Lille is known as the poor northern sister to the more glamorous Paris. It does however share some of its big sister’s attributes.
They both have a champs du mars (big park).
They both have a grand place worthy of oohs and aahs (some consider Lille’s the second most beautiful square in France)
And they both lay claim to Charles de Gaulle’s legacy. Paris his presidency and Lille his birth and formative years.
But then Paris is well Paris – the city of romance and lights and Lille is….? What exactly? No doubt this is what Paris was thinking when it rejected the Gare Flandres train station building (originally intended for Paris) and gave it to little Lille instead. How’s that for a big sister hand-me-down.
But perhaps the charm of Lille is that it’s not Paris. It’s not big and overcrowded. It’s not pretentious to the point where the waiters give you the once over once they decide to grace your table with their service (but not smiles).
Lille doesn’t make you feel that maybe your style is more Paris Hilton than Paris Haute Couture and that your general manner would be better suited to Mike Leigh film than a serious art nouveau film. The girl’s got grit.
So yes, I liked Lille. It charmed me with its small town ways and cycle friendly streets. (buses and bicycles can even move against traffic). The old centre, with its cobbled streets and grand squares, is still well preserved. The buildings don’t suffer from the grand ostentation of Haussmann’s Parisian hand. They are quaint, smaller, but not always unassuming.
Being a border city, the culture is also a fusion of French and Flemish influence, so more beer than wine, and perhaps less obsessed with perfection. Perhaps.
The wide avenues are all lined with plane trees, which arch over to create a welcome canopy of shade. It’s just a great city to walk, cycle and play boules without fearing of getting lost or laughed at.
My five fast tips for enjoying the city by bike or foot:
1. Cycle to the Modern Art Museum
This 14km round trip from the centre is pretty straight forward, once you get your bearings, and it’s not always flat so it even borders on exercise. It’s worth packing a picnic which you can enjoy in the lovely Parc Heron, which surrounds the museum and its field installations. The museum itself has a great permanent collection of Picassos, Miros, Leger, Basquiat, Buffet and more and the obligatory african/ art brut sculptures and installations.
For 7 euro you get to enjoy this permanent and temporary exhibition.
Bonus: toilets are free. so if you pee twice during your visit you save yourself 1 euro (by street standards).
Note: You can’t take any bigger bags inside the museum. They will direct you to a locker, to store your bag for 1 euro (if you want to lock it that is. I took all my valuables out left my bag in locker, unlocked and free).
- Walk the old centre
Grand Place, Place de Teatre, Military Hospital, St Anders Cathedral, Charles de Gaulle’s house. Palais Beaux Ars. There are a lot of great buildings to point at and walk around and even more of them to take rest under over a chilled beer or wine. After walking a few streets in the old centre, you’ll find it’s not always the grand squares and tourist sites that make you want to get your camera out.
- Play boules in the parks
Boules is a right of passage in France. Lille is no exception. On most long, warm evenings, you’ll find clusters of boules enthusiasts armed with silver balls and golden bottles enjoying a unique combination of light body exercise and full bodied wine in the parks and designated venues around the city.
- Get lost in the Champs du Mars
This is a much loved (and used) park. At the centre is an old citadel, harking back to the city’s military days. The park is made up of both the wild and the cultivated, places to sit and take stock of your life by the canal’s edge and places to get lost or loose yourself to the sounds and shadows of the dark wet woods. In one hour I saw people fishing, cycling, walking dogs, practicing their golf swing, groups of school children going on a treasure hunt. It’s a great place to cycle through and it’s easy to access because it’s right in the heart of the city.
Bonus: There is a houseboat/barge (La Péniche) that serves as a live music venue with a lineup of great indie bands from far and wide. When I was there Sallie Ford, a really good all-female indie band from Portland, Oregon was rocking the boat.
Cost: around 16 euros.
- Visit the “swimming pool” museum
Sometimes things just don’t translate that well. La Piscine Mus e dArt et dIndustrie Lille Volotea is one such case. It is set in a former art deco municipal bathhouse surrounded by a courtyard and garden. The high vaulted swimming pool building has been turned into an impressive exhibition space for sculpture from the 19th and 20th centuries. The art collection is equally impressive and includes works from Bonnard to Picasso, many of the collections amassed by Lille’s wealthy industrialists. Worth a visit, for the setting at least.
Cost: between 5-9 euros, depending on exhibitions.
PS. If you are based in lille for a few days, ditch the bags and go on a few day trips to the charming town of Ghent (1.20min by train) the historical WW1 town of Ypres (leper on the map) or even the big city of Brussels (1h20). Even Paris is a short trained away.