One Day in Lille, Northern France: A Free Walking Tour (+ Interactive Map)

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Explore Lille’s exuberant Flemish Baroque buildings and grand cobblestoned squares on this free, self-guided walking tour.

I’ll level with you; I never intended to spend one day in Lille.

My master plan was to bag a cheap Eurostar ticket from London to Lille – a mere 90 minutes’ journey from London St. Pancras International – and use the city as a base to stroll along the canals of Ghent and to visit one of Europe’s biggest Christmas markets in Arras.

However, France’s transport workers had other ideas.

On the day of my arrival, the country was in the vice-like grip of a national strike – La Grève Générale – in protest of President Macron’s proposed sweeping reforms of the French pension system. Transport workers were peeved at the prospect of having to forfeit their special pension status and it showed.

With 90% of France’s trains not going anywhere, Arras and Ghent were off the travel itinerary.

But every cloud has a silver lining and, instead, I was able to spend more time in Lille than anticipated. Picture large cobblestoned squares lined with outrageously extravagant Flemish Baroque buildings and you have the measure of the place.

Learn how to explore Lille in one day on this free self-guided walking tour.

 

Video: The best things to do on a day trip to Lille

But before you dive into this article, here’s a video of the best bits of Lille that I have put together to whet your appetite:

 

Where is Lille?

Lille is in Northern France, close to the Belgian border and around 140 miles from Paris. It is the so-called capital of French Flanders and Flemish influences are evident throughout the city, from its architecture to its food.

 

Getting around Lille

As most of Lille’s highlights are close to one another, the city lends itself beautifully to a self-guided walking tour

But if you are feeling weary, Lille has an excellent bus, tram and metro network. A 24-hour travel pass costs €4.90; single tickets are €1.65.

Public transport is included in the Lille City Pass, which also includes free access to attractions and a selection of discounts and special offers. This is available for 24 hours, 48 hours or 72 hours, costing from €25 (discount available when purchasing online).

Unlimited travel SNCF TER network (regional express trains) throughout Nord-Pas de Calais for a period of 24 consecutive hours is included in the 72 hours Lille City pass.

 

What to do in Lille in one day: a walking tour

This Lille walking tour will take in many of the city’s must-see sights.

Although this 3km walking tour takes a logical route from north to south, you may need to tweak it and dog-leg back to a few places to accommodate their opening hours. Check in advance.

Note also that museums and art galleries are closed on Tuesdays.

 

Lille walking tour map

To help you make the best of your day in Lille, here’s an interactive walking tour map, which includes step-by-step directions to get you from one sight to the next.

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Lille walking tour map (click on image for interactive map)

 

Musée de Hospice Comtesse (Hospice Compesse Museum)

Founded in 1237 by the Countess Jeanne de Flandre, the Hospice Comtesse Museum is the first stop on our Lille walking tour. This hospital remained in service until 1939 and is now the city’s museum and home to a collection of Flemish paintings, tapestries, wood sculptures and porcelain.

Hospice-Comtesse-Museum,-Lille
Hospice Comtesse Museum, Lille

 

Aux Merveilleux de Fred

Don’t leave Lille before trying merveilleux. The best place to pick these up is Aux Merveilleux de Fred and there’s a shop opposite the Hospice Comtesse Museum.

Literally marvellous, these little cakes are made from clouds of light meringue liberally smothered in fresh cream and chocolate shavings.

Merveillieux. Marvellous by any other name.

(I’ve since discovered that I can get my fix at London branches of Aux Merveilleux de Fred)

 

Notre Dame de la Treille (Lille Cathedral)

I have stepped through the entrance of a lot of cathedrals over the years but the Notre Dame de la Treille ranks amongst the most interesting that I have visited.

Lille Cathedral owes its unique appearance to its troubled genesis.

Originally conceived as a Gothic building, the cathedral’s foundations were laid in 1854. However, workers had to down tools in 1947 when funds dried up, and construction was not resumed until 1999.

The resulting cathedral is a dizzying mix of traditional meets contemporary. The ugly modern façade, made from 110 marble sheets, contrasts with the cathedral’s interior with its soaring Gothic arches.

Its glass rose window above the main entrance features unusual symbols including UFOs & astronauts, said to represent the cycle of death and resurrection.

