Let me start with a little disclaimer. To the Parisians and Parisophiles ready to get up in arms over the capital’s supremacy over the rest of France, don’t get me wrong. I don’t hate your city. I just happen to love another one that’s about 225km away. I love Lille (rhymes with feel); it’s a city I happily called home for two years. It’s less crowded, less expensive, less confusing and way more tourist-friendly. So it’s hardly surprising that Time magazine featured Lille among the world’s top five travel destinations in 2016.
If you’re visiting this gorgeous city soon, here’s your to-do list.
Love Lille, Love its People
Watching Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis (most airlines flying to Paris have this one in their movie database) before arriving in Lille is a great way to warm up to its people, who are also known as Ch’tis. The movie is packed with clichés about why the rest of France isn’t too crazy about the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region (or the north of France, of which Lille is the capital). There are smelly cheeses, chronic alcoholism, unintelligible accents, uncultured lifestyles and panic-inducing winter temperatures to contend with. But the film’s message is clear: the people are warm and welcoming, as opposed to their snooty countrymen in Parisians and the cold Southies of France. As the Jacques Demarny song declares: Les gens du Nord ont dans le coeur le soleil qu’ils n’ont pas dehors… (The people from the North have in their hearts the sun they don’t have outdoors).
Love Lille, Love its Art
Lille wasn’t crowned Europe’s cultural capital in 2004 for nothing. One may argue that the Louvre museum in Paris figures on many a tourist’s bucket list, but it’s more like a selfie with the Mona Lisa that many care about. Instead check out the Louvre-Lens museum that’s about a dozen kilometres away from Lille. Other must-sees for the arteratti include the Palais des Beaux Arts (Fine Arts Museum)—it’s said to be the second-largest general interest museum in France after the Louvre. Also see the Hospice Comtesse museum that’s housed in a hospital, the Charles de Gaulle Museum, dedicated to the leader and first president of free France, and the Roubaix Piscine (Swimming Pool) Museum of Art and Industry. Also check out Lille 3000, an annual culture fest, whose first edition in 2014 was themed on India. Called Bombaysers de Lille (a word play on bon baisers or good kisses when literally translated), it featured desi dance, theatre, music, food and exhibitions.
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Love Lille, Love its Hot Spots
Start with the cobblestoned streets of Vieux Lille (old Lille) that are dotted with cafés, bars and brasseries. Explore the Citadel, built in the 17th century, which houses a zoo and a lush park that’s great for summer picnics, as well as the multi-cultural Wazemmes quarter and its Maison de Folie (it translates to House of Madness), a cultural hub. If you want to remain indoors, try Gare Saint Sauveur, a former railway station that’s been converted into a quaint bar, art gallery and performance space. There is also the Vieille Bourse, a former stock exchange that’s now a space to buy second-hand books and indulge in tango dance sessions in spring and summer. Landmark spots include the Opera, the Théâtre du Nord, the Grande Place and its iconic fountain and the legendary Lille Braderie, an annual street market that takes over the entire city during the first weekend of September.
Love Lille, Love its Food
If you love your beer and cheese — separately or together — you will love the food in Lille. Five must-try dishes are the Coq à la Bière (chicken pieces simmered in strong, dark beer, married with the sweet and sharp flavours of caramelised onions), the Carbonnade Flamande (a meaty stew of beef shin chunks with onions, beer and gingerbread), the Flamiche aux Maroilles (a rich buttery tart made primarily of a strong local cheese called Maroilles), the calorie-packed Welsh (a simple signature dish of cheddar cheese melted in beer with ham and eggs) and Moules-Frites (mussels in a sauce of your choice, served with fries). Local beers such as Ch’ti, Goudale, 3 Monts and Karmeliet are sure to keep you in good spirits. Don’t leave without indulging your sweet tooth with the Gaufres Fourées Lilloises or sugar-lined waffles from Meert in the Vieux Lille or Merveilleux, crispy meringue with whipped cream and chocolate sprinkles, from Aux Merveilleux (again, in the Vieux Lille). Load up on spéculoos biscuits for your loved ones back home.
To Love Lille, Watch This Short Film
La Déclaration captures the inimitable spirit of this magical, charming city. Watch it and you’re sure to declare, like me, “Lille, je t’aime”
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Cover image and images courtesy: Shutterstock.com