Historically, one of Lille’s only drawbacks was a dearth of stylish places to lay one’s head. The recent arrival of L’Hermitage Gantois (224 Rue de Paris; 33-3/20-85-30-30; www.hotelhermitagegantois.com; doubles from $250), housed in a 15th-century hospice, has changed all that. Admire the hotel’s artful use of original architectural details in the double-height brick atrium, the glass-and-steel bar area, and the modest but perfectly manicured rose gardens in the cloisters. The 67 rooms are spacious, many with lofty beamed ceilings and heavy linen curtains, and all with Carrara-marble or Flemish- tile baths. A seven-minute stroll up the Rue de Paris brings you to the city center. Opera luminaries stay at the Carlton (3 Rue de Paris; 33-3/20-13-33-13; www.carltonlille.com; doubles from $215) for its proximity to Lille’s venerated opera house. The 60 rooms, done alternately in standard Louis XIV and XVI, won’t be making the style news anytime soon, but they’re comfortable and come with all the necessary conveniences. And the hotel’s ultra-central location—bordering the Grande Place and within a stone’s throw of some of Lille’s best dining—can’t be beat.
Although artisanal bread and pastry maker Paul (8–12 Rue de Paris; 33-3/20-44-72-56; breakfast for two $20), which was founded in Lille in 1889, has expanded its empire as far as Surrey, Dubai, and Palm Beach, the cozy, Delft-tiled bakery on the Rue de Paris still serves up creamy, thick hot chocolate, along with an artery-busting array of viennoiserie and crêpes. Méert (27 Rue Esquermoise; 33-3/20-57-07-44; breakfast for two $20), opened in 1761, is one of France’s oldest confectioners and is the place to stop for afternoon bonbons in the spun-sugar Rococo tearoom. Don’t leave without buying some of the exquisitely packaged chocolates—you won’t find them outside the city. Locals of the BCBG (bon chic, bon genre) variety congregate in the warren of 18th-century rooms and alcoves at La Petite Cour (17 Rue du Curé St.-Etienne; 33-3/20-51-52-81; dinner for two $65) for straightforward home-country fare (sole meunière, filet mignon de porc au Bleu d’Auvergne), more international dishes (a green salad with prosciutto di San Daniele, tandoori chicken, chopped egg, and parmesan), and a DJ who spins everything from Grace Jones to Desmond Dekker to Dr. Dre. A more patrician setting, and first-class seafood, can be found at the Lillois landmark A l’Huitrière (3 Rue des Chats Bossus; 33-3/20-55-43-41; dinner for two $210), whose unassuming fishmonger’s storefront leads to an oak-paneled dining room filled with monied businessmen and manned by a squadron of ancient, unassailably correct waiters in matching silk Hermès-style cravats. The 16th-century Le Compostelle (4 Rue St.-Etienne; 33-3/28-38-08-30; dinner for two $80), hidden on a Lilliputian side street off the Grande Place, has a beautifully updated, multilevel dining room. Angle for a table in the glass-ceilinged conservatory up front. The menu covers all the Flemish and French bases—sweetbreads in mustard sauce and duck breast émincé in raspberry-vinegar reduction were turned out with equal aplomb.
It would be imprudent to visit Flanders without perusing the weighty linens, austere oak and beech furniture, and faïence and porcelain at Flamant (61 Rue Esquermoise; 33-3/28-52-48-92; www.flamant.com), Lille’s outpost of the surpassingly tasteful Belgian home-furnishings shops. A carefully edited library of photography and architecture tomes are also for sale. (The store will ship almost anything in its inventory, including furniture, to the United States for a fee.) The shop of local interior designer Jean Maniglier (89–95 Rue de la Monnaie; 33-3/20-13-05-05; www.maniglier.fr) is a bazaar of global exotica and Northern European austerity. Besides rugs, fabrics, and furniture, there are Asian and African wooden bowls and masks, a collection of naturalisés (huge taxidermied insects suspended in glass and framed in teak), and wool and cashmere throws in somber neutrals. Série Noire (14 Rue Lepelletier; 33-3/28-36-00-03; www.serie-noire.com) is a three-story carnival of ready-to-wear collections and accessories reminiscent of Paris’s Colette and Kirna Zabête in New York. Proprietor Olivier Axer stocks the racks with Margiela, Dries Van Noten, Barbara Bui, Dior, and DSquared. On the main floor are bags by Chloé, sterling cuff links and money clips by Paul Smith, and skin-care products from coveted boutique line Louhann. A few doors down, Antidote (42 Rue Lepelletier; 33-3/20-40-26-30) fills a tiny storefront with independent European labels that share an aesthetic of understated cool: Italy’s Kristina Ti, Danish line Day Birger & Mikkelsen, the French Stella Cadente, Bash, and more. Collection 17 (17 Rue de la Monnaie; 33-3/20- 31-01-32)—known to locals as "C 17"—is a sleek gray-and-white space (with 19th-century frescoes) lined with slingbacks, stilettos, and boots from the latest collections. The usual suspects (Prada, Miu Miu, Yves Saint Laurent) are punctuated by designs from lesser-known names, such as Luciano Padovan and Sartore.
For a relatively small-town venue, L’Opéra de Lille (Place du Théâtre; 33-8/20-48-90-00; www.opera-lille.fr) has attracted eminences from all walks of culture to its Beaux-Arts stage (the original 1788 building, destroyed by a fire, was rebuilt in 1914); Merce Cunningham, Kiri Te Kanawa, and Trisha Brown have all performed there. The 2006/2007 schedule features productions of La Traviata and Handel’s Julius Caesar for the traditionalists; for those in search of something more contemporary, there are avant-garde dance performances. Check out the "Mercredi à 18 Heures" series of concerts in the Opéra’s opulent foyer. On the vast Place de la République, the Palais des Beaux-Arts (33-3/20-06-78-00) holds a collection that can trace its inception to the French Revolution. The late-19th-century building houses a satisfying number of Flemish and Dutch masters—including Rubens and van Dyck, and several first-rate landscapes by Jacob van Ruisdael—and notable 19th-century French paintings by Jacques-Louis David, Delacroix, and Corot.
Lille, France GETTING THERE High-speed trains depart every hour from Paris’s Gare du Nord for the one-hour trip to Lille. The city is 38 minutes by train from Brussels’s Gare du Midi and a three-hour ride from London on Eurostar (see www.raileurope.com for more information). BEST TIMES TO VISIT Lille is pleasant year-round, with relatively mild winters. Fall ushers in the famed opera season—also a good time of year to indulge in Lille’s cold-weather comfort food. INSIDER TIP Visit the Wazemmes market on the Place de la Nouvelle Aventure for fresh organic produce, flea-market finds, and the occasional bona fide antique.