🌞Arles, France 🌞
Sitting 45 minutes west of Marseille, this small town is bursting with flowers, sunshine, and stunning scenery. Complete with an ancient arena and Roman theater, two annual city-wide festivals, and enough pastries to satisfy the entirety of Texas, Arles is one small town not to be missed.
Flowers lovingly encompass the city, which is very tourist friendly, but not overly crowded. Arles has dynamic fruit markets, hippie restaurants, trendy boutiques and incredible architecture. And if that isn’t convincing enough, this small town sits in the middle of southern France’s Provençal region, aka wine country.
1. Arène d’Arles
Arles is well known for its beautiful arena, smack-dab in the city center. Built in 90 AD, the Arène d’Arles opened its doors only 10 years after the completion of the Colosseum in Rome (its inspiration), and was then used for gladiator fights and hunting reenactments for the next 400 years. When the Roman Empire fell in the 5th Century, the arena became a fortress, building four towers, one on each corner, to protect the 200 houses within its gates.
HOT TIP #1 – Féria d’Arles
Arles hosts a semi-annual bull fighting festival, called Féria d’Arles. Although widely disapproved of and often debated, 500,000 people flock to Arles every September and every April for this highly acclaimed celebration. Perhaps not as popular as the Féria de Béziers
, this festival is part of the city’s heritage, and the people come from all over the world to take part. With that in mind, the hotels and Airbnbs fill up early, so make sure to plan your trip accordingly. However, if you’re not one for massive crowds and bull fights, double check the Féria schedule to make sure you’re visiting outside of the festival dates)
Actes Sud attracts book lovers from all over the world, as it is one of the most frequented tourist attractions in Arles. An established publishing house and sizable book store, Actes Sud holds over 40,000 books, an in-depth collection of records, and numerous paper supplies. Attached to a good-smelling restaurant and compact theater, when Actes Sud moved to Arles in 1983, it immediately established itself as one of the leading book stores in France.
HOT TIP #2 – Mini library
On your way to Actes Sud, make sure to check out the mini library, an off-the-map birdhouse-esque structure in the quiet part of town, up the stairs across from the market. Put in place for locals to swap books, this tiny attraction is still widely used by the folks who live nearby. Make sure to soak up the rooftop view and maybe even donate a book or two – you never know who might pick it up!
3. The Rhône
The Rhône River separates the city by a long, bustling bridge (in the same place where a Roman bridge used to stand) and the scenic river walk allows for a perfectly placed sunset. The broad river is mysterious and murky, but the design of the pavement is the real tourist attraction in this situation: steep, sloping concrete embankments, interspersed with narrow, scenic staircases. The quiet benches and breezy hang out spots are a stark contrast to the busy streets Old Town.
4. Old town
Miles of cobblestone pathways direct visitors to a lively center square. Delicious gelato places, buzzing seafood restaurants and specialty wine sellers stay open until the wee hours of the night, making this one of the most popular places in Arles.
Locals live in the flowery, sandstone buildings next to the Arena. Little old ladies walk their tiny dogs in the evenings while the tourists settle in for the night. Even though Arles is a popular vacation destination, very few streets feel “crowded” or overly touristic. The quirky shops, beautifully adorned houses and lovely hidden pathways make Arles one of the most fascinating cities in France.
5. Photography festival
The Photography Festival (Les Rencontres d’Arles), which began in 1970, is an annual festival that draws in thousands of people. Photography exhibitions are displayed in dozens of historic and religious buildings throughout Arles. This is really something special, as you get to tour the high churches and old buildings while enjoying the different photography exhibits. You can perhaps even take some photography of your own while visiting these historic buildings.
The pictures aren’t necessarily pretty, but they showcase the importance of these topics within society: immigration, terrorism and war. During the 2018 festival, visitors saw photos from a man who used work for ISIS beheading people, but he escaped, and is now a photographer. He displays his work all around the world to bring awareness to the terrorism happening where he grew up. There was another photographer who took pictures of the rubble after an explosion and, even though the picture was just a pile of dust, he added text as though it was a brand new house. The Les Rencontres d’Arles Festival is a thought provoking, inspirational and humbling experience.
