Lille is a major city in north-eastern France, close to the frontier with Belgium. It is a substantial city, and the centre of the largest conurbation in this region of France.
Long an industrial centre, especially following the industrial revolution of the 19th century, Lille fell into the same problems of decline that affected many such cities. In the last two decades it has made great efforts to revive itself and make the most of its character, and is now perhaps the most important tourist destination in this part of France. This ‘rebirth’ was celebrated in 2004 when the city was European City of Culture.
Many of the interesting buildings and monuments in the city have been given a new lease of life in recent years. The most interesting part of a visit to Lille now is centred around the ‘old centre’, a substantial district containing numerous 17th and 18th century townhouses and other buildings, in a regenerated region of the town. Here are listed 10 thing to do in Lille:
- Old Lille – Lille’s historic district is a delight, with restored bourgeois houses on cobblestone streets. Place Louise de Bettignies and Rue de la Monnaie are the best places to start a stroll, and you’ll spend most of the walk looking up at the decorative facades and gables, so be careful not to bump into anyone! Old Lille is a dynamic area too, with more than its fair share of bars and congenial nightspots.
- Palais des Beaux-Arts – It’s in a lovely Belle Époque summer palace from the end of the 19th century, and you may need as long as half a day to get the most out of the museum and its art from the 1400s up to the 1900s. There are works by Monet, Raphael, Gustave Courbet, Rubens, van Gogh, Donatello, Jacob Jordaens and Picasso, but this is just the swiftest breeze through what’s on show.
- Grand Place – Lille’s expansive main square is the place where locals and tourists converge to meet up or see the sights. On all sides are wondrous old gabled buildings. Pause to look at the Théâtre du Nord, set in Lille’s former guardhouse from 1717. That classic Flemish style has also been adopted by more modern structures, like the art deco Voix du Nord building next-door, which was built in 1936 and has a high crow-stepped gable. At the heart of the square is the Colonne de la Déesse, put up in the 19th century to honour the city’s part in repelling the Habsburg Empire in the Siege of Lille in 1792.
- Palais Rihour – There aren’t many flamboyant gothic buildings in Lille, but this mansion completed for the Duke of Burgundy in 1453 is a nice example. It now contains Lille’s tourist centre in the Salle des Gardes on the ground floor. Upstairs the Sacristy, with lovely stained-glass windows, and the Salle du Conclave are venues for exhibitions and public events.
- Lille Citadelle – After conquering Lille in 1667 Louis XIV wasted little time reinforcing the city’s fortifications. The star-shaped citadel was built in just three years, and was designed by none other than Vauban, the famed military engineer who left his mark all across France in this time. The speed of the project is all the more amazing when you see the quantity of material needed for its construction: Three million stone blocks, 70,000 lumps of sandstone and 60 million bricks.
- La Vieille Bourse – It dates to the mid-17th century and consists of 24 Flemish renaissance houses, all around a central arcaded courtyard. If you’re wondering how the facades can be so ornate, the main architect, Julien Destrée, was a decorative furniture designer by trade, and was given free rein to express himself on this project. After more than 350 years La Vieille Bourse still a fixture of daily life in Lille; people come to play chess in the courtyard, and beneath the arcades there’s a daily flower and book market.
- LaM – Lille’s museum of modern art is a first-rate contemporary cultural attraction with more than 6,700 works from the 20th and 21st centuries. It really took off in 1999 when it received a donation from L’Aracine, an association of Art Brut collectors, and now contains the largest set of Art Brut works in France. Outsider artists like Augustin Lesage, Henry Darger and the famous schizophrenic Carlo Zinelli are all featured.
- La Piscine Museum – Next-door to Croix is Roubaix, where there’s an imaginative cultural attraction set in a former indoor swimming pool. The pool was completed in 1932 and was conceived in an exquisite art deco style. It shut down in the 80s but was reopened as a wonderful space in which to showcase a large archive of textile samples gathered from Lille’s many textile factories.
- Parc Zoologique – Located in the upmarket Esquermes quarter, Lille’s zoo is free to enter, placing it among the most-visited zoological attractions in all of France. The zoo is pretty compact, but has 450 animals from 70-odd species and takes part in international conservation programs for endangered species.
- Town Hall and Belfry – Flanders, to which Lille belonged for centuries, is a region noted for its belfries, and the town hall boasts the most recent and the highest of them all: It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site on its own, and rises to 104 metres.