Lille may not be France’s best-known city, but it’s a spot well worth visiting nonetheless. A stone’s throw from the Western border with Belgium, there’s a real sense of cosmopolitan influence in this delightful city. The modern rubs shoulders with the antique, the luxurious with the low-budget. It all adds up to a city you’ll be recommending to friends for years to come.
1. Start off at Place du General de Gaulle
As central to Lille as Times Square is to NYC, or Trafalgar Square to London. Named for the man many see as France’s greatest-ever President, the “Grand Place” is where Lille’s young and old congregate before heading to bars, restaurants and places of work. Like the rest of the city, it’s very pretty indeed. In April, it hosts a yearly flower market and fills with vibrant color. Come December, it’s lit up for Christmas with a massive Ferris Wheel at its centre. In Lille, everything starts here, and it’s a great place to start.
It should also be the place you come back to at regular intervals to get your bearings and plan your next move. This you can do while perched on the edge of the splendid ornate fountain, or in one of the many eateries that look out over the Grand Place. Choose from wonderful coffee and cakes, fine Italian dining, fast food or classic French brasseries. Like the rest of France, Lille is a city that takes its food very seriously indeed.
Place du General de Gaulle
Address: Place Charles de Gaulle, 59800 Lille, France
Website: Place du General de Gaulle
2. Take a walk around Jardin Vauban
If the teeming human hive of the Grand Place has left you looking for something quieter, then your next destination should be the beautiful Jardin Vauban. This free-to-enter garden corner of Lille is whatever you need it to be - from a peaceful setting for an aimless walk to a magnificent backdrop for the first of many holiday photographs. Your best bet is to take a picnic and refuel before your next destination - which could be the charming fruit orchard adjacent to the gardens.
If there is one word of warning, it may be to pick your picnic spot carefully. The football stadium may be 20 minutes away, but some of Lille’s more enthusiastic amateurs will come to this delightful public park for a bit of practice.
Address: 1A Avenue Lèon Jouhaux, 59800 Lille, France
Website: Jardin Vauban
3. Take stock of things at La Vieille Bourse
If every city has its one landmark building, then Lille’s is La Vieille Bourse, the former site of its Stock Exchange. This mid-17th-century Renaissance piece is actually made up of 24 houses around an interior courtyard. Today that courtyard is home to a used book market and countless chess games. If that sounds like a fall from grace, look around. The stone Flemish lions on the walls are a nod to the Belgian influence here, while in summer, the impromptu tango classes are a reminder of the glamour of this scintillating town.
La Vieille Bourse
Address: Place Charles de Gaulle, 59000 Lille, France
Website: La Vieille Bourse
4. Meet some animals at Zoo de Lille
If architecture isn’t considered exciting enough by some members of your party, then a stroll through the local zoo may be more to their tastes. Entry is so cheap it’s nearly free - indeed, for the under-5s, it is free (and only 4 EUR/ 5 USD for adults). Animals from the Arctic Fox to the always adorable Red Panda, reptiles such as the King Cobra, and stunning birds from Eclectus to owls will capture hearts young and old.
Zoo de Lille
Address: Parc Zoologique de Lille, Avenue Mathias Delobel, 59800 Lille, France
Website: Zoo de Lille (in French)
5. Get some culture at the Palais des Beaux-Arts
Moving around Lille, it’s hard to avoid the obvious - there is a strong artistic influence in the city which has examples everywhere you look. Much of the architecture, for example, is traceable to the Flemish Renaissance. The Palais des Beaux-Arts is the epicentre of this artistic bent. Works by Dutch and Belgian masters cover the walls here - and the collection of 15th and 16th-century works shares space with more modern classics from the likes of Picasso, Goya and Seurat.
It’s one of France’s largest art museums, and entirely in keeping with the studious, artistic, archly European feel of Lille as a city. Full-day tickets are 11 EUR, which is about 12.50 USD.
Palais des Beaux-Arts
Address: 18 Bis Rue de Valmy, 59000 Lille, France
Website: Palais des Beaux-Arts
6. Take in the Gothic splendor of Eglise Saint-Maurice
In any city such as Lille, with a feel for classic architecture, there will be at least one church worth visiting. In this case, the standout example is the Eglise Saint-Maurice on Rue de Paris. The truth about this church is that it has been built and rebuilt over the course of several centuries - however, each addition and makeover has been done to match the initial Gothic construction begun in the 14th-century.
You will notice walking around it how light and ethereal the church is - the reason for this is the thin, marshy soil of the region over the years, which necessitated that buildings in the area be light.
Address: 19 Parvis St Maurice, 59000 Lille, France
Website: Eglise Saint-Maurice de Lille
7. Shop 'til you drop at Braderie de Lille
This attraction is only available to those who visit Lille on the first weekend in September, but it is worth making arrangements to journey here especially. Europe’s largest flea market, it attracts more than two million people annually. Traders come from around Europe to be present here, and there is a period for “lèche-vitrine” (window shopping, to Anglophones!) on the Saturday morning before things really get going at 2pm.
Essentially, anything goes for the thrifty bargain hunter on a visit to this market which spreads over several streets. Antiques, vinyl records, intricate jewelry and - of course - clothes aplenty will draw you in, but keep a little money back for the food trucks that offer refueling opportunities to hungry shoppers. After all, it wouldn’t be France without a little fine dining, would it?
Braderie de Lille
Address: Lille City Centre
Website: Braderie de Lille (in French)
A trip to keep you coming back: Lille is an artistic, passionate jewel
Now, you could hop across the border easily and experience Belgium for a time - but if you stay in Lille you get the best of both worlds, a charming and amiably diverse city you’ll want to come back to. As a university town, you’re liable to meet people here who’ve grown up not far from you - wherever you come from in the world. It’s this easy mix that makes Lille attractive to such a broad range of visitors - including, hopefully, you!
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