48 Hours in Lille

Lille's tenure as European Capital of Culture will soon be over, but the closest foreign city to Britain still has plenty to offer weekend visitors. Simon Calder and David Orkin go exploring
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The Independent Travel



The foreign city that is closest to the British mainland has 40 more days as European Capital of Culture. The tourist office (00 33 3 59 57 94 00; www.lille2004.com) has details of the last special cultural events, such as a flower sculpture by Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama and an exhibition of early 20th-century Mexican art. But even when the baton is handed on to Cork, Lille will continue to boast great art, architecture and a Flemish ambience - which helps to explain why the city boasts the best beer in France.


From South-east England, the easiest way to reach Lille is by Eurostar (08705 186 186; www.eurostar.com) from London Waterloo (100 minutes) or Ashford (one hour). The lowest return fare is £55, with cheap add-ons from regional cities. Alternatively, fly to Paris and take the high-speed train north to Lille, which takes around an hour. Either way, you arrive at Lille-Europe station. Many city-break operators sell packages to Lille, and given the city's chronic shortage of accommodation, largely fuelled by British visitors, it could be a smart move to book an inclusive trip.


The least inspiring vista you will see during your stay is the 10-minute walk from the space-age station along Avenue Le Corbusier to the city centre - but even that is enlivened by the sight, to your left, of a gigantic boot-shaped building over the railway line that houses the Credit Lyonnais bank. You pass the modern Euralille shopping complex, in which a Carrefour hypermarket, open 9am-10pm daily, is hiding. The city centre starts at Lille Flandres station, the fine building that was the original Gare du Nord in Paris, before it was moved north brick-by-brick. Everything apart from the modern art museum (see Icing on the Cake) is within easy reach on foot. The tourist office (00 33 3 59 57 94 00; www.lilletourism.com) is on Place Rihour; it opens 9.30am-6.30pm daily except Sundays (10am-noon and 2-5pm).


The modern two-star Hôtel Lille Europe on Avenue Le Corbusier, (00 33 3 28 36 76 76; www.hotel-lille-europe.com) is characterless but clean and friendly. A double room costs €73 (£52) and breakfast costs an extra €8 (£5.70). For more character, try the quaint Hôtel Brueghel overlooking the Gothic St-Maurice church at 5 Parvis St-Maurice (00 33 3 20 06 06 69, www.hotel-brueghel.com). It has a wood-panelled lobby, 65 simple and small rooms and a tiny lift. A double room costs €75 (£54) and breakfast costs an extra €7.50 (£5.40). Recently opened as a boutique hotel is the Hermitage Gantois at 224 rue de Paris (00 33 3 20 85 30 30; www.hotelhermitagegantois.com). Some of the original 15th-century features have been preserved. Doubles start at €191 (£136), breakfast is a further €18 (£13).


Lille has many splendid spires, towers and belfries, but they are not open to the public. If you visit from 24 November-29 December you can take a ride on a big wheel erected in the Place du Général de Gaulle as part of the Christmas market. The next best option is not quite as enticing: the rooftop view from the top (seventh) floor of the car park at the Printemps department store.


Lille has three plausible candidates for the title of main square. Start at the elegant Place du Théâtre. Head south into the second option, the Place du Général de Gaulle, and the third, the Place Rihour. Each is a commanding size and flanked by a mélange of architecture. Continuing south, the mairie (local town hall) is embellished by a fine mural. Float across the Place de la République with a nod towards the Palais de Beaux Arts and admire the Art Deco former university medical faculty, which is now an apartment block. The end of the hike is the flamboyant Maison Coilliot, an Art Nouveau masterpiece at Rue de Fleurus 14. Its architect, Hector Guimard, was the man responsible for the Art Nouveau phase of the Paris Métro.


Lille has absorbed culinary influences from all over France (and Belgium), and there are some great places to try a convincingly Breton crêpe. Try, for example, Crêperie Beaurepaire at 1 rue de Saint Etienne or Le Repaire du Lion on the Place du Lion D'Or.


