The capital of the historic Artois region has a strong Flemish accent, clear in the names, architecture, food and art.
The gabled houses on Place des Héros and Grand-Place could easily be in Belgium or the Netherlands, while the fine arts museum has a bounty of Flemish and Dutch baroque painting.
The First World War raged in this region and there are constant reminders of the conflict a century later: Metres below your feet in Arras is an old labyrinth of chalk tunnels where the citizens took shelter, but also where Allied forces coordinated the Battle of Arras in 1917. An then just outside the city are memorials, cemeteries and thought-provoking museums.
Lets explore the best things to do in Arras:
1. Beffroi d’Arras
All of the belfries in the historic County of Flanders are listed as UNESCO sites, and that goes for the proud one on Place des Héros.
A lift will get you most of the way to a panoramic viewpoint, and after that you have to scale another 40 steps on a metallic spiral stairway for a bird’s eye view 75 metres above the centre of Arras.
The belfry is in the flamboyant gothic style and has been rebuilt twice since it was completed in 1554, first to correct structural faults in 1840 and then after damage in the First World War.
In its earliest days the belfry’s chimes signalled the opening and closing of the city gates.
2. Place des Héros
The arcaded square next to the belfry and city hall will tell you that Arras was Flemish for a lot of its history.
The rectangular space is laid with cobblestones, and enclosed on three sides by regal gabled houses with arcades on the ground floor.
A whopping 52 of the building facades are in France’s inventory of historic monuments.
Place des Héros was always known as La Petite Place until after the Second World War in recognition of the Resistance fighters who had been shot at Arras Citadel.
In the arches are shops and cafes, so you could soak up the scene with a cafe au lait or beer.
Stride down the canyon of arcaded houses on Rue de la Taillerie to Grand-Place, which also looks like it could in the Netherlands of Belgium instead of France.
A total of 155 houses in a Hispano-Flemish baroque style surround this magnificent square, and only one stands out from the regimented uniformity . On the south side, at no.
35, the facade is made with red brick and has a geometric crow-stepped gable, instead of the flowing curves on all of the rest.
In summer the city installs a large beach in the square, with table tennis, volleyball, trampolines and soft play areas for smaller kids.
4. Carrière Wellington
In 1917 the Battle of Arras, like many in the First World War, was a British offensive that achieved minor gains at the expense of hundreds of thousands of lives.
Preparations for the attack were made in late-1916 when allied engineers dug more than 20 kilometres of underground tunnels that ran from the centre of Arras all the way to the front outside the city.
The galleries were equipped with living quarters and could accommodate 20,000 soldiers.
The museum in these tunnels opened in 2008 and brings home the impact of the war on Arras and the main events in the offensive, when allied and German forces were vying for the upper hand 20 metres underground.
5. Musée des Beaux-arts
Nearly every fine art museum in France owes its existence to the French Revolution, when the government seized precious art from the church and homes of the nobility.
Their loss is our gain because museums like this in the sumptuous former Abbey of Saint-Vaast are packed with opulent art.
Here in Arras Flemish and Dutch artists from the 16th and 17th century take centre stage, and it doesn’t take an art historian to recognise Rubens, Nicolas Maes and Breughel the Younger.
There are also some mind-blowing medieval artefacts like the Anges d’Humbert, wonderful naturalistic wooden angels from the 1200s, and, for the morbid, a death mask.
6. Les Boves
You can do this on a combined day-ticket with Carrière Wellington and the Belfry.
Les Boves are the older sections of Arras’ underground tunnel network, first dug as long ago as the 900s.
The intention was to link all of the city’s cellars with these tunnels, and it was a pretty easy task as Arras stands on soft chalk.
In both World Wars the townspeople took refuge from artillery in these tunnels, as you’ll discover on a 40-minute multilingual tour.
7. Art Deco Heritage
As much as 80% of Arras was razed during the First World War.
Where historic monuments were destroyed, like the houses on Grand-Place, the city hall or the Belfry, they were rebuilt brick by brick.
But many residential areas were reconstructed in the new styles that followed the war.
This goes for the long road south of the centre that starts as Rue Gambetta and then becomes Rue Saint-Aubert and Rue Ernestale.
Just on the edge of Place du Théatre the Galeries Modernes building, with its ornate iron railings, dates to 1926.
8. Quartier des Arts
A couple of streets over from Rue Gambetta is the Hôtel de Guînes on Rue des Jongleurs.
