Arles Introduction Walking Tour, Arles

Arles Introduction Walking Tour (Self Guided), Arles

In the heart of Provence, lies the picturesque town of Arles. Thanks to its relaxing southern-French atmosphere, Arles is a pleasant place to explore. Here, apart from the distinctive Provencal character and small-town charm, you will find a wealth of historical sites.

The Ligurians settled in the area around 800 BC. Later, the Phoenicians established here a trading port, before it was taken over by the Romans, in 123 BC. During the Roman Empire, the town, then known as Arelate, served as a colony for veterans of the Roman legion Legio VI Ferrata, which used to have its base here.

The exact origin of the toponym Arelate is not entirely clear. Some say it's a Latinized version of the Gaulish “Arelati,” which means “by (or in front of) the marsh.”

Eventually, Arles thrived as a major port city and became the capital of the Roman province of Gallia Narbonensis. The Arles Amphitheatre (Les Arenes), which once hosted gladiator fights and could seat up to 20,000 spectators, dates back to that period. This and other wonderfully preserved Roman remnants, such as the ancient Roman Theater (Theatre Antique d'Arles), the Forum, and the Baths of Constantine, today are listed as UNESCO World Heritage sites.

Throughout its history, the city fell under the control of various powers, including the Visigoths, the Franks, and the Holy Roman Empire. It also witnessed the influence of the Counts of Provence and the Kingdom of Arles.

Arles played a significant role in early Christianity. Circa 225, Saint Trophimus visited the city and, reportedly, had it converted to the Christian faith. The magnificent 12th-century Saint-Trophime Cathedral (Cathedrale Saint-Trophime d'Arles), together with a nearby cloister of the same name, is an architectural tribute to the missionary saint.

Despite its slow-paced lifestyle, Arles inspires sightseeing at a fast clip. Apart from the Roman ruins, there are many other attractions here worth seeing like Republic Square with the ancient Egyptian obelisk (Obelisque d'Arles), the Town Hall of Arles otherwise known as the Hôtel de Ville, and more.

"Arles, where history unfolds." This expression emphasizes the city as a living tapestry of stories and events from the past. The narrow pedestrian streets of Arles exude culture at every turn and invite for a leisurely stroll, while its architectural heritage captivates visitors with its artistic allure, inspiring admiration and reflection from those who have experienced its sophisticated beauty.
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Arles Introduction Walking Tour Map

Guide Name: Arles Introduction Walking Tour
Guide Location: France » Arles (See other walking tours in Arles)
Guide Type: Self-guided Walking Tour (Sightseeing)
# of Attractions: 12
Tour Duration: 1 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 1.3 Km or 0.8 Miles
Author: nataly
Sight(s) Featured in This Guide:
  • Place de la Republique (Republic Square)
  • Obelisque d'Arles (Arles Obelisk)
  • Cloitre Saint-Trophime (St. Trophime Cloister)
  • Cathedrale Saint-Trophime d'Arles (St. Trophime Cathedral)
  • Town Hall and Cryptoportics of Arles
  • Eglise Sainte-Anne d'Arles (Arles St. Anne Church)
  • Theatre Antique d'Arles (Ancient Theater of Arles)
  • Arenes d'Arles (Arles Amphitheatre)
  • Musee Reattu (Reattu Museum)
  • Thermes de Constantin (Baths of Constantine)
  • Place du Forum (Forum Square)
  • Rue de la Republique (Republic Street)
Place de la Republique (Republic Square)

1) Place de la Republique (Republic Square)

Republic Square, or Place de la République, holds a significant place in the heart of Arles. The square has undergone various architectural and urban transformations throughout history, resulting in its unique and diverse character.

Situated south of the ancient Roman forum, the square was originally a narrow forecourt wedged between the Saint-Trophime church and the Sainte-Anne church during the Middle Ages. However, with the construction of the town hall in the 17th century, the square underwent a profound modification, expanding its surface area and transforming its overall appearance.

