The historic city of Arras is located in the Hauts-de-France region of Northern France. It’s just 34 miles from Lille and a little over 100 miles north of Paris. It’s very easy to get to, a short hop on the Eurostar followed by a short TGV connection or an easy drive from Calais. It’s also very close to Parc Asterix!
But it’s not just ease of access that make Arras such a great place for a city break, it’s the very many things that there are to do there.
Arras is one of those cities that has something for everyone. For starters, it’s a beautiful destination with two perfectly preserved market squares lined with ornate Flemish-baroque style town houses.
It’s also a city with lots of stories to tell having played a pivotal part in the First World War (and having been almost entirely destroyed during the war as well). There’s are some great places to eat, some even better places to enjoy the ever-growing craft beer scene, some fun festivals and colourful Christmas market, and the chance to get outside and explore the countryside too.
If you are planning a weekend in Arras (or longer) then this guide detailing the best things to do in Arras is for you!
Disclosure: I was a guest of Arras Pays d’Artois Tourism for the purpose of producing this guide. All opinions are entirely my own. For more information, please see my disclosure policy.
What is Arras best known for?
Despite is relatively small size (it has a population of around 42,000), Arras packs a big punch when it comes to things to see and do. The city is best known for its architecture, the numerous caves and tunnels that lie beneath the city centre, its UNESCO-listed Belfry that towers high above the city, and its star-shaped Citadel, which is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. You can easily visit all these sights and more during a weekend in Arras.
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Here’s how to spend a weekend in Arras.
Day 1 in Arras
Start your day exploring the Grand’Place and the smaller Place des Héros (also known as La Petite Place) in the historic centre of Arras and then head to the Town Hall. Visit during summer months and you can join a guided tour of the Banquet Room, Council Room and Wedding Room inside the hall.
Take the elevator up to almost the top of the Belfry and then climb the final steps (be warned they are steep!) to the narrow wraparound balcony at the top. The views from here are superb. Then join a guided tour to head underneath the Town Hall and explore Les Boves de Arras – the Caves of Arras.
Enjoy lunch in the Square – La Passe Pierre and Chez Marcel are both good options. L’oeuf Ou La Poulle is just off La Petite Place and another good choice (see restaurant recommendations below).
After lunch head to Arras Cathedral and the Museum of Fine Arts next door.
The Citadel is a short drive out of town; you can catch the free Ma Citadine electric bus to get there. Next door to the Citadel is the Arras Memorial, which contains over 2,650 Commonwealth graves from the First World War. On the other side of the Citadel is the Parc Cit’Loisirs, a fun adventure park that is great for kids. Enjoy the rest of your afternoon here.
Day 2 in Arras
Star your day at the Wellington Tunnels, which details how the quarries, caves and tunnels helped Allied soldiers reach the frontline trenches undetected before the Battle of Arras. Depending on when you visit, you can join a Breakfast Tour of the tunnels, where you enjoy baked beans and porridge underground.
Any budding fashion designers should book a visit with Sylvie Facon, an incredible dress designer with a studio near the city centre.
In the afternoon head to Riverside Park, a fun waterspouts centre on the outskirts of town. Here you can go white water rafting, canoeing and kayaking as well as take part in a range of land-based sports including archery. You can also hire bikes from Riverside Park, which is a fun way to explore along the Scarpe River.
If you have more time you can visit the preserved First World War trenches at the Vimy Memorial Park. Vimy is just a 15 minute drive away.
The best things to do in Arras
Here’s our pick of the must-see attractions in Arras.
The larger of the two market squares in Arras, La Grand Place is lined with ornate Flemish-baroque style town houses. The picture-perfect buildings are in such good condition that it’s hard to believe that 80 per cent of Arras was destroyed during the First World War. Much of the buildings in the centre – including the town houses, the Town Hall and the Belfry – had to be completely rebuilt.
Fortunately, the town had very detailed architectural blueprints to hand to help with the rebuilding effort. Between 1556 to 1714 Arras was under Spanish rule and, during that time, Philip II of Spain decreed that all buildings be made of brick and stone and that they should all follow a similar identical style. This attention to detail meant that the town planners were able to rebuild the town as it was once the war was over.
The square is slowly becoming pedestrianised, at present half of the square is used for car parking. However, during holidays such as Christmas when a market is set up here, and La Fête de L’Andouillette in August, the square is cleared of cars. A Saturday market is also held here.
