Before last Saturday, I had never thought of Lille as a destination for tourism. Like many French people, I used to be quite biased against Northern France, which in the French collective imagination is the region of declining industries and social destitution. Visiting Amiens and Rouen made me realise how ridiculously wrong this bias is : both cities amazed me, with their stunning cathedrals,, their charming old districts, their rich history and the quality of life I could find there, and I do think now very positively of these regions. Therefore, it was high time I gave Lille a chance too.
Fortunately, on Friday, I found some really cheap tickets for a round trip from Paris to Lille. €35 only. That’s a steal, considering these were TGV (bullet train) tickets. And since Lille is only one hour from Paris by TGV, I didn’t hesitate too long, booked those tickets online, and on Saturday morning at 10 am, I was ready to go to Gare du Nord in order to board the train for Lille.
There are two stations in Lille : the old one, Gare de Lille Flandres, which is 500m far from Lille downtown, and the new one, Lille Europe, which is 700m far from Lille downtown. This means you don’t need to bother whether you arrive at one station or the other : both are close to each other, and only 5 to 10 minutes away from Lille downtown.
Since I arrived at 1 pm at Lille Flandres Station (my train had been delayed), I was pretty hungry. Fortunately, on the square in front of Lille Flandres Station, you can find some local “friterie”, Friterie Meunier, where I bought the most delicious French fries I have ever eaten with some typical sausage from Northern France and Belgium, “fricadelle”. There’s no better way to start a journey than with a good meal.
When I arrived at the main square of Lille, called Grand’ Place, I was immediately amazed at the colourful ancient buildings that surround the place. I had seen pictures of it on the web, but I had thought it was less broad, and not so majestic. I was wrong : Grand’ Place by itself makes the trip to Lille worth it.
As it was a Saturday evening, Grand’ Place was pretty crowded. In France, since most shops close on Sundays, especially in regional cities, people go shopping on Saturdays, so it might not be the best day if you want to visit the city quietly. However, I didn’t mind it that much. Actually, I like being able to have a look at how locals enjoy the day in a city, and it’s also easier to try all the local specialties.
I took the time to admire the magnificent belfry of Lille, which is said to be one of the most beautiful of Northern France. Though it might look as old the surrounding buildings, it is actually quite recent, since it was erected between 1910 and 1921. It is the most iconic monument of Lille however, and one can’t go to Lille without visiting it.
On Grand’ Place, you can also find the old Stock Exchange of Lille (Vieille Bourse), which dates from the XVIIth century. With its arcades and pillars, its colorful walls and perfect symmetry, it is a building you sure want to visit, especially on Saturdays when booksellers settle in the central courtyard. It is a reminder that Lille used to be a city of merchants before it was conquered by France in the late XVIIth century.
I then decided to go and visit the adjacent streets of Grand’ Place, which constitute the Old District of Lille (Vieux Lille in French). The cobblestone streets were quite narrow and overcrowded to say the least, though it was perfect for shopping with its many artisanal shops.
Before visiting the city, I didn’t think the old district of Lille was that big, and it was quite a pleasant surprise to find myself wondering if I would have enough time to visit it all. The old houses on each side of the streets had very colourful facades, sometimes adorned with statues and plaster medallions. The kind of details I love to notice. Overall, it felt very warm and lively.
What I loved the most in the old district was the corner buildings : some had pretty extravagant shapes, some were colourful, some more classic. Yet, all were worth a picture!
As usual when I visit a place, I also took the time to visit the churches I chanced upon. I first visited Saint-Maurice, which is one of the oldest churches still standing in Lille. Its architecture is pretty unique in France : as a hall church, the nave and the aisle approcimately have the same size. It gives a feeling of breadth that is quite strinking. I also loved the main entrance which is protected by a narrow porch adorned with statues. Overall, a church you shouldn’t miss.
The second church I visited was Sainte-Catherine, an even older church in the old district of Lille. As a hall church also, it has quite an original ogival wood ceiling, and some beautiful paintings on its walls. I loved how well-maintained this church is. It doesn’t feel cold as many old churches in France, but quite warm. And the Christ on the cross statue hanging from the ceiling at the center of the church is very impressive to see : it gives the place an atmosphere of holiness that leaves you in awe. Once again, don’t skip this church if you visit Lille : you won’t regret it.
I also wanted to see the triumphal arch of Porte de Paris. It used to be one of the main gates of the medieval city, and was later transformed into an arch of triumph by Simon Vollant to celebrate the victorious siege of the city by Louis XIV in 1667. Both sides of the arch are very different from one another : the Northern facade looks somewhat more delicate while the Southern facade has a more rigid and sturdy look.
As the day was ending and I had to come back to the train station to take the train back to Paris, I made a detour to Grand’ Place to enjoy the view on the belfry at sunset. Fortunately, the sky was clear with some cirrus clouds, which took a pink tone as the sun was setting below the horizon. Quite a nice memory to take home with me as I was heading to the station to come back to Paris.
All in all, I loved Lille : the city is way more beautiful than I expected, and I loved wandering in the old streets of Lille while eating some waffles from Méert, the iconic salon de thé in Lille, which has been serving delicate food lovers since 1761, Charles de Gaulle being one of them.
Half a day was too short to visit all the city, so I guess I’ll have to go back there once or twice. I know it will be a great pleasure to go there again, and I can’t wait for it. A city I can certainly recommend!