Here you will find the best things to do in Lille France for first time visitors.
Discover all the major landmarks for your next city break and collect tips and ideas to plan for your trip to the northern French city of Lille.
Table of Contents
🧭 Where is Lille?
Lille is the capital city of the historical region Nord-Pas-de-Calais, which is better known as Hauts-de-France now. The smaller department, which is a district, is called Pas-de-Calais.
This region is situated in the northernmost tip of France, bordering Belgium, and the city of Lille is closest to the Belgian Flemish culture.
From the French capital, Paris, it is about 1 1/2 hours away by train and 2 1/2 by road from Lille.
From Brussels, it’s 2 hours by train or car, although the Belgian capital is closer to Lille than the French.
You can also take the Eurostar train from London to Lille, which is a direct 1 1/2 hour long train ride.
Due to its proximity to other major European capitals, it is centrally located, making it a great city to explore on a day trip.
📕 Facts about Lille
The city was originally just a village on the Deûle river. In the 11th century, it was fortified by count Baldwin IV of Flanders until the sun king of France, Louis XIV, claimed Lille in 1667.
Lille was spelt as L’île in old french until the 18th century, which means island in French. This is because the Haute Deûle and Basse Deûle, the two parts of the river, surrounded the city, which in turn was a perfect island to keep away invaders.
Drive 9 miles (ca. 14 kilometers) northwards, and you can cross over to the Belgian border.
The people of Lille speak a strong northern French local dialect, which is known as Le Ch’ti, which means “It’s me”.
Lille is the birthplace of the general Charles de Gaulle. He was a freedom fighter who fought off the Nazi invasion, and later de Gaulle became President of the French Republic.
The city of Lille was at the core of the industrial revolution and quickly developed during the 19th century, producing machinery, chemicals, and textiles.
🏫 Le Vieux Lille
The picturesque old town of Lille, better known as Le Vieux Lille in French, is the main attraction of the city at any given time.
Cobbled roads and hued northern Flemish style houses sitting in a row right next to each other add to the feel and ambiance of the town.
This part of Lille is the historic center, the authentic face of Lille, a blast from the past. Take in the beauty of old Lille by taking a break in a coffee shop or admire the facades and well-maintained buildings on a stroll through this part of town.
In the same zone, you will come across the Musée de l’Hospice Comtesse and the adjoining Ilôt Comtesse park, where the old and new meet each other. Art lovers should take a peek at the exhibition.
⛪️ Notre-Dame-de-la-Treille Cathedral
Erected as the new spiritual soul of the old town, stands the neoclassical catholic Notre-Dame-de-la-Treille Cathedral.
Built during the last decades and completed in 1999, this cathedral sets itself apart from all the other major grand medieval cathedrals in France.
In its own right, this cathedral will enthrall you with the unique translucent Italian marble facade, while the inner sanctum will remind you of the cathedral decoration and building of the old.
The light coming in through the translucent panels on a sunny day is truly beautiful.
Note that the cathedral can mainly be accessed on the weekends only outside tourist seasons but the entry is free of charge.
🎡 Grand Place
Located right next to Le vieux Lille is the lively grand place.
The grand place, also known as the Place du Général de Gaulle, is the heart of the city. This gigantic 14th century cobbled square has been an important meeting point for all the people of Lille and its visitors.
Lille served as an influential trading center throughout the Middle Ages, and the grand place was witness to many major historical events of the city.
Today, this almost, 10700 sq2 large city square serves as a meeting spot for all age groups. Several coffee shops, bars, restaurants, and shops can be found just around the square, creating a certain buzz in the area.
Look out for the statue of the goddess at the center of the square, which is surrounded by a fountain.
Catch a ride on the giant wheel, which is lovingly called La Grande Roue de Lille, to get a panoramic 360 view of the city centre.
Besides, the mixture of prominent old 17th century brick architecture and newer constructions, with typical regional facades, makes this part of Lille all the more interesting. Here you will see the former stock exchange building, La Vieille Bourse, as well as the performing arts theater, the Théâtre du Nord.
Numerous smaller, and kind of cute, pedestrian streets lead from the main square and they are well worth exploring.
