Here are the top 8 things to do if you only have a day to explore Arles.
1. Café Van Gogh
Cafe la Nuit (Café de la Nuit??), also called Café Van Gogh, is an absolute must.
The reviews on Trip Advisor weren’t very flattering . . . crappy service, okay food, overpriced . . . and at 2.50 for an expresso, I get the overpriced part.
I think the staff had read the reviews because our experience was great. The server, Valentine, was delightful and the food was wonderful (they even brought out Louisiana hot sauce!). The staff was mostly bilingual, so you can choose between French and English, but a small s’il vous plaît and merci would be appreciated. We were the first ones there around 11:30 (the perks of traveling off season), but it probably gets very busy over the summer.
We sat underneath that yellow awning, watching the world pass by as we sipped our overpriced, but good, coffee. The inside was just as impressive (Van Gogh painted it in 1888, so the café has been around for quite a while). The bathrooms were up a creaky staircase and on a somewhat sturdy second landing. It was easy to imagine Van Gogh at that bar almost 100 years ago, having a drink.
2. Espace Van Gogh
While still on the Van Gogh tour, visit the courtyard where he painted while staying at the town’s hospital, now turned cafe/tourist shop.
There’s a plaque below the balcony where Van Gogh sat and, while standing there, taking in the painting, you can tell that not much has changed. Yellow and purple flowers still bloom and the fountain continues to trickle. It’s a serine place to take a pause.
The tourist shops there also have the cheapest postcards and magnets, just FYI.
3. Arènes d’Arles (a.k.a the Roman Amphitheater)
The Roman Amphitheater is Arles’s other main attraction. Even though it was founded in 90 AD, it’s actually still fully functional – only they’ve thrown in the towel on those bloody gladiator battles and now host delightful summer concerts.
Climb one of the original watchtowers and take in 360 views of the city.
4. Les Cryptoportiques
Like to explore the dark and the dreary? Then visit the Cryptoportiques.
I don’t think it’s exactly a crypt – thankfully there were no dead things that I knew of. I was expecting it to be small (the walk down is a bit cramped, but the room opens up into these large hallways). The walls were dimly lit and damp; water droplets echoed off the high ceilings as they dripped into puddles. Fallen bits of roman pillars cast shadows along the walls. It was crazy to think that all of this had been under our feet the entire time.
My claustrophobia must have decided to take the bench that day, I guess, because I was able to explore the underground caves without much, for lack of a better word, panic. I don’t do well with dark things either (I’m about as brave as a chicken) and neither does my friend, but spent most of the time down there trying to sneak around and scare the crap out of each other. Dark holes covered in glass dropped off into nothing. Crumbling arches sheltered the remnants of simple altars. There were many tunnels that seemed to lead to dead ends. We would stare into the darkness, look at each other, and go “nope.”
But, don’t worry, nothing is going to jump out at you. They just really know how to set a mood.
5. La Maison Jaune
The original house Van Gogh rented out for 15 francs a month no longer exists, but everything else he painted around it does.
Van Gogh painted many of his most famous works here, including The Bedroom, Sunflowers, and of course, The Yellow House.
There are 3 different locations on 3 different maps, but the real one is the spot closest to the train station. We walked passed it twice (we were looking for that house that didn’t exist anymore) and had to ask a nice lady in one of the tourist shops for directions. There’s a café where the house once stood.
6. Cathédrale Saint-Triomphe d’Arles & Le Cloître
While entrance to the cathedral is free, the cloister (a fancy word for a kind of abbey) next door is around 4 euros.
Each pillar, intimately carved, is unique. There are rooms in the back with Baroque tapestries and 14th century paintings. You can even climb to the second story and walk around the cloister, taking in the courtyard from above as the bell tower from the Cathedral of St. Triumph looms overhead.
The cathedral is grand and definitely worth a stop. Sometimes churches can hold priceless religious relics and this one has many, including a Roman sarcophagus. If you donate 2 euros, you can make the boxes light up. My friend and I discovered that tradition in Budapest, where they had a mummified hand on display.
It’s still possible to press your face against the glass and peer into the shadows and glimpse priest robes, yellowing paintings, ornate rosary beads, and a few goblets that glitter in the limited light from the stained glass windows.
In one of the very last windows there is just one gold box with glass sides. I leaned in to take a closer look, staring intently, until I realized the dull white glint in an otherwise dark box was in fact teeth . . . and I was staring a deteriorating human skull straight in the face.
7. Shopping on Rue de la République
With its winding streets and colorful houses, Arles sure has that French charm. Rue de la République is lined with quaint shops and boutiques that sell everything from clothes to soap. I would recommend the cute little ice cream parlor right on the corner of Republic Square. The nice thing about Arles is that it’s entirely walkable (even from the train station) and, if you ever get lost, just find this street and you’ll be right on track. It runs through most of the city and can drop you off at the Espace Van Gogh, Republic Square (which has the cathedral and the cryptoportiques), and even the tourism office.
8. Jardin l’Ete
Summer’s Garden. It really wasn’t as big as I thought it was, but it’s not really known for its size. Instead, take a look at the bust of Van Gogh in the middle of the park, minus the infamous left ear, of course.
Arles is a city of color, charm, and history and the perfect excuse to get out of the city. I went expecting to just get a small glimpse into the life of a wonderfully talented painter, but it’s a city with much more to offer. Visit museums and ponder interesting Picasso sketches, climb through the ruins of old Roman baths, and take a walk along the Rhone. No matter what you spend the day doing, Arles will never disappoint.