In a nutshell: A jewel of the French north – and so much more than a Eurostar station.
Don't miss: The Vieille Bourse, the Palais des Beaux-Arts, the Citadelle
There is a good chance that you have already been to Lille, if only for a few minutes. Its location, almost on the Belgian border, roughly midway through the train journey from London to Paris, means that Eurostar services frequently halt at its Lille-Europe station. For many travellers, this is just a brief pause. But the city could detain you for far longer.
True, it does not have the size of Paris, but its comparative smallness makes it a city that is easily digested in the space of a long weekend. Traditionally and historically as much a part of Flanders as of France, it has a character and a diversity that become increasingly obvious the further you stroll. Lille is so much more than the railway line through it.
Life revolves around three main squares. Place du Theatre and Place Charles de Gaulle (generally referred to as the “Grand-Place”) are close colleagues, separated only by the graceful outline of La Vieille Bourse, a quadrangular 17th century building complex that was once a stock exchange. Its internal courtyard is still a key meeting place – but, these days, is invariably filled with book-sellers, florists, tourists and idlers. A short walk to the south-west, Place Rihour is the third member of the trio, fringed by cafes and restaurants.
But then, there are excellent places to eat wherever you look in Lille. You can find a good range of “estaminets” (local eateries) on the busy strip of Rue de Gand – while Le Compostelle and Le Barbue D'Anvers, doors apart on Rue Saint-Etienne, are splendid options for something a touch more sophisticated. At the sweeter end of the culinary scale, Lille's proximity to Belgium plays out in waffle stands and artisan chocolate shops. There are bars galore too – along Rue Royale, Rue des Bouchers and Rue Leonard Danel.
As with many French cities, there is a real emphasis on art and culture. The Palais des Beaux-Arts is stuffed with paintings crafted between the 15th and 20th centuries, including pieces by Raphael, Rubens, Rembrandt, Goya and Toulouse-Lautrec. LAM (Lille Museum of Art) takes a more modern approach, with works by Picasso, Miro and Calder.
The city's position in the Franco-Belgian borderlands comes into focus again on the west side of the centre, where the Citadelle remembers conflicts of yesteryear. It dates to the second half of the 17th century – a time when France was regularly at war with its neighbours and determined to defend its own frontiers. The result, for Lille, was the construction (between 1667 and 1670), in an area of marshland adjacent to the Deule and Bucquet rivers, of a pentagonal fortress of thick walls and bristling ramparts. It would serve its purpose, and then some – 350 years later, it still looks a formidable proposition to anyone who would seek to storm it. Of course, access is now much simpler. The Citadelle is open for guided tours – and there are lovely walks to be had around its edges.