Where to explore, eat, sleep and go out in Lille, a dynamic former wool town just an hour from Paris
With its gabled brick houses, tall belfries, beer culture and mussels and chips, Lille is a fascinating blend of French and Flemish. But it is also a dynamic city with a young student population, an adventurous year-round cultural scene and plenty of lively bars and estaminets (a bistro-pub crossover). In short, it's an ideal destination for a day or weekend trip from Paris.
Long before it was finally integrated into France under Louis XIV in 1667, Lille was one of the powerful Flemish wool towns, and Countess Jeanne of Flanders ruled the roost while her husband was away on crusade. Later the town came into the hands of the Habsburgs as part of the vast Austro-Spanish empire, a period that left the city with much of its finest heritage. Painters, such as Rubens, worked for the city's monasteries, and powerful merchants outdid each other to show off their wealth with ornately carved façades.
The locals are rightly proud of their city, but it took Lille's year as European City of Culture in 2004 to put it firmly on the cultural map. A big part of this was the establishment of the Maisons Folies, a dozen cultural centres in rehabilitated factories, fortresses and farmhouses in the region and across the Belgian frontier. And the city has cleverly kept up the impetus with Lille 3000, a biennial multidisciplinary cultural festival.
A good time to visit is the first weekend of September for the Grande Braderie, the jumble sale to end all jumble sales. It's a tradition going back to the Middle Ages, when vassals were allowed to clear out their lords' attics. Starting at noon on Saturday and finishing at midnight on Sunday, antiques dealers and locals selling off their junk set up stands on the pavements and two million visitors throng the streets, accompanied by beer galore and a prize for the restaurant with the biggest pile of mussel shells outside its door.
When to go: Lille is rarely sweltering in summer and relatively mild in winter, though it can be foggy. The main arts season runs from mid September to June, while the first weekend in September sees the Grande Braderie, an extraordinary event for antiques enthusiasts and collectors, though not the time for quiet sightseeing.
Getting there: Lille’s two train stations, Lille Flandres and Lille Europe, are only a couple of minutes apart, with high-speed services from Paris (1 hour). There are frequent Eurostar trains direct to Lille from London St Pancras (1hr 20mins) too.
Getting around: If you’re planning extensive sightseeing, the Lille Métropole City Pass, available from the tourist office in one-, two- and three-day options, can be a good deal, offering free entry to numerous sights and museums, an hour-long minibus city tour, free public transport and assorted extra discounts. Vieux Lille is easy to walk around, while the driverless métro system, two tramlines and a network of local buses, all run by Transpole, can be useful for outer districts such as Wazemmes and Moulins or the assorted towns of Lille Métropole.