Lille (Rijsel in Flemish), northern France’s largest city, surprises many visitors with its impressive architecture, the winding streets of its tastefully restored old quarter (Vieux Lille), its plethora of excellent restaurants and bustling nightlife. It boasts a large university, a modern métro system and a serious attitude to culture, with some great museums.
Historically the main stop on the rich trading route between Flanders and Paris, Lille was first and foremost a merchant city: instead of a soaring Gothic cathedral, taking pride of place are secular temples like the Flemish Renaissance jewel of the Ancienne Bourse. The focal part of central Lille is the place du Général de Gaulle, always referred to as the Grand’Place, marking the southern boundary of Vieux Lille. South of this, the pedestrianized shopping area runs along rue de Béthune to the squares of place Béthune and place de la République. The city’s museums are a short walk from the centre and the top museums are outside: La Piscine in Roubaix and the Museum of Modern Art in Villeneuve d’Ascq. The city spreads far into the countryside in every direction, a jumble of suburbs and factories, and for the French it remains the symbol of the country’s heavy industry and working-class politics.
A Flemish flavour and a taste for mussels characterize the city’s traditional cuisine, with the main central concentration of cafés, brasseries and restaurants around place Rihour and along rue de Béthune. Vieux Lille has a reputation for gastronomic excellence, particularly on the eastern side towards and along rue de Gand, where you’ll find most of the worthwhile places. The student quarter along rues Solférino and Masséna is good for ethnic eating – the former mostly Chinese or Japanese, the latter dominated by cheap kebab shops. The cafés around the Grand’Place and place Rihour buzz with life. Up near the cathedral in Vieux Lille, rue Royale, rue de la Barre, rue Basse and place Louise-de-Bettignies have trendier spots, with a few stretched out along rue de la Monnaie. West of the centre, Celtic-style pubs dominate in studenty rue Masséna, attracting a young crowd.