First settled by a Gaul tribe, it became a Roman garrison called Atrebatum, but not before the local population had fought valiantly beside Vercingetorix and was among the last to be subdued by Julius Caesar. The province of Artois where it lied was frequently disputed between the French and the Dutch, ended up in French hands in the 17th century, but kept its strong trade links with Flanders. An important document was signed there in January 1579: the Union of Atrecht (Atrecht was the Dutch name of Arras), by which several of the Low Countries pledged allegiance to the Spanish king and Catholicism, while the remaining states formed the Union of Utrecht later the same month, renouncing the Habsburg rule and opting to profess Protestantism.
During the Middle Ages, Arras was internationally famous for its tapestries. The Italian word for tapestries was arrazi, and they were even mentioned in Shakespeare's Hamlet!
The city was badly damaged by World War I as a number of battles were fought in the area. The French, however, managed to keep hold of it. The Germans occupied Arras during World War II and executed 240 alleged Resistance members in the citadel.
Two large squares for the city center: the Grand Square and the Heroes Square. They were originally marketplaces, the site of bustling trade activity. Today they are surrounded by nicely restored old buildings, the most remarkable among them being the Gothic Town Hall and the Cathedral. The Town Hall stands in the Heroes Square, its entrance hall houses a photographic exhibition and a set of festival giants. You can climb to the viewing platform of the large bell tower for a panoramic view.
The Benedictine Saint Vaast Abbey was founded in the 7th century, with the formation of the medieval town (which developed separately from the Gaul-Roman settlement). It is impressive in size and contains the town's Cathedral, a Museum of Fine Arts and a modern media library. In the Neo-Classical Cathedral, you can admire a series of eight fine sculptures of saints, a beautiful tapestry and other works of art. The Museum of Fine Arts boasts works by French and Dutch artists including Vignon, Lebrun and Rubens, and the largest French collection outside the Louvre of 17th-century religious paintings.
The citadel is a fine example of 17th century military architecture, designed by Vauban and nicknamed "the beautiful useless thing" as the town was never under siege after its construction. The 'Firing Squad Wall' marks the place where the members of the French resistance were shot by the Nazis. Nearby is the war cemetery and a moving memorial by the British architect Edwin Lutyens, commemorating 35,928 missing soldiers. Their names are inscribed on the walls.
If you are in Arras in the summer months, you may choose to explore the historical center in a romantic horse-drawn carriage. The thirty-minute ride begins from the Town Hall and will introduce you to the town centre's landmarks. Alternatively, the area is small enough to walk around and soak up the atmosphere of the Baroque squares and the stately religious and public buildings.
Another tourist attraction in Arras is the network of underground tunnels that proved very helpful in times of war. They were used as shelter during WWII bombings, and were open to the public in 1982.
The most prominent native of Arras was Maximilien Robespierre, the famous leader of the French Revolution. The house where he lived while he worked as a lawyer in Arras is now a museum.