Fabulous, fun and festive Arras – jewel of northern France

Inspiration

Terrasses Places 2019 © Cituation et Ensemble
© Terrasses Places 2019 © Cituation et Ensemble - Terrasses Places 2019 © Cituation et Ensemble

Reading time: 0 minPublished on 4 January 2023, updated on 16 April 2024

Arras in the Pays d’Artois region of Hauts de France, at just one hour from Calais, Paris or Lille, is renowned for its friendly folk, history, heritage, architecture and culture, fabulous gastronomy, outdoor activities and major remembrance sites, plus an outstanding Christmas market. This is an area that really does have something to delight everyone.

Arras at Christmas – winter wonderland

MDN 2018 © Arras Pays d'Artois Tourism
© MDN 2018 © Arras Pays d'Artois Tourism

Arras Christmas market is one of the biggest and best Christmas markets in France. On the red-carpeted Grand’Place in the centre of this historic city, you’ll discover more than 140 traditional wooden chalets where you can shop for everything deliciously French, from regional specialities to foie gras, wine and liqueurs, and the most mouth-watering sweets. You’ll also find fabulous and unique gifts. Every stall is hand-picked for its artisan and superior craft quality products – no mass produced merchandise here. Ride the Ferris wheel for a bird’s eye view over the festive fun, whiz down the toboggan run or around the skating rink or hop on the musical carousel. And when you ready for a break, sip a mulled wine or steaming hot chocolate at the traditional German Winter Bar, indulge in champagne and oysters, or warm up with tasty tartiflette.

All around the grand square the streets are strung with twinkling lights and the adjacent Place des Héros is transformed into a captivating court of lights. There’s an elves village, Father Christmas’s hut, Friday night brass band performances and loads more events. Arras really embraces what the spirit of Christmas is all about.

From 25 November to 30 December 2022 Christmas market

Cultural highlights

Palais des Beaux - Arts - © P. Brunet
© Palais des Beaux - Arts - © P. Brunet

Arras is the perfect small city to leave the car behind and take a stroll. The two main squares are unique in Europe, lined with columned arcades and 155 houses in sumptuous baroque Flemish style. On the cobbled Place des Héros, time travel through a Timescope virtual-reality station which will you sweep you back to 1518 to take in the sights and sounds of medieval Arras when the town’s belfry was being constructed. Voted France’s favourite monument in 2015, the UNESCO-listed belfry’s 75m high platform is the perfect perch from which to drink in the magnificent views over the town.

Below it is the town hall, with a spectacular Flamboyant Gothic façade. Rebuilt after it was destroyed in World War I, the interior features exquisite art deco rooms which you can visit. And don’t forget to check out the famous giants of the north who represent famous local and historic figures. These UNESCO-listed larger than life effigies are the pride and joy of northern France. Made from willow and papier-mâché, they stand watch outside the tourist office on the ground floor.

Below are Les Boves, a labyrinth of underground galleries first dug out in the 9th Century. Take a tour to discover the history of these former chalk quarries which were once used for religious services before becoming storage space for wealthy merchants, and then barracks for soldiers during World War I.

Behind the town hall is the Saint-Vaast Cultural Centre which is home to the excellent Museum of Fine Arts and media library. And a stone’s throw from here, pass by the house where local boy Maximilien Robespierre, the “terror” of the French Revolution, lived from 1787-1798.

The UNESCO listed, 17th century Citadel of Arras is the handiwork of Louis XIV’s legendary military engineer Vauban. This town within a town has been given a new lease of life as a community hub with residential housing and businesses including a cheese refinery, treetop adventure centre and honey farm. It’s also where Main Square, the famous Arras music festival, is held each year.

Gratify your gastronomic desires

Luka Antonic (Chez Marcel) © Charles Dubus
© Luka Antonic (Chez Marcel) © Charles Dubus

Arras isn’t just a feast for the senses – gourmands will go gaga for the gastronomic delights of this city. Don’t miss the local delicacy Arras rats! The rat is the symbol of Arras and in their honour, chocolate rats are made by local cake shops like Patisserie Thibaud, who also make ‘coeur d’Arras’, heart-shaped gingerbread cakes.

Enjoy regional dishes in one of the atmospheric, underground restaurants of the Grand’Place or on one of its cobblestoned terraces with a glass of beer. Arras and beer go back a long way, records in the city archives reveal that ‘spring beer’ was made in Arras as far back as 1394, and the Saint-Vaast Abbey was one of the largest breweries in the Middle Ages. The craft of brewing has been revived in recent years in Arras and there’s a wide choice of bars offering local and regional beers. Chez Marcel is the go-to place for beer connoisseurs. And at l’Oeuf out la Poule restaurant, a stone’s throw from the Belfry, you can pair local dishes with beer chosen by Chez Marcel’s brewing expert Luka Antonic.