Over time, Republic Square has been adorned with monuments of different styles and functions, creating an original ensemble that resembles an Italian square. Its vast space provides a gathering place for important traditional events, such as the triennial election of the "Queen of Arles," attracting public participation and adding vibrancy to the square.

The square serves as a captivating anthology of art history, showcasing a remarkable architectural diversity. Antiquity is prominently represented by the obelisk from the Roman circus, serving as a testament to Arles' rich Roman heritage. The facade of the Saint-Trophime church, dating back to the 12th century, boasts a magnificent historiated portal that was added for the coronation of Emperor Frédéric Barberousse in 1178.

The clock tower, adorned with antique decorations, showcases the refined architecture of the Provençal Renaissance. Despite the construction of the town hall, the clock tower was intentionally preserved by town councilors, highlighting the classical style of the period.

Another significant structure within the square is the Sainte-Anne church, constructed between 1614 and 1630. The church's nave retains clear elements of southern Gothic architecture, offering a glimpse into the artistic heritage of the region. Additionally, the archdiocese underwent redevelopment in the 17th century, while its current facade was rebuilt in the late 18th century, adding another layer to the square's architectural diversity.
Obelisque d'Arles (Arles Obelisk)

2) Obelisque d'Arles (Arles Obelisk)

The Arles Obelisk is a remarkable ancient monolith located in Arles. This anepigraphic obelisk, meaning it lacks inscriptions, is of Roman origin and holds historical and cultural significance.

The obelisk has been recognized as a historic monument since 1840 and is included in the UNESCO World Heritage list of Roman and Romanesque monuments of Arles since 1981. Standing at approximately 20 meters in height, including its base, this slender obelisk is distinct from other obelisks of the Roman period or earlier.

Unlike traditional Egyptian obelisks, the Arles Obelisk is not made of Egyptian granite. Instead, it is crafted from red granite, suggesting an origin from Asia Minor, particularly the region of Troad, which encompasses the ancient city of Troy. Interestingly, the obelisk is devoid of any inscriptions, including Roman ones.

The obelisk was originally erected during the reign of Emperor Constantine in the 4th century. It stood in the center of the spina, the central barrier, within the Roman circus of Arles, which was a venue for chariot races and other public spectacles. However, as the circus fell into disuse during the 6th century, the obelisk either collapsed or was deliberately brought down, resulting in it breaking into two parts.

In 1389, the obelisk was rediscovered and showcased to distinguished guests. At one point, King Henri IV contemplated placing it in the center of the amphitheater, known as the Arènes d'Arles. However, this plan did not materialize.

In the 19th century, the base of the obelisk underwent decorative enhancements. A basin and bronze lions were added to the base, which were designed by the sculptor Antoine Laurent Dantan. These additions contribute to the aesthetic appeal and historical significance of the obelisk, further emphasizing its cultural value.
Cloitre Saint-Trophime (St. Trophime Cloister)

3) Cloitre Saint-Trophime (St. Trophime Cloister) (must see)

The St. Trophime Cloister is an architectural gem located in the old cathedral of Arles. Dating back to the 12th and 14th centuries, this cloister showcases remarkable craftsmanship and holds immense historical and artistic significance.

One notable feature of the St. Trophime Cloister is its unconventional location. Unlike most cloisters that are attached to the nave or transept of a cathedral, this cloister is connected to the choir through a staircase consisting of twenty-five steps.

The construction of the cloister commenced around 1150 with the building of the north gallery, followed shortly by the east gallery. However, it wasn't until the end of the 14th century, under the episcopate of Jean de Rochechouart (1390-1398), that the cloister was fully completed. The western gallery and then the southern gallery were constructed during this period. As a result, the cloister exhibits two distinct architectural styles for its galleries. The north and east galleries feature Romanesque elements, while the west and south galleries embody Gothic influences.

The St. Trophime Cloister exemplifies a quest for visual perfection, characterized by a harmonious balance of volumes and exquisite sculpted decorations. Its architectural design and meticulous craftsmanship highlight the skilled work of the artisans involved in its creation.

