Vieux Lille, the old town of Lille, is a place of fanciful Flemish facades. Where bars, bistros, boutiques and shops line the cobbled streets which wind their way labyrinth-like around the central Place du Général de Gaulle, known as the grand’Place.
Outdoor cafés abound in the ancient city centre, art of all kinds adorns the streets and you could visit a different museum in and around Lille every day for two weeks and still not see them all.
The former capital of culture is lively, vivacious and at the same time cultured and urbane. Lille has undergone a metamorphosis from a once industrial hub through a rather run down stage to emerge as a top city break destination and one of the most fascinating cities in Europe…
Lille – A feast for all the senses
Here’s where to indulge in a feast for the senses. Here are some of the best cultural sites and restaurants that are close by – feed your soul, and your stomach!
Culture: Palais des Beaux Arts
The Palais des Beaux Arts lives up to its name, it really is a grand palace and one of the largest museums in France. It has the second biggest collection of fine arts outside of Paris with exhibits from antiquity to contemporary, including all the greats from Rubens, Goya and Monet to Van Gogh, Picasso and Chagall. Head to the basement to discover a unique collection of ancient relief maps, fourteen 17th century exact replica miniature models of towns such as Ypres in Belgium (it was used as a blueprint for rebuilding Ypres after WWII) and Lille. They were once used by Louis XIV and his famous martial engineer Vauban to plan military tactics. There are regular, world class temporary exhibitions, and innovative touch screens (including gigapixel) help visitors to explore the artworks.
Eat: Au Moulin d’Or
Au Moulin d’Or is very close by, in the centre of Old Lille in a converted lingerie store. A listed monument, this restaurant featured in Dany Boon’s “Bienvenue Chez les Ch’tis”, France’s biggest grossing film of all time. It’s been renovated to a fabulous standard. Glittering chandeliers and a gorgeous central staircase, plus it regularly showcases local artists. Upstairs or downstairs, there’s a great atmosphere and a classic brasserie menu – delicious. 31-33 Place du Théâtre
Culture: Musée de l’Hospice de la Comtesse
The Museum of the Hospice de la Comtesse is steeped in history. It was founded in 1236 by Jeanne, Countess of Flanders to care for the poor and sick. Look out for the wonderful painting in the baroque chapel of Jeanne and her sister Marguerite giving money to the hospice’s nuns. The oldest part of the building dates to the 1400’s. It includes magnificently furnished rooms depicting Flemish life from the 15th to the 17th centuries. My favourites were an enchanting 17th century kitchen with gorgeous blue and white Delft-like tiles and a linen room with a perfectly preserved 17th century press. There’s a fascinating collection of paintings and antiques and regular exhibitions dedicated to the history of Lille. It’s a charming museum with an authentic atmosphere – a must-see.
Eat: Barbue d’Anvers
A short walk away, tucked away down an alley behind a pretty courtyard in a beautiful 16th century Flemish building, lies a local legend. Here they serve regional specialities such as rich and robust carbonnade flamande – a beef stew made with beer and brown sugar. And the unpronounceable potjevleesch, a dish of three cold meats (traditionally rabbit, chicken and veal) in aspic. Plus waterzooi, a type of chicken soup. The dining room is charming and vintage, with candles, books and knick-knacks galore. The locals adore this quirky restaurant with a warm ambiance. 1 bis Rue St Etienne 59800 Lille; lebarbuedanvers.fr
Culture: Gare Saint Sauveur
One of the things I love about Lille is the way abandoned but spectacular buildings are converted into cultural venues. Gare Saint Sauveur, a former freight station built in 1861, is now an inspirational space where regular events, art exhibitions and performances are hosted. It houses a cinema, bar and restaurant, gardens and a summer pop up bar. The huge warehouses are perfect for showcasing art. I loved how the railway tracks were still in situ, a reminder of the past fixed in the present. It’s also one of the main Lille3000 venues, the legendary tri-annual, 9-month long art festival which takes place in the streets and public buildings of Lille city and surrounding districts.
