“You’re going to Paris?” The initial reaction of my friend when I told her I was picking up Eurostar tickets. Most people have heard of Lille, but it’s more that city you know because it’s a stop on your way somewhere else, or because you changed there and almost got on the wrong part of a complicated train and had to run halfway down a platform with a suitcase in tow to get the right one (not that the latter has ever happened to me. Obviously).
But Lille is actually a destination in its own right. And situated just 90 minutes from St Pancras, 1 hour from Ashford or 1 hour 20 minutes from Ebbsfleet, it’s a legitimate day trip destination. Which is exactly what we chose to do: having caught the 7.30 train from London, we arrived in Lille bright and early at 10 o’clock and left at 8.30, leaving us with over nine hours (not counting checking back in in the evening) to explore the city.
Lille was pretty sleepy when we arrived. The big chain stores were open, however, so if you came here to shop you could do that all day. Instead, we decided to do some sightseeing. First up was a trip to the tourist office, where we came out armed with a selection of free flyers offering city maps in varying degrees of detail. These guided us to the Citadel and zoo, a relatively easy 10-15 minute walk from the town centre.
Situated within a park, much of the star-shaped Citadel is still intact. A moat still surrounds its outer walls; follow it for a picturesque walk. Those interested in visiting the Citadel itself should investigate this possibility beforehand – the inner sections are accessible by appointment only, with the exception of a few hours on Sundays from May to August.
The park is also home to a small funfair with trampolines, mini rollercoasters and the like – perfect if you have kids, though check the opening hours. It was very much closed when we were there, its subsequent desolation almost spooky.
But perhaps my favourite aspect of the park was the zoo. The best bit of this being that it’s free! Perhaps unsurprisingly it’s not quite up there in standards as bigger (more expensive) zoos like London and San Diego, and doesn’t take much more than an hour to amble round. It would probably take longer on a day when the animals were more active mind (although we got to see most of the residents, we only really got a show from one monkey – presumably due to the cold). But even though they were a bit sleepy, there were plenty of interesting animals to see – the red panda, various breeds of monkeys and giant tortoises were my highlights.
Our next stop was the old part of Lille. Narrow, cobbled streets, wooden shutters, those boxy windows: if you were asked to draw a quintessential European town it would look something like this. There are also lots of lovely boutiques, particularly for home interiors, but also for clothes and a few food outlets too. Yet despite browsing for Christmas present ideas and being rather taken by the tea shop paraphernalia, we came away empty handed; particularly with the Euro to Pound exchange rate, we found that nothing was particularly cheap, and, with the exception of food, you could probably find similar homeware items back in the UK. They’re still lovely places to browse though, each one with its own unique feel. Everyone is so friendly too – in almost every shop they took the time to say both ‘bonjour’ and ‘merci, au revoir’, regardless of how busy they were. As someone who does most of their shopping in central London, this was a bit of a (pleasant) shock to the system!
A particular recommendation is the Hippy Market, despite the naff name. A vintage shop on Rue de la Clef in the old town, it was bursting with clothes helpfully arranged by type and colour, available at not-too-bad prices. In fact, Lille seemed like a pretty good place to pick up antique items and vintage accessories in general, though bargaining without decent French might challenging.
Another place worth visting to find interesting odds and ends is La Vieille Bourse, or the Old Stock Exchange, in the centre of Lille. The central courtyard was housing a collection of stalls when we visited (apparently on other days it might be home to flourists or chess players). It wasn’t the highest-end market in the world, but it offered some cheap and different souvenirs, especially for those interested in old French comics, newspapers and advert prints.
However, my favourite shop wasn’t so much a shop as a workshop. On Rue Saint Jacques, we came accross a violin workshop, which Google suggests belongs to Jean Marc Panhaleux (for perspective as to how exciting this is, his last bow went for over $2,000 at Christie’s!). Completed violins are displayed in the window and you can see him at work. After he caught me gawping at the violins (I used to play and am still itching to get back into it, OK!), I felt a little bit embarassed about trying to take a photo, though. And my French isn’t good enough to ask whether that would be OK. Excuses, excuses, I know.
After all this walking, it was definitely time for some food. I often throw caution to the wind in France and head for the toursity areas as the food tends to be good (not as good as the best places, but I can’t afford the best places) and they often have pretty good menu deals. However when wondering round the back streets we’d seen so many gorgeous looking cafes and restaurants that we had to try one out. We finally decided on Au Vieux de la Vielle, on the Place Aux Oignans – read more here.
Talking of food, a must visit in Lille is Meert. Although we were browsing with our eyes only, next time I could definitely be tempted to sit down and sample one of the famous pastries!
A bonus about visiting Lille at Christmas is, of course, the Christmas market and big wheel area. Christmas music plays around the huge ferris wheel (both being afraid of heights, we didn’t venture on!). Although the Christmas market itself probably isn’t a key reason to visit Lille (it’s quite small and very expensive), it’s still worth a wander round, if for no other reason that the hot Breton Cider that was available (for those who have experienced the cold version of this amazing drink in Soho’s The French House pub – it’s like that, but better). We slipped it slowly after sunset while admiring the lovely Christmas lights and the stunning scenes of the city by night.
I have to admit that, unless you’re planning on doing a few museums (there is a good selection of art galleries), nine hours in Lille is probably more than necessary. In future I think I’d plan to arrive around lunchtime, which would also allow for a few extra hours in bed. But that’s probably my only negative. Easily navigable on foot, pretty with a mix of striking important buildings and low-key, cobbled backstreets, and offering an excellent mix of sightseeing, shopping and eating, Lille is an ideal day trip destination. And most importantly of all, there’s a Carrefour five minutes from the Eurostar station – so you can stock up your wine cabinet cheaply, making it value for money too.