The Economics of Today’s Solo Travel

The Economics of Today’s Solo Travel

This Insight started as a rant about the familiar economic inequities of solo travel in a duo world. I suspect it may have begun with an inadvertent click on a stealthy ad, since suddenly splashy photos of sundrenched faraway destinations invaded my screen. Then, beneath the mammoth font that promised prices so enticing one couldn’t possibly justify staying home, the familiar fine print: “pp, based on double occupancy.” This seemingly innocuous “pp” (short for per person) has long been the packaged tour and cruise industries not so subtle reminder that solo travel carries a hefty fine, which can in some cases practically double the advertized price of a trip.

Bhutan-Paro Tigers Nest.

The Taktsang Palphug Monastery, or Tiger’s Nest, in Paro, Western Bhutan, emerges from the clouds.

Like most of us born with the solo travel gene, I seldom have anything to do with packaged tourism brands and their business model of transporting throngs of vacationers to popular destinations around the globe. The resulting swarms of visitors and their pernicious effects on the environment and culture of their host areas are precisely what I aim to avoid in my travels. But that’s a topic for another time. For now let’s go back to the pp practice. In the decades since mass tourism began to gain traction, fueled by the advent of wide body airliners, city-block size cruise ships and massive resort development projects, pp pricing has spread all the way down to targeted small -group tour organizers and local suppliers of tourism-related services. Everybody’s on the single’s tax bandwagon.

Removing the offending ad from “Chéri fait tes valises” (Darling, pack your bags. n.b. it really is the name of a bargain luxury travel broker!) from my screen, I set out to research the current state of single supplements on the tourism industry scene. I expected it to be still firmly entrenched into the Noah principle that leisure travelers are meant to come in pairs. But instead, I discovered that things are looking up for the single tourist!

The New Single Paradigm

Botswana-Okavango Lillies.

Water lilies in the Okavango Delta of Botswana.

Ever more of us are going solo. One of the most comprehensive surveys of travel trends, the Visa Travel Intentions Study commissioned by Visa, has been tracking international leisure travel behaviors for the past decade. The 2015 edition, conducted with over 13,500 adult travelers across 25 countries, is an eye-opener on the profound changes that are reshaping leisure travel. In a nutshell: Some 24 percent of people chose to travel alone on their most recent overseas leisure trip (up from 15 percent in 2013). The jump is even more spectacular among first-time travelers, to 37 percent (more than double from 16 percent in 2013). We now represent a substantial, growing market that travel services suppliers can no longer afford to ignore.

Who Are These New Solo Travelers

Tanzania-Katavi Giraffes.

Giraffes in southern Tanzania’s remote Katavi National Park.

Who we are defies all the old stereotypes of the “single and looking” vacationer. We are a varied lot, just as likely to be married or in an alternate form of committed relationship as to be life-long singles or single again and happy to be. The one thing we do have in common is the desire for a fulfilling travel experience aligned with our diverse personal interests, from genealogy to extreme sports. And most importantly, we are willing to extend considerable time planning our own holiday. Only 46 percent of us are turning to professionals to arrange either a packaged group tour or a personal guided one. Although this has more than doubled (from 21 percent in 2013) it still leaves over half of a sizeable market segment that remains to be wooed by the leisure travel operators who want our business, even as we are gaining the savvy and clout to handle it ourselves.

Yet, single travel doesn’t mean alone. It’s a matter of personal preference and level of comfort how much external assistance we require. I have a friend, a seasoned solo traveler, who is happy to decide on a destination, dates and a handful of things of interest and let her travel planner figure out the rest. “All I want do to is pack and show up,” says she. Personally, I consider research and planning, the more granular the better, part of the excitement of the trip. But, as soon as I venture beyond the mainstream destinations with an established tourism infrastructure, that research includes small-group tour companies and service providers that specialize in my destination and area of interest. And I like that I can now routinely include a “no single supplement” filter to all my searches.

No Single Supplement

Getting close to Alaska's humpback whales.

Getting close to Alaska’s humpback whales.

Fantasy Cruise of Alaska – This is small-group travel at its very best. The Island Spirit and its owner-Captain Jeff Behrens sail the Alexander Archipelago of Southern Alaska from late spring to fall. They introduced me to the world of difference between a conventional cruise  and a sailing adventure and made a believer out of me. Additionally, of the ship’s 17 cabins, two are reserved for singles on each cruise at the per-person occupancy rate. Fantasy Cruise of Alaska, Contact: e-mail, tel. +1 800-234-3861 or + 1 425-765-8879.

