An easy and enjoyable day trip from Paris, the heart of Lille is its beautiful Grand Place (officially named Place Charles de Gaulle), once the medieval market place and still a popular gathering spot. Its decorative brick houses, ornate Vieille Bourse and pavement brasseries around the fountain of the Déesse – the goddess said to have saved the town when it was besieged by Austria in 1792 – give it an elegant and patrician air. At one end the Grand Garde, now the Théâtre du Nord, once housed the royal guardsmen and bears the sun motif of Louis XIV. Behind the Vieille Bourse, on place du Théâtre, you’ll find Lille’s belle époque opera house, the neo-vernacular Chambre de Commerce and the Rang de Beauregard, an elegant terrace of tall decorative houses.
Cathédrale Notre-Dame de la Treille, Place Gilleson (03.20.55.28.72/www.cathedralelille.com). Open 10am-noon, 2-6.30pm Mon-Sat; 10am-1pm, 3-6pm Sun. Admission free. Lille’s cathedral is an architectural curiosity. Begun in 1854 on what was probably the site of the medieval castle mound, it remained unfinished until the 1990s, when a stark grey marble west end was added on to the neo-Gothic apse and transept. Although the exterior looks forbidding, go inside on a sunny day and you’ll appreciate the orange glow of the translucent marble façade and the rose window designed by artist Ladislas Kijno. The crypt contains the Centre d’Art Sacré Contemporain (2-5pm Thur, Fri; 2-6pm Sat), a surprising collection of modern religious works by artists including Baselitz, Combas and Warhol.
Maison Natale Charles de Gaulle, 9 rue Princesse (03.28.38.12.05). Open 10am-1pm, 2-6pm Wed-Sun (Oct-May Sun 1.30-6.30pm). Closed Sun in July & Aug. Admission €7. This house, where France’s World War II liberation hero and president was born in 1890, is now a museum and study centre. Furnished rooms present the bourgeois lifestyle of the time, along with memorabilia including the general’s cradle and christening robe. Across the courtyard, the former industrial premises contain a multimedia centre.
Musée de l’Hospice Comtesse, 32 rue de la Monnaie (03.28.36.84.00/www.musenor.com). Open 2-6pm Mon; 10am-12.30pm, 2-6pm Wed-Sun. Admission €3.50; free-€2.50 reductions. This lovely, intimate museum is housed in a former charity hospice founded in 1237 by Countess Jeanne de Flandre. Downstairs rooms, furnished with religious paintings, ex voto portraits and richly carved oak buffets, give a good idea of the workings of the charity hospital – the pretty kitchen covered in blue and white glazed tiles, the nuns’ refectory, the prioress’s parlour, pharmacy and linen room, as well as the 15th-century chapel and sick ward, now used for exhibitions. Upstairs in the nuns’ dormitory a local history collection contains wood carvings, puzzle jugs and antique globes, as well as some fascinatingly detailed paintings by Louis Watteau (nephew of Jean-Antoine Watteau) and his son François.
Vieille Bourse, Place du Théâtre. Open 1-7pm Tue-Sun. Admission free. Widely considered to be Lille’s finest building and a summit of the northern Renaissance style, the Vieille Bourse is in fact a block of 24 identical houses, designed in 1652-53 by Julien Destrée as a mercantile stock exchange with shops on the ground floor constructed around an arcaded central cloister. Façades feature carved stone masks, swags of fruit and caryatids. The central court is home to second-hand booksellers and chess players in the afternoon.
Maison Folie de Wazemmes, 70 rue des Sarrazins (03.20.78.20.30). Open 2-7pm Wed-Sat; 10am-7pm Sun. Admission free. Probably the most successful of the Maisons Folies created for the 2004 City of Culture celebrations, and certainly the most spectacular. The Maison Folie de Wazemmes is a daring marriage between a converted 19th-century spinning factory and a radical cloudlike extension made of steel mesh, designed by Dutch architect Lars Spuybroek of NOX. Within you’ll find exhibitions, concerts, a café and a Moroccan-style hammam spa.
Palais des Beaux-Arts, Place de la République (03.20.06.78.00/www.pba-lille.fr). Open 2-6pm Mon; 10am-6pm Wed-Sun. Admission €6.50; free-€4.50 reductions. Lille’s extensive fine art collection, housed in a monumental 19th-century building, is one of the best in France thanks to its Flemish heritage and presents from Napoleon. Highlights include Rubens’ Descent from the Cross, originally painted for a monastery in Lille, Veronese’s study for a never executed Paradise for the Doge’s Palace in Venice, Delacroix’s menacing Furious Medea, and Goya’s unmissable allegorical portraits of old age in Les Vieilles and youth in La Lettre. The basement galleries house medieval and Renaissance works, and an unusual set of 18th-century plans reliefs (detailed scale models) of northern towns fortified by Vauban. The museum’s modern glass extension is used for temporary exhibitions.