If you’re a fan of Ancient Roman history, a visit to Arles is definitely in store for you. There’s all kinds of Ancient Roman ruins here, from the Roman baths, aqueduct, and other forum sites, to an amphitheater; and as you may have guessed, there’s a handful of museums. On top of that, Arles has another claim to fame, since it’s also well-known for being the inspiration for many of Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings, including “Starry Night.” Check out our top picks for things to see and do here!
1. See the Roman amphitheater, Les Arènes
Amphitheaters in Ancient Rome, such as the Colosseum, were arenas where spectators watched events such as gladiator fights (and other gruesome things). Les Arènes is a Roman amphitheater still standing from the Ancient Roman Empire, built in 90 AD; what’s even more cool about it is that Arles still uses it today. The arena brings in crowds for events such as bull races and bullfighting, and concerts. Its two stories can hold 20,000 people, and visitors are free to wander both levels; a popular spot is the tower, where you can take in the view of Arles. When you buy a ticket for the arena, that same ticket also gets you into the Roman theater ruins.
Les Arènes Roman Amphitheater
Address: Rond-Point des Arenes, Arènes d Arles, 13200 Arles, France
Website: Les Arènes (in French)
2. Explore the ruins of the Roman theater, Le Theatre Antique
Near the arena is the Ancient Roman theater, Le Theatre Antique; though the Greeks are more well-known for their theaters and plays, the Romans still had plenty of their own. This theater was built by Julius Caesar, and once had a two-story stage, of which only two columns (out of 27) remain. The spectator’s seating still remains, all 33 rows in tact, so it is still used today for concerts; visitors can wander its ruins and imagine viewing a classical play. You can get in with a ticket from the arena, or get a ticket here that also gets you into the arena.
Le Theatre Antique
Address: South East corner of town next to Arena, 13200 Arles, France
Website: Le Theatre Antique
3. Pay a visit to Les Alyscamps, the Roman cemetery
While there are many other Roman sites in Arles, one especially worth your visit is the Roman necropolis. Since he painted “Champs Elysées” here, Van Gogh must have liked it. There’s a medieval touch here (and a medieval church) as well, but visitors have found it intriguing, “eerie and evocative,” and peaceful; tombs, sarcophagi, and elaborate monuments from a couple thousand years of history are likely to be different from any cemetery you’ve seen before. As the Romans didn’t have burials within their cities, Les Alyscamps is located just outside city limits.
Les Alyscamps, the Roman cemetery
Address: Rue Pierre-Renaudel, Arles, France
Website: Les Alyscamps
4. Visit the Arles Museum of Antiquity
When surrounded by antiquity, why not visit the Arles Museum of Antiquity? The focus of this museum is, of course, on Roman history, featuring many Ancient Roman artifacts, from pottery to antique boats. Another antiquity museum, the Musée Départemental Arles Antique focuses more on the history of Arles, from the Phoecians to the Romans; visitors rave about the barge exhibit, which displays and explains the history of a 2,000 year old barge recovered from the Rhone River.
Arles Museum of Antiquity
Address: 61 Rue Pascal, 75013 Arles, France
5. Go where Van Gogh went!
Since Van Gogh painted many of his works here, you may often find yourself in the middle of one of his paintings. “Starry Night Over the Rhone” was painted by the Rhone River, and “Café Terrace at Night” was painted in the Forum Square, where the yellow cafe (Le Café La Nuit) still exists. You can also visit the mental hospital, Espace Van Gogh, where he did a lot of painting; he painted the courtyard here in his painting “Garden of the Hospital in Arles.”
Espace Van Gogh
Address: Pl. Dr. Felix Rey, Arles, France
Website: Espace Van Gogh
Forum Square (and Le Café La Nuit)
Address: Place du Forum, Arles, France
Website: Forum Square
6. Take in a historical church
There is history in Arles other than that of Roman antiquity. One popular spot is St. Trophime Church, a UNESCO World Heritage site, located in the Place de la Republique; this gorgeous church reflects Roman architecture, and features magnificent stonework and sculptures inside and out - not to mention some really cool wooden entrance doors. The church also has cloisters, which are accessible separately; this is the site where the columns from the Roman theater were moved.
St. Trophime Church
Address: Place de la Republique, Arles, France
Website: St. Trophime Church
Website: Cloisters of St. Trophime
7. Walk along the Rhone River
Quai Larmartime is a path designated just for pedestrians, so it’s perfect for a quiet, peaceful walk any time of day or night. It runs parallel to the Rhone River, and goes all the way to the outskirts of town. It may not surprise you to learn that Vincent Van Gogh was inspired to paint “Starry Night” here.
Address: Quai Larmartime, Arles, France
Website: Quai Larmartime
8. Explore Camargue Nature Park
Whether you walk or drive through this national park, the sights are breathtaking. There is a museum if you want to stop in, and there’s so many other things to do - birdwatching for over 400 different species of birds, exploring the lighthouse, hanging out on the beach, horseback riding, walking through the rice fields, and watching some wild white horses. Keep in mind you’ll need plenty of time to explore this place - and be sure to download or grab a map. The land is endless here, and well worth the visit.
Camargue Nature Park
Address: Mas du Pont de Rousty, 13200 Arles, France
Website: Camargue Nature Park (in French)
9. Wander Montmajour Abbey
This historic Abbey on “The Big Mountain” was once the home of Benedictine monks, and was founded in 948 AD. It’s set in the Alpilles mountains, and features an 11th-century cave chapel, a tower from the 14th-century called the Pons de l’Orme, and other buildings built during different centuries, including cloisters and a cemetery. There is a gift shop, and both guided and self-guided tours are offered; might I recommend the spectacular panoramic view from the tower?
Address: Route de Fontvieille, 13200 Arles, France
Website: Montmajour Abbey
A walk through history
Whether you’re wandering the streets of an Ancient Roman territory, or the colorful streets of Van Gogh’s paintings, walking the streets of Arles is sure to be like walking through time. Arles is truly one of the most interesting and historic places in France, so if it’s not on your list of places to go, add it!
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