For many, Provence equals rolling fields of lavender and quaint villages. But this southern French region also has a rich history and immense natural diversity. You can discover these lesser-known facets in the city of Arles and its surroundings. It is home to impressive Roman vestiges, France’s largest wetlands, otherworldly rocky mountains, and sites linked to the artist Vincent van Gogh.
Arles is reachable by TGV from Paris, or via local trains from Avignon and Marseille. The city may have fallen in prominence since its heyday as a key Roman city, but the picturesque town still has much to offer. If possible, come on a Saturday to catch its wonderful market. Held along the Boulevard des Lices until 12:45PM, this authentic marché is a popular meeting place for locals. It is abundant in seasonal produce, olives, cheese, and meats, as well as lavender, soups, clothing and other regional crafts.
Pick up picnic supplies at the market to enjoy in the pretty Jardin d’été, which borders the Boulevard des Lices and has the Roman theater as a backdrop. Alternatively, stop in for a gourmet sandwich at Le Comptoir du Sud, found on the Place de la République opposite the City Hall. From here you can begin exploring the city center on foot.
A visit to Arles wouldn’t be complete without seeing its Roman remains. These include a large theater, a 20,000-seat amphitheater, public baths, and the very unique Cryptoportiques du Forum, which are the marketplace’s restored cellars (enter all with the 12€ Pass Liberté).
Arles culture is far from stuck in the past, especially in summer when the city hosts Les Rencontres d’Arles, a world-renowned photo festival. As you amble through the center, you’ll pick up this artsy vibe via street art, galleries, and boutiques, like L’Atelier des Créateurs, a shop representing local designers.
When you’re ready for an afternoon snack, stop in at the Franco-Japanese pastry shop of Masaki Yamamoto. Since it can get quite hot in Arles, you might prefer an ice cream at the inventive Glacier Arelatis or Fraîcheur et Délices, which is found opposite L’Espace Van Gogh. The Dutch artist spent a year in Arles, living first in his famed little yellow house (across from the amphitheater on rue Voltaire), before he was admitted into this former hospital, now a media center. You can pop in the courtyard to have a look and enjoy your ice cream.
Another site linked to van Gogh is the Café du Forum, illustrated in his painting Café Terrace at Night. You’ll find it in the Place du Forum, one of Arles liveliest squares. This could be a good place for apéro. However, if you want to escape the crowds, get a glass of wine at la Cave des Saveurs, a pint of craft beer at L’Échoppe, or a chic cocktail at the designer boutique hotel L’Arlatan.
When you’re ready for dinner, head to the Roquette district where you can find Arlésiens on the terraces in and around Place Paul Doumer. Grab a bite at the laid back Épicerie Moderne with a weekly changing menu, Le 22 Pizzeria, serving authentic Italian pizzas, or the nearby l’Antonelle le bistrot, with more sophisticated dishes. Alternatively, you can go to La Gueule du Loup for some contemporary bistronomie.
Arles is also the gateway to one of France’s most splendid natural reserves: the Camargue. A stunning delta between the Mediterranean Sea and the two arms of the Rhône, which could be a great activity for day two. The best way to visit it is on a half-day excursion with Camargue Alpilles Safaris. Their extremely knowledgeable guides take you deep into the Camargue to visit rice fields, bull ranches, wild horse farms, and wetlands with herds of pink flamingos. They also provide you with insight into the region’s ferias (festivals) and other traditions along the way.
North of Arles is another natural wonder, les Alpilles, an incredibly gorgeous chain of craggy low mountains. The best place to take in this exceptional landscape is the charming hamlet of Les Baux-de-Provence. Sitting on a rocky outcrop, the picture-perfect village has breathtaking views, a castle, and tiny narrow streets to wander. Just beneath the village is the Carrières de Lumières, a defunct stone quarry which now features cool immersive art exhibitions (a sister site to L’Atelier des Lumières in Paris).
The village is also home to Jean-André Charial’s Baumanière, one of the gastronomic highlights of Provence. Here you’ll find his three Michelin-starred L’Oustau de Baumanière and the more relaxed La Cabro d’Or. Both restaurants use local and mostly organic ingredients, including those from the estate’s own on-site garden. You can either stop in for lunch or enjoy dinner while staying overnight at the estate’s five-star hotel. Here you can further soak in the area’s awe-inspiring beauty and tranquil ambiance.
Camargue Alpilles Safaris also offers tours up into the mountains. You can visit Les Baux and many other places in Provence on small group and private excursions by A La Française, who are offering our readers a 5% discount on any bookings with the code HIPPARIS.
- If you’re headed to southern France, make sure to check out the best markets in Provence
- Read more about Arles, the gateway to the Camargue
- Can’t get enough of the south? Here’s how to spend a weekend in Aix-en-Provence!
Written by Lily Heise for HiP Paris. Looking to travel? Check out Haven In for a fabulous vacation rental in Paris, France or Italy. Looking to rent long-term or buy in France or Italy? Ask us! We can connect you to our trusted providers for amazing service and rates.