When you’re in need of a quick getaway, Eurostar breaks to Lille should be top of your list. Less than an hour and a half away by train, this underrated northern city has bags of charm. Proud of its French and Flemish heritage, Lille is a good place to visit for shopping hauls and cultural thrills alike. A day trip to Lille is perfectly possible: hop on the Eurostar in time for mid-morning coffee and waffles, then spend the rest of the day exploring the delightful old town and sampling local cuisine. Two days in Lille will give you more time to explore, whether you’re in the market for microbreweries, indie shops or remarkable museums and art galleries – so why not extend your stay?
Pack your best walking shoes: much like its Flemish cousins Bruges and Ghent, Lille is a joy to discover on foot. You could easily spend a day walking between Old Lille’s distinctive red-brick buildings, Unesco-protected monuments and fascinating museums. If you’re a fan of architecture, don’t miss Villa Cavrois, a modernist icon built by Robert Mallet-Stevens. Working up an appetite will pay off: the local cuisine is excellent, whether you’re in the mood for tasty Flemish stews or light-as-air sweet treats. Make sure you leave plenty of room in your suitcase: Lille’s boutiques and markets are the perfect place to stock up on farmhouse cheeses, antique finds and the latest fashions.
A holiday in Lille can feel a little like stepping back through time: the pocket-sized Vieux Lille packs in grand 17th-century buildings, Gothic churches and several landmarks worth a visit. Get your bearings at the Grand Place, the city’s central square, pop in to the Vieille Bourse – a Renaissance stock exchange now hosting second-hand book stalls – or climb up the belfry for sweeping city views. For a culture fix, head to the Palais des Beaux Arts or the LaM museum, Lille’s modern-art treasure trove. If you’re staying a while, Roubaix’s La Piscine is worth a day trip: the converted art deco swimming pool is now home to a great museum. Need more inspiration? Here’s what to do in Lille.
Reworked in the 1890s in Belle Époque style, the grand Palais des Beaux-Arts houses one of the largest collections of fine arts in France, second only to the Louvre’s. Its vast halls and rooms showcase real treasures, much of them seized during the revolution or looted by Napoleon’s armies. Today, it’s a handy spot to brush up on art history, from ancient Egyptian figurines to 20th century sculptures. Look out for Auguste Rodin’s sensual marbles, monumental works by Flemish master Peter Paul Rubens and Claude Monet’s delicate painting of London’s Houses of Parliament.
Built over four centuries, this elegant church cuts a fine figure in the historic centre of Lille. Don’t be fooled by its Gothic good looks: its current state is the result of various restorations, enlargements and even arson stretching all the way back to the Middle Ages. It’s worth stepping inside its barn-like interior for a sense of its huge scale, an effect typical of the Flanders region created by five naves of the same height. During the revolution, the church was converted into an atheist “Temple of Reason”, complete with a statue of liberty and bucolic trompe-l'oeil scenes. It now houses 17th and 18th century paintings by local artists – a true slice of local history.
A 20-minute walk from the Grand Place, the lively and diverse neighbourhood of Wazemmes draws locals and visitors alike, thanks to its bustling market and family-friendly atmosphere. Its old-school covered food market, Les Halles de Wazemmes, has been going since 1869 and only closes on Mondays. It’s a popular destination for visitors keen to stock up on local delicacies such as smoked garlic, mimolette cheese and regional sausages. On Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays, the market spills out onto the square and neighbouring streets. It’s a festive affair, complete with live music and dancing, vintage stalls and tempting street food from Lille’s vibrant immigrant communities.
A symbol of Lille’s past trading glory, the Vieille Bourse once served as the stock exchange when the city was under Spanish rule. 24 merchant houses, built in the same ornamental style, surround an arched inner courtyard, now home to a second-hand book market. Though many of the used tomes, comic books and old newspapers on offer are in French, you’ll find some in English and even in Ch’ti, the local dialect. Better yet are the maps and vintage posters – just the thing to liven up a bare wall at home. The Vieille Bourse is an attractive spot for a lazy promenade, and popular with local chess players; come summer, you’ll find tango dancers practising their steps here on Sunday evenings.
