Why Visit Lille?
Lille in north France is an attractive, lively city. It makes a perfect short break if you’re coming from the U.K. or Brussels on Eurostar or by ferry, and the city is just a couple of hours drive north of Paris. With a very good selection of restaurants (it’s close to the Belgian border and the Belgians really appreciate good food), an excellent range of hotels, a vibrant nightlife thanks to the large student population, chic shopping, a notable symphony orchestra and cultural attractions for all tastes, Lille is deservedly popular.
- In the Nord Region (59
- Urban population: 226,827
- Capital of French Flanders
- Nearby towns and cities:
Brussels 111 km (69 mi) (1 hr 20 mins)
Calais 111 km (69 mi) 1 hr 20 mins
Arras 53 km (33 mi) 45 mins
Paris 222 kms (137 mi) 2 hrs 20 mins
- Tourist Office
Tel. from abroad: 00 33 (0)3 59 57 94 00
Tel. from France: 0891 56 2004 (0,225€ per minute)
Lille Tourist Office Website
How to Get to Lille
TGV and Eurostar services arrive from Paris, Roissy and major French cities at Lille-Europe station, which is about five minutes’ walk into the center.
Regional trains from Paris and other cities arrive at Gare Lille-Flandres, slightly closer to the center. This was originally Paris’s Gare du Nord, but was brought here brick by brick in 1865.
Lille is 222 kms (137 mi) from Paris and the trip takes around 2 hours 20 mins.
There are tolls on the motorways.
If you’re coming from the U.K. by ferry, Calais is a short and easy 111 kms (69mi) taking around 1 hr 20 mins. There are tolls on the motorways.
Lille-Lesquin International Airport is located 10 km from the center of Lille. An airport shuttle (from door A) gets you into the center of Lille in 20 minutes.
The airport has flights from major French cities, and also from Venice, Geneva, Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia.
Getting around Lille
Lille is something of a nightmare to drive around. If you’re booked into one of the larger hotels, such as the Carlton, they will garage your car for the length of your visit. It costs around 19 euros per 24 hours but is well worth it. You can get to the hotels by car, but the concierge will then safely take it from you.
Lille is very easy to navigate on foot. It’s nicely compact and there’s a good metro and tram system that you can use to get out to the museums in Roubaix and Tourcoign.
Where to Stay
Lille has a good range of hotels. My favorite is the solidly old-fashioned, but extremely comfortable Hotel Carlton. Right in the heart of Lille, but with proper soundproofing, the 60 rooms are well decorated and have good sized, well-equipped bathrooms. There's an excellent breakfast in the first floor dining room.
Where to Eat
You’re spoilt for choice in Lille for restaurants. Fish lovers should try L’Huîtrière, at 3 rue des Chats-Bossus, a magnificent fish shop and restaurant with a remarkable Art Deco interior. L’Ecume des Mers at 10 rue de Pas, also comes up trumps with groaning plateau de fruits de mer, loaded with crab, lobster, crayfish, mussels, cockles and other piscatorial delights in a buzzing, spacious restaurant.
If you’re after meat, don’t miss Le Barbier Lillois at 69 rue de la Monnaie. Former butcher’s shop on the ground floor, now with tables as well as the main meat counter and an upstairs dining room, serving imaginative, extremely good meat dishes. Two brasseries worth eating at are Brasserie de la Paix, which despite being on the main tourist square at 25 pl Rihour, is mostly favored by locals. Brasserie Andre is slightly more upmarket and old-fashioned, with an elegant décor and good a la carte menu. It's at 71 rue de Bethune.
What to do
Museums and Galleries
- The splendid Palais des Beaux Arts is France’s second museum after the Louvre. It’s packed with treasures, from works by the likes of Rubens, Van Dyck and Goya to French Impressionists such as Monet and modern artists like Picasso. Apart from the glorious European painting collections, there are prints and drawings as well as 17th- and 18th-century ceramics, 19th-century French sculptures and 18th-century scale models.
- Temporary exhibitions of international stature are held at the Tri Postal, the former sorting office next to the main Lille Flandres station.
