Just a stone’s throw from the Belgian border, Lille is famous for its Flemish architecture, beer, and unique gastronomy. If you’re visiting Lille for the France Rugby World Cup 2023, why not plan a few days before or after match day to take in the highlights of France’s “Capital of Flanders”? To get you started, here’s our pick of the top 10 things to do in Lille.
1. Admire the Architecture in Vieux Lille
Vieux Lille (Old Lille) remains the pulse of the modern city, and it’s a colourful and characterful neighbourhood infused with the spirit of its Flemish heritage. Striking red-brick townhouses and flamboyant facades flank the narrow cobbled streets and grand squares, and a walking tour reveals some of the city’s most magnificent buildings.
Start on Place Charles de Gaulle, where you’ll find the Vieille Bourse (Old Stock Exchange) known for its memorable Flemish Renaissance-style architecture. Other landmarks of the Old Town include the Lille Opera House, the neo-Gothic Notre Dame de la Treille church, the medieval Hospice Comtesse, and the Porte de Paris (“Gate of Paris”), Lille’s very own Arc de Triomphe, built in the 17th century.
2. Take in the View from the Hôtel de Ville
Lille’s red-brick Hôtel de Ville (Town Hall) is among the city’s most emblematic landmarks, as well as being protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The headline act is its 104-meter-high belfry that towers over the city and earns the title of Lille’s highest observation deck.
Climb the 100 steps into the tower, then zip up to the top of the belfry in the lift. Plan ahead to avoid disappointment—the belfry is only open from Wednesday through Sunday, and visits must be reserved in advance.
3. Peruse Art Masterpieces at the Palais des Beaux Arts
One architectural gem that’s as impressive from the outside as it is from the inside is Lille’s Palais des Beaux arts (Fine Arts Museum), which dominates Place de la République. Not only does this Belle Epoque palace look like something out of a Flemish fairy-tale, but it’s also one of France’s oldest and most prestigious art museums. So much so that it’s often referred to as the “Second Museum of France” (after The Louvre).
After admiring the opulent façade and fountain, head inside for a walk through art history. Collections span the 17th to 19th centuries, including masterpieces by Rubens, Rembrandt, El Greco, Van Dyck, Goya, Delacroix, Raphael, and many more.
4. Browse the Shops in Vieux Lille
Lille’s historic heart is equally popular with shoppers, and you’ll find everything from luxury designers to independent boutiques and antique emporiums. Enjoy window-shopping at the likes of Louis Vuitton and Hermès along Rue de la Grande Chaussée, where you’ll also find the Galeries Lafayette department store.
Alternatively, browse for antiques along Rue Basse, peek into the record shops and skate shops along Rue de la Clef, and wander the streets around Rue Nationale, Rue de la Vieille Comédie and Place Rihour. On summer afternoons (except Mondays), the inner courtyard of the Vielle Bourse also draws crowds to its giant open-air book market.
5. Tour the Citadelle de Lille
Lille’s star-shaped fortress stands just west of the Old Town, encircled by the Deûle canal. The 17th-century citadel was built by Louis XIV upon conquering the city and is still used by the French army today.
You’ll need to join a guided tour to explore the Citadelle (sign up at the Tourist Office), entering through the Porte Royale drawbridge and exploring the historic buildings and vast central courtyard. Alternatively, admire the views from the surrounding Parc de la Citadelle, visit Lille Zoo (also in the castle grounds), or stroll around the English-style gardens of the Jardin Vauban. In summer, boat cruises set sail from here along the canal.
6. Indulge your Sweet Tooth at Méert
If you thought the English were the only ones to master the art of afternoon tea, think again! Whether it’s a champagne breakfast or an afternoon ‘goûter’ (France’s traditional 4 pm ‘snack time’), there’s no place more elegant than the Méert tea salon (27 Rue Esquermoise), which has been serving sumptuous pastries to the city’s high-flyers since the 20th-century.
Be sure to stop by the adjoining Maison Méert shop, the headquarters of the famous pâtissiers, where you can purchase a box (or several) of their iconic Méert waffles, sweet brioche waffles filled with Madagascan vanilla cream.
7. Visit the Villa Cavrois And Piscine De Roubaix
Less than a half-hour drive from Lille, the suburban towns of Croix and Roubaix are home to two of Lille’s most notable architectural feats. Step inside the modernist Villa Cavrois, built for textile industrialist Paul Cavrois in the early 20th century, and marvel at the lavish mansion and manicured gardens designed by famed French architect Robert Mallet-Stevens.
In neighbouring Roubaix, the 1932 art deco Piscine de Roubaix swimming pool might be the coolest place to take a swim in France outside of the French Riviera. Sadly, there’s no need to bring your swimsuit as the pool is now a museum, but you can still admire the pool, browse the collection of 19th- and 20th-century ceramics and pottery, and stop by the museum’s very own Meert tea salon.
8. Spend a Morning at the Market
No stay in a French city is complete without a stroll around a traditional market, and Wazemmes is the clear stand-out if you ask the locals. Held in a historic red-brick market hall in the bohemian Wazemmes neighbourhood, it’s one of France’s largest markets and renowned for its diverse world cuisine and flavours.
The market takes place on Tuesday and Thursday mornings, but the most atmospheric time to visit is on a Sunday, when stalls spill out onto the streets and a giant flea market takes over the district. Come hungry as the stalls are laden with tasty Asian, Arabic, and Eastern European dishes, and lively cafés and restaurants pepper the surrounding streets.
9. Tuck into Flemish Cuisine
Feasting on market cuisine is just the first step on your tasting tour of Lille—this northern city is home to some of France’s most unique gastronomy, influenced by its Flemish roots and Belgian neighbours. Rue de Gand is the main destination for dining in Lille, where you’ll find a wide variety of estaminets (traditional taverns), bistros, and crêperies, while is fast becoming the latest foodie hangout, with new eateries springing up each year.
Look out for local delicacies such as Maroilles cheese tart, typically served with a side of French fries; Flemish dishes such as carbonade flamande, a flavoursome stew made with beer-braised beef; a classic moules-frites (mussels and fries) served Lille-style in a beer broth; or potjevleesch, a slice of terrine-style meat accompanied by a portion of fries
10. Taste the Local Beers
No doubt inspired by neighbouring Belgium, Lille also boasts a rich beer-making heritage, and this might be one of the only cities in France where the beer menu has the edge over the wine list. Beer lovers will want to stop by the beer shop L’Abbaye des Saveurs, where the shelves are stocked with French and Belgian craft beers, while micro-brewery Célestin’s hosts tours and tastings.
You won’t have to look far to find an estaminet, beer bar, or brewpub around Vieux Lille, and local favourites include La Capsule, which has over 100 bottled beers and a further 28 on tap. Be sure to try the Blanche de Lille (white beer) and local brand Ch’ti.
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