I recently spent three nights in Arles, after visiting nearby Aix-en-Provence and before heading to (also nearby) Avignon. While most people visit Arles as a day trip from Avignon, I was really glad that my itinerary allowed me to have two full days to explore the city, as it is absolutely steeped in ancient history, modern art and Provençal culture. There’s something magical about climbing to the top of Ancient Roman arena, as the wind blows lavender-scented air through your hair and you look down at the very same river that once inspired Vincent Van Gogh to paint “Starry Night”.
Things to Do in Arles
Many of the best things to do in Arles are included in the Arles City Pass, which you can pick up at most of the sights below, or at the Tourist Information office. I recommend buying the Advantage Pass, which includes access to nearly all of the paid attractions that I’ll mention below. At only €16, and valid for six months (one entry per site), it’s a great value.
1. The Roman Arena of Arles (Ampitheatre)
Of course, the most breathtaking thing to do in Arles is to visit the world-famous Roman Ampitheatre, where you can ascend the ancient towers to take in stunning views of the arena, the city and the surrounding region. It’s amazing to imagine that gladiators once fought in the ring here, while more than 20,000 people could have sat in the stands to cheer them on.
The arena is included in the €16 Advantage Pass, which also includes access to four other historical monuments and several museums. You don’t need to reserve a time slot to enter, and if you happen to arrive when there’s a queue, I would just recommend that you come back later.
2. Spectacles of the Camargue
Unfortunately, it’s still possible to attend bullfighting events in the arena of Arles. Although the most famous matches occur during the annual Feria d’Arles, there are occasional shows throughout the summer (or, there were when I visited in 2022). I was not comfortable seeing a bullfighting show, as it doesn’t align with my ethics or my beliefs about animal cruelty.
Fortunately for me, there were also other types of shows during my summer visit to Arles. For €14 I got a ticket to a show called “La Camargue aux Arènes”, which was focused more on the equestrian tradition of the nearby Camargue region. There were a few minutes where they had a bull in the arena, but no bullfighting took place.
To see if there will be any shows in the area while you’re in Arles, check the arena’s website. You can buy your ticket online and then pick it up at the ticket office at the arena, or you buy the ticket on-site. They don’t currently offer digital tickets. For the show that I saw there was no reserved seating; I showed up about fifteen minutes before the gates opened (so, forty-five minutes before the show) and was able to secure a coveted front-row seat in the shade.
3. LUMA Arles
In a city that is so rich in history, one of the most enjoyable things to do in Arles is to step away from the past for a few hours, and travel forward to the future at LUMA Arles. This brand-new contemporary art complex features a sprawling park dotted with exhibition spaces, including The Tower (shown above) which was designed by Frank Gehry.
Entry to LUMA was free in Summer 2022 (hopefully it will stay that way!) but you do need to reserve a timeslot to enter The Tower. Inside, there are lots of gallery spaces featuring temporary contemporary art exhibits, an elevator that takes you to two floors of panoramic lookouts, and, on your way down, a three-story slide that even adults can use to exit in style!
4. The “Starry Night Over the Rhone” Lookout Point
Only meters outside the city center and the ancient walls, you’ll find Arles’ most famous viewpoint. Here, in 1888, Vincent Van Gogh painted “Starry Night Over the Rhone”, one of his most recognizable masterpieces. To find the exact spot, walk straight from Place Lamartine (the roundabout between the train station and the city center) to the river, then look to your left. Yes, you’ve found it!
The tourist information office in Arles sells maps that will lead you on a Vincent Van Gogh walking tour of Arles, and they have recently made the same maps free online. Click here to visit their site and download the self-guided walking tour in PDF format.
5. Theatre Antique
The little sister of the Arena is the Theatre Antique. Back in the Roman era it could accommodate up to 10,000 spectators; today you’d be surprised to find more than a dozen people wandering around both the theatre itself and the surrounding ruins. The Theatre Antique is included in the City Pass.
Behind the theatre you’ll find the Jardin d’Ete, or Summer Garden. Admission to this public park is free, and it’s a nice place to relax with a bottle of water in the shade provided by the old city ramparts and the many trees.
6. St. Trophieme Cloister & Church
St. Trophieme Church is located in the center of Arles (on Place de la Republique) and, like most churches in France, admission to the St. Trophieme church itself is free. Built during the medieval era, this church is known for its Romanesque sculptures on the front facade. The highlight, however, is the peaceful cloister, which was recently restored with the support of the World Monument Federation.
7. Alyscamp Necropolis
This was a surprising highlight for me! The Alyscamp is a Roman and medieval graveyard located about ten minutes outside the center of Arles (near LUMA). Apparently it was particularly famous during the late Roman era, probably due to a legend that Christ had attended a burial there and left his kneeprint on a sarcophagus. More recently, it was painted by both Van Gogh and Gaughin.
You’ll enter the Alyscamp through the gate (show your city pass) and then walk about 750 meters along the burial path, lined with sarcophagi, until you reach the abandoned Saint Honorat church. At the time of my visit a contemporary artists had installed a moody exhibition in this cavernous space, with gigantic stone balls and sheets of glass placed haphazardly, as though left by the spirits (or aliens!). This is definitely a creepy place, and one of the best things to do in Arles for anyone into dark tourism.
