Let me convince you why you absolutely must visit Lille, the capital of France’s North.
Beer. Mussels. Friendly people. Things that don’t exist in Paris are available in excess in Lille.
I’ve been to Paris more than I’ve been anywhere else in France — but in second place is not Bordeaux or Lyon or Nice or even Marseille (which I love!) but Lille.
I’ve been to Lille more than anywhere else I’ve been in France except for Paris. This is mostly because every Labor Day weekend, I head to Lille for its huge flea market, possibly the biggest and oldest in Europe. (Operating for nearly 1000 years, it only stopped a handful of times, including the Nazi invasion of France during World War II and after the terrible truck attack in Nice in 2016.) Lille is only an hour from Paris by train but its location, bordering Belgium, hints at its very different identity: It’s beer, not wine, and moules et frites instead of steak tartare. It’s friendly! I know I already said that, but it’s worth saying twice!
Even the buildings look different — it’s colorful and distinctly Flemish, not the gray Haussmannian limestone from Paris. It’s the best.
When to Visit Lille
Well, the first weekend of September — when the flea market is held — is obviously ideal: It’s often improbably sunny and warm. Lille is similar to Paris in that it’s a wonderland in the summer — say, May through September — and a horror show of dingy clouds and damp during the winter. (Lille gets a smidge more snow than Paris, 140 miles south.) The warmest months are July and August (average high: 74), while the coldest is January (average high: 43), though keep a close eye on November, which has more rainy days (12, ugh, it’s terrible) than any other. The December Christmas market, though, is worth seeing if you don’t feel like making the trip to Strasbourg or Germany.
Things to Do in Lille
Obviously I’m biased, and I think the best thing to do in Lille is the flea market. That said, there’s plenty of other things to see and do in Lille.
1. La Braderie de Lille
Oh, so Lille has a flea market? Did we mention this? It’s spectacular. Most of the city is turned over to the flea market, which is basically a 96-hour party that starts Friday night and ends around lunchtime on Sunday afternoon. The footprint is slightly smaller than it was before the 2016 Nice attack — to allow police to provide higher security — but it’s still one of my favorite events of the year, anywhere.
2. The Palais des Beaux Arts
If you’re coming from Paris (and the Louvre), you will love the Palais des Beaux Arts, which has a smattering of work by top European painters — Klimt, Brueghel, Picasso, etc. — with a fraction of the crowds. Lille also has a big student population and a cost of living that’s less than half what it would be in Paris — you’ll feel like you’re looking at work alongside young artists rather than tourists between stops.
3. La Grand Place
For all its graceful squares, Paris doesn’t really have anything quite like the Grand Place, which reminds me more of Belgium — or even Italy — than French places. (Sure, Paris has its buzzy outdoor gathering spots, but most of them — the Seine, the Canal St-Martin — feel water adjacent.) Here, you’ll have a full view of the wonderfully colorful traditional Flemish architecture — those step-down facades are a hint of what’s to come if you venture farther north.
Speaking of that arty vibe, it’s amped up even more at LaM — a.k.a. “Lille Métropole Musée d’art moderne, d’art contemporain et d’art brut,” which is definitely why they call it LaM. It’s home to one of the best collections of art brut in the world, plus work by Braque, Léger, Miró, Modigliani, and Picasso — the latter of which you’ll see represented in the sculpture garden outside, alongside pieces by Alexander Calder.
5. La Piscine
Is this Lille’s most Instagrammable site? It may be. Despite what the name might have you believe, this isn’t a museum of swimming pools — its full name is the Musée d’Art et d’Industrie André Diligent. The beautiful titular pool was built as a community facility between 1927 and 1932, intended as a healthy destination for Roubaix’s mill workers. Now it’s the centerpiece of a museum that works hard to erase the line between the fine and applied arts (a line that traditional French institutions work very hard to keep clear) — as the website puts it, the collection is “assembled more in an English or American manner than French, they banish any hierarchy between the Applied Arts and the Fine Arts.” Yay for the that! (And also the pool.)
Where to Stay in Lille
If you’re tired of spending loads of money on accommodations in Paris, you’re in luck: Everything’s cheaper here, including the hotels. Of course, there’s no Ritz here, either: That top echelon of five-star (and €1000-per-night) hotels just isn’t here; that’s not Lille’s vibe. But maybe you didn’t feel like spending your rent money on one night of exceptionally punctilious service?
1. Mama Shelter Lille
So Mama Shelter is officially a chain, but it’s a great one — my favorite is Mama Shelter Belgrade (so cool, and not that expensive!), while the one in Paris’s 20th arrondissement is a neighborhood hotspot. The rooms are great, the common spaces (bar/restaurant/rooftop lounge) are extremely buzzy. About $95
2. Clarance Hotel
Looking for something fancier? Clarance Hotel offers those mansion-in-the-city vibes — it’s a refined, 18th-century townhouse, right in the middle of Vieux Lille, with splashy, contemporary design within. Worth booking for that hidden-ish alcove library, alone. About $199
Consider This Neighborhood: Wazemmes
Pour moi, not the five-star hotels of Vieux Lille, but the exceptionally cheap Airbnbs of Wazemmes, one of Lille’s (several) up-and-coming neighborhoods. (Disclosure: I think Airbnb does tremendous bad in many ways; one of the ways I try to dig into the good and get around the bad is limiting my stays to “private rooms.” If the company restricted itself to those sorts of rentals, 90% of its harm would be eliminated.) While you’re there, visit the marché de Wazemmes, which the tourism board describes thusly: “Colourful, with a ‘soho’ atmosphere, you’ll often hear an accordion being played.” Fantastic!
Lille: Do You Need a Car?
Definitely not! In fact, I always have to take one to the flea market, which is so annoying, because I just leave it in one of the lots on the city’s border and come back three days later. The metro system is excellent, and even if it weren’t, Lille for the most part is small enough that it’s easy to get around. Nearby attractions like La Piscine (in Roubaix) and even Lens Louvre are easily accessible by train — Lens Louvre is a 20-minute walk (or free shuttle) from the Lens train station, and La Piscine is half that from the Roubaix train station. Both cities — Roubaix and Lens — are served by dozens of trains per day from Lille.
How to Get to Lille
The drive from Paris is easy — but who needs it? Realistically, it can easily take three hours, while the train takes just a tidy 62 minutes. It’s not a bad drive up the A1 — I’ve done it loads — and it’s scenic enough, but it’s hard to beat cutting out two-thirds of your travel time by sitting back and watching the countryside fly past from a seat on the TGV.
Trains from Paris’s Gare du Nord will arrive either at Lille-Flandres or Lille-Europe. Neither of them are particularly amazing, but they’re both fine, and within walking distance of each other.
If you’re traveling via Eurostar, possibly to or from London, you’ll be stopping at Lille-Europe, which handles the longer-distance trains.