In the late 1880s, Vincent van Gogh put Arles, a sleepy city in Provence, on the map when he spent a little over a year there painting some of his most iconic works. Today, Arles is a major destination that attracts foreign and local visitors alike with its cultural events and festivals, ancient ruins, history, and architecture.
Arles dates to 123 B.C., when the Romans took over and turned it into a significant city. In 108 B.C., they built a canal that extended to the Mediterranean. Arles reached the pinnacle of its importance during the fourth and fifth centuries, when it became a cultural and religious center and was used by Roman generals as a military headquarters for Europe.
Here are just a few of the best things to see and do on a visit to historic Arles.
Built by the Romans in A.D. 90, the magnificent Arles Amphitheater is the central attraction of Arles. At one time it held over 20,000 spectators, who eagerly came to watch the chariot races and hand-to-hand battles. Inspired by the Colosseum in Rome, the amphitheater measures 358 feet wide and 446 feet long. It has 120 archways plus bleachers, galleries, and terraces systematically laid out on two levels.
At present, the amphitheater hosts bullfights, concerts, and sports spectacles.
Pro Tip: Take a guided tour of the amphitheater to learn more about its history and architecture.
A spectacular new arts center, Luma Arles, is set to open on June 26, 2021. Designed by the world-renowned American architect Frank Gehry (the man behind the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles and the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain), the tower is made of metal bricks and soars 183 feet above Arles. The interior is over 250,000 square feet.
The museum is joined by five former industrial buildings. The complex will include exhibition spaces, research facilities, seminar rooms, an auditorium, studios, and a cafe. There’s also a 10-acre park area.
Pro Tip: Luma Arles offers a guided tour of the park space and buildings in English.
The Fondation Vincent van Gogh is a foundation dedicated specifically to the art that Van Gogh created when he lived in Arles in 1888 and 1889. Besides displaying original pieces by Van Gogh, the foundation highlights contemporary artists inspired by him in temporary exhibitions that take place once or twice a year. The new foundation building was constructed in 2014 and has over 3,000 square feet on two spacious floors.
There are a number of Van Gogh tours you can take in Arles to learn more about the time the painter spent there. Consider a self-guided walking tour — simply download the map here. The tour will take you down the narrow cobblestone streets where Van Gogh lived and painted. You’ll also stop by the shops and cafes he visited regularly.
The biggest event of the year in Arles is Les Rencontres d’Arles, a photography festival showcasing work by the best international and French photographers. First held in 1970, the festival now attracts close to 150,000 visitors each year.
During the festival, you’ll find 40 exhibitions located in 30 different spaces around the city. All styles of photography — including portraiture, still life photography, abstract photography, urban landscape photography, and photojournalism — make an appearance. The 2021 Rencontres d’Arles will center on identities/fluidities, with exhibitions including Masculinities: Liberation Through Photography, Princes of the Streets, Rethink Everything: The Power of Art in Times of Isolation, and The New Black Vanguard: Photography between Art and Fashion.
One of the jewels of Arles is the Camargue Regional Nature Park, a 200,000-acre natural wonderland between the Mediterranean and the Rhone River. Its attractions include saltwater flats, lakes, and marshlands.
The park is home to wild horses, flamingos, bulls, and an impressive variety of birds, so bring your binoculars.
Saint-Trophime Church is a Romanesque-style Catholic church built between the 12th and 15th centuries. It’s known for its exceptional, highly detailed sculptures and statues, especially the depiction of the Last Judgment.
Classified as a UNESCO World Heritage site, Cloitre Saint-Trophime is the cloister that is adjacent to the church. It was constructed between the last half of the 12th century and the beginning of the 13th century. Take a close look at the stone pillars, and you will see religious scenes carved on them, including depictions of Saint Trophime and the life of Christ.
The church and the cloister are named for Saint Trophime, the first bishop of Arles and an important historical figure.
You just might see or feel the ghost of Van Gogh at Cafe Van Gogh on Place du Forum. The cafe was the setting for the iconic Van Gogh painting Cafe Terrace at Night. Enjoy a drink or coffee or even a light meal on the outdoor terrace painted in Van Gogh sunflower yellow.
Unlike at most markets in France, at the Arles Market you can bargain for the best price. This lively market is enormous, extending almost 1.5 miles and featuring up to 450 vendors on Saturdays. Shop for wonderful local foods such as cheese, honey, sausage, jams and jellies, and wine, plus the ripest fruits and vegetables from nearby farms and orchards. You’ll also find housewares, baskets, soaps, table linens, and clothing with Provencal designs on them. The market is open on Wednesday and Saturday mornings.
Pro Tip: Every first and third Wednesday of the month, there’s a flea market.
The 15th-century home and studio of the French painter Jacques Reattu is now the Musee Reattu. This impressive art collection includes a portfolio of 57 Picasso drawings that the artist personally donated to the museum. You’ll see a letter that Van Gogh wrote to Paul Gaugin in 1889. The museum also houses an extensive sculpture collection and over 4,000 photographs by some of the best photographers in the world.
Le Moulin de Daudet is a windmill with a stone base that’s set on a grassy hill and surrounded by lush trees. It was named after Alphonse Daudet, a 19th-century novelist. In the base of the windmill is a museum dedicated to Daudet and the history of Arles.
Located in the old part of the city, La Cuisine au Planet has a delightful terrace framed by olive trees and stone buildings. The indoor dining room is equally as nice, with white stone walls and mosaic tile floors. The versatile Mediterranean menu has something for everyone.
The quirky interior of the Le Q. G looks like a flea market stall, with bric-a-brac and pop art on the walls. The highlight is the dessert menu, which features ice cream and frozen specialties. Try the frozen raspberry-flavored macaron or the frozen nougat with a red fruit coulis. During the week, you can get a two-course lunch for 19 euros (either an appetizer and a main course or a main course and a dessert) or a three-course lunch for 26 euros.
The beautifully landscaped grounds of the Hotel Particulier Le 28 are a highlight of the hotel. Originally a private mansion, the property was redeveloped in 2001 as a boutique hotel with four suites. The four-star hotel is part of the highly regarded Relais & Chateaux organization and was named the best hotel in France by Conde Nast Traveler. The hotel’s restaurant offers top-notch Italian cuisine with freshly prepared pastas and pizzas by the chef, Marco. There’s also a spa with an indoor pool and a Turkish steam room.
If you’re a fan of Vincent van Gogh, consider a trip to his final resting place in beautiful Auvers-sur-Oise.
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