- Don’t miss the charming Musée de l’Hospice Comtesse (Museum of the Hospice of the Countess) in a building dating back to the 13th century. It’s full of old furniture, paintings and odd objects such as globes and instruments to measure the heavens. The chapel is on one side of the cobbled courtyard and is the place for occasional concerts and events.
For more attractions and details, see my Guide to top attractions in and around Lille
Vieux Lille (Old Lille)
To the east of the Grand’ Place stands the warm red brick and orange 17th-century Ancienne Bourse, a testament to the fact the Lille was above all, a mercantile and trading city rather than a religious center. Once it contained 24 houses around the central courtyard which today is a second hand book market.
The place du Theatre houses the Opera, built at the beginning of the 20th century and now fully restored. It puts on good concerts, theatre and ballet all year round.
Walk north and you plunge into narrow cobbled streets like rue des Chats-Bossus and rue de la Monnaie, all of which are worth strolling through, shopping in, getting lost and stopping at any of the bars, cafes or restaurants that fill the area.
The neo-gothic cathedral Notre-Dame-de-la-Treille, just off rue de la Monnaie, was begun in the mid-19th century but due to various financial vicissitudes, was not completed until 1999. Inside, it’s impressive for its modern stained glass and the extraordinary huge west doors which were created by sculptor George Jeanclos. The Holocaust survivors took a barbed-wire motif to symbolize human suffering and dignity in the face of the horrors of life.
Still occupied by the Army, the Citadel was created by Vauban on the orders of Louis XIV after he had taken Lille. You enter through the Porte Royale into a huge space with buildings scattered around the perimeter. You can only visit by guided tours (you need to book in advance at the Tourist Office and is only in French).
The Lille zoo just nearby is a good place for children.
The new Louvre-Lens museum, an outpost of the Paris Louvre, opened in Lens, a 30-minute drive away (and shorter train journey) in December 2012. It adds a huge new attraction to the area.
Shopping in Lille
One of France’s biggest shopping center, Euralille, is located between the two main railway stations. It has both household names, like Carrefour hypermarket as well as specialist shops like Loisirs et Creations. There is a Galeries Lafayette in the middle of town at 31 rue de Bethune, and a branch of Printemps at 41-45 rue Nationale.
Le Furet du Nord (15 pl du General-de-Caulle, is one of Europe’s largest bookshops.
Chocolat Passion (67 rue Nationale) is a treasure trove of chocolate delights, all hand made here, including Jeanlain beer chocolate. They also stock chocolate cellular phones and footballs and chocolate champagne bottles filled with…chocolates –- in fact, something for everyone.
Patisserie Meert (27 rue Esquermoise) is the place to go to for specialist waffles (it was Charles de Gaulle’s favorite Lille shop), as well as cakes and chocolates, all in a magnificent setting. There’s also an elegant salon de the and serious restaurant attached.
A City with a Grand Past
Lille was first mentioned in 1066 as part of the estates of the powerful Counts of Flanders. When Baudoin IX became emperor of Constantinople in 1204 through the 4th Crusade, the family’s fortunes were sealed and dynastic marriages through the next two 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 that past today in the delightful cobbled streets that make up Vieux Lille (Old Lille).
Lille became a textile city, moving from tapestry manufacture to cotton and linen in the 18th century, with its outlying towns, Tourcoign and Roubaix relying on wool. But modernization brought casualties as peasants from the country poured into the new cities and were housed in shocking conditions. Heavy industry followed, and equally inevitably as that declined, so did the fortunes of this part of France.
By the 1990s unemployment in Lille was running at 40%. But the arrival of Eurostar in Lille, which was championed by the then Mayor, restored the city’s position as the major hub of northern France. The new station became the heart of a new modern district, with French giants like Credit Lyonnais moved into the concrete and glass towers. It's not particularly beautiful, but it led Lille’s commercial revival. The announcement that Lille was to become European Capital of Culture in 2004 was the icing on this particular gateau. The French government and the region of Nord-Pas-de-Calais pulled out all the stops and poured money into revitalizing the city and the suburbs, making Lille the largest and liveliest city in the region.