With just 24 hours in the beautiful city of Lille in northern France there is a lot to see and do and one of the best things is just to wander and enjoy the flamboyant architecture and soak up the atmosphere in this vibrant and cultural city says Janine Marsh…
The medieval city centre known as Vieux Lille is a place of cobblestone streets, Renaissance Palaces, fabulous Gothic Churches, art galleries and museums and a huge choice of restaurants from traditional to gourmet, lively nightlife, street café life style – and shops.
I went with three friends – we checked our luggage into the 4* Hotel Up on arrival in the morning, just a minute’s walk from the Grand Place and we set off to explore this history city on foot, by bike and Lille by mouth in just 24 hours!
Lille City Views to give you just a little flavour of this fabulous city:
Lille on foot
It’s a great place to just browse and wander – pick up a map and guide book from the Tourist Office or book a guided tour (English language available Saturday morning). Vieux Lille, which means Old Lille, is just that – a warren of streets filled with ancient buildings, amazing architectural detail, monuments and plaques honouring historic figures and events. There is a beautiful park, a Vauban Citadel and even a city beach where you can relax on the sand or try your hand at water sports. There are a myriad of cafés, brasseries, restaurants and patisseries where you can enjoy the fabulous French cuisine or local foods and watch the world go by and chill out before you set off again.
Lille Bike Tour and lunch in a fabulous Guinguette
We booked up for a Dutch bike ride at Lille-A Vello, and a bike tour guide who took us round the city for two hours – exploring local architecture and sights and making sure we were safe in the road. Now, you, like me, might think it would be an absolute chore to ride in the main roads of a major city like Lille. Wrong! I have never ridden on urban roads where the drivers were more considerate. I’ll admit to being worried about it but I needn’t have been – 10 minutes in and it was clear that unlike in London, no one was out to get me!
We cycled on the flat paths around Lille’s canal, past the Vauban fortifications with the Sun King symbol glinting in the sun, round Lille Plage – the city’s beach – down ancient alleyways filled with amazing houses, including the smallest house I have ever seen. I even got to ride on the famous cobble stones of the Paris-Roubaix bike route – it was just for 5 minutes though, them old cobble stones make your teeth rattle!
After a gentle 12km ride we went for lunch at the gorgeous Guinguette la Marine, right next to where we hired our bikes from. It’s a really quirky and authentic French dining experience – guinguette means tavern. Traditional food, good beers and lots of happy customers including “Commissaire Magellan” – the French actor Jacques Spiesser is known to enjoy a cold beer here after a hard day filming for the hit French TV series. If you want to know – I had the Flamiche Maroilles – a type of quiche made with a very stinky but delicious cheese called Maroilles and I got a round of applause from the locals as it was carried reverently to my table! I loved how the bar seats were swings, accordions and assorted, eclectic paraphernalia littered the place, life-sized film of vintage French music and film stars played on one wall, classic French music by the likes of Charles Trenet, Edith Piaf and Maurice Chevalier played gently in the back ground. It was packed with locals and authentically French with delicious food.
Lille Art and Culture
In the afternoon we had time to visit the art galleries and museums. There is a huge choice in Lille, I know of ten museums in and around Lille (including the fabulous La Piscine) and if you have a car – the LaM is a 20 minute drive outside the town and a must-see for modern art fans with works by Braque, Kandisky, Klee, Léger, Miro, Modigliani and Picasso and the largest collection of outsider art in France (Corbaz, Darger, Forestier, Lesage, Wölfli). I really loved the Daniel Buren glass installation – I’ve been a fan since his Monumenta exhibition in Paris in 2012.
Nightlife in Lille
In the evening we went for dinner at the Basilic Café (24b rue Esquermoise – just off the Place Grand) which was buzzing – we sat out on the sunny terrace watching the world go by and enjoying the joie de vivre – and the barbe-a-papa (candyfloss) ice cream! There is a huge choice of restaurants in Lille – at least 200 from gourmet to rustic, from posh to budget, from smart to quaint and everything in between.
After a fabulous Angus beef burger with a French touch we wandered through the old town, the pavement cafes were thronging with people, buildings beautifully lit up… we could hear the sound of soft music coming from the Grand Place, it was the weekly tango night in Lille! We followed the sound, through the grand arched wooden doors into the Vielle Bourse, a centuries old and very beautiful building on the Grand Place. There before our eyes, under the stars and lit by soft lamps in the open courtyard of this ancient building, people were dancing the tango – it was beautiful and romantic. A man asked me to dance but I didn’t want to spoil it with my two left feet. We sat and watched for an hour – it was enchanting and magical as we admired the dancers of all ages and abilities take to the floor and sway, kick and move to the sound of tango. By day, the courtyards are home to book markets and wall to wall second hand books in this most amazing setting are one of my top 5 sites not to be missed in Lille.
There is a huge choice of bars and clubs in Lille – you certainly won’t lack for somewhere to go until the early hours of the morning if you have the energy after a full day of sightseeing and shopping in Lille – I slept like a log in my comfy bed – thanks Hotel Up!
Shopping in Lille
The best shopping in Lille is within easy walking distance around the Grand Place and with 4000 shops – this is quite possibly the ultimate in retail therapy.
There are major brands here – Louis Vuitton, Hermès, Printemps and Galeries Lafayette to name but a few, but there are also some fabulous fashion boutiques where you can pick up very chic outfits for a lot less than you would pay in London. From art, clothing, cheese, soap, home products, far too much to mention there is a huge choice. There are also the wonderful markets dotted around the city including the very popular Wazemmes and a twice monthly Saturday morning art market, not forgetting the gorgeous second hand book market in the Vielle Bourse on Grand Place. For those who really want a shopping experience extraordinaire – the Braderie of Lille, a flea market with 10,000 sellers held each September is simply unforgettable.
Chef School in Lille
After shopping, we just had time for lunch before returning home. We booked in for a lunch with a difference at the revolutionary Atelier des Chefs, a chef school with premises in cities all over France – we were to have a lesson by a professional chef and under his direction cook our own lunch – all in one hour!
If you drool over the Master Chef programmes, wish you could take part in a cooking show or feel you could be the next Jamie Oliver – then this is the perfect place for you!
We were on the 12.15 slot – a 30 minute lesson to cook chicken with raspberries and sauce and mashed potatoes with basil and olive oil. We donned aprons and took our places at the gleaming metal benches in a professional kitchen. Chef demonstrated chopping, frying, how to mix sauces, how to tell when a pan is ready to use for frying – it was absolutely brilliant, and although not all my group spoke French it didn’t matter, it was the demonstration that counted. At 12.45 we plated up and moved into the dining room to eat the fruits of our labour. It was quite possibly the best thing I’ve ever cooked (okay – it was the best thing I’ve ever cooked). We were offered wine with the meal, then one of the chef’s deserts – a lovely speculoos and chocolate moose and then coffee and biscuits – all for €17.
After that it was back to London on P&O Ferries, to end in style we booked into the club lounge for champagne and a cream tea.
We wanted to stay longer in Lille but I know we’ll return – Lille is like that, once you’ve experienced it, you’ll want to come back…
Practical information for Lille
I went to Lille via P&O Ferries, it took an hour and a half driving from Calais; the city is sort of in the centre of the region of Nord-Pas de Calais and has excellent transport links with London, Paris, Belgium as well as from regional stations and road networks.
From London to Lille on Eurostar takes just 1.5 hours and you will arrive in the centre in less time than many people take to commute home from their jobs in London!
Our top tip is to check out the Lille Tourist Office website for great deals in the city.