Thinking of spending a day in Arles, France? Curious about Van Gogh in Arles? The Romans? Where to eat and stay? Look no further. Here’s everything you need to know for the perfect one day itinerary in this fascinating French town.
It’s hard to get past the fact that Arles is where Vincent van Gogh cut off his ear and ‘gifted’ it to a prostitute, but that sort of infamy only adds to Arles’ appeal.
And don’t worry – if you only have one day in Arles to see the sights, you’ll be so busy you won’t have time to dwell on the fact that this is where Vincent van Gogh sliced off his ear! Right here! Who would do that? Why would he do that? Although, I have to tell you, it may run through your mind quite a lot.
About Arles, France
Before we launch into our perfect One Day in Arles Itinerary let’s look at a few facts. Arles is in Provence in the South of France. It’s on the Rhône River and the light is golden and yellow.
Van Gogh in Arles isn’t the only legacy to explore. The Celts, Greeks and Romans all settled here, too. In fact, the Roman Ruins are one of Arles’ biggest attractions (after Van Gogh, who, you know, cut off his ear here … okay, okay. I won’t mention it again until it’s a key part of our One Day in Arles Itinerary, which happily, begins in the very next paragraph).
One day in Arles – start with the art
You know he’s on your mind, our man Van Gogh, so let’s start off with this gifted yet troubled Post-Impressionist artist. First, get a Van Gogh Walking Tour Map from the Visitors Centre (there’s a Visitors Centre in the train station) and begin strolling. Chances are it will be sunny – Arles boasts 300 days of sunshine a year – but good luck to you anyway if you get one of the other 65 days.
The Vincent van Gogh Walking Tour of Arles
If you’re curious about Van Gogh in Arles, the Van Gogh Walking Tour will take you to various sites where this ‘Fauve’ artist painted. At each stop search around for the reproduction of the painting in situ. It’s a treasure hunt! Really, it’s so fun. I was occupied for hours. Two blockbusters to look out for are: Starry Night Over the Rhone and Café Terrace on the Place du Forum, Arles, at Night.
The Van Gogh Walking Tour is an excellent guide to Arles because it shows off the present-day town as well as its Post-Impressionist heritage. One place it will take you is the Rhône River where, if you’re lucky like we were, you’ll meet an American woman who immediately launches into a story of her break up. (Travelling alone can do that to you. I’ve launched into several deep confessions to surprised-looking strangers without any encouragement at all.)
The Café Van Gogh in Arles
Then face it, once you find the painting of the Café Terrace on the Place du Forum, Arles, at Night, the spot where Van Gogh painted one of his most famous masterpieces, you’re going to sit down and have a drink at the Café Van Gogh.
The Café Van Gogh my friends – at least in some versions of the tale – is where Vincent van Gogh spent the night drinking absinthe with fellow artist Paul Gauguin. Van Gogh wanted Gauguin to stay in Arles but Gauguin was ready to leave Provence. The two painters had a fight after which Vincent cut off his ear and delivered it to a prostitute named Rachel at a brothel, asking her to “guard this object carefully.”
Seek and you might not find
You can also search for the brothel, but Mark and I had no luck even though we tried very hard for some obscure reason I can’t remember now. Oh, yes, it was due to my taste for the ghoulish and sensational. Never mind.
After a drink and perhaps a light lunch at the Café Van Gogh it’s time to get on the trail of Arles’ Roman heritage. This may be a crossover with some of the Van Gogh stops, but layers of history aren’t neatly compartmentalized are they?
A serious nod to Van Gogh
Before we move on from Vincent van Gogh in Arles, however, let’s give a serious nod to this beyond-talented artist who had seriously disabling issues. Because when you really think of it, it’s not something to laugh at all – and his real gift to Arles was the 300 paintings he painted here.
Fondation van Gogh
So instead of moving on, let’s see more. The Fondation van Gogh is a recent addition to Arles, and it’s unveiling means that more than a centure after the artist’s death in 1890, visitors to Arles can see some original artworks by the talented, troubled and endlessly fascinating painter. The Fondation is in the restored 15th-century Hôtel Léautaud de Donines near the Place du Forum at 35 ter rue du Docteur Fanton.
Roman sites in Arles
Did you know Arles is a UNESCO World Heritage Site? Well it is. One of the reasons is because of the well-preserved Arles Amphitheatre, which should be the first afternoon stop on your One Day in Arles Itinerary.
The Arles Amphitheatre was built by the Romans (but not in a day) around the first century BC when the Emperor Augustus reigned over the Roman Empire. Built for an audience of 20,000, it once showcased gladiators and chariot racing. Today it’s used for … bull fights! No, I’m not kidding. It’s located at Arènes d’Arles, Rond-point des Arènes.
Next door is the Théâtre Antique, which also dates from the 1st century BC. It’s used in the summer for various dance, film and music performances and festivals, so if you are there on one of the sunny summer days, you might want to take something in.
The Baths of Constantine
Don’t stop now (but feel free to take a gelato pause – my husband Mark is still raving about the gelato we got at an obscure little stand there). I know you have a lot on your plate (sightseeing I mean, not gelato) but with only one day in Arles, you have to fit in as much as you can.
It’s time to visit the Thermes de Constantin – the Roman baths of the Emperor Constantine. Built in the 4th century, they were once part of the palace. And while this ancient bath complex is well preserved, don’t get all excited and think you’re going to be able to bathe there because you can’t. (I’m always on the lookout for thermal water spas in Europe so I was a wee bit disappointed.)
Finding Julius Caesar in Arles
If you can possibly take in any more Roman sights before collapsing like an ancient ruin yourself, visit the Musée Arles Antique to see the famous bust of Julius Caesar. Made during his lifetime, it’s the oldest known bust of Caesar and was unearthed in 2008 in the Rhône River.
The Musée Arles Antique is located outside the city centre at Rue du Cirque Romain.
Where to have a drink in Arles
By now your feet are probably aching and it’s time for an aperitif. Have a drink at the hotel where Picasso once slept and bullfighters favoured: the 4-star Hotel Nord Pinus. It comes complete with two embedded Corinthian pillars from a Roman temple that was once part of the ancient Roman Forum.
The Hotel Nord Pinus is located at 14 Place du Forum.
Where to eat in Arles
If you’re thinking of dinner, aren’t you lucky you’re in Arles, because you can eat at L’Atelier, the baby of chef Jean-Luc Rabanel, Michelin’s first star-rated organic chef. Eat at L’Atelier and you may never think vegetables are boring again. L’Atlier is located at 7 Rue des Carmes.
Prefer to eat something lighter? Try Rabanel’s bistro right next door, “A Côté,” (which conveniently translates to ‘Next Door’ so there is no chance you’ll forget where it is).
The sexiest hotel in Arles, France
Granted, this itinerary is a lot to squeeze into just one day in Arles, so you may decide to sleep there. The Hôtel Jules-César was designed by none other than high-fashion designer Christian Lacroix who was born in the fair city of Arles. With a pool, a central location and a 5-star rating, the Hôtel Jules-César is THE place to stay, so if you love luxury travel, book in and get ready to live like a Roman Emperor. Or a French designer. Or an artist who cut … sorry – there I go again.
The Hôtel Jules-César is located at 9 Boulevard des Lices.
Read more on the sexy South of France: Visit my travel blog post Things to do in the South of France for plenty of ideas on where to go, why to go and what to do there.