Overseas Adventure Travels – An award-winning organizer of small-group tours for mature American travelers to some of the most spectacular destinations on the planet for four decades, Overseas Adventure Travel has long been a leader in solo-friendly travel. They clearly state that there are no single supplements on any of their departures. Overseas Adventure Travel, One Mifflin Place, Suite 400, Cambridge, MA 02138. Contact: e-mail, tel. 1-800-955-1925.

Solo Vacations – Although new to the U.S. travel market (2015), Solo Vacations is the American offshoot of Solo Holidays, one of the premier solo travel companies in the U.K. (See below)., US Contact: tel. 1-800-301-4810.

Thinking Globally

When considering an overseas adventure, I’ve found that it often pays to think globally. For instance, many U.K. companies have a long history of catering to single tourists, among them:

Solo Holidays – One of the oldest and largest small-group travel companies in Britain, Solo Holidays has been catering exclusively to single travelers’ needs since 1982. They offer guided and solo tours and adventures just about anywhere in the world. Their business model includes private accommodations for all travelers. Solo Holidays, 54-56 High Street, Edgeware, HA8 7EJ, U.K. Contact: e-mail, tel: +1 800-301-4810 or in the U.K. + 0844 815 0005.

One Traveller – Also an established company in the mature solo traveler arena, One Traveller offers no single supplement small-group tours throughout Europe as well as Sri Lanka, India and China. One Traveller Ltd, Unit 5-6, Green Way, Swaffham, PE37 7FD, U.K. Contact: e-mail, tel. +44 (0)1760 722 011.

Wild about Africa – A specialist in reasonably priced small-group safaris in southern and eastern Africa, they do quote a single supplement for solo travelers, which can range from nominal to 20 percent or more of the total vacation, depending on the destination country and the type of adventure and accommodations. The single supplement is clearly stated in the price list for each trip. Wild about Africa, 10 & 11 Upper Square, Old Isleworth, Middlesex, TW7 7BJ, U.K. Contact: e-mail enquiries @, tel. +1-800-242-2434 (U.S.), +44 (0)20 8758 4717 (U.K.)

Busanga Safaris – For another good resource for arranging no or low single supplement small-group safaris throughout Africa since 1999, check out Busanga Safaris Ltd,
6 Reeve Road
SL6 2LS, U.K., Contact: e-mail, tel. +44 (0) 1628 621 685.

Majestic Line – A small-ship cruising company dedicated to sailing voyages around the Islands off the western coast of Scotland (Argyll, the Hebrides and Saint Kilda), the Majestic fleet consists of three ships, each with six en-suite cabins. On each cruise, two cabins are reserved for solo travelers with no single supplements. Their easy-to-navigate website clearly indicates how many solo cabins are still available for each voyage. Majestic Line (Scotland) Ltd,Unit 3 Holy Loch Marina, Sandbank, Dunoon, PA23 8FE, Argyll, U.K. Contact: e-mail, tel. +44(0) 1369 707 951.

A Long Way to Go

The travel industry overall is coming along in the no single supplement area. However, if a big ship cruise is your heart’s desire, there is still a long way to go. All the major ocean and river cruise brands promise it, but it usually translates into a symbolic handful of low-level cabins at prices that are still a far cry for the pp rate. There are frequent news flashes from that corner these days, breathless announcements that a 3,000-passenger ship “now offers 18 dedicated single cabins for solo cruisers.” I am underwhelmed. If you hear of considerable improvements, please let us know.

Foodie Landmarks of the Massachusetts North Shore

Foodie Landmarks of the Massachusetts North Shore

This week, I am on the Massachusetts North Shore, an especially picturesque stretch of historic New England Atlantic coast, where a sure sign of spring is the seasonal reopening of its many fresh-off-the-boat seafood eateries. From simple roadside clams-and-fries shacks to noted restaurants with impressive views of the ocean and menus to match, they are gradually emerging from hibernation to ready themselves for the swarms of visitors that will soon descend upon the area.

New England Seafood History

MA_Rocky Neck Rudder.

The Rudder has been a Rocky Neck foodie landmark since 1957.

It is my good fortune that my arrival happens to coincide with the annual reopening of The Rudder, a Gloucester foodie landmark since 1957. Tucked in a building dating back to the age of sails, the Rocky Neck harbor-front place is already bursting at the seams when we arrive at 6:30 P.M. for an early dinner. The bar is standing room-only, three deep with locals who clearly enjoy having the Rudder to themselves before the tourist invasion begins.


