The end of the year finds this northern French city at its most welcoming, with a Christmas market adding some seasonal cheer. Simon Calder reports
Why go now?
In only 80 minutes from London St Pancras, you can reach an intensely French city with strong Flemish overtones. Lille is small enough that you feel thoroughly attuned after just one weekend, yet large enough to sustain the most exacting visitor seeking art, architecture and cuisine. And between now and the end of December, the city is ‘en fete’ with a Christmas market.
Eurostar (08432 186 186; eurostar.com) travels from London St Pancras and Ebbsfleet. Trains arrive at Lille-Europe station, and there are no formalities: you step off the train and out of the station as though it were an ordinary service.
Get your bearings
The least inspiring vista you will see all weekend is the 10-minute walk from the station along Avenue Le Corbusier to the city centre — but even that is enlivened by the sight, to your left, of a gigantic boot-shaped building over the railway line that houses Credit Lyonnais.
You pass the modern Euralille shopping complex, in which a Carrefour hypermarket, open 9am-10pm daily except Sundays, is hiding. The city centre properly begins at Lille Flandres station; the facade of this fine terminus was the original Gare du Nord in Paris, and was moved north brick-by-brick.
The city has two central squares: the Place du Theatre, dominated by the opera house, and Place General de Gaulle, also known as the Grand Place and featuring the fine newspaper building called La Voix du Nord. Between them lies the 17th-century stock exchange, La Vieille Bourse, whose Flemish Renaissance courtyard you may wander through.
The remarkable and atmospheric tourist office (00 33 3 59 57 94 00; lilletourism.com) is located on Place Rihour, partially concealed by a huge war memorial. It occupies the former guard-house of a Gothic royal palace (most of which has been destroyed). It opens 9am-6.30pm daily except Sundays (10am-noon and 2-5pm). The main Christmas market fills the square until December 30 (noel-a-lille.com).
Lille has its own Métro, the excellent Transpole system. Outside the city centre, these driverless trains run mostly overground — so you can relax and look out the window.
The modern two-star Hôtel Lille Europe on Avenue Le Corbusier (00 33 3 28 36 76 76; hotel-lille-europe.com) is characterless, but clean and friendly. A double room costs €78, with breakfast an extra €8.50.
For more character, try the quaint Hôtel Brueghel overlooking the Gothic St-Maurice church at 5 Parvis St-Maurice (00 33 3 20 06 06 69; hotel-brueghel.com). It has a wood-panelled lobby, and 64 simple and small rooms; a double room costs €81, with breakfast that same €8.50.
The Grand Hôtel Bellevue at 5 rue Jean-Roisin (00 33 3 2057 4564; grandhotelbelle vue.com) is a magnificent 19th-century palace hotel that doubles as Brazilian Consulate. The rooms are comfortable and public areas opulent. Rates vary considerably according to demand, with €165 (excluding breakfast) a reasonable price. All these locations offer free Wi-Fi.
Take a hike
For a thorough investigation of much of the best of Lille, start at the Square du Ramponneau — where the canal meets what could be an attractive harbour. The main purpose of coming here is to embark upon a walk taking in the Quartier Royal. Rue de la Barre is lined with attractive houses, including (at number 55) a 1673 home that is now a gallery. Turn left into rue Royale, and admire the colourful shutters as you walk north to the bulky church of St-Andre.
Turn right here along rue Princesse until you reach the Maison Natale Charles de Gaulle at number 9 (00 33 3 28 38 12 05; charles-de-gaulle.org). The house where Lille's most celebrated son, Charles de Gaulle, was born in 1890 sheds light on the fascinating story of 20th-century France. It opens 10am-noon and 2-5pm from Wednesday to Saturday and 1.30-5pm on Sunday, admission €6.
Continue along rue Princesse, turn right along rue Maracci and right again along rue de la Halle, which runs into rue Voltaire. At number 29 look for the entrance into the Passage des Trois Anguilles, an ancient alley with a big stone in the middle to keep out any kind of vehicles. Jig left then right along rue de Winter to reach the pretty Place aux Oignons.
Lunch on the run
You are in the right place for a tasty and filling lunch at the Estaminet Au Vieux de la Vieille (00 33 3 20 13 81 64; estaminetlille.fr), a cosy and cheery place packed on weekdays by locals and at weekends by tourists. Service is speedy, particularly if you order one of the excellent salads (€9); the daily specials are invariably good, but also filling.
