Easily reached from London St. Pancras by the Eurostar, the city of Lille in the north of France is ideal for a day trip. Likewise, also not too far from Brussels or Paris. Thus strategically located from three of Europe’s main cities.
Lille may not be one of the first places at the top of most people’s France bucket list but that is not to discount it. Some very colourful buildings and various cultural events that take place during the year and a very charming old town with old style patisseries add to the flavour of the place.
A significant student population does add a youthful and intellectual vibe to this city as well and one of the highlights of the year is the annual flea market in September. La Grande Braderie is the largest of its kind in Europe and attracts bargain hunters to the thousands of old books, antiques and other nooks and crannies.
As I found out on a wet and overcast Wednesday, Lille is blessed with sufficient attractions to see and great spots to eat all in one day.
THE PLACE DE GAULLE
Making your way into the centre of Lille itself is the Place de Gaulle. The central square of the city is named after the wartime former president who was born in this city. Look around at various buildings and monuments of where all roads to Lille lead. In the middle is the Goddess statue, installed in the mid-19th Century.
The Vielle Bourse (Old Stock Exchange) is the first you see and perhaps the most striking. Inside the main courtyard is a second hand book market that takes place every afternoon except Mondays. Have a browse and rummage through for some rare vintage editions.
Behind the Vielle Bourse is the Chambre du Commerce with its instantly recognisable tall clock tower and Art Deco exterior. Definitely worth going inside to admire its glass roof and the murals on the walls.
Next to it, the city’s Opera House. This with a neo-classical design typical of other grand opera houses across the continent such as in Paris and Vienna.
Sometimes no trip to France is ever complete without a glorious crepe! And like with any other French city, you will naturally be inundated with locations in Lille. But I can vouch that if you could only pick one place to eat then make that La Creperie de Beaureparie (Rue de St. Etienne). Often foundthe best places to eat are usually located on a quiet back street rather than in the heart of the city centre. Away from the crowds, and the exorbitant prices. Lille is certainly no exception. A short walk away from the Grande Place is this little gem of an eatery tucked away in your typical old world location. A crepe complemented with scoops of ice cream with so many different flavours and combinations to choose from.
Another notable sweet treat which you cannot visit Lille without trying is the Merveilleux. A double merangue of whipped cream topped with chocolate sprinkled goodness, who is to stop you? Just one treat every now and then.
Head to Aux Merveilleux in the old town on the Rue de La Monnaie to see for yourself.
WANDER THROUGH VIEUX LILLE
It almost feels like discovering a secret little hideout finding the old town. A few blocks behind the Grande Place lead towards the grey looking Notre Dame de la Treille Cathedral of Lille. Then a little side passage and you’re on the intriguingly named Rue de la Monnaie. This road may not necessarily be paved with gold but they certainly are with Merveilleux cakes!
The old town’s cobbled streets and colourful mercantile houses do show more of a Flemish and Dutch influence. Streets with delightful names like the Place aux Oignons maintain that pleasant old time feeling that makes cities like Lille a fine choice to visit.
PLACE DE LA REPUBLIQUE – MUSEUM CENTRE
Around the area of the Place de la Republique, close to several university faculties is also the location of some of Lille’s best museums. The Palace of Fine Arts is possibly the next most visited of its kind in France after the Louvre. A selection of paintings from many of the old masters ranging from Ruebens and Goya through to the Impressionists such as Monet and cubism of Picasso are part of a very diverse display spanning centuries. Equally impressive are the various marble statues and other antique artefacts of classical civilisation. Ancient Greek ceramic vases and also blue Delftware patterns and designs reflect the breadth of the museum’s collection.
Closer to the monument of Jeanne d’Arc is the Natural History Museum. Taxidermy figures of wild animals on display here and other exhibits take place here too.
RETAIL THERAPY AT EURALILLE
It is quite convenient that the main shopping centre – Euralille – is the very first things you see upon leaving the Lille Europe station. Well, that and the delightfully welcoming tulip statue too!
To clarify, the name Euralille does refer to the area surrounding this and the other Lille Flanders station. A development of high-rise office blocks and buildings alongside very strategically located. Many of your big name brands and stores are here and this is perhaps a good place to pick up a bit of a bargain, at least compared to the UK!
There is no shortage in entertainment for those travelling as a family looking to keep the kids amused. Come the summertime, the amusement park of the Parc des Dondaines is ideal for big kids young and old! Near the Citadelle is the city zoo. Always a winner for those looking to keep the young ones entertained.
Lille is also a great location for a Christmas market, open from the last week of November up to 24th December. As well as the usual stalls and food and drink associated with festive markets a giant Ferris Wheel takes pride of place in the centre of La Grande Place. A wondrous view of the city itself and far beyond.
And all this a great idea if you only have one day free. Direct trains on Eurostar depart from St Pancras International every hour making it very possible to cross the Channel and return home in one day.