Lille Guide: Planning Your Trip

The main square in Lille, northern France

Laurent Ghesquiere / OT Lille

Lille, a lively city in northern France, located an hour from Brussels and two hours from Paris, makes a perfect stop-off if you're headed to France from the U.K. on the high-speed train or ferry. This ancient trading center and the fourth largest city in France is steeped deep in history and houses museums, cathedrals, and World War I battlegrounds, making it a must-see on any history buff's itinerary. With a great selection of restaurants, Lille is known as a foodie enclave, famous mostly for its perfectly flaky pastries and Meert vanilla wafers. Lille is deservedly popular for its vibrant nightlife (thanks to the large student population), chic shopping, and a full range of lodging options, from classical downtown inns to luxury resorts. Don't miss a performance from Lille's notable symphony orchestra, Orchestre National de Lille, while immersing yourself in cultural attractions to suit all tastes.

Planning Your Trip

  • Best Time to Visit: The best times to visit Lille are during the late spring, early summer, and in the fall. The Lille 3000, a biennial art fair takes place at the end of April. June offers long, sunny days, perfect for squeezing in the most sites. In September, 2 million people descend on Lille for its annual flea market; and the Christmas Market also makes a good outing, if you don't mind visiting during the rainiest month of December.
  • Language: French is the main language spoken in Lille, although Flemish is still spoken in some areas of the countryside.
  • Currency: The euro is the official currency used in Lille, as in all of France.
  • Getting Around: Lille is very easy to navigate on foot. It’s nicely compact and offers a good metro and tram system that can take you to many sights, like the museums in Roubaix and Tourcoign. Driving in this city, by contrast, is a bit of a nightmare. Still, if you decide to bring a car, some of the larger hotels will valet it for you, for a fee, and then you can take public transportation from there.
  • Travel Tip: If you eat at a local restaurant or cafe, it is customary to tip your waitstaff. Tip amounts can range from 7 to 15 percent of the total bill, depending on the range of the dining establishment.

A Bit of History

Dating back to 1066, Lille was considered part of the estates of the powerful counts of Flanders. When Baudoin IX became the emperor of Constantinople in 1204, the family’s fortunes were sealed and dynastic marriages throughout the centuries brought wealth and prestige. Lille became an important trading center, strategically located on the road between Paris and the Low Countries. You can see some of this ancient past today in the cobblestone streets that make up Vieux Lille (Old Lille).

Lille became a textile city, moving from tapestry manufacturing, to cotton, and then to linen in the 18th century. Its outlying towns, Tourcoign and Roubaix, produced wool. Modernization brought casualties, however, as peasants from the countryside poured into the cities in search of work and were housed in shocking conditions. Heavy industry followed, and inevitably declined, along with the fortunes of this region of France.

During World War I, the Battle of Fromelles took place just outside Lille. This first important battle, involving Australian troops, was said to be the bloodiest 24 hours in Australian military history, with 5,533 Australians and 1,547 English soldiers being killed, injured, or left missing. The memorial of this battle still stands today and can be visited alongside the battlefield for a glimpse into history.

In the 1990s the unemployment rate in Lille was high. But the arrival of Eurostar (the high-speed train)—championed by the mayor—restored the city’s position as the major hub of northern France. The new train station became the heart of the city's downtown and marked the turning point for Lille's commercial revival. In 2004, Lille was deemed the "European Capital of Culture" and the French government poured money into revitalizing the city and the suburbs, making it the largest and most vibrant city in the region.

Things to Do

Lille is the place to be if you want to discover the country's prized arts, architecture, shops, and historical sights. Spend one day visiting museums, and another touring battlefields, then wrap things up with a visit to one of France's biggest shopping centers, where you can buy souvenirs and other items to commemorate your trip.

  • Palais des Beaux Arts: This museum is France’s second-largest art museum, aside from the Louvre. It’s packed with works by artists like Rubens, Van Dyck, and Goya. French impressionists, like Monet, and artists like Picasso, also have works that decorate the museum's walls. This art museum also houses prints and drawings, as well as 17th- and 18th-century ceramics, 19th-century French sculptures, and 18th-century scale models.
  • Musée de l’Hospice Comtesse (Museum of the Hospice of the Countess): Admire a building dating back to the 13th century, as this museum is full of old furniture, paintings, and odd objects, like globes and instruments meant to "measure the heavens." There's a chapel on one side of the cobbled courtyard which acts as a venue for concerts and events.
  • Center Commercial Euralille: located between the two main railway stations, this shopping center is one of France’s biggest and contains household names, like Adidas and Levis, as well as specialty shops, like Naf Naf and MAC. There is also a pharmacy, a bank, and two travel agencies nestled among the shops.
  • Ancienne Bourse: Standing to the east of Grand Place, this red brick and orange, 17th-century building is a testament to the fact the Lille was, above all, a mercantile and trading city. The region surrounding this former Chamber of Commerce contained 24 houses situated around a central courtyard, which today, is home to a second-hand book market.
  • Notre-Dame-de-la-Treille: This neo-gothic cathedral, located just off Rue de la Monnaie, was constructed in the mid-19th century, but due to various financial vicissitudes, it was not completed until the year 1999. Inside, its modern stained glass and extraordinarily large west doors stand out as architectural highlights. Sculptor George Jeanclos, a Holocaust survivor, used a barbed-wire motif on his works inside to symbolize human suffering and dignity in the face of the horrors of life.
  • Citadelle de Lille: Created by Vauban on the orders of Louis XIV after he had taken Lille, this historical building is still occupied today by the French army. Visit the complex, through a guided tour, by entering the Porte Royale into a huge courtyard with buildings scattered around the perimeter. You'll need to book your tour in advance at the Tourist Office.
  • World War I battlefields: Just outside of Lille, in Somme, Fromelles, Vimy Ridge, and Ypres, lie famous battlefields. Touring these sites will take you on a blood-ridden journey through history, as you learn about some of the biggest, and most victorious, battles that took place on these grounds.

