Palais des Beaux Arts
The Palais des Beaux Arts lives up to its name, it really is a grand palace and one of the largest museums in France. It has the second biggest collection of fine arts outside of Paris with exhibits from antiquity to contemporary, including all the greats from Rubens, Goya and Monet to Van Gogh, Picasso and Chagall. Head to the basement to discover a unique collection of ancient relief maps, 14 17th century exact replica miniature models of towns such as Ypres in Belgium (it was used as a blueprint for rebuilding Ypres after WWII) and Lille. They were once used by Louis XIV and his famous martial engineer Vauban to plan military tactics. There are regular, world class temporary exhibitions, and innovative touch screens (including gigapixel) help visitors to explore the artworks.
Saint Sauveur Gare
One of the things I love about Lille is the way abandoned but spectacular buildings are converted into cultural venues. Gare Saint Sauveur, a former freight station built in 1861, is now an inspirational space where regular events, art exhibitions and performances are hosted. It houses a cinema, bar and restaurant, gardens and a summer pop up bar. The huge warehouses are perfect for showcasing art and I loved how the railway tracks were still in situ, a reminder of the past fixed in the present. It’s also one of the main Lille3000 venues, the legendary tri-annual, 9-month long art festival which takes place in the streets and public buildings of Lille city and surrounding districts.
Musée de l’Hospice Comtesse
The Hospice Comtesse Museum is steeped in history. It was founded in 1236 by Jeanne, Countess of Flanders to care for the poor and sick, there’s a wonderful painting in the baroque chapel of Jeanne and her sister Marguerite giving money to the hospice’s nuns. The oldest part of the building dates to the 1400’s and includes magnificently furnished rooms depicting Flemish life from the 15th to the 17th centuries. My favourites were an enchanting 17th century kitchen with gorgeous blue and white Delft-like tiles and a linen room with a perfectly preserved 17th century press. There’s a fascinating collection of paintings and antiques and regular exhibitions dedicated to the history of Lille. It’s a charming museum with an authentic atmosphere – a must-see.
Street art sensations in Roubaix
It’s not just Lille city that boasts an extraordinary creative presence, there’s plenty of culture to be found in the suburbs too. Take Roubaix, a short tram or metro ride from the centre. Already famous for La Piscine, an art-deco swimming pool transformed into a museum, now Roubaix has achieved street art superstar status with an annual urban art festival (#XU), fabulous murals and two amazing studios dedicated to urban culture. Atelier RemyCo has 15 artists in residence including some well known names (Mr. Voul and Freaks the Fab). Meanwhile Atelier Jouret hosts 40 artists: painters, sculptors, fashion designers and more. On the first Sunday of each month, you can visit the workshops, meet the artists and buy something unique from these hotshots of urban art.
Where to eat Le Bistrot de Saint So
Bistrot de Saint So is part of the Gare Saint-Sauveur complex and provides a great way to mix art and food. So when you’ve finished feasting on the art in the former station, head to the very chic restaurant and enjoy some seriously good dishes. This place is super popular with the locals for lunch (Wednesday – Sunday) so make sure you book in advance on their Facebook page and enjoy dining on the fabulous large terrace watched over by a giant baby with a tail, or in the chic interior. I’m not sure the food makes your “hair sparkle” as they claim (with a big smile) but with fantastically tasty salads and a seasonal menu, I think they might just be right! It’s also open Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights for a trendy night of music with DJs and live performances, plus funky cocktails.
Restaurant Barbue d’Anvers
In a 16th century building hidden away at the end of a tiny cobbled courtyard, the Barbue d’Anvers is as much as institution for the locals as the lucky visitors who find it. It’s an estaminet – the Flemish word for a tavern, an absolute must-visit place for foodies wanting a taste of authentic Lille. Try some of the finest local dishes, carbonnade (beef stew made with beer), Maroilles (a very stinky but totally delicious cheese) croquettes and lush French onion stew. Whatever you do, leave room for dessert, the crème brûlée is heavenly and spicy Speculoos ice cream (a Flemish speciality) makes your eyes widen with happiness! I loved the vintage décor, it’s cosy, warm, quaint and scrumptious.
Meert at La Piscine, Roubaix
Meert is famous for its jewel-like pastries and the most moreish waffles ever made. They’ve been making sweet things since 1761 and their famous shop in Lille is like stepping back in time. They also have a beautiful art deco tearoom and restaurant with a gorgeous terrace garden (perfect for sunny day lunches) at La Piscine museum in Roubaix. I loved how the menu reflects the world class exhibitions which are held at the museum, it really adds a little je ne sais quoi to your visit. The chef works with curators to design unique menus, with exhibition-theme influenced dishes (and there’s also a seasonal, classic French menu). Leave room for one of those famous desserts and waffles – you’ll be in good company, they were created for Belgian King Leopold 1!
Where to stay Grand Hotel Bellevue
The windows of the 4-star Grand Hotel Bellevue offer stunning views over the grand central square and the beating heart of Lille, the Place du Général-de-Gaulle. It’s lined with magnificent ancient buildings embellished with Flemish facades, now transformed into lively bars and shops. It’s not often you can open your curtains and look into the eyes of a goddess but from my room that’s exactly what happened as the famous statue directly faces the hotel. The Bellevue has been welcoming guests for centuries, a young Mozart stayed here in 1765 when touring Europe, and he might well recognise some of the original features but not all. It underwent a major renovation in 2018 with luxury room and bathroom upgrades – I slept like a baby and didn’t want to leave!