At under 1 hr 30 mins from London by train, Lille is the perfect place to visit for a day trip or a short break. You can spend the morning shopping in the old town, drop into Meert for coffee and waffles, have a hearty plate of moules frites (mussels and chips) for lunch, then pop into the massive Carrefour hypermarket, next to the station, to stock up on fabulous French produce, and still be home in time for dinner and your favourite soap.
There’s plenty to do in Lille for longer stays too. Culturally, Lille has lots to offer, with its Gothic churches, 17th century old town and the largest fine-arts museum in France after the Louvre, all within easy walking distance of the station.
Lille is also home to the biggest flea market in Europe, which takes place throughout the town over the first weekend in September. The Braderie de Lille attracts over two million visitors every year, so make sure you book well in advance if you fancy browsing the stands for undiscovered masterpieces and future family heirlooms.
Located just south of the old centre of Lille, the Palais des Beaux-Arts museum is huge, second in size and number of exhibits only to the Louvre. It’s also a lot less crowded than the Louvre so, if you want to see fabulous paintings, sculpture and other artworks without having to queue for hours, hop on a train and spend your day here.
Take a friend for free, entrance is around €7 but with your Eurostar ticket you’ll get 2 for 1 entry. Look out for the two massive coloured glass lanterns in the lobby – not that you could miss them. Designed by Gaetano Pesce, these chandeliers weigh more than three tonnes apiece and are made from over 12,000 glass panels.
You’ll probably come across this church at some point as it’s slap bang in the middle of the old town. However, appealing though it is from the outside, it’s worth popping in for a visit. Entry is free and the interior is surprisingly light and airy for a gothic church.
This feeling of openness comes from the five equal-height naves, supported by rows of slim pillars which distribute the weight of the building evenly. An important structural measure when building on marshy ground in the days before reinforced concrete foundations. The resulting space is an open, ‘market hall’ style known as Hallekerque, which is brighter than typical gothic interiors.
The church also houses a good collection of 17th and 18th century paintings by local artists, as well as some stunning stained glass windows at the back.
Wazemmes is a working-class neighbourhood to the southwest of Lille centre, about a 20-minute walk from the Grand Place. The food market takes place every day, except Monday, in a covered building that dates back to 1869.
Open from 8am-8pm Tuesday to Saturday and 8am-3pm on Sundays, it’s a good place to go for coffee and a browse and pick up some local specialties. On Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays the market spills out of the main building and into the square in and around St-Pierre-St-Paul church, and turns into a much bigger, more general market.
You’ll still find food and drink, but also clothes, jewellery, bric-a-brac, vintage and second-hand goods. It’s one of the biggest markets in France, so prepare yourself for crowds, especially on Sundays.
The impressive 17th century Old Stock Exchange building is one of the best reminders that Lille, and most of Flanders, belonged to the Spanish crown up until 1667.
Built around a cloistered courtyard to protect traders from the elements, the building is made up of 24 individual houses, with an archway on each of the four exterior facades leading into the inner courtyard. The houses have shops on the ground floor and are ornately decorated in a Spanish-influenced style with detailed carving around the windows.
The building is no longer used as a stock exchange and instead the courtyard is now home to a second-hand book market where you can browse old tomes, vintage comic books, maps and posters.
This is the main central square in Lille, and is actually officially called Place du Général de Gaulle, in honour of the former French president who was a native of the town.
There are some great examples of 17th century Flemish buildings around the square, including the Old Stock Exchange. The Grand Place is a good starting point for a visit to the old town, as well as the perfect place to sit and have a drink or food in one of the many restaurants and bars that line the square.
In December the square is taken over by lights, stalls and rides as the Christmas market comes to town and the town Christmas tree is set up next to the big wheel.
Lille cuisine is, not surprisingly, strongly influenced by its proximity to Belgium. Restaurants serving Flemish specialities are known as estaminets and you will generally find hearty, warming dishes on their menus.
Carbonade Flamande - this is a slow cooked beef stew made with dark beer and slices of spice bread. As with most things in Lille, it is usually served with chips and washed down with beer.
Flamiche - this delicious puff pastry tart is a regional speciality made with leeks and cream.
