Lille is the largest city in northern France and home to Europe’s biggest flea market. Although it does not possess the grandeur of Paris, Lille is a charming historical town with much to offer, not to mention a cheaper alternative.
With its cobbled streets, tall townhouses and lush parks, Lille is a beautiful place to explore by day, and there is no shortage of restaurants and nightlife to extend your visit into the evening. Easy to reach from London, Paris or Brussels, it’s the perfect place for a day trip.
Here is our guide to help you make the most of your day in Lille.
Explore Lille: narrow streets and secret courtyards
You step off your train at Gare Lille Europe, and head to La Grand’ Place for a coffee and viennoiserie. The people of Lille, les Lillois, are already making their way across the mismatched cobble stones of the square, which only a few months ago was crowded with Christmas Market stalls, overlooked by la grande roue. A waiter arrives with your breakfast, just as the sun hits the buildings opposite, revealing the ornate Flemish architecture in shades of red, orange and pink.
You turn onto Rue Esquermoise which leads you into the Vieux Lille, the old town part of the city. The narrow streets are lined with bars and restaurants, boutiques and chocolate shops, and as you wander you come across obscured courtyards and tiny marketplaces.
Don’t forget to take some time to explore the shops: independent fashion boutiques, antique shops and wine cellars. There is a convivialité in Lille that Paris doesn’t have, and people shop slowly, like the flâneurs who are always associated with the City of Light.
You’ll then soon find yourself at the Vieille Bourse, the city’s old stock exchange, situated in a courtyard of breathtaking beauty. The entrances are marked with stone carvings of Turkish turbaned heads and lions; the stalls inside sell antique books, old newspapers, posters and collectibles. This is the place to unearth a precious French antique!
An indulgent day in Lille: art and quality chocolate
In the mood to admire some artwork? Then the Palais des Beaux Arts is the place to be. The largest French museum outside Paris and easily accessible by Lille’s simple metro line, it is world-renowned for its fine arts.
Here you can enjoy paintings from the 15th century, pottery, classical archaeology, medieval statuary and 18th century scale models of the fortified cities of northern France and Belgium. All for seven euros.
Next stop: Méert. A tearoom and chocolate shop that opened in 1761, it is housed in a building that was given a flamboyant, Pompeiian style by the architect Benvignat. Trained in confectionery, Michael Paulus Gislinus Méert took over the shop in 1849, creating the fabulous gaufre filled with vanilla that the shop is still famous for today.
A couple of minutes of lèche vitrine – or window-shopping, which the French call, quite literally, window licking – is mouthwatering enough.
Inside the shop, brightly wrapped boxes of chocolates, caramels and candied chestnuts call your name, but you are momentarily distracted by the tea room on the other side, where guests savour delicate patisseries and herbal tea beneath a giant chandelier.
Leisurely Lille: sample the cuisine of Northern France and take a walk in the park
All this has made you hungry, so you go on a search for food, aware that the region of Nord-Pas-de-Calais is known for its Tarte aux Maroilles, Carbonade Flamande and Moules marinières.
Restaurants in Lille are reasonably priced and you can get a steaming plate of moules frites for an average of 11 euros. We would recommend La Brasserie de la Paix, which offers a traditional meal. Spoiled for choice, you’ll have a hard time choosing between the roasted pigeon and foie gras stew and the pan-fried scallops with truffle and cream ravioli.
More than satisfied, it is now time to take an afternoon walk, and Le Jardin Vauban is a beautiful place for just that. Created in 1863 by chief landscaper and architect of Paris, Jean-Pierre Barillet-Dechamps, it is an English-style garden with small pathways running through, decorated with ponds, water basins and monuments to historical figures of Lille such as Charles de Gaulle. Locals go there to picnic or for a morning jog and there is also a puppet theatre in the heart of the garden from April to October.
Then, just a short walk away is the small Parc Zoologique de Lille. Home to beautiful birds, primates, reptiles, rhinos and zebras, you can spend an hour here to relax, free of charge.
Lille live: catch a show before you leave…
As daylight begins to fade you make your way to La Gare Saint Sauveur. Originally a goods station, it is now a space used for art exhibitions, concerts and live spectacles that encompass the diversity and freshness of Lille’s cultural scene. You catch an early show – again, free of charge. It’s the perfect opportunity to listen to some French music and mix with the locals.
Puis, it’s time to go. You hop onto a train, and you’re in London in an hour. You reflect on your day in Lille. It isn’t Paris, no. But…dare you say it? When it comes to inexpensive patisseries, old book markets, leisurely walks through green trees in the middle of a city and free entertainment – Lille is even better!
Lille address book
Gare Lille Europe– 1 Place Francois-Mitterand 59777
Vieille Bourse– Place Charles de Gaulle 59000
Palais des Beaux Arts– 18 Bis Rue de Valmy 59000
Méert– 27 Rue Esquermoise 59800
La Brasserie de la Paix– 25 Place Rihour 59000
Jardin Vauban– Boulevard Vauban, Quai Léon Jouhaux 59000
Parc Zoologique de Lille– Avenue Mathias Delobel 59000
La gare Saint Sauveur– Boulevard Jean-Baptiste Lebas 59800
Have you been to Lille? What did you like most about this historic town? Let us know in the comments.
1-5 © Stephanie Williamson
6. Untitled via lamaisondujardinvauban.fr
7. La gare Saint Sauveur via blog.zoomon.fr