Start your day off with breakfast at Paul, just a stone’s throw from the Grand’ Place. Although this chain is now found in the UK, it is the truly authentic petit-déjeuner experience – freshly baked bread, all manner of croissants, pastries and pain au chocolat, as well as rich coffee and fabulous chocolat chaud, all served within magnificently tiled surroundings.
Paul, 8–12 rue de Paris, Lille, France, +33 3 20 8 20 78
Getting lost among the cobbles and gables of Lille’s old town is one of the greatest gifts the city has to offer. Join chattering window-shoppers and sophisticated couples on its quaint streets where 17th-century buildings house shops selling antiques, well-thumbed books, and fragrant soaps. Some of Lille’s best-known sights are found in the old quarter: the striking Notre Dame Cathedral, with its crypt-based art gallery, and the Musée de L’Hospice Comtesse, a former hospital ward-turned-city museum.
From the old town, head southeast (or get the métro to Gambetta) to Lille’s lively Wazemmes quarter, home to a buzzing market that will really ravage your senses. As you approach the red-brick market hall, you’ll wander past stalls of bric-a-brac and antiques, chickens and rabbits, plump artichokes and blanched chicory. Inside, you’ll smell salty heaps of seafood and garlic chicken on spits mixed together with fragrant blooms, as the food and flower halls combine. It’s a fantastic place to mosey and nibble, sampling regional cheeses and saucisson. But don’t commit to just one thing for lunch; just let your senses guide you – and keep your wallet at hand.
The greatest legacy of Lille’s time as European Capital of Culture in 2004, the Maisons Folies are both a celebration of the past and a gift to the future. Disused industrial buildings have been transformed into museums, galleries, libraries and even party venues – each folie an exciting space adapted to suit the vibe of the quarter in which it resides. Within the 19th-century textile factory in Wazemmes, you’ll see concerts and artistic exhibitions; however, locals also wanted a Turkish bath, so architect Lars Spuybroek built a deluxe sauna. Now owned by spa giants Zeïn Oriental, you can indulge in a hammam or massage while admiring the beautiful tilework.
Maisons Folies, 70 rue des Sarrazins, Lille, France, +33 3 20 31 47 80
Walk back along rue Gambetta to place de la République, where you’ll find France’s second museum after Paris’ Louvre, the Palais des Beaux-Arts. Originally brought to Lille by Napoleon, it is a truly awe-inspiring collection. The brick-red walls are lined with some of the world’s greatest artworks, from Monets and Van Goghs to Goyas and Picassos. The three-floor gallery is home to a catalog of treasures that should not be rushed, so factor in a couple of hours for your visit.
Palais des Beaux-Arts, pl de la République, Lille, France, +33 3 20 06 78 00
From place de la République, head northeast on rue du Molinel (or hop on the métro from Wazemmes) towards the modern and ever-growing Euralille district, crowned by a gargantuan shopping empire and futuristic casino. With 140 shops, hotels and nightclubs spread over two stories, Euralille is one of France’s biggest shopping centers – a true haven for those who love a bargain. If high-end consumerism isn’t for you, join the rollerblade fraternity and take a late afternoon stroll through nearby Parc Henri Matisse, home to a number of interesting artworks installed for Lille’s celebrations as European Capital of Culture in 2004.
By now you’ll be wanting to rest those legs, and there is nowhere better to do it than on Grand’ Place, the heartbeat of the city where people come to drink coffee, meet friends, and, at Christmas, ride the giant Ferris wheel. As the light fades, indulge in some people-watching and admire the magnificent mix of architecture, whether Renaissance or Art Deco. If your feet can manage it, head over to the exquisite Vieille Bourse, arguably the most beautiful building in town, a haven for antiquarians, bibliophiles, and, on summer Sunday evenings, tango dancers.
High-end restaurants serving Michelin-starred meals, traditional estaminets with red-checkered tablecloths, Belgian bistros dishing up piles of moules-frites – Lille has it all when it comes to dining options. Those wanting a traditional Lillois experience need only follow their noses, as the city’s streets are lined with brasserie upon brasserie serving traditional fares such as carbonnade or waterzooï, the famous Flemish beef or fish stews. Nobody should leave Lille without trying a regional beer, so on your way back to the station, pop into Les Trois Brasseurs and order a palette – a tray of the four best bières Lille has to offer.
Les Trois Brasseurs, 18 pl de la Gare, Lille, +33 3 20 06 46 25
By Laura Pidgley