On Wednesday mornings there’s a marvellous market on Place des Héros and on Saturday mornings there is a huge market with more than 200 stalls which spreads over three squares. Don’t forget your cool bag to take home delectable cheeses like the local stinky, but utterly scrumptious, Maroilles as well as charcuterie and salty butter.

Remembrance tourism – bringing history to life

 Notre Dame de Lorette © Denis Cordonnier - Cituation et Ensemble
© Notre Dame de Lorette © Denis Cordonnier - Cituation et Ensemble

Indelibly marked by two world wars, there are many major remembrance sites in and around Arras including the Ring of Remembrance on which are inscribed the 579,606 names of every soldier who died in the region of Nord-Pas de Calais in the Great War, whatever their nationality or rank and regardless of what side they were on. Close by is Vimy Memorial, Canada’s largest overseas memorial and Ablain-Saint-Nazaire French Military Cemetery, also known as Notre Dame de Lorette, the largest French military cemetery in the world.

Wellington Quarry, a 10-minute walk from the town, is a museum and memorial to those who fought in the battle of Arras. On April 9, 1917, 24,000 British Empire soldiers, billeted in a warren of underground tunnels, leapt forth to take the unsuspecting enemy's front lines in the most daring surprise attack of the Great War. Wellington Quarry reopened in November 2021, following a redesign to offer visitors a more in-depth understanding of its history. There are immersive experience and guided tours which bring history to life as you explore this poignant subterranean city with its intricate web of war rooms, 20m below ground.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission Experience in Beaurains, just 4km from the centre of Arras, offers a fascinating glimpse into the organisation's painstaking work maintaining Commonwealth cemeteries, monuments and memorials around the world. Discover the meticulous skills of the craftsmen in action as they carry out the many tasks of restoration and maintenance - from metal work and carpentry to the engraving of headstones.

The great outdoors

adobestock
© adobestock

Arras is surrounded by beautiful countryside dotted with ancient churches, farms, chateaux, windmills and picturesque villages. No less than 13 villages have the coveted “Village Patrimoine” label in the Pays d’Artois, recognised for their natural and heritage riches.

There are hundreds of kilometres of walking trails and cycling routes including a Great War Remembrance Trail guided bike tour which connects the major remembrance sites of the Artois Hills.

The Cirkwi app (for android and iOs) lists all the routes and offers itineraries and the option to download route sheets.

Fancy a round of golf? There’s a course in Anzin-Saint-Aubin, barely 5 minutes from the centre of Arras.

Around and about

Roubaix swimming pool © Adobestock
© Roubaix swimming pool © Adobestock

Want to venture a little further afield? Head to arty Lille, the capital of the region, which is less than an hour by car or train from Arras. Vieux Lille, the old town of Lille, is a place of fanciful Flemish facades. Bars, bistros, boutiques and shops line the cobbled streets which wind their way labyrinth-like around the central Place du Général de Gaulle. There are several museums and art galleries including the world famous La Piscine in the suburban district of Roubaix and the monumental Palais des Beaux Arts which houses the second biggest collection of fine arts outside of Paris. Want more history and art? The Lens Louvre museum is just 20 minutes from Arras by car. A masterpiece of understated but bold architecture, the museum is an annex of the Louvre Paris and showcases major artworks as well as regular temporary exhibitions.

This former mining town is peppered with enormous slag heaps, 51 mountains created from the residue left behind in the mining process. They loom over Lens like huge pyramids, and are today among its most treasured features. Granted UNESCO heritage status in 2012, many of the heaps have been imaginatively repurposed including a dry ski slope, hiking areas and even vineyards - with the first harvest due in 2023.

Where to stay

Natureza © A. Wacogne - Arras Pays d'Artois Tourisme
© Natureza © A. Wacogne - Arras Pays d'Artois Tourisme

The comfy Najeti Hotel l'Univers, in a former 17th century Jesuit monastery, is right in the centre of town. https://hoteluniversarras.com/en

Enjoy a luxury getaway in the heart of nature at Domaine Natureza. Stay in a lakeside cabin, fisherman’s hut, tree house or - new for this year, the Momento Spa suite, perfect for two, with a jacuzzi and sauna. https://domainenatureza.fr/

Find out more: https://www.arraspaysdartois.com/en/

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