As autumn was kicking in a couple of months ago, I started to do that usual thing where you check your remaining leave days at work and wonder how you can squeeze in an extra little break. It turns out that I had a few days left to take before the end of the year, so I had a little think about where I could go. As if by magic, a Eurostar emailed pinged into my inbox tempting me with their latest deals, and recommending some Christmas Markets across the Channel.
We’d been to Bruges earlier in the year, absolutely loved it, and one of the first recommendations that came up on the website was the French city of Lille. I didn’t really know much about it, apart from the fact that I had passed through on Eurostar previously so I did a little bit of research.
So, on the first Saturday of December, we headed across to St. Pancras to start our Eurostar experience, a story I will save for another day. A quick journey transported us to the very draughty Gare de Lille Europe International railway station. We decided to walk to our hotel, the Hotel Carlton which was located on the Place du Théâtre – a large square in the centre of the city and home to a host of stunning buildings including the Opera House. Great choice on the hotel location. At less than 15 mins walk from the International terminal and even less to Gare de Lille Flanders (the main railway station), you really do not need to worry about transport in this city for a short break. Most attractions are within walking distance, if your willing to walk for a maximum of twenty minutes.
After an efficient check-in at the Hotel Carlton, we dropped off our bags in the room and headed straight out to explore the city. We were on the clock and had 48 hours left to cram as much sightseeing, photography, exploring, drinking and eating into that short space of time. Did I mention sleeping too? So, let’s have a look at what we managed to cram in to our long weekend in Lille.
The centre of Lille is fairly compact but absolutely jam packed full of amazing architecture which varies from typical French styles to buildings with a Flemish influence given the city’s short distance from the Belgian border. I’m going to take you on a little (photo heavy) trip around the cities main squares, landmark buildings and beautiful architecture.
It makes sense to start here, as this is the location of the hotel. The Place du Théâtre is a large square in the centre of the city surrounded by beautiful buildings. It was named after the Theatre that stood in this location but was burnt down in 1903. The theatre was replaced with the fantastic neo-classical Opéra de Lille building which was built between 1914 and 1924. An imposing building, adorned with statues and tall arched windows, it looks even more spectacular at night, giving you a glimpse through the windows at some gorgeous ceiling details inside.
Next to the Opera building stands the Lille Chamber of Commerce, built in a Neo-Flemish style. The dominating feature of the building is the beautifully detailed 76 metre high belfry tower standing tall over the square. I was quite disappointed that there was no option to climb this belfry tower – it would have provided fantastic views across the city centre.
There are a collection of bars, cafes and restaurants on the opposite side of the square, as with most European city squares, with sheltered outdoor seating where you can escape the cold winter weather but still do some great people watching.
From Place du Théâtre the Rue des Manelliers leads into the city’s main square, the Place du General de Gaulle or Grand Place. This large rectangular square is a hub of activity in the summer months, a great meeting and socialising area. With a large monument in the centre, and flanked by some more beautiful buildings it’s a lovely city square. In winter, this becomes one of the central focal points for the Christmas events in the city with a large Christmas tree and a huge 50 metre tall ferris wheel attracting the crowds.
Notable buildings in the square are La Grand Garde – a building which used to house the royal guard but is now home to a theatre, and one of the most beautiful buildings in the city – La Vielle Bourse – the old Stock Exchange. Built between 1652 and 1653 with a heavy Spanish influence, the building is a collection of 24 identical houses built around a central courtyard, which is now home to a weekend book market.
I was slightly obsessed with level of detail on the buildings and how they varied from one to the next. Taking in a full scene of an area, the contrasting architectural details were clear to see.
One of the main reasons for popping across to the continent was to check out a European Christmas Market. The main event in Lille – the Village de Noel is located within Place Rihour, a small square located just off the Grand Place. With 90 chalets selling Christmas gifts as well as a selection of food and drink, this was one of our first stops of the trip! A wander around the chalets and a sample of the delicious Vin Chaud and some local Christmas beers really set us up with a great start to the trip. It’s also worth noting that the Place Rihour is home to the main tourism office of Lille, where you can find lots of information about the city as well as a nice gift shop.
This was the furthest distance that we walked to get to any of the attractions, and it took about twenty minutes. Starting at the Place du Théâtre, the Rue Pierre Mauroy will lead you all the way to one of the most prominent landmarks in Lille – the Belfry of the City Hall. At 104 meters high, it dominates the surrounding area and has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site (another of those to tick off my list).