MA - Rudder appetizer.

The eggplant Napoleon appetizer.

We edge our way toward the glassed-in dining deck packed cheek by jowl with small square blue Formica tables of an other age. Thanks to my son’s foresight (he made reservations a couple of days ahead) we score a window-side table with a view the harbor bathed in golden sunset light. The décor is resolutely kitsch, the ceiling covered with faded plastic garlands interwoven with pin lights. But there is nothing kitsch about the menu, just delicious, unpretentiously prepared bounty fresh out of the sea.

MA - Rudder scallops.

My main course of broiled scallops and grilled aspargus.

We share a couple of appetizers. The crab cakes, three generous patties of pure lump-crab meat gently sautéed to a golden brown arrive on a bed of arugula drizzled with spicy aioli. As for the eggplant Napoleon, I doubt it’s named after the erstwhile Emperor of the French. But whoever the eponymous gentleman is, he gets my gratitude for the succulent plate of crisp eggplant fritters garnished with sundried tomato pesto and topped with a mound of tangy whipped ricotta. I could easily call it a satisfying meal right there.

MA-Rudder seafood risotto.

The seafood risotto and its medley of shellfish.

However, the sweet local scallops I’ve been yearning for since I started planning this trip are yet to come. A generous baking dish of them arrives, prepared the traditional way, broiled under a light topping of buttery breadcrumbs, with a dash of white wine and garlic sauce. The other notable main dishes at our table are a creamy seafood risotto disappearing under a medley of just steamed shrimps, scallops, mussels and clams, and stuffed sole. The latter consists of two delicate filets of sole wrapped around mounds of lump-crab meat and glazed with beurre blanc. A taste of each convinces me that a return visit is in order.

The Rudder offers a full array of bar beverages. The wine list features a good choice of California wines as well as a few offerings from international wine-growing areas. Most are available by the glass as well as full bottles. The service is efficient and friendly.

An Epic Lobster Roll

Ma-Marblehead lobster roll.

The Muffin Shop’s lobster roll.

On a first visit, the simple storefront of The Muffin Shop could easily be overlooked. Just walk in, grab a soft drink in the glass-fronted cooler as you go by, and order at the counter. Then find a seat at one of the dozen or so wooden tables, wait for your name to be called and come to claim your prize: on a white disposable plate, outlined by a kosher dill pickle, a long sweet bread roll, toasted on the grill and overflowing with heaps of thick lobster chunks. A few thin slices of tomatoes and a couple of lettuce leaves may be added on demand, but otherwise, that’s it, just mounds of succulent fresh lobster meat, barely seasoned with a dab of mayonnaise dressing. Well worth a detour whenever I am in the area. Be prepared to stand in line during the summer months.

Good to Know

  • The Rudder, 73 Rocky Neck Avenue, Gloucester, Massachusetts,, is open 5:00 P.M. to 10:00 P.M., Thursday through Sunday from its mid-April seasonal opening to mid-May, and daily from late May to of October. Call for exact dates as they may vary slightly from year to year. Dinner reservation recommended. Contact: e-mail, tel. +1 978-283-7967.
  • For the unfortunate souls with seafood dietary restrictions, the menu also offers a small selection of Italian meat dishes. And yes, there are also a few interesting dessert choices, alas beyond the capabilities of my appetite for this visit.
  • Located on a small peninsula within Gloucester’s working harbor, Rocky Neck is home to one of the oldest continuously operating art colonies in the United States. Today, it is home to dozens of galleries where working artists, painters, photographers, potters, textile designers and jewelry makers display their work during the summer months.
  • The Muffin Shop, 126 Washington St, Marblehead, Massachusetts, is open year-round, Monday through Friday from 6:00 A.M. to 4:00 P.M. , and Saturday and Sunday from 6:00 A.M. to 5:00 P.M. Contact: Tel. (781) 631-8223.



Location, location, location!

Rocky Neck

A Pioneering City of Art – Lille

A Pioneering City of Art – Lille

Lille has long been a city of great art museums. Open in 1809, its world-famous Palais des Beaux-Arts (Palace of Fine Arts), one of the first museums to be established in the aftermath of the French revolution, holds the second largest collection in France after the Louvre. In recent decades, the greater Lille metropolitan area has upheld its pioneering history with the opening of two additional museums that are fast becoming landmarks of the international art scene as well as monuments of contemporary French architecture.

