I’ve spoken before of my love of the Eurostar, and how it can whisk you to a new destination and different culture much more easily than flying ever can. Inspired by my day trip to Brussels, I was on the hunt for another location where I could flex my cultural and eating muscles, without having to blow from leave allowance on drawn out travel plans.
And that is why I happened upon Lille. Although not at the top of most European bucket lists, Lille has a fantastic history – not just as part of France, but Spain and the region known as Flanders too. Now the centre of French Flanders, and owing more of its influence to Belgian and Flemish culture as opposed to French, Lille is a city full of many surprises – and I wanted to set about finding every one of them!
So with 9 hours, Eurostar tickets and empty bellies I set forth to conquer Lille in one day!
Lille is a super easy destination to get to, especially from the UK, with it being only 90 minutes direct on the Eurostar. I actually paid only £50 return for a week-day ticket via Eurostar Snap, Eurostar’s deal website which pops up every now and then with amazing prices, If you are not fussy at what time you leave and return, you can make huge savings on travel prices. With our allocated times we got 9 hours in Lille, which was plenty of time to soak up a new city of this size. There are also plenty of budget flight options too, and Lille Airport is about 7km from the main centre of the city.
Additionally, if you are holidaying elsewhere in France, Northern Germany, Amsetrdam or Belgium, you can totally hop on a train easily and cheaply for the day if you fancy a change of scene – Gare du Lille Flandres is extremely close to the main city centre.
Once you are there, they have small metro system, but we did everything on foot for the whole day which only helped us walk off the beer calories, but also saved us money too. I clocked up a hefty 25,000 which included a pre-planned walking tour, but it was worth it to go at our own pace and not to worry about metro times.
Got a day and fancy experiencing Flemish culture? Here's a one day city guide to Lille in FranceClick To Tweet
What To Do
Lille is a small city, but there is still plenty to do – and we barely scratched the surface. We spent the morning doing things at our own pace, visiting some places a little off the beaten track, eating and of course enjoying a beer in the sunshine and in the afternoon we saw some of the main sights through a free walking tour.
We prioritised sightseeing and beer over food (whoops!), which left us dashing for baguettes at the Eurostar station, but if we’d had a later train we would have totally tried Lille speciality “Welsh”. This is basically bread soaked in beer and cooked with ham and cheers which is absolutely crazy and pretty much sums up the feeling I was left with in Lille – absolutely mad but somehow it works.
To give you an idea of timescales, we arrived at Lille Eurostar station at 09.30am and departed at 18.35pm giving us lots of opportunity to fit everything in. We did everything listed here by foot.
I love finding city centre parks, as it is one of my favourite things about living in London – the proximity to green spaces at all times. Jardin Vauban is a extremely pretty and example of this, created in 1863 as an extension to the original city centre. There were huge plans in Lille for promanades and gardens and the design was based on a typical English garden which is obvious when you visit.
The garden sits alongside the canal, and contains sloping lawns, a grotto with a small waterfall, pools, huge trees, romantic statues hidden among the plantation and lots of places to sit and watch the world go by. A former goat house is now used as a marionette theatre (which is awesome, depending on your view point about puppets). It’s a completely surprising addition to a very traditional, urban city setting.
And it’s also entirely creepy and a little bit weird which adds to its charm. When we visited at around 11am, the garden was almost completely deserted, and it was so very quiet. The pools seemed a little stagnant and overgrown, and it felt like an abandoned park – to me, this was completely brilliant. Exploring the grotto felt a little being in brilliant 80s film The Goonies, and we really enjoyed wandering the park and taking pictures as Lille started to wake up (we found Lille definitely came more to life in the afternoon).
The Town Hall + Belfry
The town hall is a fairly recent addition to Lille’s landscape, having only been finished in 1932 (due to being completely destroyed during World War 1), and it’s belfry at 104 metres tall is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s a beautiful building if you love Flemish architecture as much as I do, with its brick and concrete construction and stepped roofing.