In the shadow of the belfry at the southern end of the Rue Pierry Mauroy, stands the Porte de Paris – an archway built between 1685 and 1692 to commemorate King Louis XIV’s conquering of the city from the Spanish in 1667 to attach it back to France.
I read that the gardens surrounding the Porte de Paris are gorgeous in the spring, packed full of beautiful tulips, but in December, although nice, there wasn’t a great deal of colour going on. Anyway, on to the Belfry. The Belfry is open daily for visitors, although the entrance is a little bit inconspicuous (when standing directly under the tower, head to the right and ring the doorbell!). Once inside there are several flights of steps before you arrive into the entrance lobby / gift shop area. At this point there are audio tours and binoculars available, and you get to choose to head up in the lift or you can opt to use the stairs. “Let’s take the steps up” we said, not being able to see the top from inside.
There are a lot of steps. Many, many steps, and when you are dressed in your winter gear it gets a bit hot walking up them! But, nevertheless, we made it to the top, managed to get our breath back before stepping outside into what felt like a gale force wind and admired the view across the city. I should mention at this point, that it was quite gloomy and drizzly while we were in Lille, hence the large quantity of black and white (atmospheric) images that you see. I could say that it was my artistic license, but in all honesty it was just all a bit grey.
These grey views were lovely though!
You have to visit the Cathedral when you head to a new city, don’t you? Well, in my very brief research of Lille I had seen some photos of the Cathedral Norte-Dame de la Trielle and it looked really interesting.
Construction started on the Neo-Gothic cathedral in 1854 and wandering around three fascia’s of the building, it looks very much like any other cathedral you make have come across – imposing, large arched windows and adorned with statues and gargoyles.
There is, however, something a little bit different about this cathedral. Despite construction starting in the mid 1800’s, there were not sufficient funds to complete the building and work was halted. A temporary front fascia of brick was built in 1947 to complete the building, however this was demolished in 1990 to create a new and very contemporary front face to the building. I’m going to take a guess that the jury will be out on whether this is impressive, or just plain ugly, but I was leaning towards the impressive side.
The central section is constructed with 110 sheets of white marble supported by metal cables along with a dark glass doorway decorated with wrought iron sculptures and detail. A large rose window is located at the top of structure. It may look stark and devoid of the usual ornate decorating that you will see on a large cathedral but once you get inside the magic of the marble fascia becomes clear – the sunlight casting a bright orange glow through the stone into the cathedral aisles. It’s quite magical.
Internally, the rest of the cathedral is beautifully traditional. I am truly in awe every time I wander through a church or cathedral. The skill and craftsmanship of creating such a beautiful structure without the modern tools that we have available to us now really fascinates me. Even if you are not religious, these buildings demand respect.
Vieux Lille is the ‘old town’ area of the city centre. This area was where I really felt was the heart of the city, away from the large squares and grand buildings. A collection of narrow and winding cobbled streets located around the Cathedral area, all unique in their charm. This area has a mostly Flemish influence and was built during the 16th and 17th centuries. We spent hours wandering these streets, admiring the small stores and cafes which now stand in the old weaver’s cottages that stood in this area.
It’s clear that the area has had some major renovation. Buildings have been meticulously restored, individually painted in colourful and pastel shades. The whole area is so pretty and a joy to explore.
My favourite area in Vieux Lille was the small square of Place aux Oignons and Rue de Peterinck, with its small cafes and stores, beautifully brightly painted buildings – perfect backdrop for a spot of portrait photography. I’m conscious that there is generally a lack of portrait shots in my blog posts and as a reader, I always like to see the human element – so here you go!
Although we were only in Lille for couple of days, we were always drawn back this area. It had a really nice vibe, and I think given the Flemish influence it reminded me more of Bruges than the area around the main squares did. There were also substantially less crowds which is always a nice thing, right?
We had a slight dining mishap on our first night in Lille. Having been so excited of heading to the Christmas Market and having a couple of Vin Chauds, dinner didn’t really seem like an urgent requirement. That is, until, we realised it was a very busy Saturday night and we had only explored the areas of the city directly surrounding the squares. Every nice restaurant was full with no tables available until way after 9pm. We wandered aimlessly and finally settled on a cafe just off the Grand Place. It was perfectly acceptable, but very touristy and not really what we had in mind. Rookie error. Needless to say, the following day, having explored Vieux Lille we soon realised this was the area that we should have come to for dinner.
