A cyclist bikes across a city square on a sunny day in Lille, France
Photo by Craig Morey  –  Link

Lille

France

The university city of Lille in northern France is one of the cultural capitals of the country thanks to its diverse architecture, fab restaurants and lively markets. In fact, the annual Grande Braderie de Lille, which takes place here on the first weekend in September, has earned the title of biggest flea market in Europe. Each year, the Flemish city is taken over by street vendors selling vintage furniture, antique goods and second-hand clothes, the aroma of moule frites an ever-present fixture in the air.

With a calendar full of events and direct Eurostar access from London (the journey takes 90 minutes), the birthplace of Charles de Gaulle may well be one of the most underrated destinations in France.

Flemish roots

Known as "The Capital des Flandres," Lille has a strong Flemish identity that can be seen in its Flemish architecture. Case in point: The Lille Town Hall and Belfry (Beffroi de Lille), an iconic 104-metre-tall UNESCO-listed bell tower dominating the skyline. Climb to the top of the tower or take the lift up to see spectacular views of the city.

And with its 24 renaissance houses built around a central courtyard, Lille's old stock exchange (aka La Vielle Bourse) is another prime example of Flemish architectural beauty

Lille only became French in 1667, when Louis XIV conquered it from the Spanish Netherlands. Consequently, the city's Flemish heritage is still very much alive. One great way to get a feel for the history is by cycling around Old Town (Le Vieux Lille). For just a couple of euros a day, you can rent a bicycle from V'Lille, the local bike-sharing system, and return it to one of the many docking stations dotted around the city. Don't forget to check out Palais de Beaux-Arts de Lille, a stunning building and one of the largest art museums in the country. Entry is 7 euros and includes a free audio guide.