FRANCE NORD France - Lille

Lively and handsome, Lille (also known as Rijsel in Dutch, pop 226,000) is the largest city in northern France as well as capital of the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region. Perhaps one of the most underrated cities in France; Lille rose from being a wasteful marshland to becoming the bustling metropolis that it is today. The city has managed to preserve its Flemish roots, despite the many changes that it underwent over the centuries. Its strong cultural sense is hardly undermined by the towering buildings that represent the city’s modern-day duties. Hence, Lille earned the well-deserved EU’s Cultural Capital of Europe title, in 2004. Therefore the city rightfully welcomes visitors with a beautifully restored old-quarter, which is surrounded by great shopping and dining options. Lille is also known for its varied landscape that leads well into the countryside.

Lille’s history dates back to the pre-Roman era, when it was inhabited by Gallic tribes. Its importance grew slightly, when the area came under the control of the Counts of Flanders. Lille continued to flourish in the Middle Ages, despite being handed over from one sovereign to another (as the region was heavily contested upon by the English, Dutch and French). However, the city saw proper growth only in the 20th century, with the onset of the Industrial Revolution. Lille cashed in on the booming textile and mining industries, causing a growth spurt in its wealth and population. The city hung on to its industrial roots long after both World Wars, causing it to decline slowly. However, the French government recognised Lille’s potential and it invested in reinventing the city’s image. Today, Lille has morphed into a cultural hub with a distinct Flemish flavour.

Central Lille is marked by Place du Général de Gaulle, Place Rihour and Place du Théâtre. Vieux Lille is located north of Place du Général de Gaulle. You can arrive at Lille via regional flights at the Lesquin airport, southeast of town []. Trains that run from major European cities like Brussels and London, stop at the Gare Lille-Europe [between Avenue le Corbusier and Blvd de Turin], while local trains arrive at the Gare Lille-Flandres [Avenue le Corbusier]. Both stations are located southeast of the main squares.


LILLE STREET MAP:   1. Tourist office and Palais Rihour  2. Gare Lille-Flandres  3. Gare Lille-Europe  4. Hôtel de ville  5. Hospice Comtesse, rue de Monnaie  6 rue Lepelletier  7. rue Esquermoise  8. rue de la Grande Chaussé  9. Vieille Bourse  10. Opera House  11. Chamber of Commerce  12. Palais de Beaux-Arts  13. Charles de Gaulle Museum 14. Citadel  (west of map limits; zoom out to view) 15. Musée d’art Moderne, Villeneuve-d'Ascq (east of map limits, zoom out to view) 

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In spite of being the largest city in the region, Lille’s city centre remains accessible by foot. The highlight of the central area is the Vieux Lille (Old Lille) section which has been restored to its 17th and 18th century splendour. The area is lined with old brick mansions, especially along rue de Monnaie. It is recommended that you pop by the Hospice Comtesse [32 rue de la Monnaie, +33 328362400 ad/ch €3.50/Free]. This 12th century building (with most restorative works from the 18th century) was once a hospital under the Counts of Flanders. It then became an orphanage in WWI. The ancient building merits a visit for its pretty medicinal garden that grows colourful poppies and verbena; as well as its collection of local 17th century Flemish artworks, which narrate the history of the city.

Other atmospheric streets including rue de la Grande Chaussé, rue Esquermoise and Lepelletier are worth a walk, as their cobblestoned roads are spotted with chic boutiques and restaurants. South of this, towards Place de Général de Gaulle is the historic building, Vieille Bourse, an old stock exchange building that dates back to the 17th century. This affluent-looking structure was erected in 1652 and it comprises of 24 separate buildings. Representative of 17th century Flemish wealth and taste, the Bourse is a detailed edifice that brings you back in time. The central courtyard of the Bourse is now home to a flea market that sells books in the afternoon. You can grab yourself a good read and head on south of the bourse, towards the centre of the square, which is marked by a beautiful fountain that is topped by a sculpture of a goddess, commemorating the Austrian siege of 1792. Place du Théâtre lies adjacent of this, boasting well-restored Flemish Renaissance architecture. The highlights of this section are the opera house and the Chambre de Commerce (both dating back to the early 20th century).

Lille’s cultural hub status is cemented by stellar local museums. Top of the list, is the world renowned Palais de Beaux-Arts [Place de la Republique, +33 320067800 ad/ch €5.50/Free]. Housed in a 19th century building, it contains a wide array of artworks (paintings, sculptures, drawings and prints) that detail the major art movements from the 12th to 20th centuries. The museum is home to a comprehensive collection of works by prominent Dutch, French and Spanish artists including Rubens, Dyck, Greco and Ribera.

Another must-see is the Musée d’art Moderne (also affectionately known as the LAM)[1 allée du Musée +33 320196888 ad/ch €7/5]. This shining abstract building is situated in a beautiful sculpture park that extends the ambience of the museum beyond its doors. Highlights include works of Picasso and Modigliani. Another innovative museum, the La Piscine [23 rue de l’espérance +33 32692360 ad/ch €4.50/3.50] stands just a few kilometres outside Lille, in the town of Roubaix. Standing in a former indoor swimming pool (that is noted for its superb art deco interior), the La Piscine is dedicated to preserving the paintings, ceramics and sculptures of the 19th century. This early 20th century building is worth a visit for its architecture itself.

Lille is the birthplace of Charles de Gaulle. The French general who led the resistance forces during WWII, founding the fifth republic, was born in a humble upper-middle class residence in Lille. Almost every French city has a street named after this influential leader and Lille takes pride in being his hometown. His birthplace has now been converted into a museum [9 rue Princesse, +33 328381205 ad/ch €6/4] that details his life.

The local citadel is one of the few 17th century structures that lie outside Vieux Lille. Constructed by the great Vauban right after the French captured Lille in 1667, the citadelle still acts as a military base. However the ramparts of this former fortress are now open to visitors.