We report the structural and optical properties of a-plane GaN film grown on r-plane sapphire substrate by plasma-assisted molecular beam epitaxy. High resolution X-ray diffraction was used to determine the out-of-plane and in-plane epitaxial relation of a-plane GaN to r-plane sapphire. Low-temperature photoluminescence emission was found to be dominated by basal stacking faults along with near-band emission. Raman spectroscopy shows that the a-GaN film is of reasonably good quality and compressively strained. © 2011 Acta Materialia Inc. Published by Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.