There are some obvious choices for a European city break, but there are many less popular ones that have lots to recommend them. The French city of Lille offers a cocktail of culture, cobbled streets, quirky shops, great places to eat and a park within walking distance of the centre…the perfect mix for a perfect city break.
Close to the border with Belgium, Lille was originally Flemish and the evidence is still visible, particularly in the food where traditional estaminet style bistros have had a revival and in some of the architecture, which reminded me of a previous visit to Brussels.
Getting to Lille from the UK couldn’t be easier. Eurostar has a direct train line there, or it’s less than a 90 minute drive from the Eurotunnel exit in Calais. Parking in the city seemed plentiful though probably best arranged in advance with your hotel. I stayed at the Best Western Up in Place des Reigneaux which was comfortable, good value and perfectly located for walking around the city centre.
As with many European cities, at the heart of Lille is a large impressive square, the Grand Place. Needless to say there’s a fountain and some interesting buildings, but the one that captures the eye most quickly is the Vieille Bourse, the former stock exchange. Most definitely Flemish in flavour, the building has a courtyard that’s now home to chess players and stalls selling second-hand books. Opposite the Bourse is Le Furet du Nord, Europe’s biggest book shop.
Out the other side and you’re in Place du Theatre and facing the Lille Opera House. I hadn’t clocked it before going there, but Lille was European City of Culture back in 2004 and there’s plenty of evidence to demonstrate why. Other highlights include the Palais des Beaux-Arts, which holds France’s second biggest collection of art after the Louvre and Musee de l’Hospice Comtessse, a 13th century former charitable hospital where displays include paintings, tapestries and wood carvings.
My favourite cultural highlight was actually just outside of Lille, in the nearby town of Roubaix. La Piscine has been converted from an Art Deco municipal swimming baths into a fabulous art gallery, where instead of ripping the pool out it’s been used as the stunning central attraction. It’s one of those places where you just keep taking photos and have to really focus to turn your attention to the art works rather than their setting.
The pool building has been combined with an old weaving mill to create a wonderful space where sculptures line the edge of the water and the former shower cubicles are filled with applied textiles, ceramics and fashion. 19th and 20th century paintings are also plentiful and the cafe leads to a terrace overlooking an indoor garden filled with textile plants.
I can’t remember when I’ve enjoyed a holiday visit to a gallery more and we topped it off with a walk down to the Roubaix-Grand Place metro station where we drank a late afternoon glass of Rose outside a bar with a live band and a view of the rather grand Hotel de Ville.
In front of the Roubaix town hall that Sunday was a lively flower market – the third market we’d seen that day having visited two earlier in the morning. First we jumped on the metro for a couple of stops to a residential area called Wazemmes. The market there is huge and sells everything from clothes, bags and shoes to flowers, antiques and books. Around it are food stalls and vans, bars with outside tables and oddly lots of mobile phone shops. Its busy and bustling, packed with locals stocking up for the week, particularly in the covered market where colourful vegetables vie for space with meat, fish and tempting French cheeses.
Back in the centre we walked through the cobbled old town lined with brightly painted buildings to the top of Rue de la Monnaie and found another smaller and much less hectic Sunday morning market in Place du Concert. Oysters and other stalls with speciality food like mushrooms and cheeses are much more the order of the day here.
Talking of food there’s no shortage of places to eat and drink in Lille. We had a delicious Saturday evening dinner at L’assiette du Marche in Rue de la Monnaie and then found Le Dandy in Rue Basse, a great little bar on three levels and packed with a quirky mix of furniture. The stairs are pretty narrow and steep, but the upper rooms are nicer and its worth it for the cocktails, which are an experience to watch being presented as well as to taste.
On Sunday evening we went to to Clair de Lune on Rue Gand, a street where there are lots of restaurants to choose from but we were glad we picked this one. The food was great and there was live music which created a perfect ambience without being intrusive. The next day we decided to try an estaminet for lunch before heading home and picked Au Vieux Vieille which sits on a lovely tiny square Place aux Oignons, though the address is Rue des Vieux Murs. It has tables in the square as well as inside where the walls and surfaces are covered with jugs, wicker baskets, old pictures and dried hops. The food is Flemish and one friend and I both had the regional cheese tart which arrived looking quite different to each other on our plates but both tasted great.
To work up an appetite for lunch we’d taken a short walk out of the town to the Citadel, an impressive fortress built in the 17th century to help protect France’s borders. It’s star shaped and essentially a self contained town which is still used by the French Rapid Reaction Corps. Visiting inside is possible if arranged in advance through the Lille tourist office, but the park that surrounds the Citadel is lovely to walk around and has a nice children’s play area near the car park.
So I’ll be going back to Lille to see inside that intriguing fortress and also to spend time in some of the many shops. As it was a UK bank holiday weekend we went Saturday to Monday but found that most shops were closed on Sunday and Monday morning. We clearly found plenty of other things to keep us busy, but also saw lots of lovely looking shops that added to everything else we liked about Lille will definitely mean a return visit in the not too distant future.
Click on an image below to scroll through the gallery.