Walk off some of your lunch with a brisk stroll south to the magnificent Palais des Beaux Arts (00 33 3 20 06 78 00; pba-lille.fr), where you can feast on arguably the finest collection of art in provincial France. The permanent collection ranges from Goya to Rubens, while the present exhibition devoted to the French painter, Louis Boilly, who combined Hogarth's eye for social comment with some spectacular trompes-l’oeil. It opens 10am-6pm from Wednesday to Sunday and 2-6pm on Mondays, admission €5.50.
Drink the potent Flemish brews of Affligem and Brigand at Les Trois Brasseurs, a big and bustling bar at 18-22 place de la Gare (00 33 3 20 06 46 25; les3brasseurs.com). The three brewers were from Alsace, Belgium and northern France, representing the holy trinity of good beer in this part of the Continent. You can also eat well here, if you choose.
Dining with the locals
Wherever you choose to dine, if you plan to eat on a weekend evening in December then try to book in advance.
A l'Huitrière, in Vieux Lille at 3 rue des Chats Bossus (00 33 3 20 55 43 41; huitriere.fr), is a local institution. Diners make their way through an enticing fishmongers/delicatessen to enter the dining room. It is strictly a special occasion location, with a seven-course menu with tastes of truffles and pigeon on offer for €115. (The business lunch, not served at weekends, is a relative bargain at €45.)
Rue de Bethune has many more economical options, with oysters also on offer at Brasserie André at number 71 (00 33 3 20 54 75 51), for a reasonable €12 for half-a-dozen.
Sunday morning: a walk in the park
Lille's Notre-Dame cathedral is one of the most strange in France — not least for its location. Rather than acting as the geographical and spiritual hub of the city, it is rather hidden away next to a car park, with the houses of Vieux Lille backing on to it. Legend says it was founded in 1066, and destroyed soon after the French Revolution. Reconstruction began in 1854, but took 145 years and was completed just 12 days before the end of the 20th century. The striking stained glass on its own justifies a visit. Sunday Mass is at 11am.
A walk in the park
Lille is blessed with plenty of green space, but for a different side of the city, amble from the cathedral via rue de la Monnaie to rue du Gand — the old road to Ghent, which culminates at the Flemish fortification of Port de Gand. The upper part of the gate is occupied by a restaurant. You can walk along the line of the old walls, and look across the strange fortifications. Then find your way to the scruffy Parc Henri Matisse, where the most impressive element is the handsome Port de Roubaix.
Take a ride
To complete your trio of city gates, take advantage of Lille's well-organised rent a bike here, leave it there scheme, known as V'Lille (vlille.fr). A British credit card will buy a day's use for €1.40, so long as no rental exceeds 30 minutes — more than enough to go for a Sunday spin through light traffic to the Porte de Paris — a 32m-high structure completed in 1692 by Louis XIV to commemorate his capture of Lille for the French. Further exploration in this corner of the city is rewarding, with flourishes such as the Theatre Sevastopol.
Out to brunch
For a marvellous Sunday feed in stylish surroundings, north is the answer. La Bastide 48 is a chic restaurant in an industrial setting at 48 rue de l'Hôpital Militaire (00 33 3 20 86 50 81) which serves unlimited quantities of excellent dishes for a flat €25 (plus drinks) each Sunday from 11am to 3pm. But to experience proletarian Lille, let them eat gateau at La Bastide 48 while you walk (or cycle) along rue Leon-Gambetta to the Marché de Wazemmes.
Each Sunday, from about 8am to 3pm, the indoor market is complemented by a riotous market on the street in front and the square (Place de la Nouvelle Aventure) to the back. It is part flea market, part food market, with lots of cheap clothes on offer. Watch your back, and your bag, and choose one of the excellent cheap cafes around the market.
The icing on the cake
A short way beyond the market, an old textile mill has been reinvented as a hub for crafts — with a twist. The Maison Folie de Wazemmes includes a North African-style hammam (00 33 3 20 14 34 34; zeinorientalspa.fr), where each Sunday from 11am to 9pm you can take part in the mixed familial session for €21; book in advance.