Crowded places such as Paris and Venice have made many travelers feel like they need to escape to underrated destinations for a well-deserved breather. Enter Lille. Just one hour away by train from tourism heavyweights such as Paris and London, this city is a great alternative for a cool getaway that doesn’t have a been-there-done-that feel—we’re looking at you Paris and London. And the best part of it all is that Lille can go head to head with some of those iconic cities.
Lille has been transforming for a while, developing a personality that centers on creativity. It was named 2020’s World Design Capital, the first city in France to receive the honor. This is also France’s fourth-largest city, with Neoclassical and Gothic architecture, French and Belgian cuisine, and a diverse population—some locals say it includes close to 100 nationalities. It’s official: Lille is now the cool place to be.
For the most delectable cuisine in Lille, Rue du Gand is the answer. Some of the best restaurants in the city are found in this famous street, many right next to each other and some even serving the same dishes. Take Les Ptiots and Estaminet Chez la Vieille, both known for their carbonnades flamandes, a dish featuring meat cooked in amber beer and served with gingerbread and beet sugar. The word estaminet means “the place” and this Flemish eatery is a restaurant filled with nostalgia and old-world charm.
La Ducasse is another estaminet worth trying during a visit to Lille. It has a moody vibe with dark wood and vintage posters. It also cooks up a storm in the form of potjevleesch, a Flemish dish from the north of France and Belgium. It consists of different marinated cuts of meat, mostly rabbit and chicken. The meat is marinated with beer or white wine, seasoned with spices and then cooked in a covered pottery mold known as a terrine. Then vinegar gelatin is added for a jellied consistency.
As for bars, Lille’s creative class seems to favor hip boites such as L’Illustration Café on Rue Royale, filled with Art Nouveau pieces and exhibits from local artists. It is usually packed with musicians, writers and painters conversing over long drinks. This is an ideal spot to read a book with a cup of coffee during the day and then go back for a beer and conversation at night.
Finally, a stop by Méert means that a sampling of Lille’s authentic food has been accomplished. This waffle house and tea room is famous for its Madagascar vanilla gaufres (waffles) which they have been making since 1677. With an almost mythical reputation—many a food writer and critic has raved about these baked delights—the gaufres are thin but crispy. They also make chocolates, candies and cakes, which are all on display inside a historic building styled with gilded and coffered ceilings. Wrought iron balconies can be found throughout the interior and exterior. The store is divided into three separate areas: one for waffles and candy products, another for the cakes and another for the gourmet restaurant and tea room. The shop has become so popular that the owners have expanded beyond the border of Lille to Paris, London and Brussels.
Lille’s old town is where the shopping happens. Visitors flock to stores like Momentum on Rue des Mollettes for pieces by local designers. This concept shop displays artwork and encourages visitors to engage in conversation with the curator as a way to connect and better understand art. Pick up a ceramic vase or sculpture, or furniture if you have a way of getting it home.
Book lovers will rejoice in the stalls inside la Vieille Bourse, the former stock exchange turned cultural courtyard. There are several bouquinistes (booksellers) who have been here since the ‘80s, selling not just books, but also comics and movie posters.
The Palais des Beaux Arts opened in 1892 as Lille’s official museum of fine arts. It contains one of the largest art collections in France and is well regarded for its 15th- and 20th-century works by Manet, Goya and Rembrandt. Explore the more than 70,000 square feet of antiquities, sculptures and pottery.
For a pleasing respite from the hustle and bustle, head to the Jardin Vauban. Since 1863, people have been flocking to this eight-acre English garden with its verdant lawns, picturesque grottos, lush waterfalls and abundant flora. Meander through its gently sloping paths where you’ll come across statues dedicated to Symbolist poet Albert Samain as well as general Charles de Gaulle.
Stately and modern, the Clarance Hotel features a clean and minimalist design with a hearty dose of extravagance. Although it’s a five-star boutique hotel with a Michelin-starred restaurant, the Clarance is one of the most affordable hotels in town. Set in an 18th-century townhouse, the hotel features a wood-paneled library, a colorful garden, and an organic herb bed. A classic and ornate staircase works with the rope-like bohemian chandelier that floats above it. Minimal furniture matches elaborate wallpaper. Guests can rent free bikes to discover the neighborhood and reach Rue Royale for a bite to eat.
L’Hermitage Gantois was Lille’s first five-star hotel, and surprisingly, their rates are very affordable. A steeped Flemish roof dominates the exterior, a glass ceiling adorns the bar inside and modern art invigorates the hallways. The hotel is found in a quiet part of Rue de Paris and is just a few minutes away from Grand Place and the Palais des Beaux-Arts. It has a restaurant, spa, indoor pool, sauna and a small museum. There’s also a chapel and leafy courtyard for quiet moments of reflection.
Why Hotel by Best Western
A funkier option in Lille is Why Hotel by Best Western, located just a minute away from the Lille tourist office and a few minutes from the shopping sector on Rue Bethune. The front desk is made of kitchen units from the ‘50s and an old steamer trunk serves as a champagne fridge. This quirky theme is repeated in its architecture, with oval windows resembling a honeycomb. Guests can take instant snaps in the photo booth in the lobby or work off all that good food at the 24-hour gym.