Lille, France: A Great Day Trip from Brussels

Last month, after guiding a small group tour through Belgium and the Netherlands, and taking a week’s vacation to Romania with Bell, I was left with a couple free days before flying home to Boston from Brussels. I wanted to visit France and considered Paris, but wanted to explore somewhere new, closer in distance and cheaper in price. So I turned to Google and discovered I could reach Lille in just 37 minutes from Brussels via the high speed TGV train, for around €30 ($32 US) each way. Lille is the 5th biggest city in France and resembles a non-touristy, miniature version of Brussels, with beautiful baroque architecture and fantastic food. It’s also a city that’s equally divided between a beer and wine culture, due to being the biggest city in ‘French Flanders.’

Lille
What made the 37 minute train trip even more convenient was that there was no passport check between Belgium and France, as both are Schengen countries. Unfortunately, due to the terror attacks in Paris and terror threat in Brussels, which recently locked that city down for days as well, EU rules are in the process of being amended. France recently announced that they will be carrying out indefinite border controls. But while the trip may currently take a little more time, Lille is still comfortably doable via day trip from Brussels, Paris and even London. Of course, spending a night or two like I did allows you the opportunity to get more insight into the city and enjoy a couple more delicious meals.

Where to Eat in Lille:

I stayed around the corner from Rue de Gand, which is just outside the center of Lille, but a great area to stay because it’s a short walk to the center and steps from the centuries old wall that once fortified the city. Rue de Gand is lined with fantastic reasonably priced restaurants, and I chose to eat dinner there both nights, rather than dining in a touristy restaurant near the Grand Place. Lille is a great city to eat both quintessential French and Flemish dishes, with restaurants offering a range of specialities from foie gras to Flemish beef stew.

My first night, I chose a lovely restaurant on Rue de Gand called Le Domaine de Chavagnac. This was a serious duck centric restaurant, so I felt foie gras was in order. I’ve only eaten this dish a few times in my life, but it was the best one I’ve tasted, expertly prepared with sweet plums and a side of perfectly roasted potatoes and salad. The service was surprisingly unpretentious for such good food, and the house wine was also excellent. To top it off, the experience was cheaper than what I would expect to pay anywhere for similar quality, with my check totalling €20 ($22 US) for foie gras and a delicious glass of white wine. On a Sunday night it wasn’t difficult to get a table, but especially on weekends, reservations here would be recommended.

Lille, France Grand Place, food and French beer
The next night I chose a packed candlelit French Flemish restaurant called Estaminet ‘T Rijsel, which caters to beer aficionados with a few French varieties on tap, and a big selection in bottles. The restaurant offers a lot of local specialties like rabbit stew (pot’je vleesch), waterzooi, Flemish carbonnade and the vast majority of the sociable clientele were drinking beer instead of wine. The dining experience was very different from Le Domaine de Chavagnac, and I enjoyed the rustic decor, service with a smile and more casual ambiance from the previous night’s dinner. Food and drinks at both restaurants were good quality for lower prices than you would typically pay in a capital city like Brussels or Paris, with most mains in the neighbourhood of €14 ($15 US). I chose the carbonnade served with fries and while the beef sauce was a little too sweet, the fries were as good as any I’ve ever eaten. Estaminet ‘T Rijsel was packed even on a Monday night, so reservations here are recommended.

Aside from being a gastronomical delight, Lille is a pretty town just to stroll its cobblestone streets without hordes of other tourists. In a sandwich shop, a fellow customer waiting in line asked where I was from. “Have a nice time here” she said as she departed the cafe. France sometimes gets an unfair reputation for being rude and pretentious (especially by Americans) but if you only visit Paris, and don’t attempt to speak any French, you can’t expect to feel overly welcome. Lille is more laid back because it’s not the capital and some locals still view tourists as a novelty.

What to See in Lille:

The narrow and winding streets of the old quarter, Vieux-Ville, packed with shops, restaurants and bars is an area where you could easily spend hours exploring. While the Grand Place of Lille isn’t as opulent as Brussels, it’s still very beautiful and worth having at least a drink to relax and people watch. You could have a very enjoyable day just meandering around Lille, periodically eating and drinking, but there’s also a lot of worthwhile sites and museums too.

Lille, France, also a great day trip from London or Paris
Other worthwhile attractions in Lille include the Porte de Paris. Similar to the Arc de Triumph, it was built in the late 1600’s to commemorate the victories of Louis XIV. Near the Porte de Paris is the Beffroi de Lille, the town hall, and its 104 meter high belfry is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that offers a 360 degree view of the city. For museum goers, the Palais des Beaux Arts (Museum of Fine Arts) houses an impressive collection that is the largest in France outside of Paris.

Like much of Europe, Lille holds an annual outdoor Christmas market. While we haven’t visited the one in Lille, several years ago we were in Brussels during their Christmas market, which was fantastic. Wooden stalls are filled with beautiful ornaments and decorated with colorful lights. And all the delicious food and drinks like mulled wine warm your body and soul in the cold temperatures.

If you’re traveling from London to Brussels, you can schedule a stop in Lille on Eurostar as it’s on the way. From Paris, Lille is only an hour by train on the TGV. Conveniently located near three major European capitals, Lille is a city with a lot to offer and often welcomes its guests with a smile.

For more tips on things to do in Lille, check out their visitor’s page!

Have you spent time in Lille? If so, please share any great recommendations or suggestions that we’ve left out! 

15 thoughts on “Lille, France: A Great Day Trip from Brussels

  1. Wow don’t you just love that you can get to a city in another country in 37 minutes by train!? Part of why I love Europe so much. I haven’t been to Lille but it looks lovely. I like the idea of the Christmas markets… those are always so much fun!

    1. Yes! Though here in Boston it is also kind of easy to go somewhere new with so many states near by, but we miss the train part, just jumping on a train, reading a book, or staring out the window and then being there! And then the Christmas markets help to make those short winter days seem less dreary!

  2. What a charming place! I have never heard of Lille before, but I need to add it to my list! I love how easy it is to get to countries once you are in Europe.

    1. We’re so glad you’ve been inspired to add Lille to your list of places to visit, Amber! And yes, we miss living in Europe!

  3. I love exploring the smaller cities of Europe and your trip to Lille reinforces why. You get all the charm of Europe at a more laid back pace and more often cheaper prices.

  4. This is a great day-trip guide: informative, not too long, but with everything one might need to know about an unfamiliar place. Moreover, Lille seems an excellent choice for those seeking lesser crowded destinations. Thank you for a tip for our future trip to France. Happy 2016 travels!

    1. Thank you for reading, Traveling Bytes! And thank you for the compliment! I’m glad the post has sparked some interest in a cool, convenient and unfamiliar place to most people.

      Have fun planning your future trip to France and have a wonderful 2016!

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