The city organizes evening street shows on the weekends and the area is decorated with festive lights and a pine tree during Christmas.
Generally speaking, the Grande place is a hub and a perfect place to get to other sights in the city.
Tip: You can go up to the Theater to get a fantastic view of the city square.
🏦 La Vieille Bourse
La Vieille Bourse is the old stock exchange building. This 17th century landmark is considered to be one of the most beautiful buildings in Lille, all thanks to its ornamental details in the Flemish Renaissance style.
The building is situated right at the grand place, and you literally can’t miss the deep red and beige architecture!
Built in 1653 under the Spanish rule by Philippe IV king of Spain, the house of Habsburg, it was opened as a trading bourse for the local tradesman, in the example of the Amsterdam stock exchange.
The building is composed of a series of 24 smaller red brick houses, making the old stock exchange building a unique architectural highlight in the city.
The first thing that you will notice when you enter is the atrium courtyard is the intricate ornamental craftsmanship, which will definitely blow away your mind.
A small second-hand books market with books in various languages can be purchased here. The city administration organizes unique evenings here with dance and music.
🏢 Beffroi and Hôtel de ville de Lille
The Hôtel de ville de Lille is the municipal building of the city of Lille and the Beffroi is the adjoining Belfry tower.
Due to an accidental fire, the old town hall burned down in 1916 during WW1. A new town hall with a Belfry was planned soon after WW1.
The Belfry is a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the Art Deco style, a concrete construction that was completed in 1932.
You can go up the Belfry tower to get a fantastic 360 view of the city from above. The tickets are priced at about €8 per person, and the tourism department sells packages with other landmark sights in the city.
You can get to the top by walking up the stairs, which can be exhausting but rewarding thanks to the mini exhibition along the way, or you can simply take the elevator. Binoculars can be hired for just €1, adding to the experience at the top.
Opening hours are 10 am to 4 pm daily except Mondays the Belfry is closed.
That said, the city hall Belfry is not the only Belfry that you can admire in the city. You can’t miss the stunning Chamber of Commerce Belfry in the city center.
Known as the city’s emblem, this picture-perfect Belfry is situated right next to the Opera house. Go to the grand place square to take the same picture that we took as cover (first picture) for this post.
🖼 Palais des Beaux Arts
Lille’s own classical art museum, the Palais des Beaux Arts, promises to take art lovers on a journey comparable to the Rijeksmuseum, the Uffizi or the Kunsthistorische Museum.
While it is curated for all age groups, the museum doesn’t lack in famous art work pieces. Here you will find medieval, Renaissance and contemporary paintings, sculptures all under one roof.
Look out for masterpieces from Picasso, Monet, Manet, Raphaël, Pieter Bruegel the Younger, Peter Paul Rubens, Hieronymus Bosch as well as for the bas-relief from Donatello.
The museum of Beaux Arts organizes temporary exhibitions too, such as the more recent video game theme or the Fransico Goya exhibition in 2022.
🐆 Natural History Museum
If you are visiting with your family the city of Lille, then a visit to the natural history museum should be on your itinerary.
Here you will find permanent and temporary exhibitions, consisting of 2 collections about zoology and geology.
The exhibitions are spread out across two floors and while it might not be the largest natural history museum, it does offer everything that families with kids would hope for.
Furthermore, the admission price is reasonably set at about €4 per person. You can visit the exhibition on Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday between 9:30 am and 4 pm and on Saturday and Sunday between 10 am and 6 pm. The museum is closed on Tuesdays.
🎭 Lille Opera
The opera house of Lille is a remarkable neoclassical building, located near the grand-place behind the old stock exchange building. It was built during the Belle Époque period, with a Beaux Art style facade.
If you get a chance, the inner rooms are a highlight of every visit with the classical Italian style hall, vestibule and foyer, decorated with stucco ceiling frescoes and statues.
Besides, you can get tickets for their varied programs which are held during various days in the week. Contemporary performances, classic opera and concerts are part of the Lille opera program.
🏰 Citadelle de Lille
The Citadelle de Lille is the 5 sided, pentagonal-shaped fort just outside the main town. Built during the 17th century, it served as a defensive post for the French.