For more attractions and details, see our guide to the top attractions in and around Lille.

What to Eat and Drink

Located just 30 miles from the Belgium border, Lille's cuisine offers a peek into the French Flanders way of life, with its mussels cooked in beer broth (moules frites), potjevleesch (an unpronounceable layered meat and vegetable casserole), waffles, and pastries. Nearly everything is cooked in beer (not wine) in this Northern part of France and you’re spoilt for choice in this city of famed restaurants.

Fish lovers should try Aux Moules de Lille, a classic little fish restaurant specializing in mussels cooked nine ways. Shrimp croquettes also grace the menu here, as do signature seafood platters and lobster. Le Barbier qui fume prides itself on its traditional slow-cooked meat, perfectly smoked to preserve all the vitamins, nutrients, and tenderness. A former butcher’s shop on the ground floor, this space is now filled with tables, alongside its upstairs dining room, serving imaginative local ranch-inspired dishes. On their menu, you'll find classics like gravlax trout, various meat pates, and beef brisket. Lille-based brasseries, like Brasserie de la Paix, which despite being on the main tourist square, is mostly favored by locals, changes its menu every two weeks, offering both seafood and meat dishes to highlight what's in season.

For sweets, Patisserie Meert (27 Rue Esquermoise) is the place to visit to sample the region's specialty waffles or to indulge in cakes and chocolates in a magnificent setting. And, for drink, this Dutch-influenced town is known for its small-batch beer breweries (it's not wine country around here), and B-148 has over 20 of the local favorites on tap.

Where to Stay

Lille has an extra good offering of hotels that put you smack dab in the middle of the tourist sights, whether you're visiting to see the historical architecture, to experience the local arts, to shop, or to eat and drink your way through the city. A traveler's favorite is the solidly old-fashioned, but extremely comfortable, Hotel Carlton. It's located right in the heart of the city's historic center, only a six-minute walk to the Lille Cathedral, a one-minute walk to the Old Stock Exchange, and just down the street from Rihour Square. This 59-room hotel is also close to two train stations, making getting out of town a breeze.

If you're in Lille to shop, make sure to stay in the heart of the city's center, especially if you're visiting in December during the Christmas Market. That said, the eclectic Wazemmes neighborhood is the place to be during the flea market. This area's Asian and Arabic influences yield fantastic food stalls for when you tire from French Flanders comfort food.

Amateur art critics may want to book their lodging in Place de la République to be close to the art museums, Le Palais des Beaux Arts de Lille and Palace of Fine Arts, and a magnificent fountain. This is also ground zero for many civic demonstrations, so the people-watching is fantastic. Hôtel Couvent Des Minimes offers a stay in an architectural wonder, complete with its historical facade, modernly luxurious rooms, and a breathtaking atrium.

Getting There

Lille-Lesquin International Airport is located 10 kilometers (6 miles) from the center of Lille. An airport shuttle (located at door A) gets you into the center of Lille in 20 minutes. The airport offers service from all the major French cities, as well as from Venice, Geneva, Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia.

You can also take the high-speed TGV or Eurostar trains, with service from Paris, Roissy, and major French cities to the Lille-Europe station, which is about a five-minute walk into the city's center. Regional trains from Paris and other cities arrive at Gare Lille-Flandres railway station. The historical building was originally Paris’s Gare du Nord, but was brought to Lille brick by brick in 1865.

By car, Lille is 222 kilometers (137 miles) from Paris, making the trip around 2 hours and 20 minutes on toll roads. And, if you’re coming from the UK by ferry, the Calais Ferry Port is an easy 111-kilometer (69-mile) boat ride, taking around 1 hour and 20 minutes.

Money Saving Tips

  • For those keen on hitting all the tourist spots, purchase the Lille City Pass. It gives you access to 28 museums and historical sites, local transport (the metro, tram, and bus), plus VIP deals for shopping and nightlife.
  • Hit the town on foot and carry your own water. Lille is small enough to be circumnavigated in one day, and carrying a water bottle will save you 1.44 euros a pop.
  • If you choose to get around the city by taxi, purchase a monthly pass, especially if you're staying for multiple weeks.
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