In a little over an hour train ride from Paris, you can be transported to Lille, on the border of Belgium. Lille is the capital of the Flanders region, and a city with a rich mixture of two cultures and languages, French and Flemish. In the 16th and 17th centuries, Lille had a thriving textile industry, bringing fortune and growth to the city, and during the Industrial Revolution, it became a major center for the production of steel, metal, and coal. The city was badly damaged during WWI and over 1,500 houses were destroyed, and during WWII much of the population fled in fear of the same fate of WWI. Today, Lille is a large metropolis with over a million population between the city and the suburbs and is the fourth biggest university city in France with 110,000 students.
Old Lille, where most of the important attractions are located, is populated with handsome buildings from the 17th century with brick facades, along with baroque style and Dutch-influenced architecture, vastly different from the Parisian architecture of six-story, stone edifices.
Le Musee De L'Hospice Comtesse
Probably the most significant site in the Old Quarter is Le Musee De l'Hospice Comtesse, which was founded by the Countess Jeanne de Flandre in 1237. The hospice provided medical and emotional care for the poor and defenseless until it was closed in 1939, operating for a remarkable 700 years. In 1962 it was converted into a museum. Visitors can tour the buildings from the 15th, 17th, and 18th centuries, which include a monastery with a chapel that has a ceiling decorated with coats of arms from important past donors, gardens with medicinal herbs and plants, and the former hospital ward. Other architectural and decorative elements with a strong Flemish theme include tapestries, white porcelain tiles, each individually painted with figures in blue, and wood sculptures.
Dominating the Lille skyline is the Lille Belfry, a brick tower almost 350 feet high. Constructed between 1924 and 1932 and designed by architect Emile Dubuisson, it is contained in the Hotel de Ville/City Hall of Lille and has been a UNESCO Heritage site since 2002. Take the elevator to the top, or walk up the 100 plus steps to get your cardio workout, and take in the 30-mile-plus view of the region.
General DeGaulle Museum
The former president and head general of the military of France, Charles DeGaulle was born and raised in Lille in his grandparents' upper-class home. The 19th-century mansion was purchased by friends and supporters in 1967 and turned into the General DeGaulle Museum. It traces DeGaulle’s formative years with artifacts, photos, and objects, plus a multimedia presentation of the hallmarks of DeGaulle’s career and accomplishments.
Take a sweet break in between visiting the historic sites at Meert, the oldest pastry shop in Lille, started in 1761. Indulge in a pastry or gateau such as a dreamy lemon meringue tart and a heavenly chocolate concoction of chocolate mousse with hazelnut and almond praline in their tearoom, decorated like a lavish confection, in the Louis XVI style. Meert also has a retail shop and a restaurant serving a full lunch menu of French delicacies. Pick up a package of their famous gaufres -- dry waffles filled with vanilla cream -- and a box of chocolates from their confectionery counter.
Le Palais Des Beaux Arts De Lille
Le Palais Des Beaux Arts is the Fine Arts Museum of Lille and contains thousands of paintings, sculptures, drawings, and other forms of art. The collection displays works from the second century up to the 20th century and encompasses the most important art movements such as Impressionism, Symbolism, medieval, and Renaissance periods with Flemish, Spanish, French, Roman, and Belgian artists. Works by Delacroix, Rubens, Monet, Manet, Donatello, Courbet, El Greco and Picasso are among the collection.
Villa Cavrois And Piscine De Roubaix
Located less than 30 minutes from the center of Lille in two upscale suburban areas are two must-see attractions.
Robert Mallet-Stevens was one of the leading French architects of the early 20th century and was known for his modern design approach. One of his masterpieces was a private mansion built outside of Lille for textile tycoon Paul Cavrois and his wife and seven children. Carvois gave Mallet total artistic freedom to create his vision of a house, and his only wishes were that the house had to be comfortable, functional, and not go over the agreed budget.
Construction began in 1929 and was completed in 1932. The family resided in the house for almost 32 years, until 1985. Sold to a developer, it was set for demolition, but luckily the plan was abandoned. Recognizing the villa for its architectural importance, the state purchased the villa and the restoration took thirteen painstaking years. Villa Cavrois is a magnificent example of modernist architecture with its spacious rooms filled with luxe furniture, rugs, lavish marble floors, and light fixtures along with meticulous architectural details and natural light flooding the rooms. Outside the house is a long reflecting pool and a swimming pool, plus manicured, symmetrically designed gardens.
A one-time art deco, indoor swimming pool from 1932, Piscine de Roubaix has been transformed into a museum for art and industry.
The pool was closed in 1985, and when the museum was built, an old textile factory was incorporated into the design. The museum has a high caliber and well-rounded collection of mostly 19th- and 20th-century contemporary works. A highlight of the museum is its extensive ceramic and pottery collection. The other highlight is the revamped swimming pool surrounded by plaster and marble statues. If you didn’t get a chance to go to the Meert tea salon in Lille, the museum has an outpost restaurant in an art deco-inspired dining room plus an outdoor terrace.
Pro Tip: Villa Cavrois is about a 30-minute tram ride from downtown Lille and a 10-minute walk from the tram stop through a tree-lined road. You can take a tram from the Villa Cavrois to the Piscine de Roubaix, which takes about 15 minutes.
Mercure Hotel Grand Place
Although it’s possible to visit Lille for the day from Paris, we recommend staying overnight to take in all the great attractions. The Mercure Hotel Grand Place is ideally located in the center of the city and just a ten-minute walk from the train station. The modern hotel has similar amenities to American hotels with spacious rooms with queen and king-size beds, in-room espresso machines, and two electrical outlets on each side of the bed to plug in your electronics. The clever breakfast buffet is located in a home-like kitchen complete with closed cabinets and a sink, dishwasher, oven, and stovetop.
Hotel Clarance is a five-star luxury boutique hotel and is part of the prestigious Relais Chateaux brand. The five elegant and beautifully appointed rooms all have individual decor and designs that mix contemporary and 18th century-inspired furnishings. Master chef Thibaut Gamba heads the restaurant with his innovative menu focused on local produce and seafood.
While in the area, also consider: