The best French border towns
Strasbourg mixes cut-and-thrust modernity with a rustic, village feel. (Barbara Van Zanten/LPI)
If you are looking for a new angle on the well-trodden paths of France, then travel to the country’s borders.
These three melting-pot cities showcase the best of France, while giving a tantalising glimpse into the rest of Europe. Lille skims the Belgian border in the north, Strasbourg grazes Germany to the east and Perpignan lies close to the southern border with Spain. Each city shines a fresh light on Gallic culture with unexpected flavours and simmering nightlife.
Lille: A party city with all you can eat
This city’s strong northern accents and cool weather prompt plenty of good-natured ribbing from the rest of France, but Lille has the last laugh. With chocolate-box-pretty town squares, hearty Flemish-inspired cuisine and some truly original attractions, the city is an overlooked gem.
Lille’s Palais des Beaux-Arts has a world-class art collection, including pieces by Rubens, Goya and Delacroix. But La Piscine art gallery in Roubaix steals the show. Housed within an Art Deco municipal swimming pool, 20 minutes by train from the city centre, it showcases fine arts, applied arts and sculpture in a delightfully watery environment.
After mingling with the cultured crowd, fuel up with a galette (buckwheat pancake) at Le Galichon. This understated but trendy eatery will serve you galettes stuffed with smoked salmon, brie or gut-busting tartiflette (potatoes, cream, bacon and Reblochon cheese). Burn it off by pounding the cobblestoned streets of Vieux-Lille (the old town), perhaps with a sinful stop-off at macaroon-maker Patrick Hermand on rue Basse. These almond biscuit treats come in a rainbow of flavours, from salt caramel to a very jammy raspberry.
Lille springs to life at night: taverns and brasseries start to fill from around 11 pm, when tourists and locals share stories in the wooden-walled drinking holes off the Grand Place and throughout Vieux-Lille. Try Le Bar Parallèle (41 rue Lepelletier, 03 20 55 40 33) for knockout cocktails, creaking stairs and blatant disregard for the “no dancing” sign. Finish your night with some mayonnaise-drenched frites in a 24-hour brassiere like La Chicorée (15 Place Rihour, 03 20 54 81 52).
Only one and a half hours from London by Eurostar, this friendly city is a popular weekend break for Brits, and it is a great location for onward travel to the Somme battlefields, the gothic spires of Amiens or the chocolate-filled streets of Belgium. That is, if you have any energy left after a fast-paced lillois weekend.
Strasbourg: Canalside walks at Europe’s heart
Strasbourg mixes cut-and-thrust modernity with a rustic, village feel. As the seat of the European Parliament, the city can be packed with politicians during the week. But there is a gentler pace to the city, with canalside strolls, an inspiring skyline, a thriving art scene and stately gardens bedecked in flowers.
Locals get around on trams and the Vélhop bicycle rental system, but Strasbourg’s main sights can be seen easily on two feet. Start at the looming rust-hued Cathédrale de Notre Dame in the middle of Strasbourg’s Grand Île. After admiring this gothic masterpiece, make your way to the glassy canals of the Petite France district to see the best of Strasbourg’s famous half-timbered buildings and zebra-striped house fronts. To experience something slightly more cutting-edge, head towards the Musée d’Art Moderne et Contemporain, where the metallic exterior houses plenty of artistic greats, like Monet, Picasso and Magritte.
Sightseeing Strasbourg works up quite a thirst, and its proximity to Germany means the local winstubs (taverns) serve every shade of beer you can imagine. There is much to savour for vinophiles too: wines from the Alsace region are famed for their dry, complex character. But make sure you line your stomach with some dense Alsatian cuisine, perhaps a sticky fondue at La Cloche a Fromage (27 rue des Tonneliers, 03 88 23 13 19).
When it is warm, race a rowing boat across the water in Parc de l’Orangerie and wander around the city’s free zoo. Come winter, Strasbourg explodes in a cinnamony cloud of seasonal cheer, as Christmas markets sprout around the cathedral. Think sparkling lights, spicy biscuits and lashings of super-strength mulled wine.