Our writer Harriet O'Brien provides a few tips for how to have a green eco escape in Lille.
Once the capital of medieval Flanders, Lille is a wonderful collision of cultures. This French city with a (very) strong Flemish accent offers a glorious range of architectural styles with tall gabled townhouses, atmospheric old convents, a 17th-century citadel built by the French military architect Vauban and some fine Art Nouveau and Art Deco flourishes. There’s a striking heritage of industrial buildings too. Lille thrived in the 19th century – and went into grimy decline during the 20th.
And what’s most remarkable about the city today is how it has revived and reinvented itself – with much of its rejuvenation kickstarted by the arrival of high speed rail. Since the building of the sleek Lille-Europe train station in the early 1990s, Lille has become spruced up and reinvigorated. Meanwhile the residents of Lille - called Ch’tis after the local dialect – have become dab hands at devising new uses for historic buildings – medieval hospital to hotel; textile mill to arts centre and so on.
What’s more, as the hub of the Nord Pas de Calais region, Lille has impressive transport links with about 60 bus routes serving the greater city area, two tram lines and one of the world’s longest automated metro systems. So it is easy to explore the outer reaches of this enterprising area. Beyond the core of Vieux Lille, in the suburbs of Roubaix, Faches-Thumesnil and more, a great green programme is currently underway, enhancing the existing natural spaces, creating more, adding footpaths and improving environmentally-related sights such as the recently revamped Open-Air Museum at Villeneuve d’Ascq. For an interactive map on Lille’s green spaces visit www.enm-lille.fr.
How to get there: see our guide to how to travel by train from London to Lille >>
Getting around Lille: From Lille Europe station, it’s just a short walk to Lille’s main square and the city’s main shopping centre. Lille Europe has both métro and tram lines as well as a number of bus services, for more information, see www.transpole.fr. The city's public bike system is called V’Lille: you simply pay a deposit of €1.40 for a day’s use at any of the 100-plus V’Lille stations, and you can then take a bike for half an hour with no further cost. Thereafter you’ll be charged €1 per additional half hour. For more information, see www.vlille.fr.
Where to stay
L’Hermitage Gantois: Founded as a hospital in 1462, this landmark building continued to be a working hospice right up until the mid 1990s. The makeover to hotel has been deft achieved. Thanks to 10-year period of clever and painstaking conversion - during which materials were sensitively sourced - it retains many historic features. There’s a Gothic gable here, a stained-glass window there, and even a small museum area displaying antique medical instruments. The 72 bedrooms are all very different, having been individually furnished according to size and shape. The public spaces exhibit the works of local, regional artists. The restaurant serves locally sourced food. 224 rue de Paris (+33 (0)3 20 85 30 30; www.hotelhermitagegantois.com).
La Villa 30: Support a local enterprise in the heart of town. La Villa 30 is a welcoming chambres d’hotes set over five floors of a tall 1930s house that is within walking distance of the town’s cobbled pedestrian sector. The four bedrooms are spacious and furnished in quiet colours. Meanwhile your hosts, the Dufrenne family, are a mine of information and enthusiasm about Lille. 24 rue du Plat (+33 (0)3 66 73 61 30; www.lavilla30.fr).
B&B Hotel Lille Centre Grand Palais: This comfortable budget hotel is very conveniently situated in a quiet residential neighbourhood close to the Lille-Europe station. The 127 rooms are slightly small, but size is mitigated by keen pricing and useful add-ons such as free wifi. The hotel has recently earned Clef Verte accreditation for its measures in conserving energy and water. Rue Berthe Morisot (+33 (0)8 92 70 22 06; www.hotel-bb.com).
Comfort Hotel Lille-Tourcoing: About 8km from the centre of Lille, this 51-room hotel seems on the face of it a well-priced if slightly bland option to staying in town. Yet in fact it is a revolutionary place that has been turning heads in the hotel industry. Recent refurbishment by the building’s owners, Michael and Marilyn Galerne, has turned the hotel into a model of sustainability, from special LED lighting to responsibly sourced bed linen. There’s even a kitchen garden here. Rue Becquerel, Bondues (+33 (0)3 20 36 01 96; www.comfortinn.com).
Hotel du Croise, Marcq en Baroeul: This quiet, comfy little two-star hotel is set near the famous racecourse of Marcq en Baroeul and close to trams that will take you 4km into the heart of Lille. The 11 rooms here are simply and neatly furnished, and each offers its own small terrace. The hotel has been awarded Clef Verte accreditation for its environmental policies.
