Explore Lille’s exuberant Flemish Baroque buildings and grand cobblestoned squares on this free, self-guided walking tour.
I’ll level with you; I never intended to spend one day in Lille.
My master plan was to bag a cheap Eurostar ticket from London to Lille – a mere 90-minutes journey from London St. Pancras International – and use the city as a base to stroll along the canals of Ghent and to visit one of Europe’s biggest Christmas markets in Arras.
However, France’s transport workers had other ideas.
On the day of my arrival, the country was in the vice-like grip of a national strike – La Grève Générale – in protest of President Macron’s proposed sweeping reforms of the French pension system. Transport workers were peeved at the prospect of having to forfeit their special pension status and it showed.
With 90% of France’s trains not going anywhere, Arras and Ghent were off the travel itinerary.
But every cloud has a silver lining and, instead, I was able to spend more time in Lille than anticipated. And with its large cobblestoned squares lined with outrageously extravagant Flemish Baroque buildings and wonderful food, I soon overcame my initial disappointment.
Have the best time in Lille in one day on this free self-guided walking tour.
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The Best Things to Do on a Day Trip to Lille, France
Before you dive into this article, here’s a video of the best bits of Lille to whet your appetite.
Where is Lille?
Lille is in Northern France, close to the Belgian border and around 140 miles from Paris. It is the so-called capital of French Flanders and Flemish influences are evident throughout the city, from its architecture to its food.
What to Do in Lille in One Day: A Walking Tour
This Lille walking tour will take in many of the city’s must-see sights.
Although this 3km walking tour takes a logical route from north to south, you may need to tweak it and dog-leg back to a few places to accommodate their opening hours. Check in advance.
Museums and art galleries in Lille are closed on Tuesdays.
Lille walking tour map
To help you make the best of your day in Lille, here’s an interactive walking tour map. Click on the image for step-by-step directions to get you from one sight to the next.
Musée de Hospice Comtesse (Hospice Compesse Museum)
Founded in 1237 by Countess Jeanne de Flandre, the Hospice Comtesse Museum is the first stop on our Lille walking tour.
This hospital remained in service until 1939 and is now the city’s museum and home to a collection of Flemish paintings, tapestries, wood sculptures and porcelain.
Aux Merveilleux de Fred
Don’t leave Lille before trying merveilleux. The best place to pick these up is Aux Merveilleux de Fred and there’s a shop opposite the Hospice Comtesse Museum.
Literally marvellous, these little cakes are made from clouds of light meringue liberally smothered in fresh cream and chocolate shavings.
I’ve since discovered that I can get my fix at London branches of Aux Merveilleux de Fred
Notre Dame de la Treille (Lille Cathedral)
I have stepped through the entrance of a lot of cathedrals over the years but the Notre Dame de la Treille ranks amongst the most interesting that I have visited.
Lille Cathedral owes its unique appearance to its troubled genesis.
Originally conceived as a Gothic building, the cathedral’s foundations were laid in 1854. However, workers had to down tools in 1947 when funds dried up, and construction was not resumed until 1999.
The resulting cathedral is a dizzying mix of traditional meets contemporary. The ugly modern façade, made from 110 marble sheets, contrasts with the cathedral’s interior with its soaring Gothic arches.
Its glass rose window above the main entrance features unusual symbols including UFOs & astronauts, said to represent the cycle of death and resurrection.
However, for me, Lille Cathedral’s star turn is its La Sainte Chapelle behind the main altar. Housing a small 12th Century statue of the Virgin Mary, it has an exquisite mosaic floor.
Place du Théâtre & La Veille Bourse
Lille’s Place du Théâtre is dominated by two flamboyant buildings.
The first is its gleaming white opera house topped by an overblown sculpture of the Triumph of Apollo. The other is the ornate, albeit more restrained, La Veille Bourse.
La Veille Bourse was one of my favourite places to visit in Lille. Formerly the city’s stock exchange, this structure comprises 24 small houses arranged around an elaborate, porticoed inner courtyard, embellished with decorative plaques and stone sculptures.
Now home to a book market, La Veille Bourse has an interesting history. Prior to its construction in the 1650s, most trading took place outside, and traders were at the mercy of the elements.
Battling wind, rain and damp chill during my day in Lille I felt their pain!
Therefore, to prevent the traders from falling sick, La Veille Bourse was commissioned to provide private houses supporting trading in the coldest months.
Place du Générale de Gaulle (Grand Place)
Lille’s beating heart, the Grand Place was the site of the city’s medieval market. Today, it’s a focal point for celebrations – and demonstrations – and a popular meeting place.
At Christmas time, it is home to a giant Ferris wheel.
The Déesse Column, commemorating the 1792 Austrian siege, holds court in the centre of the square.
More exuberant Flemish buildings flank the square, including the La Voix du Nord building, home to the largest newspaper in Northern France.
Climb the steps to the entrance of Théâtre du Nord for a birds-eye view of the Grand Place.