LAM – A Unique Cultural Space

France-Lille LAM

The Metropolitan Lille Museum of Modern Art, Contemporary Art and Art Brut) designed by French architect Roland Simounet .

The Lille Métropole Musée d’Art Moderne, d’Art Contemporain et d’Art Brut (Metropolitan Lille Museum of Modern Art, Contemporary Art and Oustider Art), LAM for short, has its genesis in the donation in 1979 by Jean Masurel, a local industrialist and life-long collector of Modern and Contemporary art, of its monumental (close to 4000 pieces) collection to the Lille urban community. A dedicated museum designed by prominent French architect Roland Simounet is inaugurated in 1983 in a suburban Lille parkland setting of Villeneuve d’Ascq.


France - Lille LAM Braque

Georges Braque, 1908, Maisons et arbre (Houses at l’Estaque),

Then in 1985, L’Aracine, an association of artists and collectors of Art Brut (Outsider Art) gives its collection to the museum. For this, the largest public collection of its type in France (over 3,000 works), a striking extension is designed by Manuelle Gaudrant. Five galleries faced in white precast perforated concrete now wrap around the eastern end of the original building. LAM reopens in 2010 after four years of construction and renovation work. Today, with over 4,000 square meters (43,000 square feet) of exhibit space and a permanent collection of over 7,000 works, LAM is a unique cultural space that brings together Modern, Contemporary and Outsider Art. And offers over a quarter of a million yearly visitors the opportunity to appreciate a condensed history of art in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries in one collection of international standing.

Modern Art

France - Lille LAM Calder.

The LAM Sculpture Garden is an ideal setting for the Calder mobile.

This is where the Masurel collection can be seen in all its jaw-dropping magnificence. Expressionists, Cubists, Fauvisists, Surrealists and all the other “…ists” that shaped twentieth century arts are represented here, in the works of their greatest painters, arranged by their particular style: Braque, Derain, Kansinsky, Klee, Miro, Picasso, Van Dongen. An entire room is dedicated to Fernand Leger, another to Modigliani. And best of all, although predictably popular, the galleries are never too crowded, allowing me to enjoy the moment in a serene atmosphere.

Contemporary Art

France - Lille LAM Modigliani 1

During a recent visit, Modigliani steals the limelight, as with his 1915 Portrait de Chaim Soutine, on loan from the Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen.

This section features, along with Bernard Buffet, Dodeigne and Eugène Leroy, some lesser known but just as influential French and foreign artists. Important abstract painters and sculptors from the second half of the twentieth century are also represented by the likes of Daniel Buren, Richard Deacon, Gérard Duchêne, Pierre Soulages and Jean Dubuffet. An artistic itinerary that illustrates the evolution of art, the major artistic movements, trends and current themes in the contemporary art scene.

Outsider Art

Defined by a regrouping of pieces created by non-professional artists, without artistic reference and working outside of the aesthetic norm, Outsider Art is exhibited at the museum via a prism of well-known artists, such as Aloïse Corbaz, Joseph Crépin, Henry Darger, Auguste Forestier and Carlo Zinelli.

Amedeo Modigliani Retrospective

France - Lille LAM Mod. Blue Dress

Amedeo Modigliani, 1918, Seated Woman in Blue Dress, on loan from the Moderna Museet, Stockholm

Beyond the treasures of the permanent collection, what brings me to LAM on this latest visit is an exceptional temporary retrospective of the work of Modigliani (on display until June 6, 2016). Although the museum holds one of the finest French public displays of his work in its Masurel collection: six paintings, eight drawings and a rare marble sculpture, this rich exhibit shows the artist in a totally different light (at least for me). Through 23 drawing, five sculptures and 49 paintings, I am introduced to his antique, African and other non-western influences, as well at works by his contemporaries, such Brancusi, Picasso, Chaïm Soutine, Moïse Kisling and Henri Laurens, that nourished his inspiration.





The Louvre-Lens

France - Louvre Lens

The Louvre-Lens building, by Japanese architects Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa, is itself a work of art.

With the opening of its satellite in Lens in 2012, the Musée du Louvre is no longer confined to its palatial Parisian digs. The building, by Japanese architects Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa, is itself a work of art. Located on a 20-hectare (50-acre) former coal-mining site reborn as parkland, it is an ethereal creation of glass and brushed aluminum that reflects the flat landscape and pale skies of northern France. The core of the 360-meter (1,200-foot) long structure is a transparent, oblong 3,600-square meter (39,000-square foot) hall that is the starting point of the various galleries.

