Only an hour by train from Gare du Nord station, Lille—which is as much Flemish as French; they drink beer here, not wine—has become a perfect weekend away from Paris. Recently, Lille's stunning Baroque buildings have been redone and the old town has been invigorated with smart shops, restaurants, a terrific Beaux-Arts museum, and a newly restored opera house. And this fall hundreds of events will mark the city's designation as one of the year's European Capitals of Culture (see www.lille2004.com for a schedule.) There is also, at last, a hotel worthy of an overnight stay: L'HERMITAGE GANTOIS (rates, $235-$410; 224 Rue de Paris; 33-3/20-85-30-30) occupies a 15th-century convent with interior gardens, Delft-tile casements, slate bathrooms, and beamed ceilings. (Book a room with a garden view, like 221, or one of the attic suites.) The Hermitage's two restaurants—a formal dining room (dinner, $96) and a bistro (dinner, $48)—are on the leading edge of northern French cuisine, offering tarte au maroilles (quiche made with regional cheese) and carbonade de boeuf (beef braised in beer). L'HUITRIERE (dinner, $200; 3 Rue Chats Bossus; 33-3/20-55-43-41), a lovely wood-paneled restaurant near the fish market, serves the local catch in dishes like persillade sea bass. And for lunch, there's the first-rate wine bar LA PART DES ANGES (lunch, $50; 50 Rue de la Monnaie; 33-3/20-06-44-01) and L'ESTAMINET DE LA ROYALE (lunch, $45; 37 Rue Royale; 33-3/20-42-10-11), a friendly spot serving good Ghent-style waterzooi (chicken stewed with vegetables). For sheer pageantry—and, of course, some vanilla cream-filled waffles—you can't beat MEERT (pastries, $5-$10; 25-27 Rue Esquermoise; 33-3/20-57-07-44), the famous white-glove pastry shop founded in 1839. To sample Lille's other specialty, cheese, stop into PHILIPPE OLIVIER (3 Rue Cure St.-Etienne; 33-3/20-74-96-99), for a chunk of the tangy Vielle Mimolette (and it travels well). Northern France is textile territory, too, and the best place for linens is OLIVIER DESFORGES (15 Place du Lion d'Or; 33-3/20-78-04-17), whose factory is nearby. If there's time, ask your concierge to book a car and driver for the day to visit the D. PORTHAULT factory store in Rieux en Cambresis (33-3/27-82-22-33). You'll never find it on your own, but you will find some of the best linen in France at half the Stateside price.
Hotel prices show high-season rates from the least expensive double to the most expensive suite. Restaurant prices reflect a three-course dinner for two, excluding beverages and gratuity.