Lille is the capital of the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region in northern France.
The last couple of decades have seen Lille rise from its slightly gritty and grimy industrial textile background and become a celebrated town of culture, history and charm. Investment in Lille has meant that the whole place has been cleaned up and given a makeover which makes it hugely attractive to locals and visitors from France and overseas.
Once the capital of Flanders, you’ll see the Flemish influence everywhere – in the architecture, the food and the names of roads, shops and some of the locals.
Being a stopping point for Eurostar has made Lille as accessible as Paris and its popularity with visitors has grown enormously thanks being voted European City of Culture in 2004 and to great shopping, architecture, good restaurants, museums and art galleries. Since 2004 the city has promoted the arts and culture in a big way with an annual programme called Lille 3000.
Before the clean-up it was an interesting place to visit, lots of historical buildings and the old quarter has always been charming but now it is definitely on the tourist trail as somewhere to actively seek out with a vibrant and cosmopolitan atmosphere.
The centre of Lille is just a few minutes from the Lille Europe Eurostar station and you can easily explore on foot, otherwise there’s a tram service and driverless Metro system that’s very efficient.
Especially picturesque is the Old Town of Lille with its narrow cobblestone streets, contrasting architecture, charming cafés, bars, boutiques and small galleries.
What to see in Lille
The old quarter known as Vieux Lille is picturesque and appealing, with its narrow cobblestone lanes, ancient houses and Gothic churches. Wander round this area and you’ll find chic boutiques, Renaissance Palaces and fine restaurants, art galleries, museums and alluring cafés where you can sit and watch the world – and the shoppers – go by.
Lille was voted European capital of culture in 2004 and has several museums and art galleries with exhibitions being held throughout the year. It is also famous for its programme of events known as Lille 3000 when the city becomes a centre of crazy and fantastic art, drama, theatre and music as artists from all over the world are invited to participate and transform it into a centre of culture in Europe.
Museums in Lille
Notable are the Palais des Beaux-Arts, considered France’s second national collection after the Louvre. Housed in its imposing 19th century building you’ll find collections of European paintings, antiquities, a mediaeval and Renaissance collection, 17th and 18th century ceramics, 19th century French sculptures and 18th century scale models of fortified towns. The Palais also puts on great exhibitions throughout the year.
The glorious architecture of the Hospice Comtesse Museum entices you in to find exhibitions in galleries of 17th century Flemish and Dutch interiors where you can see paintings, ceramics and furniture.
Another fine gallery is La Piscine in Roubaix just outside of Lille centre and reachable by metro or tram. Constructed in 1932 by textile magnates, the swimming pool was created to serve the textile workers. For it’s day it was immensely lavish and opulent and is the only one of its kind to have survived in France in such fine art deco detail. It was transformed into an art gallery in 2001 after a period of abandonment, by Jean Paul Phillipon who also converted Musée d’Orsay from a train station in Paris to the spectacular art gallery it is today.
La Piscine houses a collection of paintings, Picasso ceramics and glass by famous designers Lalique and Galle – glass lovers will be stunned by the gorgeous art-deco stained glass walls at the sides of the old swimming pool.
There are a dozen other museums in and around Lille – you can find details of the Lille Tourism website at the bottom of this page.
For book worms, the book market in the Vielle Bourse (the Old Stock Exchange) is a must; you’ll find a daily market of second hand books, largely in French, in beautiful surroundings.
Markets in Lille
There are several markets in Lille:
Wazemmes Market is lively, noisy and big! It will yield rich pickings selling just about everything and is popular with locals and tourists alike. Market on Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday: 7 am – 2 pm. There’s also a covered market from Tuesday to Thursday 8.00 am to 2.00pm, Friday and Saturday 8.00 am to 8.00 pm, Sunday and bank holidays 8.00 am to 3.00 pm. On Sundays, a flea market is set up around Saint-Pierre Saint-Paul church.
Marché du Concert – Food market. Elegant and upmarket in the heart of the Vieux Lille on Wednesday, Friday and Sunday from 7 am to 2 pm.