Place des Héros
Also known as La Petite Place, the smaller of the two squares is arguably the one with the biggest personality. Like its neighbour, this square had to be completely rebuilt after the First World War. However, the market squares have been around long before that; the two were built during the Middle Ages. A clever ‘timescope’, a sort of 3D periscope located in one corner of the square, shows visitors what the cityscape might have looked like all those hundreds of years ago.
The buildings lining the square are home to restaurants, cafes, shops and a handful of hotels. Don’t miss the Bleu d’Arras shop (no 32 Place des Héros), which sells the specialist “Bleu” porcelain that is unique to Arras. Next door is Patisserie Thibaut where you can pick up chocolates in the shape of rats, one of the symbols of the city.
Look on the ground and you’ll see the outline of two buildings that once stood in the middle of the square; the Red House and a Chapel. Although both have long since disappeared, the places where they once stood have been marked on the ground in dark cobbles. Look through the ‘timescope’ and you can see what the square would have looked like with them still standing.
Town Hall & Belfry
The Town Hall and the Belfry of Arras stand in La Petite Place. The Belfry is one of two UNESCO sites in the city (the other is the Vauban Citadel). The Town Hall is where the tourist office is located and also where some of the city’s best sights can be found.
Visit during the summer months and you can join a guided tour of the historic building itself including its spectacular Banqueting Room featuring wooden panels and an extremely detailed Bruegel-style mural depicting life in Arras in the 16th Century.
Also included on the tour is the Council Room, where the Mayor and city representatives still meet today, and what they call the Wedding Room but what we would refer to as a Registry Office. Much like the Banqueting Room, the Council Room and Wedding Room have been decorated to tell the history of the city of Arras.
The main reasons to come here, however, are to head to the top of the Bell Tower and to then venture underground into the famous Boves. Access to the top of the Belfry is via elevator followed by a serial staircase leading to a narrow warp around balcony. This is one of the best places to visit to get a bird’s eye view over the city, in particular the gabled houses of the Grand’Place and Petite Place, and the surrounding area.
Once you’ve finished seeing the city from up high, join a guided tour and head underground to explore the Boves of Arras.
The Pays d’Artois region is rich in limestone, which was quarried from the ninth century onwards and used to build the city. As such, there are quarries and caves dotting the entire region. These have been used for myriad purposes including storage by merchants and shelter during both the First and Second World War. The tours last 45-minutes; ask at the tourist office.
Before you leave the Town Hall, make sure to look at the photos on display on the ground floor. There aren’t many but they do depict the utter destruction of the town, in particular the Town Hall and Belfry, during the First World War.
The Fine Arts Museum
Not far from the Petite Place is the Cathedral of Notre-Dame and, next door, the Museum of Fine Arts. Take a moment to look at the outside of the Cathedral (it is open to the public but not daily) and you’ll see remnants of shelling from the wars on the walls.
The Musée des beaux-arts d’Arras takes up three floors within a magnificent old Abbey. The building is enormous, measuring some 220m long, and part of it is still empty. Rumours are that a hotel might be built here in the near future. At various points along the wall you’ll notice the letters LB and SB painted in red followed by numbers; these refer to how many ‘lying bodes’ (LB) and ‘standing bodies’ (SB) the shelter could accommodation during the wars.
In truth, if you’re visiting Arras with young children, they might not find the museum that exciting. However, it’s well worth at least a quick visit to see the permanent exhibition dedicated to the history of Arras. Here you’ll find an incredibly detailed 3D model of the city dating back to 1716. Created entirely by painted paper and cardboard, the model shows what the city used to look like.
Don’t miss the lion and sun sculpture at the entrance to the museum, this is the original one from the Belfry when it was first constructed in 1554. A second lion and sun sculpture is within the museum itself; the one currently at the top of the Belfry is the third iteration. The museum also hosts occasional temporary exhibitions.
The Vauban Citadel
Built by Vauban between 1667 and 1672 is the city’s star-shaped Citadel. Vauban, thought to be the foremost military engineer of his age, was responsible for building nearly 160 strongholds around France including this one. This particular Citadel, however, has been nicknamed La Belle Inutile because it was never directly involved in heavy fighting nor did it keep the Germans from occupying the city in either World War.
It was demilitarised in 2008 and is today open to the public. To the right of the Chapel of Saint-Louis (the oldest religious building in Arras) in the main courtyard is a timescope that takes viewers back to the year 1678, 10 years after construction started on the Citadel. Outside is Le Mur des Fusillés, the wall of people executed by firing squad. This wall pays tribute to the 218 members of the French Resistance who were shot during World War II.
