Two million people visit Arles every year, but it doesn’t feel like a tourist town. Its graceful streets and leafy squares are understated, signage is minimal, and the city’s rich cultural heritage mixes easily with modern life.
The best way to discover Arles is on foot, and I had the recent good fortune to take a walking tour with local private guide Agnès Barrier. From over 100 monuments classified as UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Agnès selected half a dozen for our morning visit.
As we made our way across town, she reconstructed the city’s history, from its strategic role in the Roman empire (Caesar founded a Roman colony here), through its medieval struggles, Renaissance flourishes, and 19th century traditions.
We went underground to see the foundation of a public square dating to 46BC; explored the elliptical 12,000 seat Roman amphitheater and a sumptuously decorated smaller theater (both are still in use). At the city’s archeological museum, we marveled at a 2000 year-old wooden barge that represented a complex shipping culture.
Agnès led me to more recent innovations, too: the classical town hall; the best gelato shop in town; le boucher whose window display honors the taureaux, the illustrious Provençal bulls raised in nearby Camargue. We followed in the footsteps of Vincent Van Gogh, who painted prolifically in Arles in 1888 and 1889.
The last whetted my appetite for art, and after lunch I followed a tiny side street to the newly inaugurated Fondation Van Gogh, where paintings by the Dutch master are shown in the context of contemporary works by American and European artists.
The building is a glorious renovation of a 15th century private mansion, and the exhibition, which included The Parisian Novels (a must for Zola fans), was a treat. I’ll go out of my way to return the next time I’m in Provence.
Another très intéressant mix of old and new is the Hôtel Jules César, a former Carmelite convent recently redesigned by a famous son of Arles, Christian Lacroix. The bar is a stunning space, mixing primary colors with lime walls, patterned carpets, classical sculpture and modern art—a great place to relax with a glass of wine after day of walking.
Where to walk. Nearly all of Arles is within a 15 minute walk of the city center, and the city’s tourism website makes it easy to locate and learn about historical periods and venues as well as festivals, local products, parks, and museums.
Where to eat. The charming Les Filles du 16 bistro is just around the corner from Fondation Van Gogh, and serves regional specialties including Camargue bull meat stew. Excellent food, value, and atmosphere for lunch or dinner.
Where to stay. Centrally located Hôtel Jules César is luxurious, bold and theatrical. Rich colors and a surprising mix of patterns, fabrics and periods make it visually arresting, rooms are spacious, and the grounds are peaceful and beautiful.
See a few photos of my trip to Arles here.