You can climb the tower (we didn’t have the opportunity sadly), and there is also a lift after climbing the first 100 stairs if the height puts you off but you really want the view. What I really love about the tower however is the two statues of Lydéric and Phinaert who are two characters tied almost inexplicably to the founding of the city of Lille. It’s an incredible story with David + Goliath vibes – a young man avenging the death of his father and imprisonment of his mother by the giant Phinaert, who is then given the lands Phinaert lived on which became Lille.
Of course, it isn’t true – but it’s a wonderful story which gives a flavour of Lille’s colour and *slight* craziness.
Cost: You can visit inside the Town Hall, but you can climb the Belfry for 5.50EUR if booked in advance online.
The Vieille Bourse
The Vieille Bourse (or Old Stock Exchange) is an incredibly beautiful building located in the Grand Place of Lille. In fact, I’d got as far to say it is Lille’s most beautiful building, and is well worth a visit. This building is in fact 24 little houses arranged in a courtyard, and used to be the site of economic power in Lille.
Now, it houses a small second-hand books market, and on weekends in the Summer you can find tango classes in the centre courtyard. The gilt and red detailing makes this stand out hugely on the Grand Place, but the story behind its construction is just as impressive – until this was built most trading took place outside, and traders would get sick all the time with colds and flu. This building was ordered with the 24 private houses where trading could take place, thus supporting trade to continue even in the coldest months.
Musee de l’Hospice Comtesse
This museum is a great example of local architecture, tucked away behind the shop fronts and small streets which wind around and to the Grand Place. Founded byCountess of Flanders in 1237 as a charitable gesture to the sick and needy, it’s now a museum. You can visit the sick bay, the kitchens and the chapel, as well as see many Flemish paintings and Lille tapestries.
Cost: 2EUR, with limited opening hours – check before you travel!
Notre Dame de La Treille
Lille Cathedral not only is a very interesting building, but also gives an insight into its contruction (and reconstruction woes). On our walking tour we heard very many stories of things burning down and having to be rebuilt several times, and also of construction taking far longer than anticipated. Lille Cathedral is an example of the latter.
It’s foundations were laid all the way back in 1854 as a 13th century gothic style building (and its name comes from a 12th century statue of the Virgin Mary), but in 1947 work stopped for good due to a lack of funds.The front of the building was bricked up for almost 50 years, until in 1999 work was completed and the cathedral is now an interesting mix of gothic architecture and contemporary art. In fact, its like nothing I’ve ever seen before, and I’ve seen a lot of gothic cathedrals in Europe.
The front of the cathedral is made with marble slabs that takes the colour of the sun streaming through, and it was designed by the same person who designed the Pompidou Centre in Paris. Inside, the cathedral is very similar to that of many other gothic churches, with the added focal point of the sun reflecting on the front wall of the church.
The Chamber of Commerce and Opera House
Located the other side of the Grand Place in the area known as the theatre square, these two buildings stand as proud examples to architecture and construction in Lille. The Chamber of Commerce when located in the Vieille Bourse became too cramped, so a new building was required. Started by architect Louis-Marie Cordonnier in 1910, the building was completed in 1921 and is a perfect example of neo-Flemish architecture, with a 76m belfry that contains 25 bells. This building is still the home of Lille’s Chamber of Commerce.
Situated next door, the Lille Opera House was completed in 1914 and then soon occupied by German forces during WWI – it was reopened in 1923, almost 10 years after the building completion. Was it interesting about Lille Opera, is that it was also designed by Louis-Marie Cordonnier in a neo-Classical style, completely the opposite of his usual style and what was to become The Chamber of Commerce. Cordonnier won a competition to rebuild the Lille Opera, which had burnt down before, but did so under a false name in order to prove that he could build in any style and under any name.
What you are left with are two totally different and totally gorgeous buildings next to each other, even though they were built at around the same time.
Gare du Lille Flandres
You might find it strange that I would write about a train station as a location to visit for reasons other than transport, but here I am. Gare du Lille Flandres is a beautiful station in itself, but it has borrowed more than a little of its look and feel from Paris Gare du Nord – the front of the station is in fact the old Paris Gare du Nord!
