Alison Weeks enjoys an atmospheric short break in this French Flanders city, which is equally rich in culture and culinary specialities.
European city breaks don’t come much easier than Lille. Its proximity to the Channel ports and handy Eurostar terminal make this northern capital the ideal destination for a short getaway. And while it may be close to the UK in terms of geography, culturally speaking, it’s a world away.
Historically, this northern corner of France belonged to the County of Flanders, and although Lille was claimed for the French crown by Louis XIV in 1667, the city still maintains a strong sense of its roots. The best place to get a feel for that heritage is the Grand’Place, the Flemish-style main square and the beating heart of the city. Officially named the Place du Général de Gaulle in honour of Lille’s most famous son, the area is known for its beautiful, ornate buildings.
One architectural gem is the Vieille Bourse, or Old Stock Exchange. Built in the mid-17th century, this striking example of the Flemish Renaissance style is now home to a bustling book market. Pass through the courtyard of Vieille Bourse and you’ll emerge in the charming Place du Théâtre, named after the city’s neo-classical opera house. From here, a right turn takes you into Vieux Lille, a maze of narrow, cobbled streets where you’ll find some of the city’s best shops and restaurants.
Culture and Colour
As tempting as it might be to spend a whole day loafing around in Vieux Lille, there’s plenty to see elsewhere. Don’t miss the impressive Palais des Beaux-Arts, the second largest museum in France after the Louvre, whose collection rivals that of any Paris institution (and without the crowds). History lovers will appreciate the birthplace of Charles de Gaulle (Maison Natale de Charles de Gaulle). A bit further afield, the suburb of Roubaix is home to the Piscine-Musée, an art museum housed in a stunning Art Deco swimming pool that is well worth a visit.
And no visit to Lille would be complete without a tour of the famous Marché de Wazemmes. Located a mile to the southeast of the city centre in a diverse working class quartier, it’s one of the biggest markets in all of France, with an incredible array of fresh produce, meat, cheese and bread as well as flowers and fabric. It takes place every Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday morning.
As with any trip to France, a weekend in Lille revolves around food and the city offers a unique blend of French and Flemish specialities to try. If you’re after something traditional, head to one of the many estaminets (taverns) in Vieux Lille. Local favourites include a ‘Welsh’, a Welsh rarebit-style open ham and cheese sandwich cooked in cheddar and beer, usually served with frites (to be dipped in the cheesy beer sauce!); carbonade Flamande (beef stew cooked in beer); and just about anything made with Maroilles, a pungent local cheese.
Try to save room for dessert, as there are some tempting treats to sample. Being this close to Belgium, it’s not surprising that waffles are on the menu. However, the Lillois prefer a more delicate variety of gauffre that are more akin to Dutch stroopwafels than the thick, doughy Belgian versions found in other parts of France. For the very best, head to the elegant Pâtisserie Méert on Rue Esquermoise. This local institution dates back to 1761 and their gauffre recipe remains a well-guarded secret. Another absolute must is Aux Merveilleux de Fred. Founded by local pastry chef Frédéric Vaucamps, this legendary Lillois pâtisserie is known for its cloud-like meringues topped with cream. The flagship shop on Rue de la Monnaie can get very busy, but there are now three other locations across the city to visit.
Although Lille may be known for its stereotypically Flemish cuisine, its foodie scene has grown increasingly cosmopolitan in recent years. One popular new addition is the Grand Scène, an indoor food court offering global street food with everything from tacos to falafel. But the trendiest place to be is anywhere with outdoor seating. This may not be the warmest part of France, but locals love to spend an evening en terrasse and weather permitting, you’ll find plenty of places to sit back and relax with an aperitif.
Here the tipple of choice is often beer and northerners like it strong, with most brews ranging from a feisty six to nine per cent alcohol. The city has always been known for its traditional brasseurs (brewers), but these days microbreweries seem to be popping up all over the place. Craft beer enthusiasts should check out La Capsule on the Rue des Trois-Mollettes to try one of their impressive 28 beers on tap. Before heading home, stop by L’Abbaye des Saveurs, a cave à bière and épicerie fine on Rue des Vieux Murs, where you’ll find an extensive range of bottled artisan beers as well as other local delights, perfect as gifts for loved ones or for a treat to remind you of this wonderful city.
Five Must-Visit Sites in Lille
Lille is a wonderful mix of culture, history and architecture alongside great boutiques and festivals – here our five of our favourite things to do and see.
Palais des Beaux-Arts
Feast your eyes on the works of Van Dyck, Delacroix, Van Gogh and Monet as well as Flemish grand master Reubens. This is one of the finest museums in France and there’s nary a queue in sight.
Old Lille is renowned for its incredibly well-preserved buildings that date from the 17th century, including the historic birthplace of Charles de Gaulle and the charming Musée de l’Hospice Comtesse. Locals love the neighbourhood for its wealth of trendy bars, restaurants and high-end shops. Expect to hang out en terrasse year-round.
La Piscine de Roubaix
Officially known as the Museum of Art and Industry, this former Art Deco swimming pool provides a stunning backdrop for an impressive collection of textiles, ceramics and drawings. Well worth the short Metro ride (Line 2, Gare Jean Lebas).
Made up of 24 identical houses built around a quadrangle, the 17th-century Stock Exchange’s courtyard is known for its bouquinistes, where you’ll find everything from antique books to second-hand novels and comics. And in the summer months, the Bourse hosts weekly tango evenings.
Opéra de Lille
In spite of its imposing Belle Époque façade, the city’s opera offers a relaxed atmosphere and reasonable ticket prices so you can take in a performance and the grand interior. There are also guided tours on the second Saturday of every month.
Eurostar from London St Pancras to Lille takes 90 mins. By car, it’s just under an hour from the ferry port at Calais and slightly further from the Eurotunnel at Calais.
Central Lille is compact and easy to explore on foot, but you’ll need to take the Métro or hire a car if venturing out of town to the Piscine in Roubaix.
Where to Stay
Grand Hotel Bellevue Tel: (+33) 3 20 57 45 64
Ideally situated in the heart of the city on the Place du Général de Gaulle with elegant and comfortable rooms. Doubles from €140.
Where to Eat
Estaminet Au Vieux de la Vieille Tel: (+33) 3 20 13 81 64
Tucked away in Vieux Lille, this charming and cosy restaurant offers a good range Flemish specialities at reasonable prices.
Where to Visit
Palais des Beaux Arts Tel: (+33) 3 20 06 78 00
Feast your eyes on the works of Van Dyck, Delacroix, Courbet, Van Gogh and Monet as well as Flemish grand master Reubens.
Open Mondays from 2pm to 6pm and Wednesdays to Sundays 10am to 6pm.
Tickets from €7.
Tel: (+33) 3 26 77 45 00 Palais Rihour, Pl. Rihour, 59000 Lille
From France Today magazine
Lead photo credit : There's plenty to explore in Lille © Shutterstock
By Alison Weeks
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