Lille is a city in the northernmost region of France, close to the border with Belgium. Its historical center (Vieux Lille), Flemish style architecture, UNESCO-listed belfry tower with scenic views and centuries old Citadel of Lille are just a few reasons why you should visit this city.
We have visited Lille as part of our weekend road trip to Ghent, Lille and Baarle-Nassau, and in this post you will find our suggestions on what to see in Lille in one day.
Lille is easily reachable by public transport: 1 hour by train from Paris, 1-1.5 hours from Belgian Ghent and Brussels, and 1.5 hours from Calais (if you travel from the UK via ferry or through the Eurotunnel). We have decided to go by car (from Utrecht, Netherlands) simply because it was right after the Covid-19 related travel restrictions were lifted within the EU and we wanted to avoid public transport.
Due to the Covid-19 we didn’t travel anywhere for 4 months straight (yeah, I can not believe it too!) and were really eager to go somewhere. As soon as we got the opportunity we looked at the map, found the city we haven’t visited before – Lille – and decided to go there by car on a weekend. On our way there we also made a stop at Ghent, about which you can read in our One day trip to Ghent post.
We found that there are many things to see in Lille and it’s absolutely worth visiting. Here is our list of must sees in Lille, France.
Le Vieux Lille (The old Lille)
Let’s start with the very heart of Lille – its old town. Vieux Lille is a historical center of the city with many beautiful buildings dating back to the 17th century, narrow cobbled streets and brick and stone houses with well preserved and restored facades.
We parked our car next to the hotel we stayed in and simply explored Lille’s old town by foot, walking around old streets lined with cafes and restaurants, admiring architecture and simply enjoying the atmosphere of the city.
Place Charles de Gaulle
Place Charles de Gaulle is a grand central square (formerly known as the Grand Place) of Lille.
There are few historical buildings around the square, and in the center is Colonne de la Déesse (or Column of the Goddess) surrounded by a water fountain.
Perhaps the most eye-catching historical building at the place is the 17th century stock exchange house – La Vieille Bourse. Walk around the building to see all the nice ornaments and details. Go inside to see its inner yard, which hosts a book market on some days of the week.
Place Charles de Gaulle is nicely lit in the evening, and if you’re staying in the city for the night make sure to walk around the old town after dark.
Tip: Place Charles de Gaulle is always busy with people. If you want to take some pictures with less people in the frame or simply enjoy the square with less crowds, try going there on Sunday morning – shops and cafes won’t open until later in the day and the place will be much quieter than usual.
Place du Théâtre
Right behind the Place Charles de Gaulle and the old stock exchange building you will find Place du Théâtre – another square in the old city surrounded by historical buildings.
The square took its name from the old theater which was unfortunately destroyed in a fire in 1903. As a replacement for the theater a new Opera House was built on the square.
Palais des Beaux Arts
If you are interested in art then you would want to visit Palais des Beaux Arts at the Place de la République (Republic Square). It’s one of the largest art museums in France.
Even if you are not planning to visit the museum, the building itself is quite beautiful. Walk around the Republic Square with its monument, fountain and nice views to the Palais des Beaux Arts at one side and the building of Préfecture de Lille on the other side of the square.
Beffroi de Lille (Belfry of Lille) and Lille City Hall
A UNESCO World Heritage Bell Tower – Beffroi de Lille – is one of the tallest belfries in Europe. It is attached to Lille City Hall and together they form a complex, which is slightly off the city central area but still within easy walking distance from it.
You can buy a ticket (book it online) to get to the top of the tower to enjoy scenic views over the city.
Unfortunately it was closed during our visit, so we just looked at it from the outside and passed to the next landmark – Porte de Paris.
Porte de Paris
Porte de Paris is a beautiful 17th century arch monument standing at the Place Simon Vollant. The square it’s standing at is named after the architect of one of the arch’s facades. That’s right – the facades of the arch were created by two different architects (second one being Louis-Marie Cordonnier) and moreover, centuries apart – in the 17th and 19th centuries.
If you look at the arch at its side you will notice that one of the facades is higher than another.
Tip: If you are travelling with kids and need a break from walking around the city then just a little further from the Porte de Paris arch is a small city park with a playground for children – Parc Jean-Baptiste Lebas.
Porte de Roubaix and Porte de Gand
Two other city gates (des Portes) are far less impressive than Porte de Paris, but I will mention them nevertheless so you can decide whether to see them or not.
Porte de Roubaix and Porte de Gand are two historical monuments 10 minutes walk apart, both were city gates back in the days. Unfortunately, the prevailing impression and memory I’ve got from visiting the Porte de Roubaix gate is that it smells terribly of pee everywhere near and inside the arch 🙁
Notre-Dame-de-la-Treille Cathedral (Basilica of Notre Dame de la Treille)
Basilica of Notre Dame de la Treille or simply the Lille Cathedral is a national monument (and a working Roman Catholic church), which construction started in 1854 and has been fully completed only in 1999.
The square in front of the Lille Cathedral is busy with outdoor cafes during warm weather. If you walk around the cathedral, you can also spot nice and colorful Flemish style houses (stick to each other with small yards in front of them):
Place aux Oignons and Ilôt Comtesse
Explore the narrow streets near the Lille Cathedral and walk to the Place aux Oignons – a square surrounded by restored and rebuilt houses from the 17th-18th centuries. It’s now a pedestrian only area lined with cafes and restaurants.
Lille city doesn’t have a shortage of nice public squares 🙂 One more square I’d suggest to visit when walking in the city is Ilôt Comtesse. It has a nice green space surrounded by historical buildings.
Saint Maurice Catholic Church
Another beautiful architectural monument and church to visit in Lille is Saint Maurice Catholic Church. Its construction was spanned over centuries too – from the end of the 14th century and up to the end of the 19th century.
Built in a Gothic style with lots of stained glass windows inside, it’s definitely worth a visit.
Citadel Park, the Citadel and Pont Napoléon
Last but not least the point of interest in Lille I’d like to mention is Citadel park with its big green spaces, playgrounds, a zoo and the Citadel – the working military base.
The Citadel of Lille is a pentagon-shaped 17th century fortress designed by the famous French Field Marshal Vauban. Nowadays the citadel hosts Headquarters Rapid Reaction Corps-France and hence it is closed to the public.
On the east border of the park is a lovely Pont Napoléon bridge. Interesting fact about the bridge is that it was destroyed twice by German army: first time during World War I in 1918 (and rebuilt later in 1920) and second time – during World War II in 1944.
Pont Napoléon was finally rebuilt in 2014 and is now a nice entrance to the Citadel city park.
How many days to spend in Lille?
We have spent a little less than a day in Lille. Arriving at noon, spent some time in Citadel park, then after a nice lunch in a not too busy brasserie we walked in the Vieux Lille and in the evening watched the city center lit by street lights and the next morning we spent some more time sightseeing.
Unless you are planning to visit museums or other attractions (like Zoo) or do some shopping, one day should be enough to see the main sights of Lille.
Is Lille worth visiting?
Absolutely! A city with many historical landmarks, a large art museum, beautiful old town and an architecture with a mix of Flemish and French influences – Lille is a must visit city in France.
After Lille, on our way home to Utrecht, we visited quite unique towns of Baarle-Nassau and Baarle-Hertog. But I will write about them in the next post.