At the end of the 19th century, both Lille and Paris’ main stations were deemed to be too small, but the cost of upgrading both would have been too much for the train operator. So they set upon the idea of just replacing Paris – and dismantling and reassembling its old station in Lille brick by brick which was far cheaper.
This huge building, close to Gare du Lille Flandres, is the result of many models and makeovers over the years, dating back from the 14th Century. It has five naves all of equal size which makes it an example of a “Hallekerque”, a barn style church quite typical in Flanders. Although the church is named after Saint Maurice, it is actually dedicated to Saint Barbara, known as the patron saint of fire, artillery men and miners as the church survived all of the fires that have blazed over Lille and destroyed many other major buildings over the years.
What To Eat + Drink
Although Lille is in France, it bears a much closer resemblance to its neighbour Belgium in many ways, including with food. Think beer over wine, waffles over crepes and you’ll be on the right track. As I mentioned before, we prioritised beer and sightseeing over wine, but here are a few things not to miss if you head to Lille!
So here’s the thing – not only does this translate in English as “wonderful”, it’s also a gorgeous small cake that you can pick up just 10 minutes after stepping off the Eurostar. Originating in Brussels, it’s made up of a sandwich of two light meringues stuffed full of whipped cream and covered in chocolate shavings. We tried a few different flavours (for research, obviously), and although light, these are extremely sweet and shouldn’t be underestimated.
We bought a pack of 6 for 9EUR from Aux Merveilleux de Fred which included white chocolate, chococlate, caramel, cherry and praline. They have a couple of locations in Lille, including one where you can sit in to eat, but we chose takeaway from the store inside the Gare du Lille Flandres for a little picnic in Jardin Vauban.
A quick warning – you’ll need to eat these in Lille as they melt and lose their structure extremely quickly. I wanted to bring some home but was warned against this strongly by the staff at Aux Merveilleux – and they were right!
We wouldn’t be in Flemish territory if we were not discussing waffles so here we are. Just like in Brussels it is easy to find waffle stands with chocolate and cream and fruit and anything else you may dare throw on it, but I’d like to recommend to you Meert, an incredible patisserie with incredible waffles. Their oblong shaped delicacies filled with vanilla buttercream are a closely guarded secret, and are made using a northern waffle iron, that does not have the deep grooves from a more traditional looking waffle.
Being only 20 minutes away from Brussels, beer is big on the agenda and we stopped frequently for a beer or two as we made our way around Lille. This is the only place in France where any small scale breweries have survived (there were literally hundreds before WW1), and there are plenty of places to try a typical Lille brew in the city. Head to La Capsule, Au fut et a mesure and L’Alchemiste for great beer and a great atmosphere and try one of Lille’s famously strong speciality beers.
It wouldn’t be a day trip with me if brunch wasn’t involved, and we found the cutest, and best value brunch location to kick off our day trip in style. Be Yourself! brings the best of French and American cuisine together in a light and airy, serve yourself diner style with outdoor seating and set menu options. We opted for the standard brunch menu which included:
- Orange Juice
- Fruit salad OR yoghurt
- Pastry OR baguette and jam
- Eggs, bacon and bagel OR pancake stack
And this was all for just 13EUR. For a little more we could have had both warm options, but even that menu beat us! The food quality was really good, and there is something just so perfect about a warm baguette and jam for breakfast (or in my case lotus biscuit spread) and they served their coffee with a cute marshmellow on a stick. Definitely an incredible brunch option if you are in the city for just a day!
Whilst Lille may not be top of the tourist hotspots, it was such a great city to get out to for a day, and experience something different. It is so similar to some of my other beloved cities (Brussels and Amsterdam) and I felt content and comfortable from the minute we stepped off the Eurostar. For me too, this was a great opportunity to put to bed my French demons – having not enjoyed Paris so much, visiting Lille has made me much more excited to see more of France.
Ultimately if you enjoy waffles, beer and a crazy history, with cool buildings and parks and friendly locals there really isn’t a better place for a day trip! Next time I’d like to come for a little longer – to visit the fine art museum or to come during September to visit Grande Braderie de Lille, one massive flea market and party. But for now, I consider myself totally satisfied with my quick jaunt around the the heart of Northern France.