The north of France has several beautiful cities. All are an ideal destination for a short mini-break or a relaxing city vacation. For instance, we have already discovered Lille and Amiens. Now it’s time to visit Arras. This city also has Flemish influences. This is especially evident in the lovely squares of the city centre, the city tower and the facades of the beautiful guild houses. Particularly in December, Arras is an ideal destination because the centre is transformed into a huge Christmas market then. What a cosy atmosphere the city has at that time! In this blog you’ll find the best sights to see during a city break to Arras.
Sightseeing on a city break to Arras
Arras has plenty of beautiful sights. All of them have been perfectly restored since during World War I, Arras was on the front line. Virtually the entire city was destroyed when the war was over. Several monuments recall that horrific time. These sights are not to be missed during your city trip to Arras.
The Belfry of Arras
Like every city in Flanders and northern France, Arras has a large city tower, called Belfort in Flemish or Beffroi in French. If you want to experience the beauty of Arras in all its glory, go to the top of the Belfry, 75 metres up. Afterwards, enjoy the lively spectacle below in the city’s historic squares. Atop the Belfry is a golden lion. The symbol of the Duke of Burgundy, Philip the Good. He ordered the construction of the Belfry in 1463.
You can get to the top via a lift. The last few metres are climbed via a staircase to the highest point. During the opening hours of the Arras Tourist Office (at the bottom of the Belfry), you may enter the tower. Afterwards, don’t forget to visit the beautiful city hall. You will marvel at magnificent art-deco works, the immense frescoes in the ballroom and the sumptuously decorated council chamber.
The beautiful squares of Arras
From the Belfry, you can already see the two beautiful squares. The Belfry and the Town Hall are located at “la Place des Héros”, the Square of Heroes. It is an intimate square framed by beautiful Baroque buildings with fine galleries. Walking around the square and enjoying the atmosphere, you can hardly imagine that it was all completely destroyed after World War I. The square now hosts a big market on Saturdays. It is the place for Arras residents to buy the tastiest local delicacies.
A little further on is “la Grand Place” or the Main Square. If possible, even more impressive for its size and its many unusual facades. From the 11th century, this was the centre of the grain market. For a long time, it was the largest of its kind in the whole of France. You can often still recognise the ears of corn on the facades as a reminder of those times. Beneath the galleries you will find one nice shop after another. As well as several cosy restaurants.
We were in Arras for a city break in early December. We were in for a treat. An immense Christmas market takes place on both squares then. Many nice nativity scenes are set up in the squares. There is also an immense Ferris wheel and the decor of the beautifully lit facades of the buildings create an unforgettable Christmas atmosphere.
We warmed ourselves up with a delicious glass of “Glühwein” on the cold evenings. For a spectacular view, we booked a ride on the Ferris wheel. From the top, we could see the Christmas market in all its glory. The Belfry was also beautifully lit around that time. We bought the nicest Christmas presents for our family there. What a wonderful atmosphere this Christmas market had!
The underground passages Les Boves
It is not only worth climbing the Belfry. A city trip to Arras is not complete until you have also gone underground. Underneath the Belfry, you can visit “Les Boves”. This is a subterranean corridor system in the limestone rocks under the city. You descend to a depth of about 12 metres. There you can see a kilometre-long labyrinth of corridors. They were created in the Middle Ages. People used the limestone as building material for churches and city walls. Later, the corridors were used as storage for merchants.
We had a unique culinary experience in “Les Boves”: a candlelit dinner in the subterranean corridors. Warmly dressed and with a thick plaid over us, we enjoyed refined dishes. This time, not with matching wines, but with special beers from the region. This unique combination caressed our taste buds!
Eating delicious rats
Walking around Arras, you will undoubtedly notice it: you will come across a rat in several places. Sometimes as a picture on the ground, other times as the name of a restaurant, or as a sculpture on a building. You can even eat delicious rats in Arras. To do so, head to the beautifully decorated patissier/chocolatier Thibaut at Place des Héros. A great place for a nice cup of tea or coffee anyway.
Arras owes this association with the rat to a play on words. You see, Arras is pronounced almost identically to the French word for rat. Hence, the rat has become a symbol of the city.
Officially, the name of this church is “Cathédrale Notre-Dame-et-Saint-Vaast d’Arras”. It was built in the period between 1030 and 1396. It has been the seat of the bishop of the Diocese of Atrecht since 1800. Together with the adjacent abbey, it was one of the largest religious sites in the whole of France. Inside the cathedral, the many stained-glass windows stand out, as does the gallery of statues. These are the priests who played an important role in the city’s religious history.
Abbey of Saint-Vaast
Saint-Vaast Abbey is a former Benedictine monastery. It is named after the first bishop of Arras, Saint-Vedastus (453-540), also called Saint-Vaast. The abbey houses numerous relics of this saint. For centuries, the abbey was incredibly important for monasteries in the Low Countries. During the French Revolution, the abbey was requisitioned and desecrated. Parts became hospitals or even barracks. Of the abbey, you can now only admire the cloisters. You do that when you visit the museum, which is located in part of the abbey.
Musée des Beaux Arts
The city’s main museum is Musée des Beaux Arts. The museum is now part of the abbey. In the beautiful halls of the centuries-old building, numerous special works of art have been given a nice place.
You will find archaeological works of art, artefacts about the city’s history and numerous paintings. These were created by French, Flemish and Dutch masters. You will discover works by Rubens, among others, at the museum. Entry to the museum is free.
