
A short walk from the Fondation Vincent van Gogh, Le Cloître is known for its welcoming staff, eclectic interior decor, and sunny rooftop terrace. Guest rooms have either freestanding bath tubs or Italian showers.
- Budget Hotels: Steps away from the Musée Réattu, the Hôtel du Musée provides stylish accommodations in a quaint historic mansion. The hotel has two courtyard patios where breakfast and refreshments are served.
At the heart of the old town, a short walk from the Roman Amphitheater and the Cloître Saint-Trophime, the Hôtel de la Muette occupies a 12th- to 15th-century hôtel particulier (manor house) that has been recently restored. This family-run hotel offers a welcoming reception and homemade breakfasts.
The affordable Ibis Budget Arles Palais des Congres has an outdoor swimming pool, garden, and free parking. The hotel is about a 10-minute taxi ride from the tourist attractions in the old town of Arles.
Best Day Trips from Arles
Tourists flock to Avignon to visit the UNESCO-listed Palais de Papes, a remarkable fortress-like palace that was built in the 14th century. Between 1309 to 1377, seven Popes lived in the Palais de Papes, an enduring testimony to the opulent religious ceremonies and lavish quarters of the papacy.
Avignon's other must-see attractions include the Pont d'Avignon (Saint Bénézet Bridge) and the Musée du Petit Palais, which displays masterpieces of medieval and Renaissance art. Arriving at Avignon from Arles (43 kilometers away) takes about 50 minutes by car and less than 20 minutes by train.
Across the river from Avignon (three kilometers away) is Villeneuve-lez-Avignon, with a splendid Carthusian Monastery. Also worth a detour, the medieval village of Châteauneuf-du-Pape is perched on a hilltop about 20 kilometers away from Avignon. Slightly farther north (10 kilometers from Châteauneuf-du-Pape) is Orange, a Provençal town renowned for its ancient Roman ruins.
Nîmes is a charming historic town nestled in the foothills of the Languedoc region. A pleasant place to visit, Nîmes has a lovely historic center with shady, tree-lined streets and squares that feature gushing fountains, typical of Southern France. Outdoor cafés in the pedestrian areas add to the appealing ambience.
One of Nîmes' top attractions is the Arènes, the best-preserved of all existing ancient Roman amphitheaters. This remarkable amphitheater is now used as an open-air venue for music concerts and cultural events.
For the most relaxing and enjoyable experience, take a guided tour of Nîmes. The Private Day Trip to Nimes is a customizable tour of Nîmes that includes a visit to the Pont du Gard aqueduct, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Camargue Nature Park
A wild and rugged region of Provence, the Camargue (less than 20 kilometers from Arles) is protected as a natural regional park (the Parc Naturel Régional de Camargue) and a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. This unique landscape, located at the meeting point of a Rhône River delta and the Mediterranean Sea, is characterized by its vast open spaces, lagoons, and wetlands.
The marshlands are inhabited by an incredible variety of bird species. For many visitors, a highlight of bird-watching in the Camargue is the chance to spot pink flamingos.
Listed as one of France's "Plus Beaux Villages" ("Most Beautiful Villages"), this ancient hilltop town feels a world away but is just a 30-minute drive from Arles. One of the most enjoyable things to do in Les Baux-de-Provence is wander the quaint, old streets and soak up the medieval ambience.
The most striking aspect of Les Baux-de-Provence is its dramatic location on a rocky outcrop. Perched high above the landscape, the village boasts breathtaking panoramic views of the Provence countryside.
An easy way to visit is by taking a private day trip, which includes a customizable private tour of Les Baux-de-Provence, as well as the nearby town of Saint-Rémy-de-Provence.
Abbaye de Montmajour, a Romanesque Pilgrimage Church
In the countryside, about a 15-minute drive from Arles, this monumental abbey is the perfect spot to meditate and contemplate the spiritual heritage of the Benedictine monks. Perched on a rocky hill like a fortress, the Abbey of Montmajour was founded in the 10th century and was an important place of pilgrimage throughout the Middle Ages.
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 afford a superb view of the surrounding countryside from the rooftop.
Address: Route de Fontvieille, Arles
Tips and Tours: How to Make the Most of Your Visit to Arles
- Tour of Van Gogh Sites in Arles from Avignon: Art enthusiasts will appreciate the Private Provence Tour: In the Footsteps of Van Gogh. On this four-hour excursion, an expert guide shares details about Van Gogh's life while covering an itinerary of landmarks in Arles that inspired some of his most famous paintings. The tour also stops at ancient Roman sites, such as Arles Amphitheater.
- Camargue Tour from Avignon: The Small-Group Tour to Arles and the Camargue is a popular tour among nature lovers. This full-day guided tour includes transportation by minivan, wildlife spotting at the Camargue nature preserve, and visits to UNESCO-listed sites in Arles.
More Related Articles on PlanetWare.com
Quintessential Provence: At the center of Provence, Arles is a great place to begin exploring the region. Several interesting historic towns are within easy travel distance: the medieval city of Avignon, renowned for the UNESCO-listed Palais de Papes, is one hour by train; the ancient Roman ruins of Orange are 30 minutes by train; and Nîmes is one hour by train.
Less-Touristy Places to Visit: In the Provençal countryside, the Haut-Vaucluse area is dotted with picturesque perched villages such as Gordes, about a one-hour drive from Arles. Farther off-the-beaten tourist path, Vaison-la-Romaine (about a 90-minute drive away) is renowned for archaeological sites and summertime festivals. For a taste of real life in Provence, the seaside metropolis of Marseilles (less than one hour from Arles by train) is the place to go.