With its Christmas Market among the many festivities in full swing, there's no better time to visit this charming city in the north of France. By Alessia Horwich
WHY GO NOW?
The continental city closest to the British mainland is currently en fete, as its India-themed Lille3000 event is in full swing, with huge elephants lining the streets, festive lights covering the buildings, and special exhibitions - see www.lille3000.com for more details. But at any time of year, the capital of northern France boasts impressive art and architecture in a Flemish ambience. In December, the city is especially appealing, with its festive lights and Marche de Noel - ideal territory for finding good-value, original gifts.
By air, fly from Belfast International or Dublin to Paris Charles de Gaulle; It takes a TGV train an hour to reach Lille.
GET YOUR BEARINGS
Lille-Europe station is a 10-minute walk from Lille-Flandres (2), the city's main rail terminus. The facade of Lille-Flandres is the former front of Paris's Gare du Nord, which was taken apart and brought by rail to Lille at the end of the 19th century. Most places of interest - such as the warren of narrow streets that comprise Vieux Lille, the stylishly rejuvenated old quarter of town - are within easy walking distance. But for sore feet, there are buses, trams and the space-age metro, called VAL - which has driverless trains on two lines that whizz under-and overground, providing a municipal theme-park ride for €1.25 (85p), including transfers. The tourist office (3) is on Place Rihour (00 33 3 20 21 94 21; www.lilletourism.com). It opens 9.30am-6.30pm daily except Sunday (10am-noon and 2-5pm).
The new, copper-plated Crowne Plaza (4) at 335 Boulevard de Leeds (00 33 3 69 20 455 63; www.crowneplazacouk), opposite Lille-Europe station, reflects the morning sun beautifully and is certainly the most luminous place to stay in town. Doubles from €215 (£145) including breakfast. For history, there's L'Hermitage Gantois (5) at 224 rue de Paris (00 33 1 55 33 16 55; www.hotelhermitage gantois.com), which is built around the patio of an ancient hospice and is classified as a historical monument. Doubles from €195 (£131), breakfast €18 (£13) per person. The Hotel des Tours (6), at 27 rue des Tours (00 33 1 55 33 16 55; www.exclusive-hotelscom), is right in the centre of Vieux Lille. Doubles from €95 (£64), including breakfast.
The main commercial shopping street is rue de Bethune. In the enormous shopping mall Euralille (7), close to Lille-Europe station, you'll find the Carrefour hypermarket - a good final stop for wine before hopping on to the train home. More stylish purchases can be made on the small lanes of Vieux Lille. For designer gear, try rue de la Grande-Chaussee; and rue Esquermoise is the place for interior design. One of northern France's largest flea markets takes place at Wazemmes (8) on Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday mornings; it finishes promptly at 1pm.
LUNCH ON THE RUN
Lillois cuisine has strong Flemish influences: boeuf bourguignon becomes carbonnade flamande, as wine gives way to beer as a key ingredient and accompanying drink. Try Le Hochepot (9) on rue du Nouveau Siecle (00 33 3 20 54 17 59; www.les tablesgourmandes.com); or, on Place Sebastopol, Le Sebastopol (10) (00 33 3 20 57 05 05; www. restaurant-sebastopol.fr).
TAKE A HIKE
Start at the 17th-century Port de Gand (11). This gate marks the northern end of Vieux Lille. Follow rue de Gand into rue des Chats-Bossus; bear left along rue de la Grande-Chaussee and left again on to Place du Theatre. In front of you is the Opera House (12), decorated with golden statues. Behind you, lodged in the wall, you can see Austrian cannon balls ? evidence of the siege of 1792, when France declared war on Austria. Opposite the Opera House is the Vieille Bourse (13), the old stock exchange and Flemish architecture at its best. It consists of 24 identical houses built around a cloister, and is home to booksellers and chess players. On the other side of the Vieille Bourse is the Place du General de Gaulle, otherwise known as the Grand' Place. (14).