A walk through a nice park will take you to Citadel Vauban. This citadel is located just outside the city centre. Vauban was the designer of numerous fortifications in the country during the 17th century. He built them at the behest of King Louis XIV. The military complex served as a defence against the newly defeated Flemings. However, the fortifications were never completed. Hence, the citadel is nicknamed “the useless beauty”. It is fun to walk around the grounds for a while. But this citadel is less grand than those in, say, Besançon.
This is an impressive visit that should not be missed on your city break to Arras. In Arras’ former quarry, you will also find an extensive tunnel system with the unusual name of Carrière Wellington. During World War I, New Zealand miners provided a connection between all the tunnels under the city. In several places, they made underground spaces where soldiers could take shelter. There came kitchens, sick rooms and dormitories. This created a huge network of up to 20 kilometres long. On 7 April 1917, the Allies wanted to launch a surprise attack on the Germans from these tunnels. Nearly 25,000 soldiers came out of the tunnels at 5:30 a.m. to push back the German troops.
At this site, you experience the battle for yourself, so to speak. Through an impressive audio tour, beautiful video projections in the tunnels and a guide’s explanation, you witness the soldiers’ anxious hours before they had to start their attack.
City trip to Arras: peculiarities in the area
The city of Arras already has a lot to offer, but the surrounding area is also worth seeing. Especially if you are interested in the First World War. We visited the following special places on our city break to Arras:
Canadian National Vimy Memorial
During World War I, Canadian troops captured the hills surrounding Vimy between 9 and 12 April 1917. The monument is a special tribute to the more than 60,000 Canadian soldiers who died. First of all, enter the visitor centre. Canadian staff will inform you about the monument, the site and the sights. Then walk or drive your car to one of the cemeteries and then to the large monument. Stay on the paths, as many bombs are still underground in the crater landscape. The pine forest is large: they planted a pine tree for every Canadian killed.
Nécropole nationale Notre Dame de Lorette
This is the largest French military cemetery in the world. More than 40,000 fallen French soldiers rest in the cemetery. Some 20,000 lie in individual graves and more than 20,000 in a mass grave. Surrounding the graves is a basilica and a memorial.
Even more impressive is the international monument “Ring of Memory”, across the road. The extraordinary ellipse was unveiled in 2014, exactly 100 years after the outbreak of the First World War. On the ellipse, nearly 600,000 names of deceased soldiers are listed in alphabetical order. There is no distinction between country, rank or religion. Every casualty was one too many and thus the monument symbolises the futility of war and the importance of peace.
Other beautiful cities nearby
Did the city break to Arras get you excited about northern France? Then be sure to visit nearby Lille, just across the border with Belgium. Another delightful city that invites for a relaxing weekend away. Also nearby is Amiens, with its imposing cathedral and plenty of other sights. Like Arras, Lille and Amiens are cities that are ideal as the start or end of a holiday further afield in France. Because in a few hours, you are in a totally different environment with a typical culture. These cities are extra cosy in the weeks before Christmas, because of the Christmas markets.
Tips for your city break to Arras
Arras is a city in northern France, in the Hauts-de-France region. It is located south of Lille and north of Amiens. Its location makes Arras ideal to visit at the beginning or end of your holiday in France, as you'll be there in no time!
The cosy centre of Arras offers numerous sights. You will find pleasant squares, with an impressive Belfry near the beautiful town hall. In addition, the Musée des Beaux Arts in the former abbey has a large art collection. Finally, the memories of World War I in and around Arras are poignant: the Carrière Wellington, the Canadian National Vimy Memorial and the Nécropole nationale Notre Dame de Lorette should definitely be visited.
- If you like a good glass of wine, you will definitely feel at home at La Dame Jeanne. This wine bar has the most delicious wines. Add a yummy tapas board and you'll have a great evening.
- If you like vegetarian food, Mezzaluna is the perfect place. Delicious food in a pleasant atmosphere. Very popular, so reservations are recommended.
- At Le Carpe Diem, you dine in casual, homely vibes. There are several delicious regional specialities on the menu.
- Fancy a special fish dish? Then visit Le Peche Gourmand. Special dishes presented on your plate like a work of art.
- Le Comptoir is located between the two squares. It is a cosy brasserie with a not too big menu. Good food and special beers at an affordable price.
- Beer lovers should not miss a visit to Chez Marcel. A wide choice of craft brewed beers accompanied by delicious charcuterie. It has a sleek interior. Don't expect a "brown beer pub".
- Going to Arras in December to visit the Christmas market, for example? Then you can have a unique culinary experience. You dine in the underground vaults under the town hall. You will be served a menu of refined dishes accompanied by special beers from the region. Dress warmly for your visit. Warm plaids are also provided. There is a lot of interest in these dinners. They only take place on Fridays and Saturdays from the end of November until the third week of December. Book well in advance at the Arras tourist office. For us, this was a particular highlight of our city break to Arras.
Entre Cour et Jardin. Look no further for perfect accommodation, because that is Entre Cour et Jardin. A wonderful stay awaits you in a stately building with a courtyard. The rooms are stylishly decorated and have every comfort. The hosts go out of their way to make you feel at home. What a great experience to spend the night here!
Other well-reviewed accommodations are:
If you want to search further, here is the total range of accommodation in Arras.
Arras is actually suitable for a visit all year round. But in the month of December, the city has an especially unique atmosphere. Thanks to the large Christmas market, the many stalls, the Ferris wheel and the Christmas lights, this is when the city is at its best.