The French city with the shortest journey time from Britain - 59 minutes from Ashford in Kent - is buzzing with activity that reflects its status as European Capital of Culture 2004 ( www.lille2004.com). There's an upended forest bizarrely suspended in the main square, an exhibition of robots at the Tri Postal, the postal sorting centre, and a multi-media play by Peter Greenaway and Saskia Boddeke being staged at the deconsecrated church of Marie-Madeleine. Meanwhile, live music plays throughout the town - from Jamaican bands to symphony concerts. Twelve historic buildings have also been transformed into "maisons folie" providing new space for such exhibitions, plays and shows as well as housing cinemas and cafés.
From the south-east of England, the most convenient way to reach Lille is by train from Waterloo or Ashford on Eurostar (08705 186 186, www.eurostar.com). The lowest Eurostar return fare from both Waterloo and Ashford is £55. Return fares to Lille from other UK cities include £79 from Birmingham and £89 from Manchester (through Virgin Trains, 08457 222 333, www.virgin-trains.co.uk); and £86 from Edinburgh and £76 from Leeds (GNER, 08457 225 225, www.gner.co.uk).
By air, Paris Charles de Gaulle is the obvious gateway, because the airport's own station is less than an hour by TGV from Lille. Whether taking Eurostar direct to the city or flying to Paris and proceeding from there, you arrive at Lille-Europe station.
GET YOUR BEARINGS
The principal sights of Lille are contained within a remarkably compact area; you can walk across it in 20 minutes. The centre is bounded to the east by the modern development of Euralille, encompassing Lille-Europe station, and to the west by the canal and Citadelle. Few venture further south than the imposing Porte de Paris or beyond Rue Princesse, for General de Gaulle's birthplace, to the north.
The tourist office (00 33 359 579 400, www.lilletourism.com) is located in what remains of the Palais Rihour after a fire in 1916 destroyed the 15th-century palace of the Dukes of Burgundy. It occupies the guards' chapel and is open between 9.30am and 6.30pm from Monday to Saturday and from 10am to noon and 2pm to 5pm on Sunday and bank holidays.
TAKE A VIEW
None of the church towers nor the 104m-high belfry of the town hall are currently open to climbers. The only viewpoint is from the elevated city ramparts around the 1621 Porte de Gand.
TAKE A HIKE
Start on Place Simon Volant at Porte de Paris, built in 1692 for Louis XIV as a monumental entrance to the city. Walk up Rue de Paris past L'Hermitage Gantois to the 15th-century St Maurice which feels more like a market hall than a church. Continue up Rue de Paris to the Opera House and turn left at Vieille Bourse, which has a courtyard occupied by secondhand booksellers and chess players. Take a turn off Place General de Gaulle and Place Rihour before returning to the Opera and walking up Boulevard Carnot. Turn left into Rue des Arts to reach Place du Lion d'Or and Rue de la Monnaie for the Museum of the Hospice Comtesse and its insight into old Lille (00 33 3 28 36 84 00), open Monday 2-6pm, Wednesday to Sunday 10am-12.30pm and 2-6pm, admission €2.30 (£1.65) and free for under-12s.
LUNCH ON THE RUN
Estaminet T'Risjel at 25 Rue de Gand (00 33 3 20 15 01 59) is a gem. It is a classic neighbourhood bistro with densely packed tables and a daily menu of regional dishes. And it's a bargain at €11 (£8) for three courses, usually with a choice of four starters and desserts and two main dishes. You need to get there by 12.30pm if you haven't booked.
The Palais des Beaux Arts (00 33 3 20 06 78 00, www.lille.cci.fr) on Place de la République ranks as one of France's finest art galleries, thanks to Napoleon who ordered paintings from private galleries and palaces to be handed over to Lille. There is a strong collection of Flemish and Dutch masters as well as an impressive range of French works, including a Monet of London's Houses of Parliament. Until 14 June, there is a major exhibition of Rubens's paintings, drawings and tapestries. The gallery is open 10am-6pm except Monday when admission is 2-6pm, Tuesday when it is closed and Friday when hours are 10am-7pm. Admission is €4.60 (£3.80) or €8.50 (£6) for a joint ticket to the Rubens exhibition and the main galleries.
The historical links between Lille and the Low Countries have left their mark on the beer, and one of the best places to try a variety of brews is Les 3 Brasseurs at 22 Place de la Gare (00 33 3 20 06 46 25). A palette enables you to sample small glasses of the blonde, scotch (or brune), ambree and blanche, all brewed on the premises.
DINING WITH THE LOCALS
Clément Marot, 16 Rue de Pas (00 33 3 20 57 01 10) is run by a jolly gastronomer who serves superb food using local ingredients and regional recipes, many with chicory. Fresh and sea fish are emphasised, but not to the exclusion of meat dishes. Leave room for the magisterial crème brûlée. Set menus range from €22-45 (£15.70-32.10).
SUNDAY MORNING: GO TO CHURCH
Mass in the Cathedral Notre-Dame de la Treille starts at 11am. Begun in 1854, the building was completed only in 1999. The drab west front looks opaque from outside, but comes alive inside, with a mass of yellows and browns symbolising the burning bush.
OUT TO BRUNCH
Paul at 8-12 Rue de Paris (00 33 3 20 78 20 78) has been serving pâtisseries, baguettes and breads, coffee and chocolate since 1889. Local specialities include petit cramique.