This is a magnificent 18th-century mansion that has been converted into a cultural centre and performance venue.
You can see what’s on the schedule in the intimate auditorium, be it theatre, music or art installations.
You’ll be right at the centre of the Quartier des Arts, a small district with the Hôtel de Guînes, the Fine Arts Museum and Arras Theatre.
The latter has recently been renovated, and has six stages and even a cinema inside.
9. First World War Sites
North of Arras the countryside bears the scars of the First World War, to the extent that there’s still a red zone with restricted access because of unexploded shells.
There are a few interesting and poignant sites to tick off, moments from the city.
Closest is the discreet German military cemetery at Saint-Laurent-Blangy, where the Star of David headstones for the Jewish fallen reminds you that this was a different chapter of 20th-century history.
There are also two mass graves for Canadian dead, interred within mine craters (Zivy and Lichfield) near Thélus.
Lastly, the village of Ablain-Saint-Nazaire has the ruins of the 15th-century Church of Saint-Nazaire, shelled at the start of the war and a French national cemetery with 20,000 graves.
10. Citadelle d’Arras
Another UNESCO site, the 17th century citadel is preserved as one of France’s 12 fortifications devised by the military architect Sebastien Prestre Vauban.
These were groundbreaking technological marvels that shored up France’s borders . Except for the one in Arras, which is known as La Belle Inutile “The Beautiful Useless One” because it was never actually put to use.
In fact it sees more action as a cultural venue, holding the Main Square Festival in the summer.
The citadel now is a more of a diffuse assortment of outbuildings, but the Mémorial du Mur des Fusillés marks the place where German forces executed 218 French and other European Resistance members in the Second World War.
11. Main Square Festival
As a way of breathing life into the region’s culture the city initiated the rock and pop event, the Big Square Festival in 2004. At first it was held on Grand-Place, but it soon outgrew that space and in 2010 moved to the citadel.
Crowds have grown year on year, from 14,000 for the first instalment to well over 100,000 in the last few years.
The festival goes down on the first weekend of July and has welcomed the likes of The Black Keys, Pearl Jam, Pharrell Williams Coldplay and the Arcade Fire recently.
12. Andouillettes and Moules
They may not sound too appetising at first, but Andouillettes do grow on you: They’re a thick, coarse sausage made with pork, chitterlings, onion, pepper and wine.
Andouillettes are so engrained in Arras culture that the city puts on a party for them, La Fête de l’Andouillette, which happens on the last weekend of August and entails a big outdoor feast in Place des Héros, processions and marching bands.
Andouilletes go best with French fries, as do the other regional speciality, mussels.
These come in a white wine sauce or with provençal herbs and tomatoes, and go perfectly with pinot blanc wine or a Belgian-style beer.
Lens, around 20 minutes by road, was chosen to host the Louvre’s first ever satellite museum in 2012. The idea was to start to share more of France’s great cultural institutions with regions away from Paris.
The museum is an almost-ethereal glass and aluminium structure and stages mostly temporary exhibitions with works from the inexhaustible archives of the parent museum.
The permanent exhibition is in the 120-metre-long Galerie des Temps, which presents the history of art from all over the world in chronological order, so you can marvel at Mesopotamian statues, Egyptian funerary sculptures, romanesque carvings and a Rembrandt painting on an absorbing walk through time.
14. Lens’ 14 – 18 Centre d’Histoire Guerre et Paix
You could incorporate this brand new museum into your tour of the battlefields north of Arras.
It’s all contained in sombre, black concrete cubes described as “chapels” , almost exactly where the front line used to be.
Using innovative museology the interpretation centre evokes reflection about the First World War in the Pas-de-Calais, calling on period film, maps, archive photography.
Almost every aspect of the war in the region is dealt with, such as the causes, trench warfare, the German occupation of northern France and the offensives that brought about the end of the war.
15. Beffroi de Douai
Perhaps the belfry in Arras has got you curious about the UNESCO World Heritage bell towers in the region.
The next-closest is only 25 kilometres away in Douai, dating to 1380 and held as one of the most beautiful.
Victor Hugo certainly thought so, and raved about it when he visited Douai in 1837. This one is a Disney-esque jumble of conical turrets, each capped with a blue slate roof and gold weathervane.
The carillon has 62 bells across five octaves, and some of these bells were cast as long ago as the 14th century.