The title of European Capital of Culture awarded to Lille over a decade ago was not the height of its ability, but rather a humble beginning, for in the years to follow Lille has grown to become a cultural hub second to none in northern France – and, some would argue, even beyond. There is a strong Flemish flavour in Lille, which manifests itself literally, through Lillois cuisine, and figuratively, through the ornate buildings of the charming old town (Vieux Lille).
Most shops operate between 9am and 6pm, from Monday to Saturday (closing on Sundays). For restaurants and other businesses, hours may vary.
Although Lille has a reputation for being a sprawling city – and it is indeed the largest one in northern France – its charming old town is entirely walkable, and contains all the attractions, restaurants, and nightlife establishments a weekend city-breaker could wish to explore in a couple of days. The vibrant, multicultural neighbourhood of Wazemmes, known for its popular market, lies just south of the old town, and is within equally easy reach. The significant student population accounts for Lille's youthful, jovial spirit, which co-exists with refinement and cultural heritage that spans many centuries. Once an important trading post, Lille later grew into an industrial powerhouse and even became known for being a working class stronghold, a status that has now given way to one of a cultural hub. Beyond the old town, museums worth making the trip to the suburbs for are the curious La Piscine (museum set up inside a 20th century swimming pool building, the pool is still technically functional) of Roubaix and Lille Métropole Museum of Modern, Contemporary and Outsider Art in Villeneuve-d'Ascq.
Wandering the old town streets and admiring the Flemish renaissance architecture might be one of the greatest pleasures the city has to offer, but together with a handful of solid art museums, excellent shopping and hearty, scrumptious cuisine, Lille is northern France's biggest city in not only terms of size, but also cultural offerings.
When in Lille, do not skip on the city's most sought-after dessert: vanilla waffles served at Méert, Lille's historic and most reputable cafe. There are plenty of places to tuck into a savoury galette, a syrup-drenched crêpe, or even just grab a cup of coffee (some particularly good finds are concentrated around old town's Grand Place). A dessert you will be seeing nearly anywhere you go is "merveilleux", a small, meringue-based cake sprinkled with chocolate shavings.
And if you are into cheese, try the city's own "Le Vieux Lille", a gourmet variety with a distinctive smell.