France is the most visited country in the world with 89 million tourists each year, meaning more people visit France than actually live in it. Being both a tourist and a resident in France, I’ve had the chance to see what lies behind the glitzy Alpine towns, the city of lights, up-and-coming Lyon, and the beautiful and glamorous south of France. I’ve been to Nice, Paris, Chamonix, and Bordeaux, but I’ve also been to lesser known cities like Le Havre, Lille, Sallanches and Saint-Malo. In “France for the Anti-Tourist,” I’m going to take you on a tour through some of the less touristy cities in France and also how to explore some of the most touristy cities through the eye of a local.
Our first feature is the northern city of Lille, located just 25 minutes from the Belgian border. Lille is France’s tenth-largest city by population boasting 232,440 residents, just a little bigger than Richmond, Virginia. It is known for it’s large population of students with more than 150,000 students in the area and 28% of its population that is under the age of 20, Lille is the youngest city in all of France! Because Lille is so young it is a really fun city to visit. You’ll find lots of cool bars, cute little restaurants, and good shopping!
Some of the top things to do in Lille are the Grand Place, the Citadelle, the Belfry, Notre Dame de la Treille, and the birthplace of Charles de Gaulle so these might be worth a walk-by, but keep reading to take a trip to some of Lille’s more hidden attractions.
1. Merveilleux at Aux Merveilleux de Fred
This dessert, originally invented in Belgium, has slowly moved its way across the border and into the town of Lille. With a name like merveilleux, literally meaning wonderful or marvelous, this little guy speaks for himself. At first glance it looks like a little round chocolatey cake, but it’s actually a sandwich of two light meringues filed with whipped cream, then covered in whipped cream and dusted with chocolate shavings. This shop, started by pastry chef, Frédéric, who fell under the spell of these cakes very early on his career, is also home to other goodies including cramiques which are a re-imagined brioche that can be ordered with chocolate, raisins or simply sugar. Don’t miss out on this one because Frédéric will give some other French pastries a run for their money.
2. Marché de la Vielle Bourse
The Vielle Bourse is actually a pretty popular building to see in Lille as it is really beautiful on the outside. It was actually built in the 17th century when Lille was under Spanish rule and is one of the prettiest buildings of Lille. The reason I put it on here is because there is a book market in the courtyard of the building every Tuesday-Sunday from 1:00pm-7:00pm. So make sure you try to visit during this time because the place is chock-full with goodness. There are second-hand books, postcards, film cameras, and much more. I lost myself in here for a good 45 minutes.
3. Estaminet Au Vieux de la Vieille
Etaminets are Belgian-style bars known for their cozy atmosphere, good beers, and comfort food. They’ll serve typical northern specialities like “Gratin de la Vieille” (which is made with crepes, a type of cheese called Maroilles, ham, and chicory), Speculoos mousse, and the "Welsh," which honestly you have to see to believe. It’s a slice of bread, with ham on it covered in a beer and mustard based-cheese sauce that is so cheesy you won’t know what to do with yourself besides use the side of fries that come along with it to scoop up all of the extra deliciousness. This place is pretty popular so if you want to go during your trip I would suggest reservations!
4. South Vieux Lille
Vieux Lille is the neighborhood in Lille that is home to a lot of shopping and good eats, but the southern part of the neighborhood was my favorite. You’ll find Lille’s strange neo-gothic cathedral (no, that is not scaffolding on the front of the church) which truth be told isn't my favorite European church, but you’ll also find a lot of hidden treasures like Place Gilleson, a lane of colored houses tucked together surrounding the cathedral, the Place aux Oignons, one of the cutest little squares in Lille, and Rue de la Monnaie, a pretty little street populated with some of Lille’s most expensive stores. This area is also home to Merveilleux de Fred and Estaminet Au Vieux de la Vieille so go ahead and eat a lunch of Lille’s best comfort food, take a digestive walk around the neighborhood, and stop in Merveilleux de Fred when you’re ready for dessert.
If you have a sweet-tooth you’ll love Lille because I have another dessert speciality for you, the gauffre fourrée, a thin, delicate, oblong waffle which are handmade in an iron press and filled with a Madagascan vanilla filling . You can find this desert at Méert, a chocolate shop and bakery that has been serving famous customers like King Léopold I and Charles de Gaulle since 1761. Some find the gauffre a little too sweet, but there are plenty of other pastries, chocolates, and carmels to satisfy your sweet-touth at Méert. The shop is absolutely beautiful on the inside so I suggest stopping in for an afternoon snack in their Salon de Thé so you can take the time to enjoy some of their delicacies.
6. Funny Vintage
Lille has a lot of good shopping, but this was one of my favorite places. I’m a sucker for a good vintage store and this one really reeled me in with their good selection of leather and denim. You’ll find clothes dating between the 1950s and 1990s mostly made in France, but also some pieces from around the world. The shop also sells decorations and furniture. While a new wooden desk probably won’t be flying home with you, the mix of clothes and home goods added to the atmosphere of the eclectic place.
Been to Lille? Tell us what you loved most!