It’s hard to believe that just a generation ago, Lille, known as the “first factory of France”, was seen as nothing more than a gritty industrial town. I must say the city cleans up nicely, due in large part to it being the European Capital of Culture in 2004, and is now a not-to-miss destination for those in the know with numerous cultural attractions, restaurants, and boutiques.
Though the French Flanders town is only about 150 miles (250km) from where I live in The Netherlands, there is no direct train there, making it just inconvenient enough that I never go. So when an opportunity to take a day-trip to Lillie via a 2 ½ – hour luxury coach ride presented itself, I jumped on it, seeing it as a wonderful solution, and a great way to spend a Saturday.
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Located in France, Lille sits on the border of Belgium, and characteristics of both regions – French sophistication and Flemish pragmatism – mesh beautifully to give the city a pleasant, inviting ambiance. There was so much to see and do in Lille in those few short hours before my return trip home later that evening. Fortunately, most of the major sights are in close proximity to each other, making Lille easy to navigate.
What to See and Do in Lille
I started at the Place du Général de Gaulle, named for Lille’s most famous son and former French president Charles de Gaulle, and more commonly known as the Grand Place. The Grand Place is the historic center of Lille and, surrounded by beautifully preserved historic buildings and cafes and restaurants, is always abuzz. All of the architecture in this area was amazing, but the most beautiful is the Vieille Bourse, the old stock exchange built in 1653. Classified as a historical monument in 1921, La Vieille Bourse is an example of 17th century Flemish Renaissance-style architecture and is notable for the ornate detailing on the façade and the figure of Mercury – the god of commerce – which sits atop the bell tower.
When I walked through one of the archways of La Vieille Bourse, I stepped into the building’s tranquil courtyard, which was the setting for a flower market and second-hand book dealers. I browsed through some of the crates and found numerous titles in English. There were also vintage posters and albums for sale.
After leaving the courtyard of La Vieille Bourse, I reach the Place du Theater and encounter more magnificent architecture, such as the Chamber of Commerce and the neoclassical Opera. By now, it is time for lunch, and there are plenty of cafes and restaurants to choose from, many specializing in the local delicacy, moules-frites (mussels and French fries), which is usually paired with beer. Since I don’t do moules or beer, I found a tiny little creperie and enjoyed a galette (savory crepe) with a glass of wine, and for dessert, Crêpe Chocolat avec Chantilly.
From there I zigzagged through the narrow, cobbled streets, feeling more like I was in Belgium than France, venturing further into Vieux Lille while I did a bit of window shopping and continued to admire the architecture, including the Hospice Gantois, a former hospice that has been transformed into a luxury hotel. The building, with its red brick and distinctive stonework, is a lovely example of architecture common to Lille in the 15th century. Adjacent to the Hospice Gantois is the Old Paris Gate, the triumphal arch honoring Louis XIV who conquered Lille, thus making it a part of France.
Also in this area is the Saint-Maurice Church. The typically Flemish church has parts that date from the 14th century as well as from the 19th century due to its many renovations, houses artwork from local painters from the 17th and 18th centuries. Though Saint-Maurice has a much more imposing exterior, it was the Cathedral of Notre Dame de la Treille that wowed me. Construction on the cathedral began in 1854, but wasn’t completed until 1999! But good things come to those who wait, apparently, because the final result is a façade designed by Lillois architect Pierre-Louis Carlier, with the collaboration of Peter Rice, the engineer for the Sydney Opera House and the Pompidou Centre in Paris, and the stunning bronze doorway by sculptor Georges Jeanclos.
After checking out churches and admiring architecture, I made my way to the Palais des Beaux-Arts to get in a little art appreciation. This museum is just on the edge of Vieux Lille, but since it is the second most important gallery in France after the Louvre, I figured it would be worth the walk.
The museum is housed in a magnificent Belle Époque-style building, and inside there is a wonderful collection of works from French artists, the Flemish and Dutch schools, and Spanish and Italian paintings. The museum is pretty big, and one could easily spend all day there. However, since I didn’t have all day, I used the iPod self-tour, which is free with admission (and very good, by the way) and basically did the highlights tour.
The museum came to a close around the same time my day in Lille did. There was just enough time for me to go back to the Grand Place and have a glass of wine on one of the café terraces and do a bit of people watching. It was the perfect end to a perfect day in Lille.
How to Get There
If you are traveling to Lille for a perfect day, the train is probably your best option. The city has two train stations in the city center situated 400 meters from each other with service on Eurostar from London and Brussels, and TGV and TER from Paris and other French cities to either station.
Travelers can also fly into Lille-Lesquin International Airport, which is located 10 km from Lille city center or Paris-Charles de Gaulle Airport, and take the TGV into Lille.
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