Recognized as a historical monument since 1846, the St. Trophime Cloister has received significant acclaim. It has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site as part of the Roman and Romanesque monuments of Arles since 1981. This prestigious status underscores its exceptional cultural value and its contribution to the architectural heritage of the region.
Cathedrale Saint-Trophime d'Arles (St. Trophime Cathedral)

4) Cathedrale Saint-Trophime d'Arles (St. Trophime Cathedral) (must see)

St. Trophime Cathedral is a significant Roman Catholic church located in the city of Arles. Constructed between the 12th and 15th centuries, the cathedral exemplifies the Romanesque architectural style and holds great cultural and historical importance. Its sculptures, particularly the Last Judgement on the church's portal, and the columns in the adjacent cloister, are revered as some of the finest examples of Romanesque sculpture.

The site of the Cathédrale Saint-Trophime was originally occupied by a 5th-century basilica dedicated to St. Stephen. The construction of the current church took place upon the foundations of this earlier basilica. The cathedral's Romanesque nave was built during the 12th century, while a Gothic choir was added in the 15th century. This combination of architectural styles adds depth and richness to the overall structure.

One of the highlights of the Cathédrale Saint-Trophime is the intricate sculptural work that adorns its portal. The Last Judgement, depicted in remarkable detail, is particularly noteworthy. The sculptures are a testament to the skill and artistry of the craftsmen of the time and provide valuable insights into the religious beliefs and cultural context of the era.

Adjacent to the cathedral is the cloister, which features magnificent columns and further showcases the mastery of Romanesque sculpture. The combination of architectural elements and sculptural embellishments creates a harmonious and awe-inspiring atmosphere.

In recognition of its historical and architectural significance, the Cathédrale Saint-Trophime, along with other medieval and Roman buildings in Arles, was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1981 as part of the Arles, Roman and Romanesque Monuments group. This prestigious status highlights its contribution to the rich heritage of the region.
Town Hall and Cryptoportics of Arles

5) Town Hall and Cryptoportics of Arles

The Town Hall and Cryptoportics of Arles are two distinct but interconnected historical sites that showcase the rich heritage of the city.

The Town Hall of Arles, is a remarkable building completed in 1676 and recognized as a historical monument. With its three floors, the town hall exhibits architectural splendor and exquisite craftsmanship. As visitors enter the ground floor, they encounter a vestibule with a low vault, showcasing the mastery of French stereotomy. The vault is composed of two intersecting barrel vaults, connected to the walls with elegant arches. Despite its impressive span of 15 meters, the vault demonstrates minimal deflection, showcasing the technical skill of the artisans who constructed it. The ground floor serves as a testament to the art of stereotomy, highlighting its characteristic features such as the lowering, interplay with the masonry, and the beauty of its exposed intrados.

Ascending the main staircase, visitors are greeted by two lion sculptures created by Jean Dedieu, further enhancing the grandeur of the space. The staircase also features a replica of the Venus of Arles, an ancient Greco-Roman sculpture originally discovered in the ancient theater of Arles. The original work is now housed in the Louvre, but a modified copy by Girardon adorns the staircase, adding a touch of classical beauty to the surroundings. The first-floor facade boasts a balcony framed by double columns, while the second floor is adorned with a central pediment displaying the sun, the symbol of Louis XIV, accompanied by decorative balusters and pots-à-feu. These ornate details contribute to the overall elegance and historic significance of the Town Hall.

Adjacent to the Town Hall are the Cryptoportics of Arles, an underground network of chambers that date back to the Roman era. These captivating subterranean spaces, located beneath the modern city center, have origins that can be traced back to the first Roman colony established in Arles in 46 BC. They may even incorporate earlier Greek caverns, adding to their historical depth. The Cryptoportics offer a unique opportunity to journey through 2,000 years of history. Visitors can descend into these vaulted chambers, which were likely used as shops or storage cellars during the time of the Roman forum. Exploring the Cryptoportics provides a tangible connection to the ancient past and offers a fascinating glimpse into the daily life and commercial activities of the time.