Also known as the Place du Général de Gaulle in honour of Lille’s most famous son, the Grand Place acts as Lille’s central hub. Mostly pedestrianised, it’s a convenient location from which to strike out to explore the city. The Goddess statue towering over its modest but perfectly formed fountain is a handy meeting point for locals. In December, the square transforms with stalls, lights and decorations as the Christmas market and fair set up shop here. It’s a good refuelling spot year-round, too: take your pick from fast-food joints, café terraces and hip coffee shops and eateries.
Lille has long been a popular destination for shoppers crossing the Channel to stock up on French goods; conveniently, you’ll find a large shopping centre just by Lille Europe station. But there’s a lot more to bargain-hunting in Lille. Once a centre for cloth production, the city has gone big on fashionista-friendly concept stores such as interiors emporium Momentum or Salty Days, a one-stop lifestyle hub with Californian vibes and a secret yoga studio. For a thoughtful gift, La Part Française is worth seeking out: the stylish shop only stocks products made in France.
20 minutes east of the city centre, the LaM Museum is worth the detour. Set in a green and sprawling sculpture park, this cultural destination is still for many an undiscovered gem. Its prestigious collection brings together artworks from some of the biggest names in modern art such as Braque, Modigliani, Picasso and Miró. Alongside these masterpieces, you’ll find an impressive display of Art Brut from the museum’s extensive archives, as well as exhibitions of contemporary and outsider art. With any luck, you might even catch one of the cutting-edge seasonal shows.
Resolutely French and distinctly Flemish, Lille is a city that’s proud of its mixed heritage. If you’re wondering where to eat in Lille, it might be useful to determine what to eat in Lille first. Many of neighbouring Belgium’s staple dishes are popular: carbonade flamande (a rich beef and beer stew), moules frites and even waffles make an appearance on menus here too. The region is also known for its pungent cheeses, which you’ll find in the quiche-like confections of flamiche and tarte au maroilles. Lillois have a sweet tooth, which the city’s fine patisseries and chocolatiers cater to. Lille has been quietly making its mark on the gastronomic stage: here are some of the best places to eat in Lille.
While there’s much to enjoy in the region’s traditional fare, there’s no shortage of modern restaurants in Lille cooking up a storm. Bang-on-trend Bloempot puts a fresh spin on Flemish cuisine in its organic tasting menus. Careful plating and seasonal produce have earned Le Restaurant du Cerisier one Michelin star; there’s a brasserie downstairs, too, for more casual meals. Pared-down bistro Restaurant Sébastopol’s short menu makes the most of local produce. Don’t miss Rouge Barre’s seven-course feasts, or Ripaille’s budget-friendly menu on gourmet hot spot rue des Bouchers.
A street-food scene may seem unlikely in this stronghold of regional cuisine, but Lille has even launched its own annual Street Food Festival. A five-minute walk from Grand Place, new foodie temple Grand Scène is leading the charge in this culinary reinvention. Stop by to sample delicious tacos, proper burgers and other treats from 10 kitchens, all of which take care to source their produce locally. There’s a coffee shop and two bars on site, plus a regular programme of events: live match screenings, say, or yoga brunches and pop-up shops from local designers.
If you’re more sweet than savoury, make a beeline for Meert, Lille’s postcard-perfect pastry shop selling artisanal jams, teas and chocolates. Don’t leave without a taste of their signature waffle, a crispy brioche confection filled with vanilla cream. For something just as moreish, try Aux Merveilleux de Fred’s bite-sized garnished meringues. Near the cathedral, Chouchou specialises in cream choux, with flavours ranging from classic salted caramel to delicate jasmine tea. Quentin Bailly is another local favourite thanks to his tasty pralines, chocolate bars and other macarons.
There’s no best time to visit Lille – city breaks are a year-round pleasure. Summer is of course a delight, if only for a chance to sample craft ales in Brique House’s funky beer garden. Spring is equally appealing: take a trip east to the LaM Museum, or head west to explore the Citadel Park, which circles a still functioning 17th-century fortress. Bring empty suitcases for autumn’s Grande Braderie, the annual flea market during which thousands of sellers take over Lille’s streets. Winter is a time for cosy day trips: browse for presents in indie shops, drop in on the Lille Christmas market, and make time for a warming lunch at a traditional estaminet.