Lille - 2020 World Design Capital - has designs on boosting tourism

With Christmas in full swing, why not check out a Yuletide market outside of Belgium for a change?

Lille, just across the border, is decked out in lights and colour and, at this time of year, the whole town is covered in a huge crown of garlands.

On Place Rihour, centrepiece of the festivities, 90 wooden chalets teem with gift ideas, nativity figurines, Christmas decorations and festive food. You can find regional specialities here and also find arts and crafts from Russia, Canada and Poland.

The market runs until 29 December and is open daily, from Monday to Thursday from 11am to 8pm; on Friday and Saturday from 10am to 10pm and on Sunday from 10am to 8pm.

While you are in Lille a great way to get the most from this most “Belgian” of French cities is to take a bus tour. It takes just over an hour and whisks you around the main sights of this, the 10th biggest city in France.

The tour takes you through part of the old town, the most picturesque district of the city which extends north from the Grand Place and covers nearly two square kilometres. It includes two different areas, each with distinctive architecture: the historic Flemish old town and the royal district.

The town hall belfry, another sight on the tour, has been a UNESCO World Heritage monument since 2005. At 104 metres, it is the highest belfry in the region. Designed to be a true “Flanders skyscraper”, it is both a symbol of communal freedom and a landmark for the entire area.

Even if museums are not your thing there are a few, time permitting, that you should check out.Located in the heart of Vieux Lille (old town), the Hospice Comtesse museum is housed in the hospital founded in 1237 by Countess Jeanne de Flandre and which remained in service until 1939.

Situated in the former university district, the Museum of Natural History on Rue De Bruxelles offers a journey through time and across the continents.  Also worth a look are the Museum La Piscine, Museum of Fine Arts and Notre Dame cathedral.

Another stop on the bus tour is where France’s great war leader Charles de Gaulle was born in Lille on November 22, 1890, in the house of his maternal grandparents at 9 Rue Princesse. He was baptised on the same day in the nearby Saint André church. Listed as a Historic Monument, the house was bought in 1967 by a group of friends of the General. Now a museum, it recreates the atmosphere of a typical late 19th-century home of the northern French industrial middle class.

There are city bus tour departures at 11:30am, 2pm and 3:30pm.

Purchasing a City Pass is also very useful as it gives free, unlimited access to public transport (metro, tramway, bus) and contains lots of special offers on shopping, restaurants and leisure activities.

Ideal for visiting more and paying less, the city pass is valid for 24, 48 or 72 hours and gives free access to 27 museums and tourist attractions in Lille Metropole including the Lille Museum of Fine Arts, the Hospice Comtesse Museum, de Gaulle’s birthplace and museum, La Piscine museum in Roubaix and the Villa Cavrois in Croix.

The pass is on sale at the Lille Tourism & Convention Bureau and certain hotels. A 24-hour City Pass is €25; the 48-hour one is €35 while the 72-hour pass costs €45.

It also gives access to the LaM museum in Villeneuve d’Ascq,  a few kilometres out of the city centre, which is where you will find a definite “must see” attraction in this area – Koezio Lille.

Headquartered in Lille, this centre was the first Koezio to open (there are now also two in Paris, one in Brussels and one in Lyon) and its participants are known as “agents”.

For those unfamiliar with it, Koezio (it is pronounced as Ko-wa-ze-o) is a place quite unlike any other you have visited. It offers “training as a special agent” in, at Lille, a huge converted 6,000 square metre space.

For up to two hours, your endurance, intelligence, courage and team spirit are challenged to complete the “journey” through what are called “districts.”

The latest mission, called “Out of Control”, including an “escape room-style” test, is also proving a big hit with Koezio’s growing army of “agents.” The invented word Koezio is derived from cohesion - within a group. Koezio is accessible for both young and old and from 2 players upwards.For safety reasons you must be 1 metre 30cm in height.

Whether it’s a family outing or company team building this place is always absolutely fantastic fun and will really test your problem-solving abilities.

Regional food is also to be found in abundance in Lille, not least at the “estaminets”, small Flemish restaurants with a rustic décor and a convivial atmosphere. Local favourites will be very familiar to Belgians such as “carbonnade”, “waterzoï” and “potjevleesch”, usually washed down with a traditional, locally-brewed beer.

It’s difficult to choose from amongst the 900 restaurants and cafes in the city (600 of which have terraces) but L’Estaminet Gantois, on Rue Pierre Mauroy, is a very good spot.

Located beneath the red and gold vaults of a historic 15th century hospice, now converted into a luxury hotel, the restaurant combines a popular setting with residents and non-residents of the hotel with a peaceful, relaxing atmosphere.

Under the long time tutelage of its Paris-born chef Steven Gitlemen, it serves brasserie-type food and one or two surprises, too, such as the lovely Welsh Rarebit.

It prides itself on offering only very tasty and wholesome homemade dishes and the pricing is very reasonable too. Next door is its gastronomic neighbour, Restaurant de l’Hermitage which offers modern, creative cuisine, again with fresh products, and a few surprising touches thrown in. 

Don’t forget to have a quick look round the ground floor of the adjacent building, a hotel since 2003, which features a chapel built in 1666.

Lille itself was Flemish, Burgundian and then Spanish before it became French. Boasting a spectacular heritage, the city was initially the possession of the powerful Counts of Flanders and there are reminders of its Belgian connections everywhere. In fact,its 1.8m inhabitants in the Franco-Belgian Eurometropolis include the Belgian areas of Kortrijk, Tournai and Ypres.

In 2004, Lille was the European Capital of Culture and attracted 9 million people to 2,000 events. Today, lille3000 is taking up the torch and the city is now a leading light in this field.

Not being a city to rest on its laurels, though, it is now gearing up for possibly its biggest event since 2004 having successfully bid to be the World Design Capital in 2020.

This is a highly significant landmark for the city and, once again, seems likely to put Lille firmly in the international spotlight.

From Brussels the area is very accessible via the A27 / E42 (110 km) although, if driving by car, it is recommend that you park outside the city and take the metro or the Citadine shuttle bus.

Lille, with sights aplenty and good food, makes for a fine city to explore at Christmas - or any other time of the year come to that,

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Martin Banks

Martin Banks

Martin Banks is a highly qualified journalist with many years experience of working within the EU institutions. He is an occasional, and highly valued, contributor to EU today, writing on a wide variety of issues.

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