The Gallery of Time

France - Louvre-Lens Ancient.

The Gallery of Time illustrates the development of contemporaneous ancient civilizations.

The museum’s semi-permanent exhibition is housed in the 120-meter (400-foot) long Galerie du Temps (Gallery of Time). It showcases 250 pieces representing five millennia of art history, from the origins of writing in various civilizations to the nineteenth century. The displays are freestanding, to be viewed from all angles as I wander through time. Although chronological, the artifacts are arranged by themes, to better illustrate the Egyptian influence on Greek sculpture for instance, or how civilizations evolved simultaneously (such as Egyptian Pyramid Period and Mediterranean Cycladic Culture).

France - Louvre-Lens Claude Lorrain.

Landscape with Paris and Oenone, 1648, Claude Lorrain (Gellee).

My stroll through the history of art goes by “St. Mathew and the Angel,” an awesome Rembrandt that already foretells of Impressionism, and an incandescent “Landscape with Paris and Oenone” by Claude Lorrain, a preview of the JMW Turner skies to come two centuries later, before ending with pieces from the Romantic period. Each year, one third of the collection is rotated back to the Paris mother ship and replaced by new pieces. Side galleries also hold two themed temporary exhibits per year.

La Piscine-Musée d’Art et d’Industrie

France-Roubaix Swimming Pool Museum

La Piscine is a unique Art Deco swimming pool reborn as a municipal museum.

Although not on the scale of its Lille, Lens and Villeneuve d’Ascq cousins, the charming Art Deco gem La Piscine-Musee d’Art et d’Industrie (The Swimming Pool-Museum of Art and Industry) in Roubaix is a not-to-be-missed side trip. Opened in 1932, this municipal swimming pool and bathhouse was much appreciated by the local community for over half a century until its closure in 1985. Mercifully it was reborn as a museum 16 years later after extensive renovations. Although its length was preserved, its Olympic-size pool is now a narrow central stream, its east-west direction facing the grand sunburst stain glass windows representing the rising and setting sun at both ends of the domed ceiling.

France - Roubaix Swimming Pool Museum Fountain

The Neptune’s head fountain is sourrounded by mosaics in a wave design.

A collection of sculptures that include four major works by Alfred Boucher (Hope, Faith, Charity and Tenderness) as well as pieces by Rodin and Camille Claudel line both sides of the pool. The original Art Deco mosaics in an ornate swirling wave pattern still outline the basin and the large Neptune head keeps spouting a graceful arch of water. At ground and second floor gallery levels, changing and shower stalls are now the setting for a comprehensive collection of textile industry related items from Roubaix’ heydays.


Good to Know

  • Getting there – Lille is easily reached by train, with frequent TVG (high-speed train) direct connections throughout the day from Paris (1 hour), Brussels (35 minutes), London, (1:30 hour), Amsterdam (2:40 hours) and other main western European cities. There are two train stations. The new Lille-Europe serves the EuroStar, Thalys and most TGV high-speed lines. Lille Flandre, the original station, now serves a mix of local and high-speed trains. Both are located in the center of town, a 10-minute walk from each other. Lens is located 40 kilometers south of central Lille, an easy 35-minute local train ride to the Lens station. There are also a few daily direct high-speed trains from Paris (1:20 hour). From the station, a twice-hourly complimentary shuttle takes visitors to the museum site.
  • Getting Around –To get around the metropolitan area, Lille has a comprehensive public transport network (Transpole) with two automatic metro lines, two tramway lined and over 60 bus routes.
    From the center Lille to La Piscine – Metro Line # 2 to Gare Jean Lebras or Grand Place, or Bus # 32 to Jean Lebras.
    From the Center of Lille to LAM – Metro Line # 1 to Pont de Bois then Bus: Liane # 4, direction Halluin-Gounod to LAM.
  • Visiting
  • Lille Métropole Musée d’Art Moderne, d’Art Contemporain et d’Art Brut, (LAM), 1 Allée du Musée, Villeneuve-d’Ascq. Open Tuesdays to Sundays from 10:00 to 6:00 P.M. Closed Mondays and some public holidays. Contact: Tel +33 (0) 3 20 19 68 68.
    Musée Louvre-Lens, 99 Rue Paul Bert, Lens. www.louvre-lens/en. Open Wednesdays to Mondays from 10:00 A.M. to 6:00 P.M. Closed Tuesdays and some public holidays. Contact: Tel +33 (0) 3 21 18 62 62. Entrance to the Louvre-Lens is free of charge.
    La Piscine-Musée d’Art et d’Industrie André Diligent, 23 Rue de l’Espérance, Roubaix. Open Tuesdays to Thursdays from 11:00 A.M. to 6:00 P.M., 11:00 A.M. to 8:00 P.M. Fridays, 1:00 P.M. to 6:00 P.M. Saturdays. Closed Mondays and some public holidays. Contact: Tel +33 (0) 3 20 60 23 60.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Lille, France

