For my first backpacking trip in Europe, I focused on the typical big cities: Paris, London, Barcelona, Amsterdam, Lisbon, etc. While wanting to leave the tourist circuit behind, especially during the mid-July rush, I stumbled across the Flemish route offered by Europe’s Famous Hostels. Time to see France, Belgium and the Netherlands! First stop: Lille.
When you land in Lille after a stay in Paris, you’ll be greeted by a breath of fresh air (in every sense of the word)! It’s beautiful, but you’ll know you’re not in the Mediterranean anymore. Even at the height of summer, you will need an umbrella and a cardigan).
Lille is the fourth largest city in France and has a large student population. It’s an old town with lots of little cafes, hidden restaurants, and lifestyle shops that make you dream of a stationary life with a house or condo to decorate. It’s filled with all sorts of friendly inhabitants (including our bubbly collaborator Vanessa). And, above all, it’s super accessible for a weekend getaway (by train or bus from London, Paris or Brussels in less than an hour and a half).
Thanks to Instagram, Vanessa knew I was in her hometown and jumped at the chance to share all her secrets with me. There’s nothing better than having a Lille woman tell you the best place to taste a Welsh (THE local delicacy you have to try). She had endless tips on where to go out without breaking the bank and where to go to immerse yourself in alternative culture.
How do we get there?
From Paris, the most economical way is to take a Megabus bus from Bercy Bus Station for only €5.50 (about $8 CAD).
I regularly use the BusBud site to find my bus tickets because the site displays several bus operators (who usually have independent sites in other languages) and makes buying so much easier!
Where to stay?
It’s simple to choose your accommodations because only one hostel is available. Located in Old Lille, Gastama Hostel is THE place for happy hour. Moreover, the bar is so popular that there are more locals than backpackers during cocktail hour. To top it off, they offer their own beer on tap! The hostel sits at the end of the famous rue de la Monnaie, so it is the ideal place to distance yourself from the tourist hub and immerse yourself in the local culture.
Nomad tip #1: You absolutely have to try the burger! And if you’re still hungry, cross over to the other side of the street at La Dinette to taste one of their desserts. Seriously, I’d sell my right kidney for another brioche French toast with maple ice cream.
Nomad tip #2: If you decide to follow the Flamande Route offered by Europe’s Famous Hostel, you can get 2€ off when you book here. Don’t forget to ask for your free shooter when you arrive!
Here is how I followed Vanessa’s advice to explore Lille like a Lille resident:
1. For shopping
- La rue de la Monnaie: You can find all the big commercial brands in the centre of the city, but on rue de la Monnaie, you can find the shops of local designers. I managed to fill my backpack because I was there during the summer sales… hello 70% off!
- La Grande Braderie de Lille: This is one of the biggest and most popular events in Lille, with 2 million visitors from all over the world coming to shop at the flea markets and taste the yummy food.
- The Wazemmes market: I didn’t have the chance to go, but I was told that it is one of the biggest markets in France. For those interested, the market is open on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays in the morning (from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m.).
Nomadic tip: If you arrive on the weekend, be mindful that many establishments are closed on Sundays, asides from the morning market. Also, you’ll want to plan your outings in advance.
The vast majority of restaurants close after 2 p.m., so it’s impossible to find a place to eat lunch after that. Same thing for dinner. If you have spent too much time in Spain eating at 9:30 p.m. or 10 p.m., you will have to adjust. In Lille, it’s dead after 10 p.m.!
During the summer holidays (end of July until mid-August) several shops and restaurants are closed. Lille can therefore become a ghost town during this period.
2. For Instagram-worthy pictures:
- You can climb to the top of the town hall belfry (104 meters), which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, to get a panoramic view of Lille. The cost is €6 ($7.90 CAD). If you don’t know what a belfry is (like me), I’ll save you the trouble of Googling the term! This is the name given to a tower that holds a bell, in a church or cathedral, for example.
- La Grand Place: This is where you can pull out your magnificent selfie stick and take an epic 360-degree video to show off the beauty of the historic buildings around you!
- The Parvis de la Treille: The Basilica of Notre Dame de la Treille is interesting in itself, because it is a mix of old and new pieced together in a harmonious way. You must see the interior to understand the architectural design better. Afterwards, enjoy the sunshine and a refreshing beer in the beautiful open square before exploring the city.
- Porte de Paris: You have to get out of Old Lille a bit, but it is at Porte de Paris that the guided walking tour of Lille begins (it’s free!). For more information, you can visit their website. In the high season, visits are usually from Monday to Friday at 10 a.m. in French or 2 p.m. in English.
3. For your taste buds
- Pain au chocolat from the Pâtisserie au Lion d’Or: I recommend this classic treat as a quick snack before exploring the city.
- Waffles from Meert (located next to the Grand’Place): I wish I saved a bit of room for dessert because these are the best in Lille.
- Les Compagnons de la Grappe Restaurant: Go there to enjoy yummy food and cute gardens on the back patio.
- Ch’ti beer: You’re not a real Lille visitor if you don’t taste it!
- Le Welsh: This dish is made with toasted bread, ham, egg and cheese melted in beer. Vanessa recommends going to Café Leffe to taste the best Welsh in town! I tried Welsh for the first time at Estaminet Au Vieux de la Vieille (where you should also taste the chicken with maroilles cheese).
- The unmissable Les Merveilleux boutique: This was unfortunately closed for the summer holidays. Ask any Lille resident and they will inevitably tell you to try one of their pastries… undoubtedly a national point of pride!
- The Café Livre: This is a slightly alternative place with board games and books for rent. A blackboard displays the menu for the day, made from all fresh ingredients. It’s the perfect place to disconnect and relax.
4. For the nightlife
- The Solférino district: During the school year, this is THE place to be to party with the student crowd.
- La Pirogue: I discovered this small Caribbean-style bar by chance while walking the streets of Lille (or rather trying to digest one of their typical rich dishes). You have to try a tropical punch made with house rum. My favourite cocktail was called The Planter!
- Saint-Sauveur station: Be on the lookout for free DJ parties and exhibitions here. The “St-Sau” is a somewhat underground place, but something cool is always happening! Visit their Facebook page, so you won’t miss out on any shows.
Nomadic tip: Lille is like Quebec in the sense that patio season begins when the sun comes out! So, take a hint from the locals and bring a jacket, so you can enjoy a good beer while people-watching (my favourite activity). If it gets too cold, most restaurants have blankets to keep you warm.
5. To find greenspace (or catch Pokemons):
- La Citadelle: Rent a bike for the day and set off to explore the park.
- The Canal: Take a walk to enjoy the good weather and the greenery. In the evening, you can hop aboard the Péniche boat for concerts of all kinds.
- The free zoo: You can see zebras, monkeys and more!
If you have more time, you can go to Roubaix (less than 30 minutes from Lille) to visit La Piscine de Roubaix, the swimming pool museum.