It’s easy to hop on and hop off the Eurostar or TGV on your way to an adventure in France, or beyond – although Lille is increasingly becoming a destination in itself. The fun begins as soon as the train pulls in and everything you need is within walking distance; hotels, restaurants, the historical centre, cafés and museums.
According to the Atabula awards, Lille ranks number four in France for best city to eat at a restaurant, behind the classic trio of Bordeaux, Paris and Lyon. Local dishes are hearty and filling, like carbonnade or potjevleesch, and the quality cheeses and traditional beers are just some of the many enticements that Lille offers to foodies. While there are great restaurants, chic bistros and trendy bars and cafés, a truly unique experience is to settle at a table in an authentic estaminet, the name of the local restaurants serving traditional dishes in an understated and cozy atmosphere.
With a selection of world-class museums, great art galleries and fabulous exhibitions, there is so much to experience in Lille. Art is part of everyday life for the local Lilleoise, not something reserved for a select group. As a bonus, in just a short train or car ride, you are within easy reach of a whole host of other culture jewels like the Piscine de Roubaix or the outstanding Louvre Lens.
The city has maintained its historical role as a trade hub with its markets, fairs and an incredibly sophisticated selection of brand names and chic boutiques, not to mention the factory outlets in Roubaix where you scoop up awesome bargains. But what Lille is best known for, are the vibrant markets. Once a year the city turns into one giant flea market for the Braderie de Lille, and every week in the local markets there are food stalls brimming with delicious produce, cheeses and gourmet delicacies, and booksellers gather at the Old Stock Exchange. Don’t miss the huge Christmas market, it is one of the most popular in France.
Parades, carnivals, fairs, concerts… there is something going on year-round. There’s nothing the Lillois love more than a rollicking street party – they even have a soup festival. Any excuse is a good one!
It doesn’t matter if you stay in a multi-star hotel or in a bed & breakfast. The people of Lille love sharing their typically French ‘art de vivre’ with their own special ingredient, the friendly Ch’ti welcome that they are famous for.
If exams and stiff history lectures have beaten the joy of learning out of you, Lille is a great city to remember that history can be fun, because it has a relaxed attitude to its big-deal heritage. The city is an open-air museum, where you can mix it up with a visit to the Citadelle, a great military fortress dating back to the King Louis XIV, then stop for an aperitif on the way to a visit to the Old Stock Exchange to roll back the clock to the Renaissance.
Walking around Lille is like looking through a kaleidoscope of architectural style. The Flemish houses, the façades around the Grande Place, the vestiges of Spanish rule, Haussman-style, Art Nouveau and Art Déco; there’s a focal point of interest at every turn.
The north of France is known for its penchant for a good beer – the proximity to Belgium and England certainly doesn’t hurt the beer culture. Wherever you are in the city, you are never far from a trendy bar or a traditional estaminet to put up your feet and sample the local specialities.
This may not make sense until you try them, but Lille’s gaufre fourée alone is a solid reason why you should be booking your trip right now. They unlike any other waffle in that it’s really a paper-thin sandwich filled with a fluffy vanilla cream. They have been big hit for more than 250 years, to the delight of kings and queens and a number one favourite of a certain Lille native, Charles de Gaulle.
The traditional cheese of the North is the pungent Maroilles, legendary for its whiffiness – and the local Lille version is even stinkier. The Vieux-Lille cheese, also called Gris de Lille or Vieux Puant (old stinker), is a bit of an acquired taste, but will definitely make for a conversation topic with friends back home. Just don’t attempt to pack it in your luggage. It ranks among the stinkiest cheeses in France, and that’s no small claim when you think that the country has more than 400 varieties.