Planning a day trip from London? 90 minutes from the capital by train can take you to some interesting cities: Bristol, Southampton, Winchester, Canterbury, Stratford are just a few options. Until recently however, you would not have considered a French destination.
All this changed with the introduction of the high speed line that takes the Eurostar from London St Pancras to a long black hole under the Channel in less than 40 minutes. Lille is now perfectly accessible as the first major French city on the Brussels line, and is reached around 30 minutes after emerging on French soil.
Lille is the centre of an industrial region and does not rank highly among the French tourist hotspots. While it may lack the surrounding beauty and interest of southern France, the city of Lille itself has enough to keep a visitor entertained for a day and probably a weekend. It’s a laid back city, and having been three times and arrived each time in mid-morning, it seems to me that the city doesn’t really wake up until somewhere approaching lunchtime.
The city itself is filled with beautiful architecture that shows off Lille’s past as a major trading centre. The Vieille Bourse and the main square are worthy of lengthy exploration, and the Cathedral is a mix of the old and the modern, with a unique translucent front facade, offering a surprising appearance when viewed from within.
Around the cathedral the narrow lanes offer a view of Lille from another time, and as with so many cities these lanes are now home to boutiques, craft shops and speciality restaurants. We had an excellent lunch at L’Assiette du Marché, and then treated ourselves to an oversized ice-cream by the main square. This region of France is well known for its waffle making skills, although by the time we were done with the ice-creams we were not in a position to take on a waffle. Always the way: too much food, not enough capacity…
There are a couple of museums worthy of note in Lille. The Museé des Beaux Arts is recognised as holding the finest collection of art in France outside of the Louvre, and it is well worth a visit. We arrived there at 4.45 and the lady at the ticket desk kindly gave us the €5 reduced tickets as they shut at 6pm. For someone who knows their art, you could easily pass half a day in here. The impressive building itself is well worth a look.
Another museum/art gallery that is worth seeing is the Musée de La Piscine de Roubaix. It’s a 20 minute metro ride out of the city, but it offers the chance to see a sizeable art collection in an old municipal swimming baths; not something you’ll get to do every day.
Finally, don’t miss the zoo – it’s an easy walk out of the city centre and situated near to the Citadel. Admission is free and they have a reasonable selection of animals, including a rhino and a couple of red pandas. Once you’re finished with the zoo there’s a pleasant walk to be had on the circular path around the Citadel itself.
Lille is a poor cousin in terms of France’s efforts at promoting its tourism destinations, and perhaps the national tourist board should make more of an effort at the London day trip market. We left London at 8.30am and returned before 8pm, having spent over 8 hours wandering this historic and attractive city. It can be done for £49, which compares well with fares for similar distances in the UK.