Today the Citadel is home to a number of apartments and businesses including a cheesemaker and a honey farm. It also hosts the annual Main Square Festival.
Next door to the Citadel is the beautifully maintained Arras memorial, home to over 2,650 Commonwealth graves from the First World War. There is also a wall engraved with the names of 35,000 British soldiers, mostly missing following the Battle of Arras.
A great option if you are visiting Arras with kids is the Cit’Loisirs, an adventure park through the trees. Located to one side of the Citadel, the site offers 13 different routes suitable for all ages from young children (below 6 years) to adults.
There is lots of shade as well as a shaded picnic area.
The Wellington Tunnels
One of the top things to do in Arras is to visit the Carrière Wellington, Wellington Tunnels (also translated as the Wellington Quarry) and my morning spent here was undoubtedly a trip highlight. The museum is a great starting point for understanding the important role that Arras has played in world history and the best way to understand how the many quarries and caves dotted around the countryside played such a significant part.
In 1917 with deadlock on the Western Front, the French General Robert Nivelle masterminded the Nivelle Offensive. This Franco-British operation was based on the ideas that a huge and overwhelming attack against the Germans would result in victory and break the stalemate. As part of this wider offensive, Arras was chosen as one of the locations from which British troops would launch an attack.
To assist with the operation, tunnelers from New Zealand were called in to help create tunnels that would bring the troops closer to the German front lines. When the 450 New Zealand tunnelers arrived, alongside 50 Maori, they discovered the network of caves and quarries that already existed below ground and expanded these so that they reached for some 12 miles across the city, delivering the soldiers within metres of the German forces.
In the week before the Battle of Arras began on 9 April 1917, some 24,000 Allied forces lived in this underground city. In addition to dormitories below ground, there were kitchens, latrines, command and control centres, and even a 700-bed hospital. Of the many tunnels that were created today the Wellington Tunnels are the ones open to visitors and you can visit on a guided tour.
The Wellington Tunnels museum is formed of three parts: An exhibition in the main museum entrance, which provides background to the Battle of Arras; the tour of the underground tunnels and caves; and a video at the end of the tour.
I honestly can not say enough good things about this excellent museum and it definitely ranks as the top of Arras’ must-see attractions. The guides are extremely knowledgable and tours are a combination of explanations from the guides themselves as well as audio guides, which often include recordings from the diaries and letters of soldiers in Arras.
The immersive visit is incredibly moving and covers from when the Kiwis arrived in France to the morning to the battle itself.
Among the many things on display in the tunnels are the original signs painted on the caves walls pointing towards, for example the latrines, or marking the number of the cave itself. Those dating back to the First World War are marked in black and those from the Second World War are marked in red. During WWII the caves were used to shelter civilians.
There are also examples of bottles left behind by soldiers, including ones for HP sauce, as well as graffiti on the walls such as the incredible detailed image of a woman or initials carved into the limestone.
As well as the straightforward tours, the Wellington Tunnels offer a number of other ways to explore the old labyrinth of chalk tunnels including breakfast underground and an escape room. The breakfast tours are private tours limited to six people that take place on Saturday mornings and on Friday and Saturday mornings during the holidays. Breakfast is served in one of the tunnels and includes porridge, baked beans, bacon and pancakes with maple syrup.
The Escape Room is for 6 – 8 people and is apparently quite challenging so a good one if you are visiting Arras with teens. Your guide acts as Captain who leads you through the tunnels solving clues as you try and discover what has happened to the plans for the Battle of Arras, which is due to start any minute!
Other themed tours include one dedicated to the graffiti in the tunnels.
Located in a former miner’s lamp factory on the banks of the River Scarpe, the Cité Nature is a fun, interactive museum for families that’s dedicated to the living world. Kids can follow animal tracks in the forest, learn about the life of bees, take part in experiments and more.
Tranchées préservées – Mémorial national du Canada à Vimy
In the nearby town of Vimy, about 8km from Arras, is the Canadian National Vimy Memorial Park where you’ll find preserved trenches from the First World War. It’s a fascinating insight into what life was like for the many soldiers who lived and fought in the trenches. Part of the Grange tunnel is open to visitors where you can see examples of where the soldiers would sleep and where officers would plan for battle. It’s a fascinating example of the realities of trench warfare.