Together, the Town Hall and Cryptoportics of Arles offer a captivating exploration of the city's history. The Town Hall's architectural grandeur and artistic adornments symbolize the prestige and power of the city's administration, while the Cryptoportics provide a glimpse into the daily life of ancient Arles.
Eglise Sainte-Anne d'Arles (Arles St. Anne Church)

6) Eglise Sainte-Anne d'Arles (Arles St. Anne Church)

The Arles St. Anne Church or Notre-Dame-la-Principale, holds a significant place in the history of Arles. It was the first Roman Catholic parish in downtown Arles and was a gathering place for the city's affluent families. Although its primary function has changed over the years, it remains an important historical monument.

The church's origins can be traced back to its first reconstruction in 1175. However, by the time of the French Revolution, the church was abandoned and later repurposed as a lapidary museum for the city's collection of ancient stones and artifacts. Due to its cultural and architectural significance, it was classified as a historical monument in 1875.

Under the patronage of Bishop Gaspard du Laurens, the Archbishop of Arles, the church underwent a reconstruction project in the early 17th century. The rebuilding was completed around 1630, and the church was consecrated on the feast day of St. Anne, thus acquiring its name. It housed valuable relics of St. Anne, including a vermeil bust. The church was entrusted to the Oratorians, who served the parish until the Revolution.

Following the Revolution, St. Anne Church lost its status as the main parish of the city center to St. Trophime Church. In 1805, an imperial decree transferred ownership of the church to the municipality. It was then transformed into a lapidary museum in 1826, exhibiting ancient pagan art and artifacts. The museum remained in operation until 1996 when the collections were transferred to the Departmental Museum of Ancient Art.

Since then, Arles St. Anne Church has been repurposed as a venue for temporary exhibitions. Its architectural beauty, historical significance, and spacious interior make it an ideal space to showcase various artistic and cultural displays. Visitors can admire the church's original features while immersing themselves in the captivating exhibitions held within its walls.
Theatre Antique d'Arles (Ancient Theater of Arles)

7) Theatre Antique d'Arles (Ancient Theater of Arles) (must see)

The Ancient Theater of Arles, is a remarkable historical site located in Arles, France. Constructed at the end of the 1st century BC during the reign of Emperor Augustus, this theater stands as one of the earliest stone theaters in the Roman world. Its construction began around 40/30 BC and was completed around 12 BC, shortly after the establishment of the Roman colony in Arles.

The Ancient Theater of Arles is strategically positioned along the decumanus, a major east-west road in the Roman city grid. Its location reflects the meticulous urban planning characteristic of Roman settlements. This ancient theater holds great historical significance and has been recognized as a historical monument since 1840.

Today, visitors have the opportunity to explore and appreciate this extraordinary monument. Although only one bay of the original elevation supporting the cavea, the seating area, remains intact, it is a testament to the theater's grandeur. This surviving section was incorporated into the medieval city rampart, where it was transformed into a defensive tower. The orchestra, the circular area in front of the stage, still bears the trace of the sealing of the altar dedicated to Apollo, adorned with swans, which was an emblem of Emperor Augustus.

One of the most intriguing features of the Theatre Antique d'Arles is the presence of two columns known as "the two widows." These columns, out of the hundred that once adorned the stage wall, stand alone, evoking a sense of mystery and wonder.

In addition to its historical significance, the theater serves as a venue for various cultural events and performances. From the end of June to the end of August, it hosts the Arles and Costume Festivals, the International Photography Meetings, the Les Suds festival, the Cargo Stopovers festival, and the Peplum Film Festival. These events bring the theater to life, showcasing its versatility and continuing its legacy as a gathering place for artistic expression.
Arenes d'Arles (Arles Amphitheatre)

8) Arenes d'Arles (Arles Amphitheatre) (must see)

The Arles Amphitheatre, is a remarkable Roman amphitheatre located in the picturesque town of Arles This magnificent structure, built in 90 AD, stands as a testament to the grandeur and legacy of Ancient Rome. With its impressive architecture and historical significance, the Arles Amphitheatre has become one of the most prominent tourist attractions in the city.

