Looking for a new angle on the well-trodden paths of France? Then travel to its borders. These three melting-pot cities showcase the best of France while giving a tantalising glimpse into the rest of Europe - Lille skims the Belgian border in the north; to the east, Strasbourg grazes Germany; and Perpignan lies close to the southern border with Spain. Each city shines a fresh light on Gallic culture with unexpected flavours and simmering nightlife.
Lille: a party city with all you can eat
'Lille - Palais des Beaux Arts - 24-07-2008 - 11h47' by Panoramas. Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs
Its strong northern accents and cool weather are the target of plenty of good-natured ribbing from the rest of France, but Lille has the last laugh. With chocolate-box-pretty town squares, hearty Flemish-inspired cuisine and some truly original attractions, Lille is an overlooked gem - and the perfect size for a city break.
Lille’s Palais des Beaux-Arts boasts a world-class art collection, including pieces by Rubens, Goya and Delacroix. But it’s La Piscine in Roubaix (20 minutes by métro from the centre) that steals the show. As the name suggests, this magical art gallery is housed within an old art deco swimming pool. Marble sculptures are reflected in the water, which shimmers from the reflections cast by a huge stained-glass window in the shape of a setting sun.
After mingling with the cultured crowd, fuel up with a buckwheat pancake at Le Galichon (24 rue Royale). This understated but trendy eaterie will serve you galettes stuffed with smoked salmon, brie or gut-busting tartiflette (potatoes, cream, bacon and Reblochon cheese). Burn it off by pounding the cobblestoned streets of Vieux-Lille (the old town), perhaps with a sinful stop-off at macaroon-maker Patrick Hermand (rue Basse). These almond biscuit treats come in a rainbow of flavours from salt caramel to a very jammy raspberry.
Lille springs to life at night: taverns and brasseries only start to fill from around 11pm, when tourists and locals share stories in wooden-walled drinking holes off the Grand Place and throughout Vieux-Lille. Try Le Bar Parallèle (41 rue Lepelletier) for knockout cocktails, creaking stairs and blatant disregard for the ‘no dancing’ sign. Finish your night with an onion soup or some mayonnaise-drenched frites in a 24-hour brasserie like La Chicorée (15 Place Rihour).
Only 1.5 hours from London by Eurostar, this friendly city is a popular weekend break for Brits, and it’s a great location for onward travel to the Somme battlefields, the gothic spires of Amiens or chocolate shopping in Belgium. That is, if you have any energy left after a fast-paced lillois weekend.
Strasbourg: canalside walks at Europe’s heart
'petite france.' by boulanger.IE. Creative Commons Attribution
Strasbourg mixes cut-and-thrust modernity with a rustic, village feel. As the seat of European Parliament, hotels can be packed out with politicians. But when the weekends come, canalside strolls reveal a gentler pace to the city. You’ll discover an inspiring skyline, a thriving art scene and stately gardens bedecked in flowers.
Locals get around via trams and the Vélhop biking rental system, but your own two feet are all you need for Strasbourg’s main sights. Start at the looming rust-hued Cathédrale de Notre Dame in the middle of Strasbourg’s Grand Île. After admiring this gothic masterpiece, make your way to the glassy canals of Petite France to see the best of Strasbourg’s half-timbered buildings and zebra-striped house fronts. To experience the city’s cutting-edge, head towards the Musée d’Art Moderne et Contemporain. Its brisk metallic exterior houses plenty of artistic greats, like Monet, Picasso and Magritte.
Sightseeing Strasbourg works up quite a thirst, and the proximity to Germany means the local winstubs (taverns) serve every shade of beer you can imagine. There’s much to savour for vinophiles too: wines from the Alsace region are famed for their dry, complex character. But make sure you line your stomach with some dense Alsatian cuisine, perhaps a sticky fondue at La Cloche a Fromage (27 rue des Tonneliers).
Strasbourg is equally fine in summer and winter: when it’s warm, race a rowing boat across the water in Parc de l’Orangerie and wander around the free zoo. Come winter, Strasbourg explodes in a cinnamony cloud of seasonal cheer, as Christmas markets sprout around the cathedral. Think sparkling lights, spicy biscuits and lashings of super-strength mulled wine.
And you’re only a couple of hours by train from your next adventure: head east into Stuttgart, Germany, or speed south into Switzerland’s festival capital, Basel.
Perpignan: Catalan fortresses and festival flair
'Perpignan, South of France' by londoncyclist. Creative Commons Attribution
Finish your border crawl in the beautiful south. Colourful Perpignan is nestled by the Pyrénées mountains and is a perfect hub for day trips to the coast. And at a mere three hours by train from Barcelona, it’s a great stopping point if you’re travelling between Spain and France.
But give the city itself some time to shine. Scarlet and gold flags fly high across the turrets of Le Castillet, a 14th-century gate and ex-prison. Step inside to ruminate on Perpignan’s Catalan heritage and be uplifted by superior views of the city.
Drench yourself in more history with a walk to the Palais des Rois de Majorque. This blush-tinted 13th-century fortress dates to when Perpignan was the capital of the Kingdom of Majorca.
People-watching is the perfect way to unwind in Perpignan – pick a waterside eatery and chow down on Spanish-influenced dishes and the freshest fish for miles. Go upmarket with a fancy fish supper at Perpignan institution La Galinette (23 rue Jean-Payra).
Better yet, time your visit for July to experience ‘les jeudis de Perpignan’: during this festival, the streets come to life every Thursday night with dancers, jugglers, pyrotechnic theatrics and convivial drinking in the warm summer air. Expect to finish the nights dazzled, sozzled, covered in glitter and swearing to come back next year.
Anita Isalska is a writer and editor based in Lonely Planet's London office. Follow her on Twitter @lunarsynthesis.
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