A cemetery housing the graves of 3,000 Canadian soldiers is also here.
The great thing about Arras is that it combines all the best of a city break with time in the Great Outdoors. One of the best ways to enjoy the surrounding countryside is at Riverside Park, an outdoors centre on the outskirts of town.
Here you can take part in all manner of fun activities from white water rafting and kayaking to canoeing, archery, biking and more. It’s a really fun destination, especially if you are visiting Arras with children.
We took a kayak out on the Scarpe River and while we didn’t go very far (a slight issue with getting the kayak to go straight!) it’s a really beautiful way see the countryside.
Hot Air Balloon Ride
Go one better and see the countryside from up high on a hot air balloon ride. Flying quietly over the city and the surrounding landscape is a truly wonderful way to see the region.
I flew with the extremely charismatic Gil who was a wonderful – and hilarious – companion. He has over 1,400 hours of flying under his belt so you are in good hands! Enquire at the Tourist Office.
One of the biggest festivals on the Arras calendar is La Fête de L’Andouillette in August. This weekend festival celebrates the local speciality, tripe sausage, with music, parades and lots and lots of Andouillette.
Large communal wooden tables are set up in the Petite Place and restaurants will serve up to 600 plates of Andouillette during the day. Honestly, this sausage is so popular that there is even a Brotherhood of Andouillette! The Brotherhood, dressed in red velvet robes and billowing hats, are the ones to officially declare the festival open
The parade starts in the Grand’Place and features musicians as well as the city’s giants. Giants have been around for over 600 years in France where they are called géants, or reuzes in Flemish. Arras is home to five giants; a mother and father and their child, a solider and a jouster. That’s the other thing, Arras has an annual ‘jousting on boats’ competition!
If your visit doesn’t coincide with the Festival of Andouillette, usually held at the end of August, then you can see the giants standing in the Town Hall.
Where to stay in Arras
There are some really lovely places to stay in Arras.
La Cour des Grands has four bedrooms on the Petit Place. This is a good option if you are travelling with older children as you will need two rooms.
On the Grand Place is the appropriately named Grand Place hotel, which is also a really good option for families. Check rates here.
We also stayed at the Mercure Hotel. Located next to the train station, this is a great hotel with large rooms and a delicious buffet breakfast.
Domaine Natureza has been designed as a couple’s retreat but I’m adding it here because it is incredibly unique and they do have one family cabin that can sleep four people. The owners, Frédéric et Mylène Morès, are also delightful! Frédéric is also a qualified hot air balloon pilot and can help organise flights from near their property, assuming weather conditions are suitable.
Where to eat in Arras
Popular traditional dishes in Arras include andouillette (tripe or offal sausage), moules frites (mussels with French fries) and potjevleesch, a traditional French Flemish dish, which can be translated into English as “potted meat”. You may also find carbonnade on the menu, this is a much-loved stew made with beef, Belgian ale and lots of onions.
The local, and fairly strong, cheese is Coeur d’Arras. If none of those take your fancy, however, there are lots of other dishes on restaurant menus.
The following are some of the best places to eat in Arras.
La Passe Pierre has a large range of tasty local dishes
Chez Marcel offers an excellent range of local craft beer, which might not be so suitable for kids but his cheese and meat platters are very family friendly.
L’Oeuf Ou La Poule is located just off the Petite Place this restaurant, the Chicken or the Egg, uses local produce to create delicious dishes with a regularly changing Menu du Jour (daily menu).
Le Signature There are a number of restaurants in Arras housed within old caves and Le Signature is one of them. Very popular with locals, the restaurant is only open for lunch and in the evenings on weekends. Reservations are essential.
How to get to Arras
You could easily visit on a day trip from Paris or Lille but there is so much to do here that Arras easily merits a longer stay.
Visit for a weekend break from London or stop here as part of a longer trip in France with kids; it’s so close to Calais that you could stopover in Arras for a couple of nights before either heading elsewhere in France or on your way back to the UK.
If travelling by train you can catch the Eurostar from London to Lille or Paris and then change trains for the onward journey to Arras. You can travel from Lille to Arras by train in as little as 30 minutes. Trains from Paris take from 45 minutes.
From Calais it’s a little over one hour to reach Arras, along the A26 (110km). It’s about 50 minutes to Lille (approx. 55km) and just over two hours to Paris (approx. 185km).
Make the kids really happy and tag on a trip to Parc Asterix, which is just 1hr 30 minutes away (approx. 142km).