Food and drink in Lille has a very Flemish influence. Estimanets – small traditional bars and cafes with cosy surroundings and simple but delicious menu are scattered around the streets. The most popular of these seemed to be Estimanet Au Vieux de la Vielle in Place aux Oignons. We never actually ate here but it looked absolutely lovely. The most popular area for dining is the Rue de Gand, in Vieux Lille. A lovely narrow street packed full of Estimanets and bars.
We ate at Estimanet ‘T Risjel on Rue de Gand. It looked lovely when we walked past, farmhouse style furniture, candlelight and traditional menu. Really cosy. We ate early, worried we would make the same mistake as the night before and not get a table. We were the first diners into the restaurant at about 6.30pm, but by 7.30pm they were packed and turning people away. The food was delicious and it was the exact experience that I had hoped for.
There are some local dishes that you can find in many of the restaurants. The main ones that are most popular on all of the menus are:
Carbonnade Flamande – Flemish Stew made of beef soaked in beer, served with fries.
Le Welsh – A dish made of toasted bread and ham soaked in beer, and smothered with melted cheese, sometimes with an egg on top.
If you have a sweeter tooth, like me, then Lille is definitely a city for you. The streets are packed with patisseries and chocolate shops with amazing and enticing window displays. Notably, there are two locations which have become quite famous and as a result of which, very very busy.
The first of these is Meert.
A chocolate shop, salon de thé and gourmet restaurant all thrown into one, Meert is definitely somewhere to visit, whether its to salivate over the window displays, admire the creations within the chocolate shop or take a break in the tea room with a coffee and something sugary.
Their famed sugary treats are the Meert Gaufres – waffles filled with Madgascar Vanilla cream. We (I) unwittingly bypassed a queue for the tea room, by sauntering in through the chocolate shop and taking a seat at an empty table (oops) and waited for the menu. The Meert Waffle was a definite for us both, but given they were quite tiny, we thought we should order a selection of Macarons, just in case.
Well, despite it’s tiny size, the Meert Waffle has a similar effect to injecting pure sugar into your blood stream! Oh my god! It was laughable watching us attempt to eat three tiny macarons after eating a single waffle each. They were really delicious, but yes, so very sweet.
Sugared out for one day, we left the next sugary treat until the next day. Wandering around the streets of Vieux Lille we had spotted one store which had a permanent and lengthy queue outside all day, every day. This was Aux Merveillaux de Fred – a store which makes and sells Merveillaux, which in case you are unaware is a small cake made of meringue covered in whipped cream and coated with chocolate shavings. These come in several sizes and flavours. After the sugary shock of day before, we opted for the smallest Merveillaux on offer, and chose four different flavours. Once again, delicious, but very very sweet. Turns out I’m not sure if my sweet tooth was quite ready for Lille.
Being so close to Belgium, there is a heavy emphasis on beer in the bars scattered around the city. As mentioned previously, many of the bars around the main squares have outdoor heated seating areas which are great for people watching. Vieux Lille has a few interesting spots that we encountered on our wanderings.
Our favourite find was the La Capsule bar on the Rue des trois Mollettes. A modern but cosy bar with 28 local beers on tap, it was very popular and had some great beers. If beers are not your thing then another recommendation I would make is the Joker Cocktail Bar located on the Place Louise de Bettignies. A Michelin starred cocktail bar, it has a daily changing menu of seven cocktails, and if you really can’t decide, why not tell the servers what your tastes are and opt for the Joker cocktail – where they will make a cocktail to suit your particular taste.
I really enjoyed my time in Lille. I didn’t fall in love with it immediately in the same way as I did with Bruges, but the city does have a lot to offer. It has beautiful architecture and some great cultural spots. It has wonderful chocolate shops, patisseries and boulangeries with the smell of freshly baked breads wafting down every street and alleyway. It has cosy little restaurants and quaint little stores. The buildings have the most beautiful fascias, each ‘house’ has it’s own character and is different to the next. Everything you need from a European city break I guess.
I’d like to revisit the city in summer, when the weather is warmer and when there is more time to explore some of the cities museums and attractions that are slightly further afield, but as a mini winter break it definitely ticked all of the boxes.