Le Potjevleesch - often shortened to 'le potch'; this is a selection of different cuts of meat and herbs marinated in beer, then potted in jelly. It can be bought directly from butchers, who all have their own recipes, or made at home the day before you want to eat it. Le potch is usually served cold with chips (of course).
Moules frites - mussels and chips are found on most menus in this part of northern France and over the border into Belgium.
Mimolette - also known as 'Boule de Lille'; this semi-hard cow’s milk cheese has a distinctive orange colour and a nutty, caramel flavour.
Babelutte de Lille - These chewy caramel sweets are flavoured with honey or brown sugar.
Les Gaufres Meert – waffles in Lille are a different shape than traditional Belgian ones. In Lille you’ll find thin, elongated oval waffles, and in Meert they come filled with vanilla and other flavours.
The joy of shopping in Lille is that all the best shopping streets are within a short walk of each other so you won’t be exhausted by the end of the day.
The Euralille centre is just next to Lille Europe train station , making it very convenient for last minute shopping before boarding your train home. This big shopping complex has all the main French and international high street brands, such as Zara, Desigual, Levis and New Look. There is also a big Carrefour hypermarket for any grocery shopping you may want to do, and a Sephora for cosmetics and perfumes.
The main streets for boutiques and high-end shops are found around Grand Place and the old town. Head to Rue Esquermoise for design and home decor shops along with some food shops, including the famous Meert. Rue Basse and Rue Bartholomé Masurel, just around the corner, are where you’ll find quirky boutiques and food shops. Rue de la Clef is good for the smaller clothes shops and more hipster boutiques. The more upmarket shops are on Rue de la Grande Chaussée, which runs parallel. The main banks and Printemps, the big department store, are on Rue Nationale which runs south west from Grand Place.
Make a habit of it
The crypt of Notre Dame de la Treille cathedral houses a wonderful little shop that sells completely sin-free treats – organic body creams and essential oils – all made by hand in monasteries.
Pâtisserie and chocolaterie Maison Méert is a bit of a Lille institution (and rightly so). Founded in 1761, it sells some 300 delectable specialities, but it’s the signature gaufres fourrées – decadent crispy waffles stuffed with vanilla cream – that really put it on the map.
Put a bow-(tie) on it
This small-but-perfectly formed men’s concept store showcases a well-curated selection of brightly coloured accessories (think leather goods, ties and socks) from local creative talent.
Oh so bubbly
This elegant store stocks around 60 different types of the sparkling stuff, many from little-known producers, all carefully selected by owner Guillaume from France’s four Champagne regions.
Forget keyrings (although you can get them here, too) – this shop in Croix has far more interesting souvenirs, from beautiful Méert notebooks to teasing Ch’ti memorabilia (you know, the language and people of the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region).
This cheesemaker extraordinaire has 12 shops in France, including two in Lille, each with hundreds of different and unusual fromages. A gift basket filled with Roquefort, white port, dried figs and a beautiful Poilâne loaf is bound to put you on Santa’s ‘nice’ list.
There’s no shortage of amazing food shops in Lille, but the selection below are ones that you won’t want to miss.
This place is a 170-year-old Lille institution. There’s a restaurant/tea room at the back and a spectacular chocolate shop at the front. Service can be slow and the food is pricey, but worth it for the exquisite décor, just don’t go if you’re starving.
This patisserie on the corner of rue Masurel will stop you in your tracks. Even if you don’t go inside, the selection of macarons in the window will have you entranced. Spoil somebody and bring them back a box, there are 22 sweet flavours and five savoury flavours to choose from, including fois gras, and black or white truffle.
Take the small street directly opposite Meert to find this delightful little cheese shop, or just follow your nose! It’s part of a regional chain and has a fantastic selection of cheese to taste and buy. Pick up some local Maroilles to bring home – but be warned, it is pretty pungent.
If you fancy some nice crusty bread to go with your cheese purchases, you’ll find this famous bakery a bit further down Rue Esquermoise. They also sell some cakes and sandwiches if you want to eat on the go.
If you just walk past it in the street, this little shop looks like a high end perfume or cosmetics shop. Look a little closer and you’ll find the stylish pale wood shelves are stacked high with pots of jam. There are so many different flavours it will make your head spin and you can sample before you buy – bliss!
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