What to do in Arles? The Arles Amphitheatre should be on the lsit

What To Do In Arles: 16 Best Sights in 2024

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Thinking Of Visiting Arles? There Are Many Things to See and Do In This Charming City

The walled city of Arles is a must-see location when visiting Southern France. This city offers so much including Roman ruins, quaint streets, museums and churches and the legacy of Vincent Van Gogh. In this blog, we outline what to do in Arles so you can enjoy the city to its fullest.

Highlights of Arles

1. Be Amazed By the Amphitheatre (Arena)

Why Is Arles Famous? It is all about the Roman structures that are in this city.  If you enjoy history, then be sure to visit the most important structure here – the Roman Arles Amphitheatre. This spectacular structure dates back 2000 years and is in amazing condition. It was built just after the Colosseum in Rome in approximately 90AD.

The Arles Amphitheatre

And of course, along with many of the Roman structures in Arles, it has been listed on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

Surprisingly the entire theatre was built in less than 10 years and made from limestone carved from the area’s quarries. It is impressive in size measuring 137 metres long and 107 metres wide with 60 arches on each of the two levels.  The capacity is 21,000 people.

The massive arches of the Arles Amphitheatre

When you tour around this awesome structure you can envision the people streaming in through the alternating ramps and stairs – ensuring the classes of folks were kept separated.

The stairs leading to the upper sections of the Amphitheatre

The events here were open to everyone but the lesser class, women and children were relegated to the higher seats. The closer to the arena you were, the more important you were in society.

Denis at the Arles Amphitheatre

It must have been quite the site to see the excitement in people as they were invited to view aggressive games that were mainly presented as a means of distraction to keep them from rebellion.

The games and tournaments would last several days and included events such as gladiator and animal fights with a break at lunchtime for public executions. Can you imagine – such a different time!

The inside passages of the Amphitheatre in Arles

During the 19th century, the theatre was used as a shelter and many homes were built inside it. Eventually, the homes were removed, and they began to hold bullfights there. To this day they are still held twice a year along with other festivals and Roman history presentations.

If you only have limited time in Arles – the Amphitheatre needs to be included as the top site to see. We have visited twice now and it continues to impress!

Kim at the Arles Amphitheatre

Insider Tip for a Fabulous View

Be sure to climb up the tower at the end where the entrance is located. You can see an amazing view of the theatre and the surrounding city.

View from the tower

2. Admire the Roman Theatre (Theatre Antique)

Wondering what is special about Arles, France? Arles has so many Roman places it is like a living archeological site! Within a few minutes of the Amphitheatre, you can visit another fascinating place – the Roman Theatre.

Fun Fact:

It is important to note that a Roman Theatre was always built as a half circle. So, if you see a structure that is a full circle or oval it is not a Theatre but an Amphitheatre. 

The Roman Theatre in Arles was built at the end of the 1st century BC – almost a century before the Amphitheatre. It is believed that during its original time of use, it had a diameter of 102 metres, 33 rows of seats and could accommodate 10,000 people.

Roman Theatre in Arles

It also had some very impressive columns and two famous statues. One is the massive statue of Agustus that is now kept in the Museum of Arles and the second one is the Venus of Arles which is housed at the Louvre.

Unfortunately, over the years the theatre was pillaged and many of the stones and materials were used to build other buildings in the area. It was discovered in the 17th century, but the remains were not completely uncovered until the 19th century.

Garden on the side of the Roman Theatre

Now thankfully it is protected and hosts a concert series during the summer months. What a fabulous way to enjoy music in such a special environment.

3. Discover the Cryptoprotiques

Not many people know but there is an incredible maze of vaults under the Town Hall in the centre of Arles. These date to the same time as the Roman Theatre and were first built as support structures for the Forum.

Stairs down to the tunnels

Originally there were many galleries – three initially and then perhaps a fourth dug out when the Forum was modified. Some of the galleries measure between 60 – 90 metres long and are located 6 metres below the level of the city. Wells were created for natural light and ventilation.

The Cryptoportiques in Arles

It is thought that over time these areas were used for prisons, cellars and even catacombs. Eventually, they were closed in the 10th century and only discovered again in the 1930s when there was a fire at the nearby church of Saint Lucian and a full excavation began.

