A short hop by train from Britain, the leading city in Northern France offers fine art, great cuisine and an abundance of Christmas spirit

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Travel essentials

Why go now?

France's northernmost big city is compact, cultured and festive. For the next month (to 30 December) the Christmas market fills Place Rihour (1), with about 80 colourful stalls selling arts, crafts and local food specialities; next door, the Place du Général de Gaulle (2) (usually shortened to Grand' Place) dazzles.

Touch down

The train from London St Pancras to Lille-Europe station (3) takes 80 minutes on Eurostar (08705 186186; eurostar.com), with fares from £55 return. By car, Dunkirk is the nearest port, with frequent ferries from Dover on Norfolkline (0844 847 5042; norfolkline.com); the journey takes an hour on the toll-free A26.

Get your bearings

Lille-Europe station (3) is east of the city centre beside the modern Euralille shopping centre. It's an easy 10-minute walk to the centre, a loose connection of three squares: Place Rihour (1), the Grand' Place (2) and Place du Théâtre (4). Around these squares are some of the city's finest buildings, reminders of its past as a centre of the Flemish wool trade. The tourist office (5) in Palais Rihour (00 33 3 59 57 94 00; lilletourism.com), in the north-west corner of the square of the same name, opens 9.30am-6.30pm, Monday to Saturday, and 10am-noon, 2pm-5pm on Sunday.

Spreading north from here is Vieux Lille, a collection of narrow streets, many pedestrian-only. They are lined with gorgeously decorated 17th- and 18th-century buildings. To the south and west of the centre spread grid-like streets, testament to the growing importance of the city as an inland port after it had been recaptured by the Sun King, Louis XIV, in 1667. It expanded three times, each extension marked by grand boulevards of merchants' houses. Louis also built the star-shaped Citadelle (6).

When your feet fail you, take the city's Metro – the first entirely automated, driverless underground system in the world. A single journey costs €1.30 (day pass, €3.60, Zap tickets for three stops €0.65).

Check in

L'Hermitage Gantois (7) at 224 rue de Paris (00 33 3 20 85 30 30; hotelherm-itagegantois.com), is a swanky conversion of a former hospital: 17th century on 15th-century foundations. Exposed walls, timbered ceilings and brocaded chairs mix with modern lights and black-tiled bathrooms. Doubles from €210, room only.

Another conversion (of a 17th-century convent), Alliance Couvent des Minimes (8) overlooks the canal by the Citadelle at 17 quai de Wault (00 33 3 20 30 62 62; alliance-lille.com). Rooms are contemporary-bland but spacious (ask for canal views) and the glassed-in cloisters comprise an atmospheric restaurant. Doubles start at €217, room only; weekend deals often available.

Scattered with antiques, Hotel Brueghel (9) is close to the Grand' Place (2), at 3-5 parvis Saint-Maurice (00 33 3 20 06 06 69; hotel-brueghel.com). A wrought-iron lift rises to six floors of light and simple bedrooms. Weekend doubles from €79, room only.

Another good-value two-star, Hotel Kanai (10) at 10 rue de Bethune (00 33 3 20 57 14 78; hotelkanai.com), is handily placed south of Place Rihour in a pedestrian-only area. Rooms are briskly minimalist in white and aubergine. Weekend doubles from €62, room only.

Day one

Take a hike

Start in the Grand' Place (2), surrounded by the city's finest buildings of which the most eye-catching is the Vieille Bourse (old stock exchange) on the eastern side, a 17th-century Flemish-Renaissance froth of pilasters and gargoyles. Most afternoons, its courtyard hosts second-hand bookstalls and chess games. Opposite is La Furet du Nord, one of Europe's largest bookstores (eight floors, two buildings) while, on the other side of the Bourse, in Place du Théâtre (4), is the wedding cake, Louis XVI-style opera house and Chamber of Commerce with its overblown belfry.

From here, wander north through the cobbled streets of the Old Town where 17th and 18th-century merchants' houses are flamboyant with carved stonework, their ground floors now chic shops. At 32 rue de la Monnaie, L'Hospice Comtesse (11) museum (00 33 3 28 36 84 00) recreates 17th-century interiors and showcases Flemish art, ceramics and tapestries. Open 10am-12.30pm and 2-6pm daily (closed Monday morning and all day Tuesday), €3.

On the northern edge of the Old Town is the house where the French leader Charles de Gaulle was born, Maison Natale Charles de Gaulle (12) at 9 rue Princesse (00 33 3 28 38 12 05; maison-natale-de-gaulle.com). See where he played with his toy soldiers then watch newsreel of the French liberation in the Second World War. Open Wednesday-Saturday, 10am-1pm, 2-6pm, Sunday 1.30-6.30pm, admission €6.

Lunch on the run

Paul (13), the celebrated boulangerie and patisserie, started life 120 years ago in the town of Croix, just outside Lille. Pop into the branch on the corner of Place du Théâtre and rue de Paris for a filled baguette followed by a fruit tart, plus some signature macaroons for later.