However, for me, Lille Cathedral’s star turn is its La Sainte Chapelle behind the main altar. Housing a small 12th Century statue of the Virgin Mary, it has an exquisite mosaic floor.

La Sainte Chapelle, Lille Cathedral
La Sainte Chapelle, Lille Cathedral

Visiting Lille Cathedral

  • Address: Place Gilleson
  • Opening hours: Daily 10am – 6.30pm; July – Aug 12pm – 8pm
  • Admission free

 

Place du Théâtre & La Veille Bourse 

Lille’s Place du Théâtre is dominated by two flamboyant buildings.

The first is it’s gleaming white opera house topped by an overblown sculpture of the Triumph of Apollo. The other is the ornate, albeit more restrained, La Veille Bourse.

La Veille Bourse was one of my favourite places to visit in Lille.  Formerly the city’s stock exchange, this structure comprises 24 small houses arranged around an elaborate, porticoed inner courtyard, embellished with decorative plaques and stone sculptures.

Veille Bourse, Lille
Veille Bourse, Lille

Now home to a book market, La Veille Bourse has an interesting history. Prior to its construction in the 1650s, most trading took place outside, and traders were at the mercy of the elements.

Battling wind, rain and damp chill during my day in Lille I felt their pain!

Therefore, to prevent the traders from falling sick, La Veille Bourse was commissioned to provide private houses supporting trading in the coldest months.

 

Place du Générale de Gaulle (Grand Place)

Lille’s beating heart, the Grand Place is the site of the city’s medieval market.  Today, it’s a focal point for celebrations – and demonstrations – and a popular meeting place. At Christmas time, it is home to a giant Ferris wheel.

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Grand Place Lille at Christmas

The Déesse column, commemorating the 1792 Austrian siege, holds court in the centre of the square. More exuberant Flemish buildings flank the square, including the La Voix du Nord building, home to the largest newspaper in Northern France.

Bonus tip

Climb the steps to the entrance of Théâtre du Nord for a birds-eye view of the Grand Place.

 

Place Rihour & Lille Christmas market

Lacking the architectural bravado of the Grand Place or Place du Théâtre, the smaller and unremarkable Place Rihour, is home to the friendly Lille Tourist Office and the city’s Christmas market.

Lille Christmas Market
Lille Christmas Market

I have to admit that I found Lille’s Christmas market underwhelming. It was small with around two dozen stalls squashed into a corner of Place Rihour, selling festive food and drink and crafts.

Bonus tip

Avoid visiting Lille’s Christmas market on weekend nights. Enormous queues were snaking along the market’s perimeter on Saturday night, and the area was mobbed.

 

Church of St. Etienne

A few minutes’ walk south-west of Place Rihour is one of France’s largest Jesuit churches, the 18th Century Church of St. Etienne (L’Église Saint Etienne). The embodiment of simplicity, it features an exquisite pulpit.

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St. Etienne Church, Lille

Sculpted by François Rude, it is crowned by angels and cherubs with Faith and Hope holding a vessel of St. Stephen’s martyrdom.

 

Visiting the Church of St. Etienne, Lille

  • Address: 47 Rue de l’Hôpital Militaire
  • Opening hours: Mon – Sat 2.30 – 5.00 pm (until 5.30 pm on Saturday); 10.30 – 1 pm on Sunday
  • Admission free

 

Palais des Beaux-Arts, Lille

Around ten minutes south-east of the Church of St. Etienne is Lille’s cultural calling card, the Palais des Beaux-Arts.

Flanking the southern side of the vast Place de la République, this fine art gallery is second only to the Louvre in France for size and stature.

An illustration of the democratisation of art, the Palais des Beaux-Arts was established by Napoleon in the early 1800s to popularise art, its collection curated from the spoils of war.

Working your way chronologically, start at the basement level with art from the Renaissance period.

Don’t miss a pair of paintings by Dirk Bouts (1420 – 1475) that were once part of a triptych. The painting to your right depicts the righteous ascending into Heaven.

The souls featured in the left-hand side painting weren’t so lucky, with the dammed falling into Hell to be tortured by demons for eternity.

dirk-bouts-painting-in-palais-dex-beaux-artes-lille-france

 

It is thought that the central painting of this triptych represented Judgement Day.

