We had never heard of Lille when a homeowner shared how much he loved the seemingly underrated French city. He went on about the architecture, the rich culture, and excellent restaurants.
Home to a UNESCO World Heritage site, easily accessible Lille is located in the heart of a triangle that connects London, Paris, and Brussels. Surrounded by some of Europe’s most iconic cities, we were surprised we hadn’t heard much about Lille. We instantly made it a priority to visit. Having done so, I am happy to say everything the homeowner had to say was true. Now we’re raving fans too!
Here’s a list of the best things to see and do on a quick visit to lovely Lille.
Climb to the highest point in the city and enjoy the incredible view
The best view of the city is from the Lille Town Hall Belfry. The belfry in Lille is part of a network throughout Belgium and Northern France that was assigned Unesco World heritage status. Today, like long ago, it remains a stunning symbol of progress.
It stands 304 meters tall. The best experience is taking the stairs to the top to enjoy incredible 360-degree views of Lille. The audio guide makes the climb fun and educational. We learned a bit of history about the belfry and it’s giants (yes, it has two giants), and other important monuments you can spy from excellent vantage points.
Legend has it that Lille was founded by two giants, Lyderic and Phinaert in the year 620. There are two stone likenesses of them carved into a pillar at the foot of the belfry. The audio guide explains their exciting story.
The Porte de Paris (Door to Paris), a monument resembling the famous Arc de Triumph in the capital, can be appreciated on the climb to the top of the belfry. It was once part of the walls surrounding Lille. The arch was a door to the city and given it’s proximity to the belfry you can imagine how effective a bell tower could be as a lookout for would be invaders.
The belfry in Lille was built much later (1932) then the Porte de Paris (1685). It did not serve as the lookout when the walls still surrounded Lille. The original town hall was destroyed in the First World War. The one that stands today was a rebuild to proclaim Lille’s status as a city after the war.
Visit a stunningly unique museum
Lille has excellent museums but there was one, just outside of the city, we knew we had to see. The Roubaix La Piscine Museum of Art and Industry is a short train ride from Lille in Roubaix. The museum is in a swimming pool dating back to 1835. The unique setting complements the stunning art and sculpture that fill the space.
Highlights include the art associated with textiles. Lille, historically, was the center of the textile industry in France. Important artistic textile collections are displayed in the museum cleverly placed in what were once change rooms for the pool. The atmosphere in Roubaix La Piscine Museum is a work of art in itself!
Marvel at the wonders at the Natural History Museum
Musée d’Histoire Naturelle de Lille (Lille Natural History Museum) is a must-see if you’re visiting Lille with kids. Small in comparison to the Natural History Museum in London but chalk full of wonderous surprises! A great place to spend a couple of hours for families. The zoology collections contain over 110000 interesting specimens. Highlights for us were the exotic and regional birds (15000 of them) and the insects and arachnids (100000). Some of the bugs and spiders were alive in exhibits!
Learn about Lille’s exciting history
Lille has an exciting and tumultuous history. And there is no better way to learn about the many highlights than taking a walking tour of Lille old town. We learned about the eclectic mix of architectural styles in Grand Place, including details we’d never have seen without taking the tour. The English speaking guided tour on Saturday mornings lasts two hours exploring the highlights in old town. If you can, take the tour at the beginning of your trip. Doing so will help you get oriented in the city and teach you how to recognize cool architectural nuances during your trip.
Escape to the country in the city
The Citadel, a massive star-shaped fortification built back in the 1600’s now serves as the headquarters NATO Rapid Reaction Corps in France. Around the fortress walls is central Lille’s biggest urban park. There is lots of wide-open green space, a kid’s park, amusement park, concessions, and a free zoo. We had a little picnic at one of the tables near the concession and enjoyed the zoo after our guided walking tour.
The zoo Lille has around 350 animals and visiting was really fun. There is a good mix of birds, animals, and reptiles. The monkeys were definitely a highlight. They have huge climbing structures to play on and seemed to love the attention from the crowds watching. The Citadel is a great place for kids to have fun and burn off some energy.
Money Saving Tips
Overall we found Lille very affordable for a family vacation.
There were key things we did to save money on our quick trip to Lille:
- Choosing accommodation close to the center saved us money. We opted for a whole place Airbnb but prices for three-star hotels average less than $90 U.S.D. a night. Staying near the center we were able to walk to everything we wanted to see and do and access the metro easily for attractions further afield.
- We used 48 hour City Passes. This helped us obtain free metro rides, free entry to the museums we visited, free admission for the city tour, and discounts on restaurants and admission to the Belfry. Visiting the Lille Tourism office to pick up the passes, we were able to get recommendations and plan our trip right then and there. Having expert opinions to draw from saved us time and money making or trip planning quick and cheap.
- When we ate out we opted for lunch instead of dinner. Lunch prices are always cheaper. With the 48 Hour City Passes, we received discounts at restaurants as well, so lunch was even more affordable.
Lille is a great place for a family trip. There are lots of choices for kid friendly restaurants and attractions. If you’re visiting Paris, Lille is only an hour away by train. You could easily add it as a day trip to your travel itinerary.
Have you had the pleasure of visiting Lille? Please feel free to share your favorite things to see and do in the city in comments below.