Window shopping

The most interesting shops are in the Old Town: you'll find antiques and jewellery in rue Basse, chic interiors in rue de la Monnaie, designer boutiques in rue de la Grande Chausée and footwear in rue Lepelletier. Foodies should head to rue Esquermoise and rue du Curé St Étienne. In the latter, the Phillipe Olivier fromagerie (14) at number 3 stocks 35 local cheeses, including the soft but pungent Maroilles.

Cultural afternoon

The galleries at the Palais des Beaux-Arts (15) (00 33 3 20 06 78 00; pba-lille.fr), France's second-most important art collection after the Louvre in Paris, chronicle European masters from 12th to 20th centuries – Brueghel, Rubens, de Witte, Monet, Goya, El Greco – yet are delightfully empty. The vast classical building, sitting commandingly in the place de la République, opens 10am–6pm daily except Tuesday (and open Monday only 2-6pm); €5.50.

An aperitif

Potent Flemish beer is the staple tipple, best sampled at Les Trois Brasseurs (16) which brews its own beer at 22 place de la Gare, by Lille Flanders station (17). The smartest options are in the Old Town, such as cocktail-cool Le 28 Thiers (18) at 28 rue Thiers, a mix of black walls and red velvet chairs; or convivial La Part des Anges (19) at 50 rue de la Monnaie, with its 40-plus wines by the glass.

Dining with the locals

For modern bistrot-style cooking – pan-fried calves' liver, grilled cod – try L'Assiette du Marché (20), almost opposite La Part des Anges at 61 rue de la Monnaie (00 33 3 20 06 83 61; assiettedumarche.com), in the former Mint. Main courses are about €17; with a three-course menu formule at €22. Top dining spot is the Michelin-starred seafood specialist, À L'Huîtrière (21), at 3 rue des Chats Bossus (00 33 3 20 55 43 41; huitriere.com). You enter through an exuberant art deco fish shop to find a panelled and chandeliered dining room where main courses cost about €30 (a three-course lunch is a better-value option at €45). Warm, crowded Chez La Vieille (22) at 60 rue de Gand (00 33 3 28 36 40 06) is a typical estaminet – a traditional Flemish restaurant.

Day two

Sunday morning: go to church

The city's cathedral, Notre-Dame-de-la-Treille (23), was started in 1854 but consecrated only in 1999 due to financial problems. The final section, the façade, is at first sight stark: slabs of marble supported by steel wires. Slip inside, however, and the sunlight streams around and through the 3cm-thick marble sheets bathing the Neo-Gothic interior in a golden glow.

Out to brunch

Work up an appetite at the Sunday market in the south of town at place de la Nouvelle Aventure (24) in Wazemmes: a riot of parasols, rugs, glittery jewellery, silk fabrics, leather handbags and cheap jumpers. Then wander across town to place du Concert (25) to the food market where you can gorge on oysters, olives and bowls of steaming paella while being amazed at the voluptuous piles of fruit, vegetables, shellfish and, er, horse meat.

Every day is Sunday at Tous les Jours Dimanches (26) at 13 rue Masurel (00 33 3 28 36 05 92) – relaxed and bohemian with mismatched furniture, sofas, vintage glassware and mirrors. It offers savoury tarts and pains chauds, salads and cakes. Its hot chocolate is reputed to be the best in town. Tart with salad costs about €10.

Take a ride

Take Metro Line 2 north-east of the city to Roubaix (Gare Jean-Lebas or Grand Place). Then head for La Piscine – Musée d'Art et d'Industrie at 23 rue de l'Espérance (00 33 3 20 69 23 60; roubaix-lapiscine.com), a stunning conversion of an art deco swimming pool into a gallery, with sculptures around the pool, art in the tiled shower cubicles, haute couture on the balcony and two dazzling sunburst stained glass windows. Open 1-6pm at weekends, Tuesday to Thursday 11am-6pm, Friday 11am-8pm, admission €4.50.

A walk in the park

The Parc de Loisirs de la Citadelle, along with Bois de Boulogne woods, surrounds the 17th-century Citadelle (6) – the fortress built by Louis XIV when he captured the city in 1667, is the green lung of the city and where everyone meets on Sundays. Stroll the ramparts and moats (the fort is still used by the army) or visit the tiny zoo with its comical porcupines and adorable lemurs.

The icing on the cake

Take an elegant chair in the gilded, chandeliered Méert (27) salon de thé at 27 rue Esquermoise (00 33 3 20 57 07 44; meert.fr). Started as a chocolatier in 1761, this frothy tearoom serves over 50 teas plus dainty cakes and their celebrated gaufres (waffles). Its faded charm, coiffed women and beautiful men are enchanting. It opens 9am-1pm, 3-7pm on Sundays, closed Mondays, 9am-7.30pm on other days.