Written by Bradt Travel Guides
Food and drink matter in Lille. There are so many flavours to be discovered that one mealtime is simply not enough. From one table to the next, you may choose between that which makes Lille French and that which sets it so very much apart.
Moules-frites are omnipresent throughout Lille © Anna Moores
Regional specialities are a wonderful blend of the Flemish and northern French styles, featuring the cheeses of Mont des Cats and Maroilles, genièvre juniper gin, the famous Blanche de Lille white beer and other local brews, all tickled with local wisdom to transform the simplest of ingredients into something special. Waterzooï is omnipresent throughout the city, a stew usually of freshwater carp, tench and pike, and the traditional budget option of moules-frites (a pot of mussels served with a pile of chips) is a Lillois institution. For afters, there’s plenty of ice cream and sorbet with local flavourings such as fleur de bière, gin and the ever-present chicorée, plus the more expected tarte au sucre and pain perdu. Whether you’re looking for gastronomic elegance amongst white tablecloths, a tavern serving savoury tarts with fresh-brewed beers, or just an old-fashioned traditional brasserie, you’ll find it in Lille.
Ice cream is determined by local flavours – why not try speculoos? © Anna Moores
Lille is a market town, and never more so than during the Braderie held during the first weekend of September. For 48 hours, the whole city sets out its stalls in a tradition that dates back to the city fathers granting servants the right to earn money by selling their master’s cast-off clothing once a year. Recycle your children’s toys for a few pence or swap a Deco uplighter for a 1960s lava lamp; you’ll find all manner of things on pavement and roadside pitches.
© Laetitia Lecointe
If you’re not in Lille in September then don’t panic – a wonderful alternative takes place every week in the Wazemmes quarter, just a few métro stops from the town centre. This Sunday morning institution is the market to end all markets; step out of the Gambetta métro station and prepare for an assault on the senses. Surrender to the pulse of the city and simply follow the crowds past antiques and bric-a-brac, smart coats and swimwear, chickens and rabbits, exotic sausages and regional cheeses. All in all, Wazemmes on a Sunday morning is an unforgettable experience for bargain hunters and browsers alike.
© Anna Moores
Fine art galleries
Lille is home to two of the richest art galleries outside Paris. The first is the Palais des Beaux-Arts, France’s second museum after the Louvre; modest and unassuming, this fabulous red-walled palace is home to Goyas and Rubens, Picassos, Lautrecs and Monets. The breathtaking art collection was brought to Lille on the orders of Napoleon, who stripped the walls of palaces and private galleries throughout his European empire, from Italy to the Low Countries. The plan paid off: what had been a pleasure for the cultured few is now a cherished symbol of civic pride, and was the triumph that awoke the world to the news that Lille had achieved greatness.
© Nord Tourism
The second is the Louvre-Lens, the product of President Chirac’s campaign against France’s Paris-centric approach to the arts. Although technically in the nearby town of Lens, it’s just a 40-minute train journey from Lille, and well worth the effort. What has been created at Lens is a virtual time machine of art. This unique museum for our time has unrivalled access to the stores and archives of the parent museum in Paris, where just a tiny fraction of the national collection would ever see the light of day. Now, in a versatile new space, the art of the whole world may be seen in a timeline that takes us from the marvels of the ancient world to living memory; from anonymous heroic statuary to the framed and signed dignity of the likes of Raphael and Ingres.
© Anna Moores
Lille may be known for the traditional Flemish gables of the old town, but there is so much more to see than just cobbles. From Gothic churches, such as the magnificent Cathédrale Notre Dame de la Treille, and Art Deco shopfronts of Vieux Lille, to the striking futurescape beyond Euralille’s glass towers, the streets are a gallery of style from across the centuries.
© Mark Swinburne
Tango at the Vieille Bourse
© Velvet, Wikimedia Commons
If you are in Lille on a summer Sunday, then this a spectacle not to be missed; the seductive synchronicity of backs arching in tandem, toes pointing forward then sliding up close-pressed calves, waists pulled, shoulders shrugged, and eyes locked in concentrated complicity. The city had been dancing long before the arrival of this summer soirée, but the atmosphere within this old stock exchange is something quite remarkable – definitely worth a visit.
Want to explore the city? Find out more with our guide: