Lille in northern France is one of the most cultural cities in the country. There are more than a dozen museums and art venues in the city and every three years or so Lille goes arty-party mad with a major several-months-long art festival known as Lille3000 in public buildings and the streets.
Palais des Beaux Arts
Lille’s Fine Arts Museum has an enormous collection housed in a huge 19th-century building. This is one of the best collections in France in part thanks to Napoleon who dished out treasures from his campaigns to 15 of the most important museums in France in his time – Lille being one of them. Highlights include Rubens’ Descent from the Cross, originally painted for a monastery in Lille. Delacroix’s Furious Medea, and Goya’s portraits of old age in Les Vieilles and youth in La Lettre are mesmerising. The basement galleries house medieval and Renaissance works, and a set of 14, 18th-century, plan reliefs (detailed scale models) of northern towns. They were used used by Louis XIV to plan military campaigns. They were restored in early 2019 and the detail is incredible. Ypres, Belgium, was restored after the Great War using the relief map from Lille Beaux Arts Museum. Website: www.pba-lille.fr/en
Hospice de la Comtesse
The Hospice de la Comtesse museum is housed in a former charity hospice founded in 1237 by Countess Jeanne of Flanders to care for the poor and sick. It’s a fascinating glimpse into life in the city several centuries ago. In its time it’s been a hotel for pilgrims on the route to Rome and Compostela, an orphanage and home for the elderly. You’ll find rooms with 15th-17th century furniture and paintings. A very pretty kitchen covered in blue and white glazed tiles, the nuns’ refectory, the prioress’s parlour, pharmacy and linen room including a marvellous linen press from the 1600s, plus a 15th-century chapel and sick ward, now used for exhibitions. The museum is dedicated to local history with some wonderful paintings by Louis Watteau and François Watteau. And on years when Lille’s massive art festival Lille3000 is held, the chapel hosts major international artworks.
Gare Saint Sauveur
This art venue is also an urban community space. A short walk from the city centre, Gare Saint Sauveur, a former freight train station, retains its identity but now hosts art exhibitions. It’s also home to a restaurant and bar. It’s seriously popular with the locals for lunch and the trendy Lillois flock here on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights for drinks and music events. To get to the restaurant you pass beneath the beady eyes of a giant baby with wings and tail, quirky and great fun.
Lille’s cathedral is one of a kind. The current building was begun in 1854 on what was probably the site of the medieval castle. A lack of funding meant it wasn’t completed until the 1990s so there’s a mix of styles and from the outside you really don’t get just how incredible it is. With an enormous grey marble façade it looks rather drab. But, go inside on a sunny day and you’ll appreciate the extraordinary rosy glow of the translucent marble. It’s an incredible piece of architecture made possible with help from the engineer of the Sydney Opera House.
The rose window designed by artist Ladislas Kijno is also noteworthy. The crypt contains the Centre d’Art Sacré Contemporain a surprising collection of more than 100 modern religious works by artists including Warhol. In front of the Cathedral is a large square lined with cafés and bars. It’s a popular spot for locals to meet.
The former stock exchange of Lille is built in northern Renaissance style. A block of 24 identical houses, designed in 1652-53 by Julien Destrée and created around an inner, arcaded courtyard. These days the courtyard functions as a venue for second-hand book dealers and chess players. In summer months on Sunday nights the courtyard hosts tango dancing under the stars. Beautiful mouldings, glorious colours with a patina of age – it’s a must see if you visit Lille.
Maison Natale Charles de Gaulle
General Charles de Gaulle, president of France 1959 to 1969 was born in Lille in 1890. His former home is now a museum and study centre. Furnished rooms present the bourgeois lifestyle of the time, along with memorabilia including the general’s cradle and christening robe. Website: en.lilletourism.com/museum-lille/charles-de-gaulle-s-birthplace-and-museum
Modern art lovers will fall head over heels for TriPostal, an art venue and performance centre as well as holding workshops, in a former post office. A major host for Lille3000, it also has a great café.
More culture in Lille
Venture a little out of the city centre to Lille’s suburbs to discover Roubaix’s world class museum in a former swimming pool: La Piscine. Don’t miss LaM (modern art museum) at Villeneuve D’Asq, Villa Cavrois – a superb art deco Monument Historique and MUBA EUGÈNE LEROY fine arts museum in Tourcoing.
The Lens Louvre museum is also not far from Lille. You can take a train direct to Lens and then follow the landscaped pedestrian path to the museum (around 25 minutes’ walk). Or take a bus line 41 from the town.
More about Lille3000