Recently Reopened Rodin Museum – Paris

Recently Reopened Rodin Museum – Paris

For the last nine years of his life, Auguste Rodin (1840-1917), the father of French modern sculpture lived and worked in the exquisite eighteenth-century Hôtel Biron. Located in an inviting three-hectare (eight-acre) Jardin à la Française, just a stone-throw away from Les Invalides in the heart of Paris’ Left Bank, it became the Rodin Museum in 1919. Now, after three years of extensive renovations, the museum recently re-opened its doors.

The Evolution of a Master

France - Paris Rodin Plaster

The exposition includes never before seen works in plaster.

The eighteen rooms of exhibit space trace the chronology of Rodin’s evolution as an artist, as well as offer a thematic exploration of his work, including some of his never before seen works in plaster. It also displays his own collection of works by his contemporaries, including a room dedicated to his student and lover, Camille Claudel, a superb sculptor in her own rights. Another room holds Rodin’s extensive collection of antiquities, displayed around his seminal Greek-influenced The Walking Man.

France - Paris Rodin Thinker.

The sculpture garden holds some of Rodin’s most famous monumental works.

The beautifully landscaped garden is an ideal backdrop for some of Rodin’s most famous monumental works, including the Gates of Hell, the Burghers of Calais and of course, The Thinker. The garden also includes an above average cafeteria restaurant tucked away in a shaded area at the rear of the property. In addition to its small dining room, it has a large outdoor seating space for a relaxing al fresco lunch in an art-filled setting in the heart of Paris.

Good to Know

  • Getting There – There is easy public transportation from anywhere in Paris to the museum: Métro stations Varenne (line 13) or Invalides (line 13, line 8), E.R station Invalides (line C) or Bus numbers 69, 82, 87 and 92.
  • Visiting – Musée Rodin, 77 Rue de Varenne, Paris. Tickets may be purchased ahead through the website. Open Tuesdays to Sundays from 10:00 A.M. to 5:45 P.M. Late night opening on Wednesday until 8:45 P.M. Closed Mondays and some public holidays. Contact: +33 (0)1 44 18 61 10.
  • Sculpture Garden – Although the sculpture garden is included in the Museum visit, it is possible to access it and restaurant only for a nominal fee (€4 at the time of my visit).

Location, location, location!

Rodin Museum

From Medieval Industry Center To Business and Art Powerhouse – Lille

From Medieval Industry Center To Business and Art Powerhouse – Lille

Once a thriving textile and coal industries center, Lille, France’s northernmost major city, became one of its most underrated in the aftermath of Word War II. To many foreign travelers it still tends to be merely the first continental stop of the Eurostar after it emerges from the 38-kilometer (23.5-mile) long Channel Tunnel (or Chunnel) under the English Channel, or the halfway point on the Thalys (also a high-speed train) route between Paris and Brussels. Yet those who take the time to get off and linger a few days are immediately charmed by the elegant Flemish Renaissance architecture of le Vieux Lille (Old Lille), its three internationally renowned art museums, a vibrant business center and the Lillois’ easy-going friendliness.

France - Lille Renaissance Architecture.

Lille offers fine examples of Flemish Renaissance architecture.

The history of Lille is a millennium-long tale of convoluted alliances and conflicts that saw what is now the French part of Flanders go from the quasi-independent French fiefdom of the Counts of Flanders to a province of the Duchy of Burgundy (1369), before passing under the rule of Austria (1477), then Spain (1556) before finally reverting to France in 1688. Through it all, Lille managed to flourish as a regional capital of industry and trade. And develop a cultural heritage well worth a visit.

The Grand’Place

France - Lille Old Stock Exchange.

The Old Stock Exchange courtyard is a hub of city life.

