Reigning over the bleak but evocative landscape of the marshlands of the Camargue, the small city of Arles is fiercely Provençal, nurturing its heritage and parading its culture at every colorful opportunity. Warming the wetlands with its atmosphere, animation, and culture, it is a patch of hot color in a sepia landscape—and an excellent home base for sorties into the raw natural beauty and eccentric villages of the Rhône delta.
If you were obliged to choose just one city to visit in Provence, lovely little Arles would give Avignon and Aix a run for their money. It's too charming to become museumlike yet has a wealth of classical antiquities and Romanesque stonework; quarried-stone edifices and shuttered town houses shading graceful Old Town streets and squares; and pageantry, festivals, and cutting-edge arts events. Its atmospheric restaurants and picturesque small hotels make it the ideal headquarters for forays into the Alpilles and the Camargue.
Yet compared to Avignon and Aix, it's a small town. You can zip into the center in five minutes without crossing a half hour's worth of urban sprawl. And its monuments and pretty old neighborhoods are conveniently concentrated between the main artery Boulevard des Lices and the broad, meandering Rhône.
It wasn't always such a mellow site. A Greek colony since the 6th century BC, little Arles took a giant step forward when Julius Caesar defeated Marseille in the 1st century BC, transforming it into a formidable civilization—by some accounts, the Rome of the north. Fed by aqueducts, canals, and solid roads, it profited from all the Romans' modern conveniences: straight paved streets and sidewalks, sewers and latrines, thermal baths, a forum, a hippodrome, a theater, and an arena. It became an international crossroads by sea and land and a market to the world. The emperor Constantine himself moved to Arles and brought with him Christianity.
The remains of this golden age are reason enough to visit Arles today. Yet its character nowadays is as gracious and low-key as it once was cutting-edge. If you plan to visit many of the monuments and museums in Arles, purchase a visite générale ticket for €13.50, which covers admission to all of them.