8. The Cryptoportiques
You might be walking on top of the Cryptoportiques and not even realize it! Located deep underneath Place de la Republique, the ruins of this ancient city center date back to about 46 BC. Built underground to support a typical Roman marketplace above, these little rooms would have been used as shops, market stalls and storage. You can duck into lots of little nooks and crannies here (sometimes I was surprised I was allowed to go so far into the deep, dark depths of the rooms!) so I recommend bringing a well-charged phone (for the flashlight!) and study shoes.
Entrance to the Cryptoportiques is included in the City Card.
9. Thermes de Constantin (Roman Baths)
I’m a sucker for spas, so visiting historic bathhouses is always on my travel itinerary. In Arles, the Roman baths are called the Thermes de Constantine, and they date back to the 4th century. You only need ten or fifteen minutes to breeze through the ruins of these bathhouses, where you can still make out traces of the hot and cold baths, the fireplaces and the surrounding buildings. Admission is included in the Arles City Card.
10. Musee Réattu
Artist Jacques Réattu was born in Arles in the 1700s, and during his life he slowly purchased this building, bit by bit, turning it into his home and studio. When he passed away and left most of his body of work to the city, they converted it into the museum that you can visit (with your Arles City Pass!) today. Réattu himself left more than 800 works to the museum, but the collection also features work by Picasso and contemporary photographers. Depending on how interested you are in the temporary exhibits, plan to spend between one and two hours here.
11. Fondation Vincent Van Gogh
Full disclosure: I didn’t get past the lobby at the Fondation Vincent Van Gogh. At the time of my visit, the receptionist told me that they didn’t have any works by Van Gogh on display, and that they didn’t have any exhibits about him in the museum. Because tickets were €10 and not included in the City Pass, I didn’t think it was worth my money. That being said, there may have been a miscommunication there, as many people who visited recently report that they saw two paintings by Van Gogh (still… that doesn’t seem like much to me?).
Technically speaking, this is more of a modern and contemporary art space than a display of Van Gogh’s work. If you’re into contemporary art and don’t have time to walk over to LUMA, this could be a good alternative. Or, if they do bring in a temporary exhibit of Van Gogh’s work, it would be worth seeing as well.
12. Day Trip to Avignon or Villeneuve-les-Avignon
Arles is only seventeen minutes by train from the Avignon Centre station, and trains make the trip between the two cities about once per hour. This means that it’s easy to take a day trip from Arles to Avignon, or to Avignon’s secret little sister, Villeneuve-les-Avignon.
If you arrive by train from Avignon, it’s more or less a straight line through the historic city center to reach the famous Palais des Popes and the nearby Pont d’Avignon. En route, stop at the Tourist Information office for a city map, which will show you the five museums (all nearby!) that you can enter for free.
If you’d prefer to experience medieval history without the crowds, from the Avignon train station you can take bus #5 to Villeneuve-les-Avignons. Here, a €17 city pass gets you access to five historical sites, including the monolithic Fort Sant-André (shown above) and the tranquil La Chartreuse monastery complex.
Hotels in Arles
In my opinion, the best hotel in Arles has to be Hotel Spa Le Calendal. This hotel is located right beside both the Roman Arena and the Theatre Antique, meaning it’s perfect for exploring Arles on foot. But what makes it better than other Arles hotels? Two things!
First, if you reserve through Booking.com, it’s likely your room rate will include access to the hotel spa (mine did!). It’s a fairly small spa, with just a steam room, whirlpool and cold water rinse, but the amazing thing about the spa is its view directly over the Roman Arena. After a long day of sightseeing, nothing beats coming back to the hotel, taking a dip in the cool pool, and looking out over such an important piece of history.
Second, Hotel Spa Le Calendal has a lovely restaurant and cafe. It’s worth it to pay for the breakfast buffet, which is served in the pretty, shady garden cafe behind the hotel. You can squeeze your own orange juice, help yourself to espresso and fill your plate with typical French breakfast fare like fresh bread, cheese, meat, fruit, yogurt and pastries. The cafe provides guests with complimentary still and sparkling water in a glass bottle that you can keep in your room, then swap out each day (or twice a day, if you’re like me and love to stay hydrated!).
Restaurants in Arles
I was in Arles for three days, so I had the chance to try quite a few different restaurants for lunch and dinner (oh, and a few ice cream shops too!). Here are the places I would recommend:
- My favorite restaurant in Arles was La Caravelle. This is where I ate the beautiful roasted vegetable and burrata salad shown above, which I followed with their homemade lavender crème brulée. They have a great location beside the river, with a cool breeze and lots of shade.
- I actually ate at Creperie Chez Mam Goz twice: once for their full lunch menu, and a second time for a quick sweet crepe before my train. They serve beautiful buckwheat galettes (one of my top tips for eating healthy in France is to choose the buckwheat option!) and three kinds of Breton cider.
- Another memorable meal was from Cocoricco, a restaurant that serves a fusion of French and South American cuisine. Although they didn’t have many vegetarian options, they had a meal-sized appetizer of foccacia, roasted vegetables, salad and burrata.
- A place with a much better selection of vegetarian dishes (and even a vegan dish!) was Saveurs et Terroirs, beside the arena. The salads here are super-Instagrammable (expect sprigs of fresh lavender to be sticking out!) and everything is cooked to order with fresh, seasonal and local ingredients.
- For ice cream, I tried both RAVI Glaces de Provence and Glaces de Maitre Artisan. They’re on the same block and they both serve a menu that’s about half standard flavors and half provençal specialties like lavender and orange blossom. I preferred Glaces de Maitre Artisan, but it could have been due to my flavor choice.
Planning a trip to France? Pin this post for later!