Living in London, I’ve made several trips to Paris over the years, and every time I go I fall back in love with its iconic sights, delectable cuisine and world-class culture. But there’s no question that like many other cities in Europe, Paris is feeling the strain of overtourism, with conditions ever more crowded for locals and visitors alike. That’s why I decided on my latest jaunt to northern France to visit beautiful-yet-underrated Lille instead.

Looking over the Lille skyline, a mixture of old and modern buildings, tall townhouses and church spires.
Looking out over the Lille skyline © Meiqianbao / Shutterstock

Getting to Lille

This former industrial powerhouse is at France’s northern tip close to Belgium, and is France’s fourth biggest urban area; once a centre of the country’s textile trade, the city saw a decline in the 20th century. These days, though, Lille has never been hotter: renowned for its handsome architecture, fabulous art museums, and upscale shopping, in 2020 the city will become the World Design Capital.I hopped over on a sunny Friday morning on the Eurostar. I love a train journey, and one that takes you to another country is more exciting than your average. The journey from London to Lille is a cinch as it only takes 1½ hours (far quicker than to Paris), and you alight right in the city centre at Gare Lille-Europe (no need to fuss with a metro journey afterwards).

Writer Tom stands in front of an Olympic sized art deco swimming pool lined with sculptures; at the end of the room is a stained glass window that resembles the rising sun.
Tom at swimming-pool-turned-gallery La Piscine © Amelia Strange

Where to sightsee

Lille is blessed with sights, the number one attraction being the Palais des Beaux Arts, a fine arts museum with France’s second-biggest collection after the Louvre (and with far fewer crowds). East of central Lille is the LaM, a modern art museum and sculpture park. My favourite, though, was La Piscine in nearby Roubaix, an art deco swimming pool complex that has been stunningly converted into a repository for fine arts, textiles and fashion. I’ve never seen a more memorable arts space than this former Olympic pool, still filled with water and lined with sculptures illuminated by huge stained glass windows at either end that symbolise the rising and setting sun.

People sitting at tables outside a traditional bar in a historic building with a brick and stone facade.
Be sure to visit one of Lille's traditional estaminets © Michel Hincker / Getty Images

Where to eat

While in Lille, try an estaminet (a traditional Flemish eatery, with antique objects on the walls and plain wooden tables). They're a fascinating contrast to classic French cuisine. My favourite was La Ducasse, with a dark wood interior and a red-and-white tiled floor, where I sampled local dishes like carbonnade (braised beef slow-cooked with beer, onions, brown sugar and ginger bread), potjevleesh (jellied chicken and rabbit served cold) and Welsh (Lille’s take on Welsh rarebit; toast and ham smothered with cheese melted in beer). For something sweeter, don’t miss Meert, a lavish tearoom serving the best gaufres (waffles) in town.

Where to drink

Few places do beer better than Lille, and you’ll find the region’s brews all over town: try three-storey La Capsule for 28 craft varieties on tap and more than 100 by the bottle. Or head to rue Royale for classy haunts such as L'Illustration Café, a relaxing spot that’s a favourite among local creatives. The bars along rue Masséna and rue Solférino have a livelier, more studenty vibe.

A bedroom at the Mama Shelter Lille hotel: walls have an exposed concrete finish; the bed has white linen and a wooden headboard; there is a plastic rabbit mask over the bedside light.
Rooms at Mama Lille are functional yet fun © Mama Lille

Where to stay

It's much easier to find good-value accommodation in Lille than in Paris. I stayed at Mama Shelter Lille, one of a fun chain of hotels that prides itself on its warm, inviting atmosphere. At the Lille property even the building draws you in, resembling a huge ark on stilts, and once inside the lovely staff carried on the welcome. The decor is unashamedly eccentric, full of clashing prints and colours and individual touches like a lobby carpet with a motif of mussels, one of the city’s signature dishes. There’s a huge emphasis on fun, with table football and arcade machines dotted liberally about the place, while the sun-trap terrace and stylish, pillow-strewn lounge are relaxing spots in which to hang out. 

My room had a gorgeous view over the city centre skyline and combined comfort with playful details like plastic animal masks adorning the light fittings, and eco-friendly bathroom products emblazoned with innuendo-heavy slogans. The food at the hotel was excellent, the highlight being the Sunday brunch from noon–4pm: an enormous hot and cold buffet with everything from cured meats and cheeses to salads, pasta dishes and decadent desserts.

Of course, there are options for every budget, from hostel digs at the Auberge de Jeunesse to opulent historic properties like L'Hermitage Gantois. At most hotels, room rates drop at weekends and during French school holidays.

You might also like these 

What to do in Lille: three days in a creative city
First time Paris: top tips for your first visit to the City of Light
First-time France: where to go and what to do

Tom travelled to Lille with support from Mama Shelter Lille and Eurostar. Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.

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