The amphitheatre is a two-tiered structure that could accommodate more than 20,000 spectators during its prime. It served as a venue for various events, including chariot races and brutal hand-to-hand battles that enthralled the ancient crowds. The sheer scale of the amphitheatre and its ability to host such grand spectacles speaks volumes about the cultural and social significance of the city of Arles during the Roman era.

While the Arles Amphitheatre's origins lie in the Roman period, it underwent modifications in the medieval era. The towers that protrude from the top of the structure are notable medieval additions. These towers, though not original to the Roman construction, add a unique character to the amphitheatre, blending Roman and medieval architectural elements.

In recent times, the amphitheatre continues to captivate visitors with its historical charm. While it no longer hosts large-scale events like chariot races, the Arles Amphitheatre remains an active venue for cultural performances. It has become a popular site for bullfighting during the Feria d'Arles, a traditional festival held annually. Additionally, during the summer months, the amphitheatre provides a remarkable backdrop for plays, concerts, and other artistic events, attracting both locals and tourists alike.

Recognizing its outstanding cultural value, the Arles Amphitheatre was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1981. It was included as part of the "Arles, Roman, and Romanesque Monuments" group, which encompasses a collection of Roman and medieval buildings in the city. This prestigious recognition further solidifies the significance of the amphitheatre and highlights its importance in preserving and promoting world history and heritage.
Musee Reattu (Reattu Museum)

9) Musee Reattu (Reattu Museum)

The Reattu Museum is renowned for its diverse collection of paintings, drawings, sculptures, and photographs. The museum showcases the works of various artists, including the Arles-born painter Jacques Réattu, Picasso, and contemporary artists, while also hosting regular exhibitions of contemporary art.

The museum boasts an impressive collection of 800 paintings and drawings by Jacques Réattu. Twelve exhibition rooms are dedicated to showcasing Réattu's own works, as well as his collections, which primarily consist of 17th-century paintings. Additionally, the museum displays artworks by Réattu's friends, relatives, and collaborators. One notable piece is "The Couturiers' Workshop," painted by his uncle Antoine Raspal in the 1780s. The museum also features three rooms dedicated to Picasso, highlighting his significant artistic contributions. Furthermore, there is a room specifically dedicated to photography, displaying a wide array of photographs from various artists and periods.

The Musée Réattu's collection extends beyond traditional mediums, encompassing contemporary sculptures by artists such as César, Richier, Bourdelle, and Zadkine. It also includes modern paintings by notable artists like Dufy, Vlaminck, and Prassinos, among others. The museum's diverse collection allows visitors to explore different artistic styles and movements throughout history.

One of the museum's remarkable features is its extensive photography collection, which contained over 4,000 works in 2001. The collection began with initial donations by renowned photographers like Richard Avedon, Cecil Beaton, Man Ray, Peter Beard, Werner Bischof, Izis, William Klein, and Jean Dieuzaide. As the Rencontres d'Arles, a prestigious photography festival, took place, artists attending the event contributed their works to the museum's photography collection. This ongoing collaboration has enriched the museum's photographic exhibits, providing visitors with a comprehensive view of the art form's evolution.
Thermes de Constantin (Baths of Constantine)

10) Thermes de Constantin (Baths of Constantine)

The Baths of Constantine or Thermes du Nord, are ancient Roman baths located on the banks of the Rhône River in Arles. These baths were constructed in the early 4th century during the reign of Emperor Constantine when he resided in Arelate (Arles). In the Middle Ages, they became known as the "Palais de la Trouille," leading to a misconception that they were the ruins of a palace built by Emperor Constantine himself.

Designated as historical monuments in 1840, the remains of the thermal baths include the Roman wall and adjacent cellars, which were classified in 1922. The city of Arles purchased the monument and undertook extensive renovations between 1980 and 1995 to restore and preserve its architectural heritage.

The Thermes de Constantin in Arles are among the best-preserved Roman baths in France, comparable to the Thermes de Chassenon in Charente and the Thermes de Cluny in Paris. The baths underwent partial excavation and clearance work during the 19th century.