Among French art museums, only the Louvre outshines the magnificent collection at the Musee des Beaux-Arts (15), which ranges from Goya to Rubens. And, like the Paris museum, an intriguing combination of classical and modern architecture, with the structure as enticing as the contents (00 33 3 20 06 78 00; www.musenorcom). Open 2-6pm on Mondays and 10am-6pm from Wednesday to Sunday (until 7pm on Fridays). Admission is €4.60 (£3.30), but it is free on the first Sunday of the month.
Potent Flemish beer is the staple tipple. A popular place to try local varieties is the covered (and heated) terrace of the Café Leffe (16) on Place du Rihour (00 33 3 20 54 67 37; www.cafe-leffe.fr). For a more intimate venue: Le Coq Hardi (00 33 3 20 55 21 08) on the Grand' Place. (14).
DINING WITH THE LOCALS
There are hidden treasures in Vieux Lille, tucked away down small side streets. The ground floor of Le Compostelle (17) at 4 rue St Etienne (00 33 3 28 38 08 30; www.lecompostelle.fr) is an elegant high-ceilinged glass atrium. L'Huitriere (18) at 3 rue des Chats-Bossus (00 33 3 20 55 43 41; www.huitriere.fr) opened in 1882, selling just oysters and snails. After moving three doors down, and becoming also a poissonnerie, it has featured in the Michelin guide every year since 1930, with one star and, some years, two.
SUNDAY MORNING ? GO TO CHURCH
Legend has it that Lille's cathedral (19), Notre Dame de la Treille (00 33 3 20 31 59 12), was founded on the site in 1066, but was sadly destroyed soon after the French Revolution. Reconstruction began in 1854, but the façade was finally inaugurated only 11 days before the end of 1999. The cathedral's striking combination of modern and ancient architecture is well worth a look, anyway.
OUT TO BRUNCH
The popular bakery chain Paul originated in Lille, and the company chose a site on the corner of the Grand' Place (14) to open the first Restaurant Paul (00 33 3 20 44 72 56; www.paul.fr) last year. The Paul brunch costs €20 (£14) for a cold and a hot drink, a pastry and then an all-you-can-eat buffet of the best fresh produce the region has to offer, plus plenty of bread to go with it.
TAKE A RIDE
At Republique tram stop (20), hop on the number 14B, direction "Lomme A France", and enjoy the ride down Boulevard de la Liberte, passing the Jardin de Vauban and the Palais Rameau (21) ? named after Charles Rameau, who, in 1878, built this palace to house floral exhibitions. Alight at Universite Catholique and admire the university buildings built with typical Northern French brick. Founded in 1875, the university is the hub for Lille's 144,000-strong student population.
WRITE A POSTCARD
Seek inspiration at the Porte de Paris (22), a piece of golden-age Parisian architecture situated in the middle of a large roundabout in the centre of Lille. The 32m-high structure was built between 1685 and 1692 by Louis XIV in commemoration of his capture of Lille for the French. It was recently renovated and restored to its former glory.
A WALK IN THE PARK
During the 19th century, industrialisation transformed the fortunes of Lille - but, as the city expanded rapidly, green areas were at a premium. In 1865, the "gardener of Paris", Jean-Pierre Barillet-Deschamps, was commissioned to create an elegant open space. The result was the Jardin Vauban, which decorates the north-east of the city, just across from the citadel. This careful confection of lawns, rock and water deftly excludes the city. In the south-west of the park, look out for the former goat house that is now a Puppet Theatre (23). A monument to Charles de Gaulle, the celebrated former president who was born in Lille, stands at the north-east corner.
THE ICING ON THE CAKE
On rue de la Monnaie, in Vieux Lille, you will find the Hospice Comtesse (24), a hospital founded in 1237 by the Countess of Flanders, Jeanne de Constantinople. The building itself is a fantastic example of medieval Flemish architecture, and is now a museum (00 33 3 28 36 84 00; www.musenor.com). The main focus of the museum is tracing the local history of Lille and the surrounding Pas de Calais region through the ages, but it also holds an impressive collection of Northern French, Dutch and Flemish art and porcelain.
The museum opens 10am-12.30pm and 2-6pm from Wednesday to Sunday, with no lunch break at weekends. Admission €2.30 (£1.50).