Living in Lille: A Pre-Brexit Guide

There are many wonderful places in Europe you could try living pre-Brexit, while you still have the chance. Here's a guide to life in Lille, an often overlooked city a stone's throw from three European capitals.

Feature by Caroline Harleaux | 06 Dec 2016

Fourth largest city in France, the grey and rainy Lille doesn’t sound as exotic as Bordeaux or Lyon and is probably the most underrated destination in France. With a nationally renowned warm atmosphere, a vibrant arts and culture industry and a reasonable cost of living index, it’s definitely one to consider.

Find a home

Rent prices in Lille are pretty stable, and you can find a decently sized one bed flat for around 500€ a month, or a flat/house share for around €350 a month. Avoid the trendy and touristy city centre and old town; Lille is quite small and you’ll find a friendlier neighbourhood in Lille-Sud, Fives and Moulins. The concept of shared accommodation is growing in France, but is still not as established as it is in the UK. Check house share ads and private landlords offers on Le Bon Coin, the French Gumtree.

It’s proven to be difficult to find somewhere to live from abroad. As temporary solution (or to meet other travelers), you can stay at the futuristic HI Hostel near the Lille Europe rail station and Gastama Hostel in the old town for around €24 a night, including breakfast.

Explore Lille

Lille city centre is quite small. If you live in town you’ll be able to walk anywhere in 30 minutes. It is also very flat. Get a second hand bike or use the V’Lille (local equivalent to Paris Velib). It costs €1,60 for 24 hours, and with 100 stations in town and around, it’s perfect for the occasional ride.

The world's first automated underground network opened in 1983 in Lille. It’s reliable and fast when you need to go to the universities or the amazing venues in Roubaix, Tourcoing or Villeneuve d’Ascq… or as back-up plan for rainy days. Under 26s can use the underground and bus networks across the conurbation for €28 a month.

Get a job

For those who are looking to stay in Lille long term, the technology sector is booming and offers great opportunities if you have a science degree. Fluency in English is essential for jobs in the trade sector, which is big in Lille city region thanks to its transport connections to the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany and the UK.

French-English bilingual expats will also find fixed term contracts as English speaking au-pairs or part time jobs in coffee shops and bars. Due to its geographical position, its economic past and general convivial population, Lille is very welcoming to foreign nationals, and you won’t struggle with prejudices.

Beer lovers, come this way!

Although Lille is in France, the food and drink habits are definitely inherited from Flanders. If you like beer, you’ll feel at home. Plenty of local breweries are supplying the bars with bières de garde (beers fermented longer at a lower temperature), trappist beers (brewed by the monks in abbeys) and amber beers. Most of them are quite strong, and it’s best to act like locals and ask for un demi – half a pint.

You’ll also be eating plenty of chips to soak up all that beer and waffles (not the potato ones, the savoury ones) thanks to the proximity with Belgium. The most popular bistro dish is the Welsh Rarebit, North of France's adaptation of the caws-wedi-pobi – from guess where? Wales! – which consists in a large slice of bread soaked in beer, topped with a slice of ham, and covered with a grilled cheddar and mustard sauce. Served with chunky chips obviously. You won’t need to eat again for 24 hours.

If your relatives are visiting, impress them with the local pudding hero: Le Merveilleux. You get it from one of the two bakeries of the same name. You should also try the cramique – it’s a regional family size brioche with sugar or raisins, and it’s perfect for a lazy Sunday breakfast. With a bowl of coffee of course.

Looking to eat on the cheap? The Marché de Wazemmes supplies plenty of tasty fruit and veg, much cheaper than the ones from the supermarket, 7am till 2pm on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. Get up early if you’re planning to go, it gets so crowded it’s hard to walk in between stalls. You’ll also find tasty North African food if you fancy something on the go. Not to mention the covered market with delicious local bread, meat and cheese. Young locals do their shopping and invariably end up having a coffee or a beer at one of the cafés round the corner, Le Stout and Au Cheval Blanc. It’s loud, it’s busy, but it’s part of the Sunday market experience, and you’re guaranteed to walk back home with 10 more friends and a well-filled agenda for the next two weeks.

Vegetarians in Lille

France is getting better with veggie and vegan food, but is not as good as countries in Northern Europe or the US yet. You can grab nice homemade food at Le Ici or try L’Entre…Mondes where everything is made from organic locally sourced products. These two will have at least one decent veggie option.