The magnificent collection at the Palais des Beaux Arts (00 33 3 20 06 78 00; www.mairie-lille.fr), which ranges from Goya to Rubens, is second only to the Louvre in Paris. Like the Louvre, it is an intriguing combination of Classical and modern architecture, with the structure as attractive as its contents. It opens 10am-6pm from Wednesday to Sunday (until 7pm on Fridays) and 2-6pm on Mondays; admission - usually €4.60 (£3.30) - is free until 31 December because several rooms are closed until next year for alterations. The house where Lille's most famous son, Charles de Gaulle, was born in 1890 is closed for renovations until next June; it is at 9 rue Princesse (00 33 3 28 38 12 05; www.maison-natale-degaulle.org).


Lille's most interesting shopping area comprises the narrow winding streets roughly bordered by rue Esquermoise, rue d'Angleterre, rue de la Monnaie and rue de la Clef. Une Fée dans le Grenier at 21 rue Bartholome Masurel has a hotch-potch of antiques; Réminiscence on Place du Lion d'Or specialises in funky jewellery; Blanc Bleu at 31 rue de la Monnaie has nautically inspired fashion. Comtesse du Barry at 21 rue Esquermoise sells foie gras and a host of other culinary goodies. There are also some good markets - for fruit, flowers and vegetables try Place du Concert on Sunday and Wednesday mornings and (biggest and busiest) on Sunday mornings the city's regular flea market takes place at Wazemmes.


Drink the potent Flemish brews of Affligem and Brigand at Les Trois Brasseurs, a big and bustling bar at 22 Place de la Gare. If a 200-year-old lingerie boutique recently converted into a very popular café is more to your taste, head for Le Moulin d'Or at 30 Place du Théâtre. Lovers of the noble grape should quench their thirst at La Part des Anges, 50 rue de la Monnaie where you sit on a stool next to an ancient barrel or at a cosy table; and cheese and charcuterie complements the superb wine list.


Try to reserve in advance for the following. Au dessus Aux Arts (00 33 3 20 55 45 31) at 13 Place du Concert is unpretentious and, with main courses between €10 and €14 (£7-£10), offers good value. It's hard to go wrong at the string of restaurants along rue de Gand: eat well below Baroque chandeliers without breaking the bank at Le 86 at 86 rue de Gand (00 33 3 20 78 19 86), which is closed on Sunday. Always on the list of top Lille restaurants is A l'Huîtérerie at 3 rue des Chats Bossus (00 33 3 20 55 43 41; www.huitriere.fr), where diners have to make their way through an enticing fishmongers/delicatessen to enter the dining room. A seasonal seven-course menu is offered for €110 (£79). Prices are lower but the quality is still high at daughter restaurant L'Ecume Des Mers at 10 rue de Pas (00 33 3 20 54 95 40; www.ecume-des-mers.com); both are closed on Sunday nights.


The cathedral has had a tempestuous time. Legend says it was founded in 1066, and destroyed soon after the French Revolution. Reconstruction began in 1854, but took 155 years and was completed just 12 days before the end of the 20th century. The workmen are now in again, and although the unusual but striking front façade may be fenced off, the cathedral is still open. Sunday mass is at 11am.


At the bright and airy Basilic Café at 10 rue du Pont Neuf (00 33 3 28 36 91 33), a range of themed brunch menus is offered from €18 (£13). Reservations are advisable.


Wander through the greenery and woodland around La Citadelle. Waterside paths surround the fortress, built by Sebastien Vauban, Louis XIV's military engineer who became governor of Lille in 1667. The fortress was once governed by Charles, Comte d'Artagnan - immortalised by Dumas in The Three Musketeers.


Lille has its own Métro, the excellent Transpole system. Outside the city centre, these driverless trains run mostly overground, so you can look out of the window as if on a municipal theme-park ride. Single tickets are €1.20 (£0.75), but you're likely to need either a 10-ticket carnet (€10.20/£7.30) or a day pass (€3.50/£2.50). Take Transpole line 1 for an exciting run to Pont de Bois, then transfer (using the same ticket) to the number 41 bus to Parc Urbain-Musée for a fine finale.


Parc Urbain-Musée is the home of the elegantly simple Musée d'Art Moderne at 1 Allée du Musée (00 33 3 20 19 68 68; www.nordnet.fr/mam). It opens Monday to Saturday 10am-6pm, until 9pm on Thursdays and 10am-6.30pm on Sundays, closed Tuesdays. Admission is €7.50 (£5.40), unless you get there between 10am and 2pm on the first Sunday of the month, when it is free or between 6pm and 9pm on Thursdays.