Lille is one of the northernmost cities in France, and its wintry weather sets the perfect mood for the holidays. The Capital of Flanders is also a cultural hotpot for its proximity to Belgium — Lille has a strong identity featuring the best of both countries.
One of my favourite French movies Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis portrays stereotypes about northern France and its inhabitants. One of the characters once tells about the region: “You cry when you first arrive [here], but you also cry when you have to leave.” I spent three days in Lille’s Clarence Hotel in December to find out why.
I arrived with high expectations, and they were surpassed upon my arrival. Lille is truly magical and an exciting European city to spend the holidays in. Here’s what to see and do in such a special place on the most memorable weekend on the calendar.
A French Town with Belgian Flair
Lille has had cultural and historical significance since the Middle Ages, and its charm comes from its French roots with Belgian influence. Lille was built along the Deûle River, the current border with Belgium, and it’s closer to Brussels than Paris.
Belgium’s distinctive neo-classical architecture, developed in the late 1800s, is typical in Lille. Known in France as the Louis XVI decor or Louis Seize, this style borrows ideas from Ancient Roman buildings, but it is still very much local.
You can see this majestic architecture in the city’s gorgeous Grand Place, La Piscine Museum and the Palais des Beaux-Arts. In fact, the first thing you see when you enter the 5-star Clarence Hotel is a couple of clean-cut, Ionic columns in the lobby. Back to my story, my holidays begin at the Clarence Hotel.
The Clarence Hotel
The Clarence Hotel, in the heart of Vieux Lille, is a proper manor: the 18th-century townhouse was renovated to offer modern amenities while preserving its neo-classic origin. The walls might be old, but the furniture is progressive and fashionable. The contrast is marvellous, especially when contemplating the boutique hotel from its charming vegetable garden.
Baudelaire's poem serves as a welcome message at each door. Each room is decorated in a different way. Legend says 19th-century Charles Baudelaire’s poems inspired the building’s design.
From the hotel’s nineteen rooms, I stayed at the Clarence Suite, distinguished for its lofty feel and an unbeatable view of the church of Sainte-Catherine across the street.
Staying at the Clarence is more than a history lesson; the food is also extraordinary. Like Lille itself, the city’s local cuisine is intertwined with Belgian traditions, and it’s nicely portrayed at the hotel’s Michelin-starred restaurant. Lunch here is a must, specifically if enjoyed in the wood-panelled dining room or the cosy library.
Breakfast served at the intimate library downstairs.
If you want to experience Lille’s food without Michelin flair, you can always walk the town’s Christmas market — around ninety stalls at the Place Rihour. You’ll find it easily: look for its iconic Ferris wheel. The croziflette goes perfectly well with the mulled wine with a drop of eau de vie.
If there’s one meal you should try in Lille, it must be the Welsh. Nothing fancy, just the world’s best French fries served with baked beer-soaked bread topped with ham and a thick layer of gooey cheese. Of course, beer at these latitudes is as good as fine wine, another benefit of neighbouring Flanders, and it completes Lille’s dining adventure. I find this type of comfort food most satisfying during colder months, so after trying a few spots I can recommend Estaminet Du Welsh. This cosy Flemish place combines rickety wooden furniture and various bric-a-brac. It's a nice ambience to enjoy your meal with a few beers.
If you wish to bring something special back home from Lille, stop by Maison Méert, one of the oldest pattiseries in the world with lavish oriental interiors. The establishment welcomed high-profile personalities such as Napoleon, Winston Churchill, Marguerite Yourcenar and of course Charles de Gaulle, a Lillois himself. The place is famous for its thin waffles with vanilla cream. But I also like their marron glaces which could be a beautiful compliment for pre-Christmas dinner parties.
Just next to Meert, there is a cozy Les Vins Gourmands store. Head down to their basement to search for some great beer bottles to bring back home. I especially like their corner selling local craft beers.
On the weekend visit the Vieille Bourse, one of the most emblematic buildings in Old Lille. Let yourself be carried away by its structure, its bright colors and its reliefs, but also by the atmosphere of its market with old books and posters where you can spend your spare change.
Lille might not be the most popular destination in France, but it should — its history and architecture are certainly worth a visit, and the city’s hospitality and food will make you want to come back.