For many who use use the Eurostar, Lille is best known as just “that stop on the way to Brussels”.
Or perhaps people might refer to it as “that place where DSK's alleged prostitution ring was based”.
It's doubtful many have been tempted to get off the train.
The city is nestled close to the Belgium border and is the main city in France's Nord-Pas-de-Calais region, which like Lille does not really have a reputation for pulling in the tourists, despite being home to two Unesco World Heritage sites.
The only experience visitors from the UK might have of the Nord-Pas-de-Calais is stopping off at one its motorway service stations as they head down to the sunny south.
Only around 2,600 Brits are registered as living in the region, despite it being so close to home.
That's partly due to the fact the weather is so similar to that of the UK, which all the expats and tourists are desperate to escape.
Lille also suffers for being in one of France's poorest regions surrounded by some of the country's most hard-up towns that have suffered due to the decline of the country's industry.
But beyond this the city and its surrounding area have plenty going for it beyond service stations and a Eurostar stop off.
For a start it topped a 2017 ranking on the most attractive French cities to live in based on the criteria of job salaries and affordable properties.
Another recent survey claimed that residents living in the region were the happiest in France.
“Lille is very colourful, welcoming and dynamic,” Audrey Chaix, director of communication at the Lille Tourism Office, told The Local.
“It's a far cry from the grey and rainy clichés of the Nord Pas de Calais region.”
But we all know it's easy for the tourist board to trumpet about their own city – so let's take a closer look at what makes Lille so special.
(A view of the Nord-Pas de Calais mining basin, with slag heaps in the distance. Photo: AFP)
Lille lies in the heart of the triangle that links three of Europe's main metropoles – London, Paris and Brussels.
It seems like all roads and rail links lead to Lille, which is 35 minutes from Brussels, one hour from Paris, and 80 minutes from London. This means it makes a very accessible location for a weekend away.
And the city boasts what was the world's first driverless metro system, which opened in 1983.
Known as “The Capital des Flandres”, Lille is particularly well-known for its culture and its Flemish roots. The city only became French when Louis XIV besieged and conquered it from the Spanish Netherlands in 1667.
Strolling along the streets of the old city (Le Vieux Lille) is a showcase of the city’s French and Flemish architecture. The streets are paved with stone and lined with tall red-brick buildings and golden sandstone houses which are now established upmarket shops and flats.
The Palais des Beaux-Arts museum (pictured below), home to France’s second largest art collection after the Louvre, displays work from Goya, Rembrandt and Rubens.
(The Palais des Beaux-Arts museum. Photo: Paul Allais/Flickr)
In 2004, Lille was elected European Capital of Culture and since then the scheme Lille 3000 has pushed to promote the city’s cultural heritage and contemporary artists through regular events and festivals.
Alongside the highbrow culture, Lille is historically a market town. The Wazemmes market in the city centre is a real Ali-baba cave, selling everything from fruit and vegetables to furniture and electronics.
The flea market known as La Grande Braderie is an eagerly awaited event, kicking off in the first week of September and attracting thousands.
Lille is the third-biggest student city in France after Paris and Lyon, boasting over 100,000 students – many of whom are international. In 2013, the University Lille 1 had more foreign students than any other university in the country, with just over one in five students coming from abroad.
German student Leo Frank, a 23-year-old student who moved to Lille's Science Politique School in September, said it's an ideal city for student life.
“There are plenty of students from all the world. It’s a great city to be in to study: it has a manageable size, you can cycle across it in about 15 minutes,” he told The Local.
“It's a really tolerant and open city – it’s something that struck all my friends when they came to visit. There is a great atmosphere, people are really welcoming and polite,” he added.
Audrey Chaix from the tourism office said that the landscape is shifting to match the young population.
“The demography of the city is very young, student-like and quite hipster, and so businesses and commerce have developed to respond to that kind of demand,” she said.
(Photo: Etienne Valois/Flickr)
Food and drink
In recent years, Lille has seen a surge in the number of small coffee shops and bars managed by young and dynamic people.
Gracz Mateusz, originally from Poland, had travelled around the world before settling in Lille three years ago. After a year and a half, he opened Coffee Makers in Rue de Paris, an independent coffee shop which serves warm meals made from fresh and local produce.
“It is something I noticed from travelling – France and especially Lille cruelly lacked independent coffee shops,” he said.
“We have a lot of foreigners coming here because this concept works really well in Britain and Scandinavian countries and so they got to know us quite quickly.
“There are plenty of young people like us who have ideas, want to make projects and do things and this is making the city thrive and change.
“Lille is a great place to start new businesses because the city is smaller, and cheaper than Paris and the quality of life is very good.”
But the typical French cafes and terraces continue to dominate the high streets. They serve Lilloise cuisine, ranging from Carbonnade flamande – small chunks of beef stewed in beer and sprinkled with gingerbread – to Belgium’s special mussels and chips accompanied with plenty of beer.
Traditionally a trading and textile city, Lille maintains its reputation of having a big shopping culture and is the birth-place of big retail chains such as Auchan, Decathlon, Leroy Merlin and Castorama.
“Although all the textile factories have gone, retail shops are present in huge numbers in city,” said Chaix from the tourism office.
“There are all types of shopping outlets: upmarket and high street as well as a number of young fashion creators and designers who are more and more often choosing to settle in Lille.”
The northern city is also proving attractive to certain types of investors.
According to a study by Le Journal des Entreprises, a journal for French businesses, Lille created more jobs in the digital sector between 2008 and 2013 than any other city in France.
In the east of the city, rising from the ground lies Eurallile, France’s third largest business district after La Défense in Paris and La Part Dieu in Lyon.
A 20-year plan will be presented to the town hall this year to transform the site into a mega hub for new businesses, with better public transport access and residential buildings.
“This will make Euralille a point on the European map for business tourism and less of a transit place – it will be a place where people stay,” Marion Barreau, Euralille communication officer, told The Local.
So tourists, students and anyone looking to move to France, think bout getting off the train at Lille next time and not just for a short stay.
By Chloé Farand