Arles is a town and municipality in the region Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur (PACA), department of Bouches-du-Rhône, in the southeast of France. It is mainly known for its association with Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh, who produced some of his most famous paintings here. It is also a very pleasant town on the boards of the Rhône river with some well-preserved Roman buildings, including an amphitheatre that is still used for bullfighting. Arles is also the perfect base for exploring the surrounding area, which boasts popular tourist destinations like Avignon, Nîmes and the Camargue.
Arles was founded on a hill on the east bank of the river Rhône, which just south of the city branches into two rivers, the Grand Rhône and Petit Rhône, that together encircle the marshlands and lagoons of the Camargue region, and provide access to the Mediterranean Sea. Because of its strategic position, it was already settled around 800 BC by the Ligurians, later followed by the Gauls, the Phoenicians and eventually Romans, who conquered the south of Gaul in 123 BC. Arles was called Arelate in Roman times and was an important harbour town with the southernmost bridge over the river Rhône, but it was at first overshadowed by the originally Greek port of Massalia (Marseille). However, when the Massalians chose the wrong side in the conflict between Pompey and Julius Caesar, Arles became the more important town. Evidence of this is still seen in the large number of Roman remains, including an amphitheatre, theatre, circus, bath house and a large necropolis. Unlike many other Roman cities, Arles had its heyday in the Late Roman period, and for some time it even was the main city of Gaul, counting with some 75,000 - 100,000 inhabitants in the late 4th century (in comparison, its current population stands at 52,000). Emperor Constantine considered it one of its favourite cities, and had the bath houses built. It also was an important base for the Christianization of Gaul from the 3rd to the 5th century AD, with various saintly bishops residing in town.
In the 6th century AD, Arles was involved in the religious struggles between the Arian Visigoth kings and the church of Rome, but it remained an important religious centre. The short-lived Moorish occupation (735-739) resulted in the incorporation of the Provence in the Carolingian empire. After this empire fell apart, Arles became an independent kingdom in 855, which eventually devolved to the Holy Roman Empire in 1032. In the next century, much of the kingdom's territory got confiscated by the French, and the town lost most of its population. However, emperor Frederick Barbarossa restored order in the 12th century, and made Arles a free city, a status it retained until the French revolution of 1789. The former Kingdom of Arles kept on existing until 1378, when it was formally ceded to France.
Arles remained an important fluvial port until the mid 19th century, when the construction of railways diminished river trade, leading to economic stagnation. Since then, Arles has remained somewhat of a backwater, which was an important reason why Van Gogh chose it as his residence in February 1888. During a one-year period, he produced over 300 paintings there, including the world-famous Night Café and Starry Night over the Rhône. However, his stay was also marked by deteriorating mental health, leading to the infamous ear incident and two stays in the Old Hospital. Eventually he left town in May 1889, following a petition of townsfolk demanding that he should be confined.
Nowadays, Arles is mainly known as a tourist destination and regional centre, and hosts an annual international photography festival. The municipality of Arles is the largest in France, covering most of the Camargue area. It city centre was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1981. However, if you are looking for traces of Van Gogh, you will be disappointed: none of his paintings have remained in town.
The closest airport is Aéroport Marseille Provence, which has frequent connections to many cities in Europe. From there, it is a 50 minute drive to Arles. Alternatively, you can take a shuttle bus to Vitrolles train station, and take the train from there (approx. 45 minutes).
Arles is not directly served by a motorway (autoroute), but it's very easy to reach from both Salon-de-Provence and Nîmes (approx. 35 minutes from both directions). Getting there from Avignon involves taking a slower provincial road, but shouldn't take longer than 45 minutes. Part of the old town centre is pedestrianised, and parking is paid. The best option for free parking is the parking lot at the railway station, on the north side of town.
Arles has direct train connections to the TGV stations in Marseille, Avignon and Aix-en-Provence. Consult the website of SNCF for schedules and tickets. From the railway station, it is a 10 minute walk to the centre of town.
Several bus lines serve the Bouches-du-Rhône department and surrounding area, departing from the railway station. Tickets can be bought on the bus.
Of course, Arles can also easily be reached by bike from the surrounding towns.
There is a direct boat connection from Avignon to Arles, operated by Mireio Cruises. However, prices can be quite steep, depending on whether you want to enjoy a full menu or not. It is also a return journey.
The old town centre is very small and can easily be explored on foot. Some other attractions are slightly further away, so you might consider taking a bus for that. Going by bike is equally possible.
The old town centre is very pretty, with winding streets full of old houses built in grey limestone with pastel-coloured shutters. It is worth just exploring the sidestreets, where you can suddenly run into a nice little restaurant or shop. It is also worth taking a stroll on the quays of the river Rhône to enjoy the view. The main tourist drags are the area around the amphitheatre and the Place du Forum, but the tourist trade is relatively modest, although Place du Forum gets very noisy in the evening. The main streets surrounding the old town are very busy with traffic during the day, especially the Boulevard des Lices, since the major bridge over the Rhône can only be reached from there. The old neighbourhoods of La Roquette (west of town centre) and Trinquetaille (on the other bank of the river) are left largely unexplored by tourists.