Today you can check out these amazing tunnels underground. Lining the walls on the floor are many pieces of broken columns and large stones that are awesome to see given their age and sheer size.

Large pieces of columns

When we visited there was also an art exhibition on display. A little creepy when you are walking around in the dim light, but it is quite the place to discover.

Art exhibition in the underground tunnels

✅ To see the main highlights in Arles with limited time, check out this private walking tour that is rated 5 stars. It will give you good insight into the Roman ruins and Van Gogh’s influence in Arles.

4. Explore the Roman Baths (Thermes de Constantin)

Continuing with yet another Roman site that is slightly younger – dating to the 4th century – are the Roman Baths.  This may not look like the spa we are used to nowadays, but this was one of the most popular public spaces in the city for people to meet.

The Roman baths

Everyone visited here for both exercise and for their hygiene. Although we wonder how hygienic it really was?!?  Visits were structured on a circuit of sorts. First, they would exercise and then enter the pool areas.

Roman baths in Arles

Each pool had a different temperature, and the purpose was to progress through the different pools alternating from hot to cold to cause their body to perspire and we assume release toxins.

The hot pools were heated by fire furnaces that pushed hot air into the areas under the pools and surrounding stones. There were also heated rooms between 25 to 30 degrees celsius where people rested in between dips in the pools.

Roman baths in Arles

Unfortunately, the area was left in a state of disarray when houses were built on the land. They were discovered first in the 16th century and then became a listed monument in 1844. The remaining structures are still identifiable with a little imagination. 

Roman baths in Arles

With your entrance ticket, you can walk around the entire excavated site. There are raised boardwalks that give you the ability to look down into the areas where the pools would have been. There are also descriptive boards detailing how the baths were likely structured.

Information boards

Be sure to visit this area to understand one of the typical pastimes of a person living in Roman times.

5. Marvel at the Church and Cloister of St Trophime

Moving along in history to the Middle Ages, you can visit the cathedral of Arles which was built on the site of a 5th-century basilica. The construction of the cathedral happened over many years and stages. What you can visit today was mainly created in the 12th century. It is one of the largest Romanesque churches in Provence.

St Triomphe Church

The nave is quite high (20 metres) and you can admire the incredible vaulted ceiling which is very typical of Provencal buildings.

Nave of St Triomphe

While the columns are quite stark and have no decoration on them, there are many statues, sculptures, carvings and paintings. And since this cathedral was created over several centuries you can see Baroque and Gothic style artwork and architecture as well.

Inside St Triomphe

The Cloister also dates to the 12th century. The building was originally a place for prayer for the priests who supported the bishop and managed the church property. There are sections of the columns that have incredibly detailed carvings of religious figures and biblical scenes.

St Triomphe cloister carvings

The Cloister has had many restoration and conservation projects implemented over the years.

St Triomphe cloister

As a result, it is a calm and serene place to walk and admire the intricacies of the impeccable design work, away from the hectic streets of Arles. Take some time to wander these halls and take in the beauty that surrounds you.

St Triomphe cloister

Insider Tip – Arles Pass

The Arles Tourist Office offers a pass that includes access to multiple sites in the city. You can customize your pass to the number of sites depending on the length of your visit.

6. Step Back In Time at the Musee of Ancient Arles

Want to dive even deeper into the history of Roman times within the region of Provence? Then plan to visit this museum that offers insight into the daily life of the Romans. Here you can explore mosaics, statues, sarcophagi, and a massive collection of artifacts.

The museum is built on the remains of the Roman circus in a modern and contemporary building. It is located a little way out of the downtown centre as they needed a significant amount of space to create a building large enough to house the numerous pieces on display.

We didn’t have time to stop here on our visit, but we are sure it would delight those who are interested in archaeology, history, and art.

7. Take A Break in the Place de la Republic Square

While Arles has many fascinating older buildings to see, you can also enjoy time just people-watching in the main square of Arles – the Place de la Republic.

This is the heart of the city and is located amongst several major buildings including the Town Hall, St Anne’s Chapel, The Palais de Archeveche and the St Trophime Cathedral and Cloister.

Place de la Republic in Arles

In the centre of the square is a Roman obelisk from the 4th century. The fountain that surrounds it was added in the 19th century.

There is also a free public washroom available in this square.

