Lille is the heart of the Pays du Nord, the northeast corner of France, and 138 mi/223 km northeast of Paris. West of this region is Normandy; east is Belgium.

Lille was once in Flanders (now part of Belgium), until the city was captured by Louis XIV in 1667 and made the capital of French Flanders. These days, it is the fourth-largest urban area in France after Paris, Marseille and Lyon. It has broad boulevards, monumental architecture and an impressive city center. Many of the streets are closed to traffic—it's a great place for strolling and window shopping.

Visit the old Flemish quarter, Palais des Beaux-Arts (Fine Arts Museum) featuring 15th- to 20th-century art, the impressive stock exchange with a 17th-century belfry and the well-preserved citadel. Two other museums of note are the Musee d'Art Moderne Lille-Metropole with its modern and contemporary works, and La Piscine Musee d'Art et d'Industrie featuring applied arts and sculpture.

A bit to the southwest of Lille is Arras, which has some fine examples of 17th- and 18th-century Flemish architecture (especially around the Grand-Place and the Place des Heroes). Note how the buildings' facades all come to a point at the top. While there, see the neoclassical cathedral. Climb the UNESCO-listed bell tower in the twin squares of Place des Heros and Grand'Place for a panoramic view of the area.

The port towns along the Channel are a mixed lot: Calais and Dunkerque (Dunkirk in English) have never really recovered from bombings in World War II, but Boulogne is graced by medieval city walls. If you have time, the countryside has some nice villages. Our favorites are St. Omer (typical French small town with an attractive central square) and Montreuil (an old market town with worn cobbled streets and shuttered buildings).

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