Place Rihour & Lille Christmas market
Lacking the architectural bravado of the Grand Place or Place du Théâtre, the smaller and unremarkable Place Rihour, is home to the friendly Lille Tourist Office and the city’s Christmas market.
Avoid visiting Lille’s Christmas market on weekend nights. Enormous queues were snaking along the market’s perimeter on Saturday night, and the area was rammed with visitors.
Church of St. Etienne
A few minutes’ walk southwest of Place Rihour is one of France’s largest Jesuit churches, the 18th Century Church of St. Etienne (L’Église Saint Etienne). The embodiment of simplicity, it features an exquisite pulpit.
Sculpted by François Rude, it is crowned by angels and cherubs with Faith and Hope holding a vessel of St. Stephen’s martyrdom.
Palais des Beaux-Arts, Lille
Around ten minutes south-east of the Church of St. Etienne is Lille’s cultural calling card, the Palais des Beaux-Arts.
Flanking the southern side of the vast Place de la République, this fine art gallery is second only to the Louvre in France for size and stature.
An illustration of the democratisation of art, the Palais des Beaux-Arts was established by Napoleon in the early 1800s to popularise art, its collection curated from the spoils of war.
Working your way chronologically, start at the basement level with art from the Renaissance period.
Don’t miss a pair of paintings by Dirk Bouts (1420 – 1475) that were once part of a triptych. The painting to your right depicts the righteous ascending into Heaven.
The souls featured in the left-hand side painting weren’t so lucky, with the dammed falling into Hell to be tortured by demons for eternity.
It is thought that the central painting of this triptych represented Judgement Day.
On the upper floor, there is an impressive collection of muscular Rubens, a smattering of Sisleys and expressive Goyas. The Palais des Beaux-Arts is also home to a fine collection of Rodin sculptures, the most striking of which is Les Bourgeois de Calais.
Porte de Paris and the Belfry (Bellfroi de Lille)
Five minutes’ walk east of the Palais des Beaux-Arts is the Porte de Paris, the final stop on our Lille walking tour.
Built by Simon Vollant in the late 17th Century to celebrate Louis XIV’s capture of Lille for the French, this is the most striking of Lille’s surviving city gates.
The adjacent red brick and stone Flemish belfry rises over the city like a giant exclamation mark. At a height of 104 meters, this UNESCO-listed monument is the highest civilian belfry in Europe.
Plan Your Lille Visit
How many days do you need in Lille?
One day in Lille is enough to cover its main sights. As it is only 90 minutes from London by Eurostar, it is easy to visit as a day trip.
However, I recommend spending two days in Lille to appreciate it at a more relaxed pace.
How to get to Lille
Eurostar makes a day trip to Lille from London a breeze. The old town is just ten minutes’ walk from Gare Lille-Europe station.
The first train from London St. Pancras International station leaves shortly before 7 am and arrives in Lille before 9:30 am; and the last return train leaves at 9 pm, getting into St. Pancras at 9.30 pm.
Return fares start from £58.
If you need to bring your car, Lille is just under 70 miles from Calais. Eurotunnel trains run from Folkestone to Calais up to four times per hour from 7 am. The last train back from Calais is at around midnight.
Alternatively, take the car ferry from Dover to Calais, a 90-minute crossing.
How to get around Lille
As most of Lille’s highlights are close to one another, the city lends itself beautifully to a self-guided walking tour
But if you are feeling weary, Lille has an excellent bus, tram and metro network. In 2021, a 24-hour travel pass costs €5; single tickets are €1.70.
Public transport is included in the Lille City Pass, which also includes free access to attractions and a selection of discounts and special offers. This is available for 24 hours, 48 hours or 72 hours, costing from €25 (discount available when purchasing online).
Unlimited travel SNCF TER network (regional express trains) throughout Nord-Pas de Calais for a period of 24 consecutive hours is included in the 72 hours Lille City pass.
Where to stay in Lille
As one of France’s biggest cities, Lille is not lacking in accommodation options. However, to be in the thick of things, pick a central location.
I chose this 3-star hotel for its central location close to Lille Flandres station. No irony there then.
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Here are some other hotels that I have found that may suit other budgets:
This 4-star hotel is right in the thick of things on the Grand Place. A good breakfast is included in the room rate.
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Close to Lille-Flandres Station, this budget hotel looks terrific value and its helpful staff get a special mention in online reviews.
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Where to eat in Lille
Grill St Anne, 13, rue Sainte-Anne
A wonderful, friendly family-run bistro on the edge of the old town. Huge portions and not so huge prices. Book ahead.
La Pâte Brisée, 63 rue de la Monnaie
Opposite the Hospice Comtesse Museum, this busy, no-nonsense restaurant serves belly-filling portions of tartiflette, an artery-clogging dish of cheese, white wine, potatoes and bacon.
Tastes so good.
Is Lille Worth Visiting?
Over the years, Lille hasn’t earned the best reputation. It’s been viewed as a northern France equivalent of Marseilles if you like, with industrialisation and racism in equal measure.
However, over two days I was slowly seduced by its grandiose Flemish architecture, the charm of its old town, the friendliness of its people and its hearty cuisine.