Your weekend officially starts down the road from NW5 in St Pancras, so join the throng at the champagne bar for a quick flute before boarding the train. A zippy 80 minutes later and you’re in Lille; what makes the city so perfect for a flying visit is that there’s no obligation, as in Paris, Berlin or Rome, to tick off the sights. Here, beauty is all around you – in its sweeping 17th and 18th century architecture – so just stroll around and let the city reveal itself.
Stepping off the train, admire the gothic splendour of the Gare Lille-Flandres before worming your way around the mammoth 15th Century Eglise Saint Maurice to reach the Hotel de la Paix, a charmingly cheap boho gem on the edge of the pedestrian quarter. Once you’ve dumped your bags, it’s a couple of minutes’ walk to the city’s heart, the Grand Place (officially the Place du General de Gaulle, after Lille’s most famous son). If it’s winter time, take a ride on the huge Ferris wheel in the centre, from which you can enjoy views of belfries and rooftops.
Next head to the adjoining Vieille Bourse market, which typifies the city’s quiet delights. Comprising twenty-four 17th Century houses around a courtyard, it’s been restored to original Flemish Renaissance brilliance and, within its cloisters, chess-playing locals provide an ambient atmosphere whilst you rummage through stalls selling old postcards, or dog-eared books on Greta Garbo.
Lille is France’s fourth city and its history of occupation – Spanish, Dutch and French – has naturally shaped its culinary habits (moules-frites are ubiquitous). A prime square for people-watching is Place Rihour, with its bustle of brasseries and, in winter, a market of wooden chalets selling mulled wine and gifts. Try buzzy Brasserie Flore, or go a la carte and order rump steak with béarnaise sauce and chips. Wash it down with a pichet of very light Beaujolais Nouveau.
Walk off the scram with a visit to the imposing Palais des Beaux Arts, France’s second gallery after the Louvre, restored to splendour in 1997. Admire the grand atrium, then pop upstairs for greats like Van Gogh, Goya, and Monet in surprisingly empty rooms. A stylish café concealed by a 20ft claret drape is on hand for coffee if you’re feeling sluggish after plus de vin.
The old town is a fifteen minute hike from the Palais back through the Grand Place, and at its periphery, you’ll find Rue de Grande Chaussee, the ‘King’s Road of Lille’ (as two equine English girls shrieked behind us), which heaves with boutiques, antique shops and upmarket chains like Hermes, Lacoste and Louis Vuitton. For an edible souvenir, visit L’Huitriere, a characterful deli and seafood specialist. But before night falls, make sure you follow the road up to Vieux Lille proper, which centres around the pretty Rue De Gand, where you’ll spy the old city gate and moat beyond.
Nightfall means only one thing: the old town. But first, head to boozing institution Les Trois Brasseurs, with its own brass vat brewery, for a seasonal beer, such as (in winter) the lightly-spiced biere du Noel. Then wander up to the famous La Cave Aux Fioles (book first). Enter through a side door down a tiled entrance hall into a cobbled lamp-lit courtyard, around which tables are strewn across different rooms, candles flickering, fires roaring. An evening set menu is 35 Euros and might include starters of St Jacques (scallops) in butter with champagne and chicory, or a local cheese tart, and mains of tender magret (goose) with honey, or Sandre Bourgogne (white fish in red wine, bacon, onion and herb sauce). Light desserts include raspberries in champagne. Order wine by the pichet if you want value.
And once the dodgiest part of town, Vieux Lille is now the liveliest quarter, so don’t forget to explore some of the many bars before you hit the sack afterwards.
Words & pics: Stephen Emms