The visible remains of the baths today mainly consist of the caldarium, which housed the hot-water bathing area. The caldarium features suspended heating floors (hypocaust) with three pools, two of which are rectangular in shape. The third pool, distinguished by a semi-circular apse and adorned with three windows, is covered by a half-oven vault. The caldarium is connected to the laconicum, a dry sauna, and the tepidarium, a warm bath. The tepidarium is concluded on the western end by a semi-circular apse.

Exploring the Thermes de Constantin offers visitors a remarkable glimpse into the bathing practices and architectural splendor of the Roman era. The meticulous preservation and restoration efforts undertaken by the city of Arles ensure that these ancient baths continue to captivate and educate visitors about the rich history of the region.
Place du Forum (Forum Square)

11) Place du Forum (Forum Square)

Forum Square holds significant historical and artistic importance. As with many Roman cities, the square served as the bustling city center. Originally, it spanned a large portion of Arles, stretching from the present-day Boulevard des Lices to the north and extending towards the river.

One of the main reasons why Forum Square is well-known is due to Vincent van Gogh's famous painting titled "Cafe Terrace at Night." Executed in mid-September 1888, this oil painting depicts a vibrant scene of a café terrace on Forum Square. Today the cafe is called Cafe Van Gogh and is painted in yellow, just as one would see in the painting. Although the painting is not signed, van Gogh described and mentioned it in his letters on multiple occasions. In addition, a pen drawing of the composition exists in the artist's estate.

Today, visitors can stand in the same spot Van Gogh once stood when painting the charming café on Forum Square. The square continues to be a hub of activity, offering a lively atmosphere day and night. Tourists can indulge in the vibrant animations, soak in the ambiance of the square, and experience the timeless beauty that attracted van Gogh to capture this scene on canvas.

Forum Square serves as a testament to the historical significance of Arles as a Roman city, and it holds a special place in the art world as the subject of one of van Gogh's most renowned works. The combination of its rich historical background and its association with famous art draws visitors from around the world, providing them with an opportunity to immerse themselves in the cultural tapestry of Arles.
Rue de la Republique (Republic Street)

12) Rue de la Republique (Republic Street)

Rue de la Republique is a vibrant and historic street located in Arles. Serving as the city's main thoroughfare, Rue de la Republique is the beating heart of Arles, filled with a variety of shops, cafes, restaurants, and historic sites.

The street, rich with architectural charm, embodies the diverse cultural influences that have shaped Arles over centuries. Here, you can find well-preserved examples of Roman and Romanesque architecture juxtaposed with more modern styles, reflecting the city's evolution through time.

As you stroll along Rue de la Republique, you'll be immersed in the lively atmosphere characteristic of French city life. Cafes spill out onto the pavements, boutiques showcase unique local crafts and high-end fashion, and the aromas of fresh bread and pastries waft from boulangeries.

Rue de la Republique also provides easy access to several notable landmarks in Arles, including the Arles Amphitheatre and the Ancient Theatre of Arles, both testament to the city's rich Roman history.

Whether you're looking to sample regional cuisine, enjoy a leisurely coffee while people-watching, explore historic sites, or shop for local goods, Rue de la Republique in Arles offers a captivating and quintessentially French experience.

Walking Tours in Arles, France

Create Your Own Walk in Arles

Create Your Own Walk in Arles

Creating your own self-guided walk in Arles is easy and fun. Choose the city attractions that you want to see and a walk route map will be created just for you. You can even set your hotel as the start point of the walk.
Vincent van Gogh Walking Tour

Vincent van Gogh Walking Tour

"There's no place quite like it for painters. It's so beautiful and peaceful..." These words, reportedly attributed to Vincent van Gogh, emphasize the beauty and exceptional qualities of Arles with which the renowned Dutch painter had a special connection.

Vincent van Gogh moved to this town in 1888, after having worked in Paris for two years. In the late 19th century,...  view more

Tour Duration: 1 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 2.1 Km or 1.3 Miles