The northeastern, traditionally working-class French city of Lille is known for its rustic cuisine and its position as the capital of the region known as French Flanders. And ever since the TGV and Eurostar high-speed trains began calling at Lille, in 1993 and 1994, respectively, the city has also gotten more attention as a day trip destination. By high-speed train, Lille is 80 minutes from London, 60 minutes from Paris, and just 40 minutes from Brussels.
Lille has a really charming old town (Vieux Lille) with an architectural base quite reminiscent of Flanders proper. With ample pedestrian zoning and lots of little specialty shops, the city is good for walking and for shopping. Here are five tips for making a Lille day trip extra special.
1. Waffles at Meert. There are several outposts of this super fancy bakery and confectionary chain; the grand flagship, at 27 rue Esquermoise, is the one to visit for atmospherics. There is a tearoom for lingering, and anyone in a rush can grab a small waffle to go: €2.50 for a vanilla version and €2.80 for fancier versions, including a spectacular spéculoos brown sugar variety. The waffles here are small and compact, like pockets, with a sweet filling.
2. The Transpole transit pass. A bargain at €4, this pass makes travel from the center of Lille to LAM and back (see below) easy as pie, and allows for unlimited further use as well. Lille’s transit system features two tram metro lines and a network of buses.
3. Art at LAM. The Lille Métropole Museum of Modern, Contemporary, and Outsider Art (1 allée du Musée, Villeneuve d’Ascq) is worth a visit for its free sculpture garden alone. The most exciting part of the museum, architecturally speaking, is the 2010 extension by Manuelle Gautrand. Most interesting is the museum’s integration of art brut into a collection otherwise dominated by the modern and the contemporary. Combined admission to the permanent collection and the exhibition is €10.
4. Local culinary items. You can’t really move through central Lille without hitting cute shops selling bread, regional cheeses, meats, jams, and other hyperlocal food products. (For high-end items not limited to the region, there’s also a local branch of the Comtesse du Barry gourmet food chain.) Even the tourist office sells delicious little souvenir-sized items. I picked up a small jar of hazelnut caramel produced in a neighboring town for €4. Ridiculously delicious, in a forget-the-utensils sort of way.
5. Lunch at Le Barbue d’Anvers. A mid-scale restaurant designed to showcase old French Flanders–even the plates on the bathroom doors designating gender are in Flemish, not French–Le Barbue d’Anvers (1 bis rue St Etienne) is a good place to sample the rustic traditional cuisine of the region. This ain’t heart smart grub. There are enormous portions of bone marrow, thick slices of potjevleesch (potted meat), and cones of frites. Also, note that the first page of the “wine” menu is devoted to beer. Two courses for €21.