8. Appreciate the Art Collections at the Musee Reattu

Arles has a fine arts museum – Musee Reattu – with an emphasis on the work of Jacques Reattu who was born in Arles in 1760. He endeavoured to become a “history painter” which was considered the best kind of painter during his time.

The entrance to the Musee Reattu

Much of his neoclassical paintings are quite big since he specialized in creating large-scale decorative art – many of his pieces were created for theatre halls in Marseille, Lyon and Nimes.

Large format artwork at Musee Reattu

When you enter the gallery rooms you can stroll through the substantial rooms that have massive paintings on display. The different pieces deserve some time to look at all the painstaking detail that is incorporated into each one.

Galleries of the Musee Reattu

The museum hosts several other artists both on a permanent basis and rotating exhibitions. There is a wide variety of mediums and styles of fine art on display.

Contemporary art at the Musee Reattu

And it is a nice place to escape the heat since it is air-conditioned!

9. Expand Your Mind at LUMA Arles

For a more intensive art experience head over to the cultural centre – LUMA Arles. This location provides support to new contemporary artists and gives them an environment to present their work.

LUMA Arles

LUMA is a collaborative centre and you can expect to see artistic pieces from various fields including visual arts, photography, publishing, documentary films and multimedia.

There are ongoing exhibitions, conferences, and live performances where artists and scientists delve into the relationship between culture, arts, environment, and research. A perfect spot to learn through the expression of art.

10. What To Do In Arles? Visit the Vincent Van Gogh Foundation

Many people ask what is the connection between Arles and Van Gogh? Vincent Van Gogh spent only 15 months of his life in Arles starting in 1888. But during that time, he painted nearly 200 pieces of art – some of which ended up being his greatest masterpieces.

✦ He also lived for a short time with Paul Gauguin in the famous “Yellow House” in Arles. He wanted to create a collaborative environment where artists could work together. But as artists are passionate – their relationship turned competitive and broke down. Shortly after this Van Gogh suffered a mental breakdown which led to him cutting off part of his ear. 

He continued to live in Arles but had additional mental health issues leading to hospitalization there and then ultimately to him voluntarily checking himself into an asylum.

✦ It is a truly sad story.  Vincent was a genius who was ahead of his time, and people didn’t understand his incredible talent. His modern style of painting was looked at as strange and many weren’t ready to accept it. Only after he died did people really start to appreciate his true gift.

The Vincent Van Gogh Foundation honours Van Gogh’s life and legacy. He is known as a significant contributor to art of the 20th century. And while you will see a presentation of Van Gogh’s work at the foundation, you will also see work from contemporary artists.

Van Gogh’s art is displayed around the world. You can see his work even in smaller towns such as Collioure at the Museum of Modern Art. He was a pioneer, and it is important to understand the impact Van Gogh had on artists that followed.

Vincent Van Gogh Foundation

This is a good place to start your exploration of Van Gogh as there are many other activities in Arles that provide you with insight into his time there.

11. Follow the Van Gogh Pedestrian Path

Since Van Gogh created so many of his famous pieces during his time in Arles, there is a walking trail where you can visit many of the places that provided him with inspiration. Below is a map of the trail that you can follow around the city.

Map of Van Gogh pedestrian path

At each point is a sign showing an image of the painting that he did and a description of the location. It is fun to wander the streets looking at them from the perspective of a famous artist. See how many of them you can get to while in Arles. This will give you a greater appreciation for his love of Arles and the magic of the light in this beautiful city.

Signage along the Van Gogh pedestrian path

12. Relax in Place du Forum

This square is a central location in Arles with many cafes and restaurants. Please come here to meet and enjoy a meal or drinks at the outdoor cafes. You have plenty of options to choose from and it is lively all day and into the evening.

Place du Forum

✦ Here is also the location of the famous restaurant that Van Gogh painted in his creation of Le Café de Nuit which has now been designated as a historical monument.

It was explained to us that at the time the building was Van Gogh’s inspiration its façade was white. It was only the patio underneath the awning that was yellow from the lights. However, since the painting shows the building as yellow – the proprietors painted it yellow to be more in keeping with the painting.

Yellow Cafe

Be sure to stop by to see it. There is a sign here across from the restaurant showing the original painting. Take a look and try your hand at a photo from the side angle to capture his vantage point. It is fun to walk in his famous footsteps.