On the upper floor, there is an impressive collection of muscular Rubens, a smattering of Sisleys and expressive Goyas. The Palais des Beaux-Arts is also home to a fine collection of Rodin sculptures, the most striking of which is Les Bourgeois de Calais.

 

Visiting the Palais des Beaux-Arts, Lille

  • Address: Place de la République
  • Opening hours: Monday 2 – 5pm; Wednesday – Sunday 10am – 6pm. The Palais des Beaux-Arts is closed on Tuesday and on selected dates. Check the website for further information.
  • General admission price: €7; exhibitions extra. Concessions available.
  • Information is in French only. However, there is a video guide available in English, French and Dutch. Bring your ID document to access this.

 

Porte de Paris and the Belfry (Bellfroi de Lille)

Five minutes’ walk east of the Palais des Beaux-Arts is the Porte de Paris, the final stop on our Lille walking tour.

Built by Simon Vollant in the late 17th Century to celebrate Louis XIV’s capture of Lille for the French, this is the most striking of Lille’s surviving city gates.

The adjacent red brick and stone Flemish belfry rises over the city like a giant exclamation mark. At a height of 104 meters, this UNESCO-listed monument is the highest civilian belfry in Europe.

Climbing Lille’s belfry

  • It is possible to climb Lille’s belfry. Walk the first 100 steps and then take the lift to the top.
  • Opening hours: Daily 10am – 1pm, 2pm – 5.30pm
  • Admission costs €7.50 (€6 if you book online 24 hours in advance)

 

Is Lille worth visiting? (and how many days do you need)

I won’t lie to you. I was gutted when the national strike destroyed any hope of visiting Ghent and Arras. Lille was only ever meant to a base for visiting these cities, not a destination in its own right.

Over the years, Lille hasn’t earned the best reputation, a northern France equivalent of Marseilles if you like, with industrialisation and racism in equal measure. However, over two days I was slowly seduced by its grandiose Flemish architecture, the charm of its old town, the friendliness of its people and its hearty cuisine.

lille-old-town
Lille Old Town

One day in Lille is enough to cover its main sights, and as it is a mere 90 minutes from London by Eurostar. It is easy to visit as a day trip.  But if you allow yourself an extra day, you will be able to appreciate it at a more relaxed pace.

Although Lille lacks the charm of other northern French cities such as Colmar or Strasbourg, dismiss it at your peril.

 

A day trip to Lille from London: how to do it

Eurostar makes a day trip to Lille from London a breeze. The old town is just ten minutes’ walk from Gare Lille-Europe station.

The first train from London St. Pancras International station leaves at shortly before 7am and arrives in Lille before 9:30am; and the last return train leaves at 9pm, getting into St. Pancras at 9.30pm. Return fares start from £58.

 

If you need to bring your car, Lille is just under 70 miles from Calais. Eurotunnel trains run from Folkestone to Calais roughly every 30 minutes from 7am with last one back from Calais is around midnight.

Alternatively, take the car ferry from Dover to Calais, a 75-90 minute crossing.

 

Where to stay in Lille

As one of France’s biggest cities, Lille is not lacking in accommodation options. However, to be in the thick of things, pick a central location.

Mid-range

Ibis Lille Centre Gare

I chose this 3-star hotel for its central location close to Lille Flandres station. No irony there then.

Here are some other hotels that I have found that may suit other budgets:

Splurge

Grand Hotel Bellevue – Grand Place

This 4-star hotel is right in the thick of things on the Grand Place. A good breakfast is included in the room rate.

Budget

Hotel Lille Europe

Close to Lille-Flandres Station, this budget hotel looks terrific value and its helpful staff get a special mention in online reviews.

 

 

Where to eat in Lille

Grill St Anne, 13, rue Sainte-Anne

A wonderful, friendly family-run bistro on the edge of the old town. Huge portions and not so huge prices. Book ahead.

 

La Pâte Brisée, 63 rue de la Monnaie

Opposite the Hospice Comtesse Museum, this busy, no-nonsense restaurant serves belly-filling portions of tartiflette, an artery-clogging dish of cheese, white wine, potatoes and bacon.

Tastes so good.

tartiflette
Tartiflette

 

Bon Appetit and Bon Chance!

 

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