Going out

Students constitute over 10% of the population in the conurbation area and are a constantly growing population bringing dynamism to the city centre and sustaining a great diversity of bars, clubs and venues. They also make the area around Masséna street (also called Thirst Street) a no-go zone on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. No pain no gain.

Le Vieux Lille, the old town, is the most popular area to go out, with plenty of bars and clubs, packed with students and young professionals. Try the Camden for nice spirits and a great selection of wine, or Le Bar Parallèle, which hosts exhibitions and has DJs or live music every weekend.

Le DIY (Vauban area) is a vegan cafe with a wide range of craft beers, celebrating skate, punk and graffiti cultures. The owner organises gigs on week days and weekends.

L’idiot and L’Ecart, right in the city centre are great alternatives to the crowded overpriced bars, and arty vibes.

The cultural space Gare St Sauveur (Moulins) is just a few minutes walk from the centre and has a large bar/bistro area, ideal if you’re meeting a bunch of friends. You might end up staying for food and a club night…

See something new

From the Malterie artists' studios and venue to the very established Palais Beaux-Arts, you’ll find something for you. Lille was one of the two European Capitals of Culture in 2004, and its legacy still lives in lille3000, a triennial project, exploring the future via arts exhibitions and events. Three Maisons Folie in Wazemmes, Moulins and Lomme, opened to host 2004 events, are still delivering cultural events programmes engaging with residents, while reconverted spaces like the station Saint Sauveur and the warehouse Tri Postal host contemporary art exhibitions, film screenings, live music and DJs.

In the suburban area, you’ll find a converted art-deco swimming baths in a stunning arts and industry gallery (La Piscine, Roubaix), a must-see modern art museum and its beautiful park (LaM, Valenciennes), and the Parisian institutions satellites such as Louvre Lens, and Tourcoing’s Institute of Arabic World.

Independent cinemas Le Metropole and Majestic offer great film seasons, retrospectives and films shown in the original language, while the not for profit cinema L’Univers organises themed events that often end up with beers at the bar!

Most touring bands/shows will play established venues like Le Sebasto, Le Grand Mix, L’Aeronef, Le Zenith, but you can catch a live music or theatre show under a tenner at La Rumeur, Le Splendid, La Peniche and Le Biplan.

Around Lille

You have a voracious appetite for cultural happenings and don’t like walking across the same streets all year round? Lille is the exact opposite of a dead-end city. The high speed trains will take you in 45 to 90 minutes to Paris and Brussels or London. That’s three capitals accessible without painful airport commutes and more opportunities than you can hope for. In Belgium, Tournai or Ghent with their medieval architecture and fantastic food scenes are relaxing options for a lazy day wandering around, while Antwerp is best for fashion lovers with the Mode Museum and plenty of shops.

Once you’re familiar with Lille city centre, its Flemish architecture and the unavoidable Vieille Bourse, you’ll probably want to escape from the huge conurbation and see some green spaces. Good news, there are amazing day trips accessible by car or regional trains.The Flanders hills, Les Monts de Flandre, are located on both parts of the French-Belgian border and are lovely for a walk. You don’t need to pack your lunch, the local estaminets serve delicious warming food. The coastline between Cap Blanc Nez and Cap Gris Nez is lovely is you miss the seaside. On a clear day you’ll see Dover on the horizon line. The Avesnois regional reserve is another options for ramblers and cyclists, and you can stop at one of the local organic markets on your way back.

Local events

You’ll love it or hate it, but the Braderie, Lille’s annual flea market, takes over the city every year on the first weekend of September. Tens thousands of stands will spread over the city and two million visitors will travel from Europe to attend it. If you’re not after vintage furniture, you’ll find super cheap books and eat the Braderie traditional dish, a moule-frites (mussels and fries). When you leave the restaurant staff will add your lot to the huge piles of mussel shells that are left on the pavement all weekend. It’s all about which restaurant will have the highest one. Yes it does smell, but it’s a tradition.

Lille is also the home of one of the biggest soup festivals, la fête de la soupe (that is a thing), happening early May. Traders and individuals share stalls in the street and you’ll be able to try the most surprising family or exotic recipes.

La Fête des Voisins is as simple as cutting off road access to any sort of motorised traffic, setting up tables and chairs on the street and getting to know your neighbours. Everyone brings a bottle and a dish and chat until late. Check the exact date in your area. That reflects quite well the atmosphere in Lille. Residents will want to know you and you’ll soon be involved in all sorts of sport, crafts, social or arts activities. It’s not for everyone, but it’s great for those who have just arrived or want to expand their social circles.