Today, the city is closest to be called art heartland. This is due to the rich collections of art presented in the local museums, as well as the respect for the unique architectural heritage of the Flemish capital, full of contrasts between the past and the present.
It is best to start your tour of the city from the old town, i.e. Vieux-Lille, full of narrow, cobbled streets with renovated tenement houses from the 17th and 18th centuries. They feature exclusive boutiques, charming cafés and candy stores. The architectural diversity of this lively district reflects the city’s turbulent history. Conquered by France, Burgundy, Austria and Spain, it was destroyed many times, but each time it rose, becoming more architecturally beautiful. Old Lille’s heart beats in today’s General de Gaulle Square. In the Middle Ages, there was a market there. Today, in its centre, there is the Column of the Goddess with a statue commemorating the heroism of the city’s inhabitants during the Austrian siege in 1792. Its commercial character is shown in the Old Stock Exchange (Vieille Bourse), built in the mid-17th century. Today, the impressive Flemish Mannerist building with an inner courtyard houses cafés, bouquinistes stands and florists.
The oldest preserved tenement houses, dating back to the 16th century, can be seen on rue de la Barre, going towards the river Deûle and the citadel. Built on the plan of a five-pointed star, the 17th-century fortress is used by the military, with some parts being open to the public. The patron saint of Lille’s main square, Charles de Gaulle, was born in a house on rue Princesse. Today there is a museum devoted to him. Near the Old Stock Exchange, there is a neoclassical building of the Opera. Leaving the Theatre Square, rue Pierre Mauroy leads directly to the town hall built in the years 1924-1925 in the regional (Flemish) Art Deco style. Next to it, at the height of 104 meters, there is a characteristic belfry, from which there is an impressive view of the city. Nearby, at the site of one of the city’s former gates, you can see the City Gates of Paris (Porte de Paris). They have the form of a triumphal arch and austere lines intertwined with baroque elements. It is worth taking a look at the Art Nouveau, asymmetrical façade of the Maison Coillot. From here, it is just a few steps to the Palais des Beaux-Arts.
City of Art
The art collections in the local museums place Lille in second place in the country, after the Louvre in Paris. The Palais des Beaux-Arts on Republic Square, right in the city centre, has a collection ranging from prehistoric to contemporary art. Ancient vases and statues, medieval devotional items, Renaissance prints, but above all an extremely rich collection of paintings and sculptures are gathered in the building in the belle époque style, built at the end of the 19th century. The initiator of the museum at the beginning of that century was Napoleon Bonaparte himself. You can admire there the works of such greatest artists as Donatello, Rubens, van Dyck, Courbet, Delacroix, Manet, Monet, van Gogh and Picasso. There are several surprising thematic tours available for visitors – the “Handsome” route leads through male images from different eras (oh, those changing canons of beauty!), and “To the table!” – concerning culinary topics willingly undertaken in art. In the metropolis of Roubaix (10 kilometres from the centre of Lille), in the extraordinary space of a former swimming pool, there operates the La Piscine Museum of Art and Industry. It specializes in contemporary and applied art, presenting, inter alia, works by Rodin, Claudel and Łempicka.
From a factory to cultural space
In the 1980s, local coal mines and smelter plants went bankrupt. The industrial past has left its traces in the form of industrial buildings. The people of Lille were able to take advantage of it. In 2004, on the occasion of receiving the honourable title of the European Capital of Culture, the Fabriques Culturelles project was created. These are institutions, located in individual districts, that offer residents and visitors a place for meetings, performances, concerts, exhibitions and any other artistic activities. For example, Folie Moulins is housed in a former brewery from the 19th century, while Folie Wazemmes is located in an old spinning mill. In this way, factories are teeming with life again.
At the flea market
Every year, on the first weekend in September, the streets of Lille turn into the largest and most famous flea market in Europe. Bargain hunters roam among the around hundred kilometres of stalls, where traders offer vintage gems: furniture, decorations, games, toys, books and comics. In order not to get lost in the maze of this unusual market and make it easier for yourself to find specific sellers, it is worth getting a map prepared by the organizers with a division into sectors. The event is accompanied by attractions, including those for families with children, but also some night fun for older participants. Traditionally, in breaks between shopping, mussels and chips are eaten.
Street art MEL*
The modern, youthful style of the metropolis is emphasized by colourful murals that you pass by at every turn. Works that are diverse in terms of technology can be found on walls, doors and gates of buildings, or even… shutters. For street art lovers, there has been created an interactive map, (https://www.lillemetropole.fr/actualites/street-art-la-carte-des-parcours-decouverte-dans-la-metropole), which allows you to get to know about 600 works on 20 pedestrian routes. Each painting is provided with information about the artists and a link to their profile on Instagram or Facebook.
*MEL is a popular abbreviation of the words “Métropole Européenne de Lille” used by the inhabitants of the city.
Lille3000 is held in the city every few years. It is an art festival unlike any other in the world! Its history began in 2004, when the city was chosen as the European Capital of Culture. Shows were prepared, art galleries and museums were opened, and the appearance of the streets changed. Although the year of culture came to an end, the inhabitants of Lille decided to maintain this unique cultural atmosphere until the year 3000. During the festival, the city, already famous for organizing extraordinary artistic and cultural events, turns into a great artistic event attended by almost all residents. For many tourists, the festival is the reason why Lille is worth visiting. The magnificent opening parade, amazing installations and art exhibitions attract people from all over the world.