In a nutshell: One of France's least heralded cities – but a recent success story.

Don't miss: Louvre-Lens; Boulevard Emile Basly

A decade or so ago, you might not have considered Lens as a travel destination. At least, not for more than a few seconds. This small corner of the Pas-de-Calais department of northern France had rarely been a city that featured prominently in the thoughts of too many tourists; not even those visiting its near-neighbour Lille, which lies just 20 miles to the north-east. It was generally seen as a little downbeat; a little dingy at the edges – a onetime piece of France's industrial jigsaw, full of faded factories and clanking machines.

But that was prior to December 2012, and the opening of what is now one of France's most vaunted museums. Pitched close to the centre of town, Louvre-Lens was set up with three purposes in mind: To provide a showcase for some of the deep reserves of art stuck unseen in the vaults of Paris's greatest gallery. To provide a major cultural institution away from the capital. To draw people to a city that would not ordinarily be in their plans.

It is fair to say that the museum has succeeded in all three of these objectives. It displays works of art from the mothership on a temporary basis, but has played host to works by icons as revered as Da Vinci, Rubens, Raphael and Rembrandt, as well as treasures from ancient Egypt and Babylon. It pulls in some half a million paying customers every year. It has provided a new focal point for a city that is marooned way beyond most travellers' perceptions of France – standing proud on a 49-acre former mining site as a complex of burnished aluminium and glass. It is well worth visiting for its striking architecture alone.

Not that the museum is the sole reason to see the city. Its main sporting arena, the Stade Bollaert-Delelis, is one of the country's most atmospheric. It is largely used for football, but hosted matches in the Rugby World Cups of both 1999 (Argentina's surprise 28-24 victory over Ireland) and 2007 (including England's 28-10 stroll against the USA, and South Africa's 30-25 thriller with Tonga). It is sometimes said that the stadium can hold the city's entire population (of 32,000), and still have room for more. But with a capacity of just 38,000, the venue is not enormous, and its steep stands give it a genuine character.

Beyond its keynote museum and its stadium, Lens sparkles in the art deco houses on Boulevard Emile Basly, and in the clusters of restaurants in the side streets off this main avenue. It also has a place in a dark but important chapter of European history. The First World War raged in the fields and furrows around the city – notably the Battle of Vimy Ridge, which took place five miles to the south-west over four dreadful days in April 1917. The elegant twin turrets of the Canadian National Vimy Memorial now mark the site – saluting the sacrifices of 11,000 of the men who died in the struggle for this hillock.

Content supplied by the Telegraph’s travel expert Chris Leadbetter