Surrounded by stately buildings that span four centuries of rich Flemish architecture, the 155-meter (510-foot) by 72-meter (245-foot) Grand’Place started out as a marketplace in the fourteenth century. Its oldest remaining building, la Vieille Bourse (the Old Stock Exchange) is a superb example of seventeenth century Flemish Renaissance style. It consists of 24 identical houses around a cloistered courtyard. To walk under the broad colonnade that runs around its perimeter is to experience a hub of city life where locals come to play chess or browse the stalls of secondhand booksellers and flower vendors.

France - Lille Chamber of Commerce.

The 1921 Chamber of Commerce and its iconic belfry

Also on the northeastern side of the square, separating the Grand’Place from the Place du Théâtre, the Grande Garde, built in 1717 as an army barrack to house the French royal guard, was converted after the First World War into the 444 seats Théâtre du Nord. Next door, La Voix du Nord (The Voice of the North, a newspaper) building with its traditional Flemish step-gabled façade is a 1930’s evocation of the ancient a architecture. In the center of the Grand’Place, the Column of the Goddess commemorates the successful resistance of Lille to the Austrian siege of 1792. In case you are wondering, the bronze goddess at the top is clutching a linstock (used to light the fuses on cannons) in her right hand.

L’Hospice Comtesse

France-Llle Hospice Comtesse Kitchen.

The kicthen of the Countess Hospital Museum.

From the Grand’Place, a ten-minute walk north through the meandering street of the old town, now lined with stylish boutiques, leads to the last significant vestige of the works of the Flemish Counts, the Musée de l’Hospice Comtesse (Countess Hospital Museum). Founded in 1237 by Countess Jeanne of Flandres within a wing of her own palace, the hospital was run by a religious community of the Saint Augustine order. Although the original building was destroyed by fire in 1468, it was immediately rebuilt, then expanded over the following centuries as a convent and the only major hospital in Lille until the end of the eighteenth century.

France-Lille Countess Hospital Ex Votoes

Ex voto portraits of children patients at the Countess Hospital.

Today, the ground floor of the convent contains a reconstitution of a Flemish home in the seventeenth centuries, including a kitchen with traditional Lille earthenware and Delft tiles. The refectory showcases carved furniture and fine tableware as well as exquisite paintings and art objects. The spiritual and hospital functions are highlighted in the chapel, dispensary and medicinal herb garden.

Le Palais des Beaux-Arts

France-Lille Palais des Beaux Arts.

The Palace of Fine Arts was one of the first museums in France

One of the first art museums established in France in the early nineteenth century under instructions of Napoleon I to popularize art, le Palais des Beaux-Arts (Palace of Fine Arts) holds the second largest art collections in France after the Louvre. Opened in 1809, it received a treasure-trove of works confiscated from churches and royal palaces. It was originally housed in a disused church until its permanent Belle Epoque-style home was inaugurated in 1898. The museum contains a first-rate collection of fifteenth to twentieth century paintings, including works by Raphael, Donatello, Rembrandt, Goya, El Greco, Rubens, David, Delacroix, Manet, Corot, and Monet as well as an extensive collection of classical archeology and medieval statuary. The basement features a department of unusual eighteenth century scale models of fortified cities in Northern France and Belgium that were used by the military of the time, and a 700-square meter (7,500-square foot) space dedicated to staging temporary exhibits.

Greater Lille Art Treasures

Beyond the city limit, the greater Lille metropolitan area is now graced with three notable art museums, each individually a worthwhile reason to visit the city.

France - Lille LAM

Metropolitan Lille Museum of Modern Art, Contemporary Art and Outsider Art.

Musée d’Art Moderne, Villeneuve d’Ascq – With a permanent collection of over 7,000 works and 4,000 square meters (43,000 square feet) of exhibit space, the Lille Métropole Musée d’Art Moderne, d’Art Contemporain et d’Art Brut (Metropolitan Lille Museum of Modern Art, Contemporary Art and Outsider Art), mercifully shortened LAM, opened in 1983. It is the only museum in France and northern Europe to feature all the main components of twentieth and twenty-first century art.


France - Lille La Piscine

The Swimming Pool – Museum of Art and Industry.

La Piscine-Musée d’Art et d’Industrie André Diligent, Roubaix. Once a spectacular Art Deco public baths facility inaugurated in 1932, the building has been brilliantly repurposed in 1985 into an art gallery that is home to the artistic and industrial heritage of the town. The Olympic-length central pool is lined with nineteenth and twentiest century sculptures and paintings, mainly by local artists, and the changing booths now hold an extensive collection of displays related to the textile industries.