The Tourist Office sells combination tickets for various attractions. The Pass Liberté will give you access to the most important ones for only €12, or you could buy the Pass Avantage to get full access to all city museums. The reduced fees are valid for students, handicapped persons and teachers.
Apart from the monuments mentioned, a number of smaller Roman remains can be seen in town, including the central obelisk on Place de la République, a few columns on Place du Forum, and parts of the circus next to the archaeological museum.
The French bullfighting tradition was imported from Spain in the 19th century, and therefore the French corrida is exactly the same, involving the death of the bull at the end of the fight. There is also a local variety of bullfighting, known as course camarguaise, that is harmless to the bull, since the bullfighters only have to snatch a rosette from between the bull's horns. The Arles amphitheatre is one the best known places in France to watch bullfighting.
Corridas are only held during the two ferias, at Easter and in September (Feria du Riz). The ferias are big events, that include musical spectacles as well, with the September event attracting up to 500,000 visitors.
The course camarguaise is held on many more occasions from late Spring to early Autumn. In the high season, you can watch it every Wednesday and Friday at 5:30PM (tickets €10). Tickets for the corridas are much more expensive.
This is an international photography festival, held annually from July until September. It offers a large number of expositions on various locations in town. A day ticket is €30.
Les Rues en Musique
In August, during three weeks free street concerts are organized on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday evenings.
There are two weekly markets in Arles. On Wednesday, on the Boulevard Émile-Combes, and on Saturday on the Boulevard des Lices and Boulevard Georges-Clemenceau. The Saturday market is one of the biggest in the Provence, with over 2.5 km of stalls. You will find all kinds of foodstuffs there, as well as clothing and antiques.
There is no real shopping district, most of the shops are found in the area around Place de la République and the Arènes. Apart from the standard touristy stuff, you should watch out for table linen - it may be a bit expensive, but the designs are really beautiful. You will also find various shops selling soaps and perfumes, they make a good souvenir.
This being France, don't expect any large supermarkets in town centre. There is one small Util store close to the Arènes which will do for most daily shopping. There is also a moderately sized Monoprix just north of the old town, close to the railway station.
Arles is home to quite a few local specialties. Saucisson d'Arles is a dry sausage, made from pork, beef and donkey meat. It is mainly eaten as an appetizer with a glass of pastis or wine. Other local food includes fougasse, a salted bread comparable to the Italian focaccia, which may contain additional ingredients such as olives, bacon, anchovy or cheese.
Broufade is a beef stew, traditionally eaten by mariners on board of their ships. Gardianne is a mutton stew prepared with thyme and sage. The meat from the taureau de Camargue (Camargue bull) is served in many restaurants, and has its own Appelation d'Origine Controlée.
Arles has too many restaurants to mention, many of which are concentrated around the Arènes and Place du Forum. Unfortunately, many of these are overpriced, catering mainly for foreign tourists and not offering the best quality. The best is to try to find places that are frequented by French tourists, although these can be expensive as well.
Arles is just outside the major wine producing regions of Languedoc and Côtes-du-Rhône, which means that there is not much local produce that you can try. One exception is the Mas du Rey winery, just outside town, which produces decent and relatively cheap red, rosé and white wines that you can get in the supermarkets as well. There are also some wineries in the Alpilles area. For the rest, the best choice is to go for the Costières de Nîmes wines, that are not as expensive as the Côtes-du-Rhône wines.
Arles being located in the Provence, pastis is the thing to try as well. The most famous brand, Ricard, is from Marseille, but there are some local varieties made in the Camargue as well.
Most of the nightlife is happening around Place du Forum, but there are also a number of places on Place Voltaire and Boulevard des Lices that are a little less touristy. In France, food and drink usually go together, but if it says brasserie on the outside, it's fine to just order drinks.
Arles has a large number of hotels and other accomodation. Prices are usually reasonable when compared to Avignon. Apparently, it is also allowed to sleep in the streets for those wanting to stay within budget. A favourite spot is supposed to be the sidewalk of Place de la Libération.
There is plenty of camping accomodation to be found around Arles.
After the terrorist attacks of 2015 and 2016, military presence is visible in all major tourist attractions in France, and it is common to check bags before entering museums and other attractions which might cause some delays in entering. Please remain respectful to the security personnel, they are only doing their job.
Unlike larger French towns, Arles does not have large numbers of beggars and pickpockets that can make a nuisance of travelling. Still, you are advised to look after your belongings in crowded areas.
Arles is very centrally located between the Provence and Languedoc. A number of tourist destination can be reached from Arles within one hour or less.