Eat: Bistrot de Saint So
Bistrot de Saint So is part of the Gare Saint-Sauveur complex and is a great way to mix art and food. When you’ve finished feasting on the art in the former station, head to the very chic restaurant and enjoy some seriously good dishes. This place is super popular with the locals for lunch (Wednesday – Sunday) so make sure you book in advance on their Facebook page. Enjoy dining on the fabulous large terrace watched over by a giant baby with a tail, or in the chic interior. I’m not sure the food makes your “hair sparkle” as they claim (with a big smile) but with fantastically tasty salads and a seasonal menu, I think they might just be right! It’s also open Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights for a trendy night of music with DJs. There are also live performances. And seriously funky cocktails. facebook.com/bistrotdestso
Culture: Vielle Bourse
Head to la Vielle Bourse, the former stock exchange, built in 1623. The courtyard hosts a second-hand book market (Tues-Sun, afternoons) on stalls under a vaulted walkway, alongside walls lined with fabulous carved friezes and sculptures. If you’re there on a Sunday night in the summer, join in the tango dancing under the stars.
Eat: L’Atelier des Chefs
Cook your own lunch or dinner with a chef tutor. At L’Atelier des Chefs Lille, you’ll improve your skills as you create a classic dish from scratch in just 30 minutes. You then get to enjoy eating your masterpiece at this fun cookery school. Great for individuals, couples and friends. Lunch time cooking course €17 Euros; gourmet dinner course lesson (one hour) where you’ll make a main course and dessert €38. Booking in advance is essential.
Culture: Tri Postal
Located in the former postal sorting office, it’s neither a museum or art centre but a place of art and life say the staff. Temporary exhibitions, performances and workshops are held in this dynamic and exciting cultural venue.
Coke restaurant in the ex-offices of the old Mining Company of Lens, hence the name. It’s a majestic building designed by architect Louis-Marie Cordonnier. Upstairs is an elegant, chandeliered dining room. Down-stairs is modern and arty and a retractable glass roof makes it great for sunny days. Bold, playful and clever food is on the menu from a talented team working in a glass-fronted kitchen. It’s also a great venue for an aperitif with a swanky cocktail bar and music on Friday nights.
Culture: La Piscine & Street art Roubaix
A short tram or metro ride from Lille, La Piscine, Roubaix’s art-deco swimming pool turned museum with a world-class collection, is one of the most popular museums in France. Read more about it here.
Roubaix has street art superstar status with an annual urban art festival (#XU), fabulous murals and two amazing studios dedicated to urban culture. Atelier RemyCo has 15 artists in residence including some well-known names (Mr. Voul and Freaks the Fab). Meanwhile Atelier Jouret hosts 40 artists: painters, sculptors, fashion designers and more. On the first Sunday of each month, you can visit the workshops, meet the artists and buy something unique from these hotshots of urban art. Read more about Roubaix and it’s extraordinary artists.
Eat: Meert at La Piscine
Meert is famous for its jewel-like pastries and the most moreish waffles ever made. They’ve been making sweet things since 1761 and their famous shop in Lille is like stepping back in time. They also have a beautiful art deco tearoom and restaurant with a gorgeous terrace garden (perfect for sunny day lunches) at La Piscine museum in Roubaix. The menu reflects the world class exhibitions and really adds a little je ne sais quoi to your visit. The chef works with curators to design unique menus. There are exhibition-theme influenced dishes (and there’s also a seasonal, classic French menu). Leave room for one of their famous sweet waffles. You’ll be in good company, they were created for Belgian King Leopold 1!
Culture: MUBA Eugène Leroy
In the district of Tourcoing on the outskirts of Lille, the Museum of Beaux Arts has an excellent and substantial permanent collection from the 17th-20th century.
Eat: Le Paradoxe
Le Paradoxe is almost next to the museum. It’s a seriously funky restaurant located in the former Hospice which dates back to the 13th century. 3 Rue d’Havre, Tourcoing.