While searching for city trips close to the Netherlands, the French city of Lille caught my eye. Located just over the border from Belgium, it is easily reached by bus or train. We purchased tickets for the Flixbus, starting at Rotterdam Central Station and traveling in just 3.5 hours to Lille. The bus is incredibly convenient because it arrives at Lille Flandres station, which is right next to Lille’s old town. Lille is a gem if you ask me, offering a unique “Belgium meets France” vibe. In this blog post, I am recommending a few wonderful things to do in Lille, France.
1. Taking a stroll in photogenic Vieux Lille
The old town of Lille, known as Vieux Lille, is a delight to wander through. It is filled with cobblestone streets and colorful buildings dating back to the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Overall it looks like well-known cities in Belgium like Ghent and Bruges, which is no surprise since Lille (then known as Rijsel) was the capital of Flanders until 1667. Charming streets in the old town include Rue de la Monnaie, Rue des Vieux Murs, and Rue de Gand. Vieux Lille also has some lovely squares, such as the central Grand Place, just around the corner from Place du Theatre, the quaint Place aux Ognons, and Place Louise de Bettignies.
2. Find gems at the book market in La Vieille Bourse
On the Grand Place, you’ll find one of the most photogenic buildings in the old town: La Vieille Bourse, a 17th-century stock exchange building. During Lille’s trading days era, this building was intended to provide a place for merchants to gather. While it seems like one building from the outside, it is actually 24 separate houses surrounding a central courtyard. Every afternoon (except on Mondays), this courtyard fills up with book and print sellers. And if you happen to be in Lille in July, August, or September, I read that they organize tango dancing in the courtyard every evening.
3. Seeing Notre Dame de la Treille
Just like many French cities, Lille also has a Notre Dame, a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary. However, not everyone agrees on whether it is a beautiful building or not. Yes, the front is modern and even a bit boring. However, there are some beautiful elements, especially in the interior. The weird architectural mix is a result of the slow construction process. After the work began in 1846, funding ran dry, and it wasn’t completed until the end of the previous century. This led to the incorporation of various styles in the building. I also recommend taking a stroll in the cathedral gardens behind the church.
4. Going through Porte de Paris
I mentioned earlier that Lille was once a Flemish city before becoming French. A prominent reminder of this history is Porte de Paris, a seventeenth-century triumphal arch built by Louis XIV to commemorate the city’s conquest. The so-called “Sun King” was not one to shy away from self-glorification, and he placed a statue of himself on top of the gate, crowned by Victoria, the goddess of victory. To the king’s left, you’ll find Mars (the god of war), and on the right stands Hercules (the god of strength). Next to the gate, you’ll see the Beffroi de l’Hotel de Ville (Belfry of Lille) which offers a panoramic view.
Practical tips for Beffroi de l’Hotel de Ville
Make sure to book tickets for Beffroi in advance because time slots can fill up quickly. Strangely enough, you don’t purchase tickets (€7.50) at the tower but at the Office de Tourisme in the city center, a 15-minute walk from the tower. Online tickets are slightly cheaper (€6), but they are only available for the 10:00 AM to 11:00 AM time slot. Also note that Lille has two Beffroi (in English: belfry) towers: Hotel de Ville and Chamber of Commerce.
5. Organize a self-guided street art tour
If you are at the tourist office, be sure to pick up a street art map (La Carte Des Murs) as well. Lille has so many fantastic murals. I spent an entire afternoon cycling through the city with the map in hand. Lille’s street art is run by the artist collective Collectif Renart, which organizes the annual International Biennial of Mural Art festival. Artists from around the world are invited to create works in the city for a two-month period. The best works can be found just outside the old town in the Wazemmes neighborhood and around the creative space Gare Saint Sauveur.
Don’t have time to pick up the map? Street Art Cities also has an online map of Lille.
6. Visit the Louvre of Lille: Palais des Beaux Arts
Museums are great for a rainy day and in Lille, the best museum to visit is the Palais des Beaux Arts. Unfortunately, we did not have the time to do this ourselves. It is considered the most important museum in the country, after the Louvre. The collection includes many masterpieces such as Rubens’ fleshy figures and Monet’s impressionist nature paintings. The entrance fee for all collections is €11. Tip: if you visit Lille on the first Sunday of the month, museum entry is free.
7. Sunday tip: explore the food market at Marché de Wazemmes
Alright, this isn’t exclusively a Sunday tip, as the market also takes place on Tuesday and Thursday. However, I’m suggesting it for Sunday since most city trips happen on the weekend. The Wazemmes district is home to Halles de Wazemmes, the city’s market hall. Three times a week, the Marché de Wazemmes takes place, a large market with flowers and clothing in the square outside, and food within the hall. You’ll find not only fish, meat, vegetables, and cheese but also a food market with various dishes.
How to get around in Lille?
Lille is a compact city which can be explored on foot. For some places, the metro can be a good option. Lille has two metro lines. Line 1 is convenient for Palais des Beaux Arts and Wazemmes. There are also two tram lines, but they run out of the city. In addition, you have the V’Lille bicycle rental points (with red Llevia bikes), but I found the renting process complicated. The instructions for non-French speakers are not very clear. Moreover, they advertise that the bicycle costs €1.60 per day, but they don’t mention that you have to dock the bike every 20 minutes. Eventually, we paid €17 per bike for 5 hours. I also found it a bit scary that they reserve a €200 deposit on your credit card per bike.
Restaurants & cafes in Lille
Restaurants and cafes in Lille often open late in the morning and close for a few hours in the afternoon. Many of them offer a daily menu with a choice of two or three courses for lunch. For early birds, you can have breakfast at We Are Ara and Emilie and the Cool Kids. There are more vegetarian and vegan options for lunch and dinner. I recommend Pickles, La Clairière, and Kiff-Kiff.
Where to stay in Lille?
We stayed at the Ibis Lille Centre Grand Palais. Please don’t confuse this with Ibis Lille Centre Grand Place, where we initially went to check-in. The receptionist couldn’t find our reservation in the system and asked if we were at the right hotel. And indeed, we were at the wrong hotel. Luckily, “our” Ibis was only 10 minutes walking away and we had a pleasant stay. Other great-looking places to stay are Aparthotel Adagio Lille Centre Grand Place or Mama Shelter. Click here for an overview of hotels in Lille.
What are your recommendations for things to do in Lille?
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