191 rue de la Rianderie, Marcq en Baroeul (+33 (0)3 20 72 25 63; www.hotelcroise.com).
Where to eat
2 Sous de Table: This attractive little brasserie on one of Lille’s main restaurant streets opened last spring 2011. From artful salads to wonderfully textured aubergine and tomato tarts, the menu features organic, seasonal, and locally sourced ingredients – and much care has been taken to seek out the best producers. There’s a pleasing open-mindedness, too: dishes are offered for vegetarians, vegans, carnivores and even those on gluten-free regimes. Expect to pay around €22 for two courses. 56 rue de Gand (+33 (0)3 62 57 25; www.2sousdetable.com). Open Tuesday-Saturday for lunch and dinner.
Café Citoyen: Since it opened in September 2005, the small, bustling Café Citoyen has become a Lille institution and a visit here reveals a great deal about the ethical and political dimensions of the city. This small outfit near the Palais des Beaux Arts is run as a cooperative offering Fair Trade or organic food and drink and promoting debate on environmental and social issues. So order a lunchtime salad and an organic, microbrewed beer and join the discussion, or come in the evening for a range of talks and lively little concerts.
7 place du Vieux Marche aux Chevaux (+33 (0)3 20 13 73; www.cafecitoyen.org) Open Monday to Friday noon to midnight (until 10pm on Monday) and Saturday 2-8pm.
La Source : A trailblazer when it opened in 1979, this well-regarded organic deli and restaurant is a short walk from the Euralille shopping complex and Lille-Europe station. On the ground floor is a spacious shop selling everything from fresh fruit and veg to organic wines and pastries. You dine upstairs where the menu changes according to what’s in the market, with vegetarian dishes priced around €10 and fish of the day about €12.
13 rue du Plat (+33 (0)3 20 57 53 07; www.denislasource.com). Open Monday to Thursday 8.30am-7pm; Friday 8.30am-9pm; Saturday 8.30am-7pm.
O Fil des Saisons: It is well worth striking west of Vieux Lille to find this unassuming looking restaurant near the leafy reaches of Vauban’s citadel and the city’s Bois de Boulogne. As the name implies, at O Fils des Saisons they cook only the very freshest ingredients – which come straight from the market or from local farms. The daily-changing menu might include braised rabbit with endive and potato rissoles or salmon baked with garlic and served with leek and potato gratin. Expect to pay around €16 for two courses.
224 rue Colbert (+33 (0)3 20 57 41 19; www.ofildessaisons.com). Open Monday to Friday for lunch, and Thursday and Friday for dinner.
De Rode Koe: Organic farmer Rik Delhaye from Westouter across the border in Flemish Belgium is the force behind this slick café-resto in the heart of Lille. De Rode Koe (The Red Cow) is an organic fast-food operation offering takeaway and eat-in dishes. Expect to pay between €6 and €16 for soups, pies, lusciously fresh salads and more.
71 rue de la Monnaie (+33 (0)3 28 04 96 68; www.derodekoe.fr). Open for lunch Monday to Saturday.
Where to visit
Vieux Lille: Winding out from the city’s two striking principal squares - Place du Theatre and Place General de Gaulle - the lanes of old Lille are ideal for pottering and browsing. Start at Lille’s historic stock market, the Baroque Vieille Bourse, complete with opulent carvings and surrounded by bookstalls and galleries (come in the afternoon and you’ll also take in the daily antiques market here). Then wander northwards along narrow streets lined with enticing stores. On rue de la Clef you’ll find Atelier de la Sorciere Verte (number 19), a wonderful repository of paper – recycled, handmade and shaped into cards, umbrellas, books, lampshades and more. On rue du Cure Saint-Etienne, Fromagerie Philippe-Olivier (number 3) presents a display of about 300 cheeses – with an emphasis on those made locally. On rue des Vieux Murs, l’Abbaye des Saveurs (number 13) is a haven of the region’s beers and foods.
Maps of Lille are available from the Tourist Office, Palais Rihour, place Rihour (+33 (0)3 59 57 94 00; www.lilletourism.com).
Musee d’Histoire Naturelle et de Geologie: This museum exudes old-time grandeur. Whale skeletons hang from the wrought-iron rafters of the lofty main hall; beneath them there’s a terrific array of creatures collected in the 19th century and reflecting the enormous enthusiasm of the founding fathers of this establishment. The array of birds is especially striking. Ironically some of these are now extinct (notably the dodo) – but the museum doesn’t shy away from such issues and its changing exhibitions focus on topics such as biodiversity and conservation. 19 rue de Bruxelles (+33 (0)3 28 55 30 80; www.mairie-lille.fr). Open 9am-noon; 2-5pm, and on Sundays 10-5pm (closed Tuesday and Saturday). Adults €3; children €2; under-12s go free.
