Lille and its neighbour Roubaix have been reinvented as cultural hubs. Curator Didier Fusillier and local artist Fanny Bouyagui pick their highlights
Smack in the middle of Lille’s main square, La Vieille Bourse is its former stock exchange, probably the most beautiful building in the city, dating from 1652. Walk into the open courtyard to discover book stalls, chess players, street musicians and, on summer Sunday evenings, tango dancing. There are eight permanent bouquinistes, booksellers who since 1982 display thousands of rare tomes, cinema posters, prints and maps, plus bandes déssinées, comics from vintage English-language Marvel and DC to Tintin and Mickey Mouse. We may be in the age of Kindle but in Lille, print culture is alive and well. Afterwards, enjoy a chocolat chaud and signature gaufre pastry at Meert’s 17th-century tearoom and pâtisserie.
Open Friday and Saturday nights only, Magazine Club is the prime after-hours rendezvous in Lille. It resembles a concrete bunker, but only houses 800 people, so when it is packed and dancing, it feels very intimate. Music is house and techno, recreating the vibe of 1980s Belgian electro clubs. DJs are mostly French, with guest exceptions like Detroit’s Jeff Mills and Terry Francis from London. Regulars are already queueing when doors open at midnight, and the place gets going seriously after 2am, shutting around 6.30am. Prices are reasonable: entry €10-15, drinks from €4.
Go to market
For a slice of local life, try the Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday morning market in the old industrial neighbourhood of Wazemmes. We say here that this is the land of 100 nationalities, from Portuguese and Italians who worked in mines and textile factories, to present-day migrants from Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, Albania and Moldavia, Iraq and Afghanistan. Around the packed square, cafes, stalls and trucks sell goods of all kinds plus an irresistible mix of world cuisine. Inside the historic covered food hall (Tue-Sun from 8am), Lillois specialities such as pungent maroilles cheese and jars of potjevleesch, a delicious terrine of veal, rabbit, chicken and pork, are on display. At Le Cheval Blanc on rue des Sarrasins, Madame Monique hosts a heaving bal populaire with live music.
The Musée d’Histoire Naturelle is perfect for family visits away from the crowds. Housed in a grand 1822 building, it is one of France’s most important natural history museums. Apart from giant skeletons of elephants and whales, there are thousands of stuffed animals and birds, strange living insect installations and a geological wing with scary dinosaurs. During the Lille 3000 festival, it will host a show on Mexican folk art. Right outside is Parc Jean-Baptiste Lebas, perfect for a picnic in summer. The park is a typical example of how Lille has changed, as this green space with modern sculptures and flower gardens used to be an ugly car park.
Roubaix is a 20-minute Metro ride from central Lille, home to La Piscine, a resplendent art deco municipal swimming pool converted into a museum and exhibition venue. But fashion lovers should pop next door, to the brilliant Vestiaire, a textile factory converted into a showroom for emerging fashion designers. Incubator Maisons de Mode runs eight pop-up boutiques inside, helping young designers make a start. Vestiaire has a health food diner, but across the road is L’Etoile de Damas, whose owner, a Syrian refugee, and has become a local favourite, ringing his mum at home for great family recipes.
Lille’s eat street
Once a quiet backstreet, rue des Bouchers has become Lille’s new foodie rendezvous, with half a dozen new bistrots popping up in the past year. Latest is Le Petit Bougnat specialising in Auvergne cheeses and charcuterie (from €5), while next door the more fashionable Ripaille (two-courses from €19) serves dishes such as cockles with chorizo and saffron. Book for Bloempot , a Flemish canteen whose €25 three-course lunch, including beer or wine, is the best deal in town. Michelin-starred chef Florent Ladeyn’s menu ranges from red mullet on braised sprouts to wild mushroom velouté and nettle sorbet. After lunch, check out Lille’s top avant-garde art gallery, Cédric Bacqueville, on rue Thiers.
Alternative arts centre
Les Maisons Folie Moulins, founded in 2009 in a 19th-century red-brick brewery, is a thriving creative centre for street art, photography, dance and music. It is also the site of Micro-Folies, a permanent digital museum showing 250 works from museums around the whole of France. Its Mini-Lab workshop is great for kids and adults, providing not just colouring books and papier-maché but the latest 3-D printers. Just up the road from the Maison, don’t miss a cone of frites at the best chippy in town, Friterie Sensas, on rue de Cambrai.
Wine and tapas
Lille, and most of northern France is known for beer, from local artisan ales to the hundreds of Trappists, tripels and lambics brewed just over the border in Belgium. But recently new spots have opened for wine lovers and those who prefer simple plates of tapas rather than a proper meal. Top spot is JaJa, overseen by the knowledgeable Fred Challe, whose wine list stretches to some 600 different bottles. The generous plates of cheese, ham, salamis and even octopus are perfect for sharing. If craft beer is more your scene, don’t miss the rock’n’roll Bellerose bar, with 11 taps of IPAs and Porters.
Dinner and dancing
The rebirth of the immense St Sauveur goods station in 2009 as a contemporary arts centre has seen it host exhibitions, concerts, dance clubs and cinema. The old entrance hall is now the unmissable Bistrot de St So. At lunchtime, choose from a tasty menu of world cuisine dishes, from tom yum soup to vegetarian lasagne (two-courses €19). At night, the tables disappear and this chameleon locale becomes the packed-out Apéromix, with live bands, DJs and even karaoke up on stage, tasty pizzas, tapas and terrines, wine €2 a glass, cocktails and craft beers. Sundays are quieter, more a long lazy brunch for families and kids.
Roubaix was France’s textile capital in 1900, but fell into decline in the 1970s. It has reinvented itself as a centre for artists and artisans. A glass-roofed textile warehouse, Ateliers Jouret was squatted in the 1980s then abandoned before the installation in 2017 of 30 multimedia artists’ studios. This is a perfect opportunity for the general public to get an peek into Roubaix’s creative world, with artists working in ceramics, printing, painting, sculpture and illustration. Locals and tourists can sign up for half-day workshops (mostly in French) for around €30 – I’m studying ceramics myself. The first weekend of each month is Jouret Market, when the whole place is open for visits and sales, concerts and performances.