A WALK IN THE PARK
The only place close to the centre where birdsong is the dominant sound is the wooded area surrounding the extraordinary fortress built by Sebastien Vauban, Louis XIV's military engineer who became governor of Lille. The fortress was built in just three years from 1667 and is made up of 16 million bricks and 3 million stone blocks. Vauban handed over governorship of the Citadelle to Charles, Comte d'Artagnan, immortalised by Dumas in The Three Musketeers.
Enter the woods near Jardin Vauban, where there is a puppet theatre and, over the Deûle canal, a free zoo and aviary with 120 species. Open daily 9am-5.30pm, 6.30pm at weekends.
TAKE A RIDE
The city centre is sufficiently compact for walking, and few buses penetrate the very heart. To visit the suburbs or outlying cultural events, Lille has two of the world's first fully automated Metro lines, and two tramway routes. The best ticket deal is the Lille 2004 Free Access Pass for 1, 2 or 3 days (€20, 30 and 45/£14.30, £21.40 and £32.10) which entitles the holder to free use of urban public transport (regional trains with the three-day pass) and free entry to 30 regional tourist sites as well as all Lille 2004 sites and exhibitions. The passes can be bought at tourist offices.
WRITE A POSTCARD
The salon de thé at Méert, 27 Rue Esquermoise, should inspire some colourful lines as you try the gaufrettes (filled waffles) that General de Gaulle so enjoyed here while he was courting his future wife. Savouries are served at lunchtime, and afternoon tea offers tough choices on the cake front. Open Monday 3-7pm, Tuesday to Friday 9am-7pm, Saturday 9am-7.30pm, Sunday 9am-1pm, 3-7pm.
THE ICING ON THE CAKE
De Gaulle was born in 1890 at 9 Rue Princesse, now a museum displaying the period rooms in which the future president also spent his childhood holidays (00 33 3 28 38 12 05, www.charles-de-gaulle.org). The museum is open Wednesday to Sunday 10am-1pm, 2-5.30pm and entrance is €5 (£3.60).
The splendid L'Hermitage Gantois, at 224 Rue de Paris (00 33 3 20 85 30 30, www.hotelhermitagegantois.com) is located in an imaginatively converted 15th-century hospice with a wealth of beams in both public rooms and bedrooms. The latter, though, have uncompromisingly modern bathrooms. The dining room is in a former dormitory.
Doubles cost from €190 (£136) room only. Marginally less expensive is Hôtel Alliance, at 17 Quai de Wault (00 33 3 20 30 62 62, fr.federal-hotel.com), a quiet location overlooking a canal basin. Doubles are from €180 (£129).
In the mid-price bracket, there is Mercure Lille Centre Le Royal, at 2 Boulevard Carnot (00 33 3 20 14 71 47, www.mercure.com), which is just behind the Opera house in a century-old building. Doubles are from €113 (£81), room only. For inexpensive accommodation try Hôtel de la Paix, 46 bis Rue de Paris (00 33 3 20 54 63 93), a family-run establishment close to the main square. Doubles are from €88 (£63) room only.
If you wish to stay close to Lille-Europe station and don't mind characterless boxes, the two options are the Crowne Plaza, at 335 Boulevard de Leeds (00 33 3 20 42 46 46, www.lille-crowneplaza.com) with rooms from €170 (£121) or Hôtel Lille Europe, at Avenue Le Corbusier (00 33 3 28 36 76 76), with rooms from €63 (£45) room only.
Shops in Lille are generally open between 10am-8pm. The most interesting boutiques and galleries are situated to the north of the cathedral in Rue des Vieux Murs, where Clos St Vincent sells wines and local produce; in the 17th-century houses of Rue des Trois Molettes; and in Rue de la Monnaie (Benoît Chocolatier is at no. 77).
Generally, though, foodies should really head for Rue Esquermoise. Lille's oldest pâtisserie, Méert is situated here, while a few doors down at no. 21, Comtesse du Barry sells foie gras and a host of other culinary goodies. Au Chapon d'Or at no. 7 specialises in regional products, charcuterie and beers, Les Vins Gourmands at no. 33 stocks a good range of wines and beer, while Boulangerie-Pâtisserie P Leroy at no. 118 sells regional porcelain as well as home-made pâtisseries and confectionery.
For cheese, you can try Les Bons Paturages at 54 Rue Basse, which is just south of the cathedral. This area is also good for antiques and home furnishings. The modern shopping centre at Euralille has dozens of retail-chain stores and there are a few individual shops, such as Nature and Discoveries which sells an eclectic range of gifts, toys and books with an environmental theme.
TASTE OF THE CITY
A l'Huitrière, at 3 Rue des Chats Bossus (00 33 3 20 55 43 41) is an outstanding fish restaurant which is set behind a magnificently tiled fishmonger. A three-course set lunch on weekdays is €43 (£30.70), but access to the à la carte menu requires a deep wallet.
Competent regional fare is presented at Le Compostelle, at 4 Rue St-Etienne (00 33 3 28 38 08 30). The restaurant is in a conservatory built out from a Renaisssance façade. The set menu is €16.50 (£11.80) for two courses, €21.50 (£15.40) for three. For a taste of the Mediterranean, make for L'ile de Beaute, at 11 Place du Concert (00 33 3 20 55 55 20). This Corsican restaurant serves regional dishes and wines on set price menus of €21, €26 and €32 (£15, £18.60 and £22.85). Brasserie de la Paix is centrally located at 25 Place Rihour (00 33 3 20 54 70 41) and is a quintessentially French bistro serving steak and frites-type staples. Tables outside are great for people watching.