fondation van gogh urs fischer smallArles commands a small but varied array of museums, with collections ranging from fabulous ancient Roman treasures to cutting edge contemporary art - and the cult of the Camargue cowboy.

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They are all housed in interesting buildings, historic and modern, from a 15th century priory to a converted sheep barn or a purpose-built 1990s gallery covered in bright blue glass.

musee arles antique exteriorAnd during the Rencontres d'Arles, the city's annual photography festival, other spaces all over the city are taken over for pop-up exhibitions throughout the summer.

insidertipIf you are planning to visit several sites, check out the combination tickets on sale at the Arles Tourist Office which will get you reduced-price admission (and free admission for an accompanied child under 18) to the city's major museums and monuments.

A number of French museums offer free admission on the first Sunday of every month. Watch out, too, for occasional late-night openings (nocturnes) when entry is also free.

This happens systematically once a year in mid-May on the Nuit des Musées (European Night of the Museums), when many venues remain open until very late, often offering special events as well.

To avoid the crowds and long queues for popular shows, turn up around 12 noon. The lunch hour is sacred for many French visitors!

Many museums are closed on certain days of the week, mostly Mondays, though some private museums are open every day. As opening hours can vary widely throughout the year - and certain places are closed for part of the winter season - please check the links to the individual museum websites for current details.

The Musée départemental Arles antique

The name is a bit of a mouthful, so it's often known as the Musée bleu, for reasons that will be obvious when you see it. Pictured above, this sleek, bright blue structure is the top museum in town and contains an exceptional collection of Roman and other antique artefacts, many of them excavated in the surrounding area. Read a full review of the Musée départemental Arles antique.

Where: Musée départemental Arles antique, Presqu'île du Cirque Romain, 13635 Arles.

ossip zadkine musee reattuThe Musée Réattu

The Musée Réattu enjoys a magnificent location, in a 15th century priory on a sweeping bend in the Rhône river.

Part of the museum is dedicated to the neo-classical painter Jacques Réattu (1760-1833), who lived and worked there, and to his uncle, Antoine Raspal.

But the choicest pieces are more contemporary. Pablo Picasso and the fashion designer Christian Lacroix are strongly represented.

And the museum holds France's first collection devoted to photography as well as works donated by some of the most interesting artists of the 20th and 21st centuries. Pictured: Odalisk by Ossip Zadkine. Read a full review of the Musée Réattu.

Where: Musée Réattu, 10 rue du grand Prieuré, 13200 Arles.

The Fondation Vincent van Gogh

In 2014 Arles finally got a major gallery dedicated to the artist for whom it's most famous. Pictured top left, the Fondation Vincent van Gogh doesn't have its own collection, let alone any actual van Goghs!

Instead, it negotiates loans of works by the master and modern artists who have been influenced by him for some impressively ambitious exhibitions. Read a full review of the Fondation Vincent van Gogh.

Where: Fondation Vincent van Gogh, 35 ter rue du Docteur Fanton, 13200 Arles

The Muséon Arlaten

A museum celebrating provençal traditions, the Muséon Arlaten was created in 1896 by the poet and tireless champion of local culture Frédéric Mistral, pictured.

Frederic Mistral portraitIt's housed in the 15th century Hôtel Laval Castellane and is currently closed, both for extensive renovation of the building and for the refurbishment of the collection itself. It is scheduled to reopen in 2019 and we'll be reviewing it in full then.

Where: The Muséon Arlaten, 29-31 rue de la République, 13200 Arles.

The Chapelle Sainte Anne

This austerely beautiful ancient church sits right in the heart of Arles, opposite – and in sharp contrast to – the ornate Église Saint Trophime.

Deconsecrated during the French Revolution, it was used as an archaeological museum until the Musée départementale Arles antique opened in 1995. Today this large, harmonious space welcomes visiting exhibitions by contemporary artists, some of them very good indeed. Entrance is free too.

Where: Chapelle Sainte Anne, place de la République, 13200 Arles.

 

The Musée de la Camargue

This is officially one of the museums of Arles but it's actually about 12 km / 7.5 miles outside the city on the D570 towards Saintes Maries de la Mer. But it's worth the trip, especially if you're planning to explore the Camargue: this is an ideal introduction to the region and its geography, history and culture.

Museums of this kind can often be dull, but the Musée de la Camargue was recently given a full make-over as part of the Marseille-Provence 2013 Capital of Culture programme.

Housed in a big former sheep barn, it has well-presented interactive displays: the section on bull ranching, cowboys and the curious cult of the Camargue western (you can watch some sample scenes on film clips) is particularly fascinating.

Most of the signage is in French but it's fairly easy to follow. Amusingly, the earphone commentary is delivered through genuine horns!

viewing platform musee de la camargueAllow about an hour to go round, more if you want to take the free "discovery trail" through the surrounding landscape, where you can see some of the Camargue's distinctive features, including a typical cowboy cabin.

The trail can be walked even when the museum itself is closed. There's also an amazing bird viewing platform, pictured: a giant "ship" designed by the conceptual artist Tadashi Kawamata for MP2013. It, and the entire site, is wheelchair accessible.

Where: Musée de la Camargue, Mas du Pont de Rousty, 13200 Arles. Tel: (+33) 4 90 97 10 82. Website for the Musée de la Camargue

Photo credits (from top): © SJ for Marvellous Provence, Rémi Benali, ADAGP Paris, portrait of Frédéric Mistral by Félix-Auguste Clément, SJ for Marvellous Provence.

 

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