Also in Vieux Lille the Marché aux Arts held the 1st and 3rd Saturday of the month from 9.00 am to 6.00 pm. An artists’ market is also held at Every Sunday from 9.00 am to 1.30 pm selling all manner of art paraphernalia from paintings and sculptures to stained glass and jewellery.
The market in nearby Roubaix showcases its strong links with the fashion industry with original works by creative young designers. Around 50 fashion designers and craftspeople are permanently based in ateliers and workshops in the area.
True market and vintage aficionados will be thrilled by La Braderie. It’s the largest annual market in Europe held over the first weekend every September. Not just a market it’s a social event where restaurants and food stalls selling mussels and chips (Moules et frites) compete for customers who empty their discarded mussel shells in a pile to create a small mountain The largest mountain is declared the winner! Hundreds of thousands of people flock to Lille for this lively event which takes place over the entire weekend.
Eating out in Lille
There are numerous restaurants in Lille offering a diverse range from budget to very expensive and from regional to international cuisine.
The regional Flemish influenced food is more hearty than French cuisine, but it goes perfectly with the great locally-produced beers. Restaurants serving Flemish food are known as estaminets, and you’ll generally find a great atmosphere, historic surroundings and tasty regional cuisine.
There are a number of Michelin starred restaurants with good reputations though more pricey than the estimanets. You can feast on oysters, foie gras, caviar and all manner of gastronomic fare in lovely surroundings.
The Excellent Lille Tourism website at the bottom of the page has details of restaurants, addresses and prices.
Night life in Lille
Lille has a thriving night life. There are plenty of bars that serve specialists beers as well as wine bars, cool cafés, clubs, discos, jazz bars and late night lounge bars – there are even 4 Irish pubs so if you’re looking for something to do in the evening and late into the morning you’ll be spoiled for choice. Check out the Lille Tourism website at the bottom of the page for lots more details and addresses.
Shopping in Lille
As if the great architecture, art, restaurants and nightlife were not enough, Lille is also famed for its great shopping opportunities. The Galeries Lafayette housed in a converted cinema stocks all the big brand labels and have fabulous staff who look at you – and predict your clothes size without touching a tape measure! For classic designer gear try the Rue de la Grande Chausseé in the centre of town – label lovers will have a ball. Go to the Grand Place and you’ll be surrounded by pedestrianized shopping streets where you can buy clothes, accessories, electrical goods – you name it. For more upmarket shopping go to Vieux Lille – more pricey but great window shopping and very quirky.
How to get to Lille
Eurostar runs several trains a day from London St Pancras to Lille – the journey takes around an hour and 30 minutes.
Dunkirk port is 49 miles from Lille. Calais port is 58 miles from Lille.
By Car Most hotels offer car parking but check in advance. There are car parks in the city but you shouldn’t need to drive to get around. Some of the car parks in Lille and at hotels have height restrictions – this can be an issue if you have a tall car. Check with the hotel that the height of your car isn’t an issue and if it is ask them to advise on a nearby secure car park.
How to get around in Lille
It’s best to explore Lille on foot. There’s a lot to see but wear comfortable shoes – there are some cobbled streets to navigate!
There’s a metro service in Lille and trams – easy and cheap to use.
Places to visit in Lille
Grand Place – the Big Square. Lille holds its famous Braderie (the biggest flea market in Europe) here every September as well as a Christmas fair. Here you will also find the Vieille Bourse, the old stock exchange, architecturally significant with its red and gold facades.
Musée de l’Hospice Comtesse – displays of art and craftwork in a beautiful building.
Palais des Beaux-Arts Flemish and Dutch art, including works by Rubens and Goya. Marvel at the vaulted cellars containing Flemish medieval and Renaissance paintings and sculptures.
La Citadelle – built by Vauban, the largest and best-preserved bastion in France. A star-shaped structure which was designed in 1670 in defence against the Spanish Netherlands.
La Piscine Roubaix – art gallery and art deco marvel just outside Lille (Metro line 2 to Gare Jean Lebas, or the slightly slower tram).