Arles used to be one of the provincial capitals of Ancient Rome, so it is packed full of remains, the oldest being the Roman Theater. Built in 12 BC, this stone theater was one of the first of its kind, few other stone theaters existing during this time. As opposed to the Arène d’Arles that held gladiator events, the Roman Theater was the venue for actual theater performances and concerts.
You can visit this ancient part of Arles for 9eu, or you can just have a look at it from outside the gates. The tiny columns surrounding the protected area are just small enough to keep people out, but it’s still quite easy to see in.
7. Vincent Van Gogh Foundation
Vincent Van Gogh lived in Arles from 1888-1889. During this time, he created over 300 works, including Starry Night Over the Rhône and Yellow Room. The town revered him – until his mental health deteriorated so severely that the towns people informed him that he was no longer welcome. He left soon after, leaving behind one of his favorite cities.
The Vincent Van Gogh Foundation lives on in his memory as a multi-floor gallery with narrow hallways and a nice gift shop, although a bit sparse.
HOT TIP #3 – Not much Van Gogh
While the Foundation has some beautiful drawings and paintings by Van Gogh, this museum is more of an honorary museum, as it often houses large collections by other artists. During my visit, I enjoyed fabulous works by Paul Nash. Although they were quite captivating, I had expected to see a museum packed full of Van Gogh, like in Amsterdam, which wasn’t the case. This doesn’t, however, mean that you won’t enjoy a visit. Either way, the museum will appreciate your 12 EU entrance fee.
The food in Arles is just amazing. Restaurants offer Provençal oysters, mussels, and delicious incredible vegetable combinations with perfectly paired wines. The patio restaurants in the main square usually offer delicious 2-3 course meals for a set price of 12-22eu. They’re not stingy in the quantity, either. For example, I had a green salad, chicken with mushroom sauce and fries, and the MOST incredible dessert: a sweet pear soaking in a bath of salty caramel sauce, topped with whipped cream and served on a silver platter. Speaking of salted caramel, this is a favorite of the Provence region. They have butter salted caramel ice cream in just about every ice cream shop in the city, and they rave about it. Once you have some, you will understand why haha.
HOT TIP #4 – Vegan Restaurant
There is a tiny, delicious vegan restaurant next to the Arena, called Chez Felix. The Indian curry, carrot turmeric soup, and chocolate lava cake are HIGHLY recommended. (I still dream about this ❤️❤️❤️)
The massive silver tower by Frank Gehry is an office building a bit outside of Old Town. It’s also a giant piece of modern art! It has bright silver walls that sparkle in all directions, giving Arles a whole new feeling within the modern art and architecture scene. The walk from Old Town to the Tower is also filled with colorful flowers, small cafés and beautiful parks.
10. Street Markets
The massive street markets spill out from the train station all the way into Old Town, with vendors selling everything from food and clothes to antiques and jewelry. The smell of incredible rotisserie chicken, with the fat sizzling, spitting, and then dripping onto the potato wedges below, will make you want to DIVE into the oven. There are bright T-shirts, lavender soaps and skillfully woven baskets in all the colors of the rainbow sprawling onto the sidewalks for visitors to admire. Fruit and veggie stands dominate more than half of the market, but they often have items that double as souvenirs, such as the long strings of garlic heads or jams and jars lavender honey. These markets are an experience and will fill your shopping bag and your tummy.
HOT TIP #4 – Don’t wait!
Make sure that, if you see something you like, grab it that afternoon, as it might not be available the next day, or even later that evening!
Arles was lovely and I whole-heartedly encourage you all to take a weekend trip to this small, enchanting French town.
Have you been to Arles? Tell us your favorite part in the comments!
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