13. Stroll the Alyscamps

This area in Arles was originally a Roman cemetery located outside of the walls of the old town since during Roman times cemeteries were not allowed within the city area. This area was used for burials of the city’s upper class for over 1500 years.

The remains of Saint Genest and the first Bishop of Arles were buried in a chapel in this cemetery and as a result, it became increasingly popular. So much so that coffins and sarcophagi had to be stacked to save space!

Within the cemetery, the Allee des Alyschamps was a road that was created by monks in the 18th century. And this is another spot where both Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin painted well-known pieces.

Alyschamps in Arles

Go for a walk in this ancient burial ground imagining the people who walked this path in the past.

14. Take A Moment of Peace in the L’Espace Van Gogh Within The Hotel Dieu

The Hotel Dieu construction dates to the 16th and 17th century. While the name may make you think this was a hotel, it was not. Hotel Dieu is the original name for a hospital. This location was created when the Archbishop of Arles chose to close the city’s charitable institutions and create one location back in 1542.

Hotel Dieu

The idea was that this hospital would accept all patients and was run mostly by donations and support from the city. The hospital was in use until 1974 when it was replaced by a new hospital centre. And in 1986 it was converted to a library and cultural space.

The building was built with a courtyard inside.  It is here that inspired Vincent Van Gogh to paint his famous painting Le Jardin de l”Hotel de Dieu.

The Hotel Dieu garden

It is a lovely garden and depending on the time of day that you visit can be a serene spot to spend some quiet time. During the afternoons it is quite busy with tourists.

15. Wander the Quaint Streets

Some people may ask is Arles walkable and we can confirm that it is absolutely a walkable city. The area where most of the sights are located is within a 1 km area.  You could cover just about everything walking in a loop of perhaps 3 kms. As far as sightseeing goes this is a great city to cover all the major things to do.

pretty shops in Arles
quaint street in Arles

Take some time to look around. While we were in Arles, we found several art exhibitions in the green park areas. This is a great free activity that everyone can appreciate.

Art exhibition in Arles

The streets of Arles are easy to navigate but be sure to wander a little and enjoy the pretty streets with the incredible stone buildings. There are so many squares and little shops to explore along the way. Since it is so small it is ok to get lost in the winding streets and alleyways.

quaint street in Arles

16. Walk Along the Rhone River

This beautiful city is located right on the Rhone River and makes for a lovely spot to walk along the water. With wide paths available you can enjoy the breeze on a hot day while enjoying the views.

You can also see the remnants of the Pont des Lions (Lions Bridge) which was constructed in 1868 as a railway bridge. It was destroyed during WW2 to make German shipping difficult. The lions on the remaining pillars have been restored and it is worth a look.

The Lions Bridge

Also, make sure to see this viewpoint at sunset and then as night falls when the lights are reflecting on the water. It makes for a pretty and romantic location. This is yet another sight of a Van Gogh painting – The Starry Night.

Views along the Rhone River

FAQ

Is It Worth Visiting Arles France?

Arles is the perfect place for people who appreciate history and art. With numerous Roman structures to visit, it is a place that is steeped in culture with a vibrant arts scene and the city has a friendly and laid-back feel to it. We would say it is definitely worth a visit.

How Many Days In Arles?

Since the city’s footprint is quite small, you could spend one day in Arles. The major highlights could be accomplished if you were pressed for time. But in our opinion, if you want to enjoy both the Roman structures and also explore the art museums and have some time to relax in the cafes, we suggest a minimum of two days.

Where To Eat in Arles

To have a French meal with a Mediterranean flair, stop in at the family-run Restaurant Le Constantin. Serving both lunch and dinner you will be served by a friendly staff and can enjoy fresh meals with generous portions.

Restaurant Le Constantin

Where To Stay in Arles

For a great spot in the city centre, stay at The Hotel Musee. This is a small hotel in a 17th-century converted residence. This location has charming interior courtyards for some quiet time, a sumptuous breakfast and available parking.

The Final Word…On What To Do In Arles

As you can see there are so many things to see and do in Arles. It is a perfect stop while in the Provence Region of France. It really has something for everyone – well-preserved Roman sights dating back 2000 years, a culture with deep artistic roots and galleries, shopping and cafes for those who just love to sit back and enjoy the smaller cities of Provence. Undoubtedly this is a place to add to your bucket list.

Our picture in front of the Arles cityscape