Lille was taken by the French, under the rule of king Louis XIV the sun king, in 1667 from the Spanish, which were at the time ruling over the Flemish lands.
Soon after, the master military engineer Vauban started the construction of the Citadel, which served as an important strategic point to defend the French borders throughout the ages.
Today, the citadelle is still an active military base and can’t be visited.
Yet, the natural landscape invites one to spend some time in the area. Pick a walking trail and look out for herons and other birds.
🛍️ Marché de Wazemmes
Wazemmes is an area outside the main town known for one of the largest markets in France, the outdoor and covered Wazemmes market.
Here you will find fruits, veggies, local food specialties such as cheese, exotic foods from other parts of the world, oddities, and even a second hand flea market.
The perks of a rainy day are the stalls under the covered market, which are open from Tuesday to Saturday from 8 am to 8 pm and Sunday from 8 am to 3 pm.
On the other hand, the outdoor market is organized on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays between 7 am and 2 pm.
Tip: Be careful, there are pickpockets lurking around.
🧀 Food & Drink Specialties
When in Lille, eat like the locals! Here are some of our top recommendations.
Welsh – a main course meal imported in the 16th century from the British isle to France. It consists of cheddar cheese, ham bread and beer.
Carbonnade Flamande – A beef ragout with caramelized onions stewed in dark Belgian beer.
Poulet au maroilles – Chicken cooked and served in a Maroilles cheese sauce. This is a stinky cheese from the region.
Fries – The only place in the world where you can call them French Fries and not Belgian Fries. Freshly prepared and double fries, they naturally resemble Belgian fries and British chips.
Cidre – Traditionally, people of the north drink their Apple Cider in a bowl and that’s how they serve up this alcoholic specialty in Lille.
We can highly recommend a meal at the Estaminet Chez La Vieille. They serve up traditional food specialties from Lille and the service is good. Reserving a seat is advised in the peak season because they are well visited.
⌛ When to visit?
Lille is great all year round, but it can get busy in the school vacation months, that means July and August. Therefore, it is advised to visit this marvelous city when things aren’t too busy.
That said, Lille makes for a great weekend break destination. The architecture and vibe of the city come to play in the colder months.
Note that most landmarks and attractions tend to be closed on Mondays, as it is common in this part of the world.
Hotel rooms in Lille are affordable and great for your wallet. You will get first class service in a 5-star property without breaking the bank.
The Hôtel Barrière Lille, a prominent 5-star hotel suitable for couples and families, is situated near the Grand Palais. Starting room rates hover around €180, and they do offer a whole spectrum of services, including an airport shuttle transfer and a wellness area.
Or how about a hot tub in your room? Le Comptoir industriel offers rooms with a private exclusive hot tub room experience. Think Valentine’s Day gift or make some time for your better half.
If you are collection points in any of the major hotel chains, you will find all major hotels in Lille.
🌄 Day Trips from Lille
Make Lille your base and visit other beautiful places nearby. I highly recommend staying in Lille on a weekend trip or for a few days to explore the region and beyond.
Here are some of our top picks:
- Amiens France – Known for the cathedral of Amiens and floating gardens. You will take about 1 1/2 hours to get from Lille to Amiens by train or car.
- Beauvais France – A lesser known city with the tallest cathedral vault in the world. The Cathedral of Beauvais was never completed. A 2-hour drive and a 3-hour train ride away.
- Reims France – Unofficial capital of the Champagne region and all the French kings were crowned in the Cathedral of Reims. It takes 2 hours to get there by car and 2 1/2 hours by train.
- Calais and Dunkirk – Calais is a historical port city. You will find some great beaches between Dunkirk and Calais, which incidentally were also where the allies landed during the battles of WWII. A train or car trip takes about 1 hour from Lille to Calais or Dunkirk.
- Paris France – The TGV Paris Lille connection gets you to the capital of France within an hour. That way you can visit Paris in a day.
- Mons Belgium – A wonderful art-filled historical city and the landmarks and attractions in Mons are worth exploring. You can get there from Lille within 1 hour by car or train.
- Bruges Belgium – A stunning city known for its water canals and flower decorations. Bruges is only 1 hour away from Lille by car and 1 1/2 by train.