Market values: Head south of the centre to the traditionally working-class district of Wazemmes where one of France’s biggest and most vibrant markets takes place at place de la Nouvelle Aventure. The Sunday market is the most colourful but on any day of the week except Monday you’ll find stallholders offering a wide choice of local cheese, charcuterie, bread and. While you’re in the area, stroll on from the market down rue Leon Gambetta and along to Maison Folie de Wazemmes, an old textile mill refurbished as an arts centre - complete with a Turkish-style hammam. Maison Folie de Wazemmes arts centre, 70 rue des Sarrazines (+33 (0)3 20 78 20 23; www.mfwazemmes.mairie-lille.fr); Zein hammam (+33 (0)3 20 14 34 34; www.wazemmes.zeinorientalspa.fr).
Recycled swimming pool: Take the metro out to Gare Jean Lebas in the suburb of Roubaix – growing ever more green thanks to the ongoing parks project of the Lille Metropole council. A short walk west of the station you’ll find an Art Deco wonder: a swimming pool reconfigured into a stunning museum. Completed in 1932, this was once the playground the textile workers of the Lille area. Today it houses the Musee d’Art et d’Industrie. The pool is now lined by sculptures while around it the former changing rooms display textiles and other applied arts.
Musee d’Art et d’Industrie, 23 rue de l’Esperanc, Roubaix (+33 (0)3 20 69 23 60; www.roubaix-lapiscine.com). Weekends open afternoons only, closed Monday. Adults €7; children €4.50.
Open-air museum: There’s a great celebration of traditional rural life at this bucolic museum set in the countryside a few kilometres to the east of Lille. Twenty or so old country houses, once at risk, have been dismantled and rebuilt here, preserving and displaying a variety of vernacular styles from the 17th to the 19th centuries. Their vegetable plots, herb gardens, orchards and more have also been recreated. And there’s a section, too, for domestic animals from horses to donkeys and ducks. From the centre of Lille the museum is accessible by metro to Pont de Bois or by bus 43 – get off at the Massena stop. In each case there’s about a 10-minute walk on to the site. 143 rue Colbert, Villeneuve d’Ascq (+33 (0)3 20 63 11 25; www.museedepleinair-asso.org). Open spring to mid-autumn, Wednesday-Sunday (2012: 7 April-7 November). Adults €4, children €2.
What to do
Take a ride
They’re fun, they look cool yet cute, and they’re eco-friendly: Lille’s electric trishaw-taxis will take you on guided tours of the city. The driver picks you and up to two others up at the railway station or the tourist office and offers spirited commentary on the history and politics of Lille – as well as tips on where to eat and where to shop. Cyclo Ville (+33 (0)6 24 16 08 18; www.cycloville.com). Guided tours from €19 per hour.
Take a glide: Hire a Segway and roll your way gently around town. Complete with suggested routes around the main sights of Lille, these two-wheeled electric machines are available from Station Oxygene at Champ de Mars. Transpole (+33 (0)3 20 40 40 40; www.transpole.fr). Segways are available Monday to Saturday, €4 for half an hour, €15 for half a day.
Look and listen: Take a guided walking tour of Lille - at your own pace. Free audio tours in English (or French) are available to download on to I-pods, MP3s or mobile phones from Zevisit’s website www.zevisit.com – or via the tourist office website www.lilletourism.com. These tours will take you around the seven highlights of the old town – the two main squares, the glorious Hospice Comtesse, the Cathedral of Notre Dame de la Treille and so on.
Eat out: On a sunny day buy organic picnic ingredients from La Source deli (at 13 rue du Plat) then stroll through town to Quai du Wault - off the Deule canal which runs through the northern part of town. Lined with tall Flemish-style houses, the quai has fairly recently been revamped is now a place of much charm. Jardin Vauban lies adjacent and makes an ideal destination for an outdoor lunch. Created in 1863, the garden is beautifully laid out and attracts a happy stream of local residents – so it’s an excellent spot for people watching, too.
Written by Harriet O'Brien
[Photo credits. Main photos: Lille Tourisme/Laurent Ghesquière; Eurostar. Small photos, left to right: Hermitage Gantois bar; Lille Tourisme; Lille Tourisme/Alain Leprince M.A.I.A.D Roubaix; © Maxime Dufour photographie. Train photo: © Eurostar. Cycling photo: © Maxime Dufour photographie]