France-Lens Louve Museum

The Louvre-Lens building is a minimalist creation of glass and brushed aluminum.

Musée Louvre-Lens – Inaugurated in December 2012, the Louvre-Lens is a major example of the success of recent joint efforts between the French Ministry of Culture, the great national museums and the regional governments to decentralize cultural institutions. The building is a minimalist creation of glass and brushed aluminum that blends into the horizon. At its core the 120-meter (400-foot) long Galerie du Temps (Gallery of Time) leads visitors through 5,000 years of Ancient and European art history.

Villa 30

France-Lille Villa 30

The breakfast room at Villa 30.

Although Lille is easily accessible for day trips from Paris, London, Brussels and other nearby European cities, I prefer to linger a day or two, especially now that I have had the good fortune to come across Villa 30. This 1930’s townhouse on a quiet street of the center of town, thoughtfully remodeled into an intimate bed-and-breakfast in 2010, is located within easy walking distance of all the city’s main attractions. The five comfortable rooms decorated in a smart contemporary style and attentive host Julien Desenclos make Villa 30 a welcoming home away from home. And the hearty breakfast served in the light-filled breakfast room with its stunning Art Deco stain glass bay window is a perfect start to any day.

Good to know

        • Getting there – Lille is easily reached by train, with frequent TVG (high-speed train) direct connections throughout the day from Paris (1 hour), Brussels (35 minutes), London, (1:30 hour), Amsterdam (2:40 hours) and other main western European cities. There are two train stations, the new Lille-Europe that serves the EuroStar, Thalys and most TGV high-speed lines, and Lille Flandre, the original station that now serves a mix of local and high-speed trains. Both are in the center of town, less than a 10-minute walk from each other.
        • Getting Around – To explore the old town and the city center, walking is the best option. To get around the greater metropolitan area, Lille has a comprehensive public transport network (Transpole) with two automatic metro lines (the world’s first automatic subway in the world when it went into service in 1983), two tramway lines and over 60 bus routes.
        • Where to StayVilla 30, 24 Rue du Plat, 59000, Lille. Contact: email Tel +33 (0) 3 66 73 61 30.
        • Visiting
          Musée de l’Hospice Comtesse, 32 Rue de la Monnaie, Lille. Open Monday from 2:00 P.M. to 6:00 P.M. and Wednesday through Sunday from 10:00 A.M. to 12:30 P.M. and 2:00 P.M. to 6:00 P.M. Closed Monday morning, all day Tuesday and some public holidays. Contact: Tel. +33 (0) 3 28 36 84 00.
          Palais des Beaux Arts, Place de la République, Lille. Open Monday from 2:00 P.M. to 6:00 P.M. and Wednesday through Sunday from 10:00 to 6:00 P.M. Closed Monday morning, all day Tuesday and some public holidays. Contact:: +33 (0) 3 20 06 78 00. 
          Lille Métropole Musée d’Art Moderne, d’Art Contemporain et d’Art Brut, (LAM), 1 Allée du Musée, Villeneuve-d’Ascq. Open Tuesday through Sunday from 10:00 to 6:00 P.M. Closed Monday and some public holidays. Contact: Tel +33 (0) 3 20 19 68 68.
          La Piscine-Musée d’Art et d’Industrie André Diligent, 23 Rue de l’Espérance, Roubaix. Open Tuesday through Thursday from 11:00 A.M. to 6:00 P.M., Friday from 11:00 A.M. to 8:00 P.M., and Saturday from 1:00 P.M. to 6:00 P.M. Closed Monday and some public holidays. Contact: Tel +33 (0) 3 20 60 23 60.
          Musée Louvre-Lens, 99 Rue Paul Bert, Lens. http://www.louvre-lens/en/. Open Wednesday through Monday from 10:00 A.M. to 6:00 P.M. Closed Tuesday and some public holidays. Contact: Tel +33 (0) 3 21 18 62 62.
          La Citadelle – For military architecture buffs, this massive star-shaped fortress located at the northwestern end of the Boulevard de la Liberté, was designed by renowned 17th-century French military architect Vauban after France captured Lille in 1667. It still functions as a French and NATO military base. Guided tours are available on Sundays in summer through the Tourism Information Center, Palais Rihour, 42 Place Rihour, Lille. Contact: Tel +33 (0) 3 20 21 94 21. This is the only way to see the inside of the Citadelle.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Lille, France