The small town of Armentières is right on the Belgian border, 15 minutes from Lille and just 20 minutes from the Belgian city of Ypres. If you’d like to keep your holiday local there’s a lake with an activity centre and beach, as well as an assortment of open farms and quaint, rural museums to browse.
But maybe you’re curious about the delicious local beer, First World War history or UNESCO World Heritage belfries. You could indulge that curiosity for days at cute old towns, breweries, hop farms, battlefields and war museums. And with Lille at your fingertips there’s no excuse not to see what you can find.
Lets explore the best things to do in Armentieres:
1. Beffroi d’Armentières
The indisputable must-see in Armentières is the red brick and limestone belfry, which is attached to the town hall.
This UNESCO-listed building echoes the history of the town, having been wrecked and then proudly rebuilt, first in the middle ages and then after the First World War.
The architecture now is neo-Flemish, and the stained glass windows honour the old local trades of beer brewing, spinning and weaving.
There are 200 steps to the top where you’ll be wowed by a 360° panorama of the town and the Hauts-de-France and Belgian countryside.
Tours are held on specific days in summer, or by appointment with Armentières’ tourist office.
2. Église Saint Vaast
Armentières’ church is on a cathedral-like scale with a bell-tower that soars to 83 metres, the highest point in the town.
Once again, the church’s story is one of destruction and rebirth, going right back to the 800s.
And in 1921, while the church was still in ruins, the Supreme Allied Commander Marshal Foch attended a special mass here to present a Croix de Guerre medal to the town for its service in the war.
The rebuilt exterior is Neo-Renaissance, while inside has more Gothic and is decorated with lovely stained glass and several paintings, including “Christ aux Outrages”, which is a historical monument of its own.
For a medium-sized town Armentières has a serosuly impressive public square: Grand-Place spreads out around its town hall and belfry and fronts the Église Saint Vaast.
A big section of this square has been pedestrianised in the last few years, isolating the belfry at the centre and making it seem even more impressive.
In summer there’s no better place to be in the town than at one of the cafe or restaurant terraces with a cool beer in hand, pondering the Flemish-style houses and the town’s small but striking set of monuments.
4. Les Prés du Hem
Next to Armentières, in 120 hectares of green parkland around a vast lake is an activity centre with dozens of things to do.
On sunny days you could visit to laze on the beach, go kayaking, hire a pedal boat or even take a sailing lesson.
For the littlest visitors there’s also a miniature railway that hugs the western shore of the lake and is also a handy way of reaching some of the facilities.
The remoter north shore is a bird sanctuary, and hides have been set up for nature spotters.
To the south there’s also a great public garden with playgrounds, a cafe and a little farm with pigs, cows, sheep, rabbits and donkeys.
5. Petit Musée de la Gaufre
You could pass a fun couple of days without ever straying far from the town, as there’s a quirky assortment of small museums.
Just five minutes from Grand Place in Armentières is the Petit Musée de la Gaufre.
Around old flaming fireplaces an artisan will talk you through the history and techniques of authentic waffle-making.
There’s a collection of vintage waffle-making equipment, and the visit ends with a chance to try waffles for yourself.
In French Flanders the waffles are oval, their indentations are smaller, and they come topped with brown sugar.
6. Musée de la Bataille de Fromelles
In all directions the countryside is peppered with graveyards and memorials to the First World War.
Armentières had its own devastating battle in 1918, but the nearest major museum is 10 minutes down the road outside Fromelles.
Here you’ll learn about the bloodiest battle ever faced by the Australian army, in which up to 7,500 people lost their lives in just 14 hours.
The museum opened in 2014 next to the Pheasant Wood Military Cemetery and has artefacts handed down or recovered from the battlefield, life-sized dioramas of the trenches and accounts by some of the men involved.
7. La Ferme Beck
Outside Bailleul, around 15 minutes from Armentières, there’s a rural attraction that will take you to the heart of the region’s love affair with beer.
It’s only a small operation, but every stage of the beer-making process is revealed, from hop and yeast cultivation to fermentation and bottling.
All of this is done with old-time methods, and using water well fed by a natural spring.
Kids can meet and feed the draft horses, and there’s a restaurant serving the home-made beer and hearty Flemish fare.
8. Lille’s Historic Centre
You’ll find yourself in the middle of this wonderful city in no time at all, idling on cobblestone streets flanked by gorgeous 17th-century houses.
You could wander for hours and not get bored, but there are a few indispensable sights before you start your tour.
The Vieille Bourse (Old Stock Exchange) is 24 Mannerist houses configured around an atmospheric courtyard.
On either side are two squares, the monumental Grand’Place and the no less refined Place du Théâtre.
This is where Lille’s own Art Deco belfry springs from the city hall, and climbs to more than 104 metres, making it the tallest belfry in Europe.
9. Palais des Beaux-Arts de Lille
You’ll have to drive all the way to Paris to find an art museum that can match this one in Lille.
There’s painting from the 1400s to the 1900s by a stupendous roll-call of artists: Rubens, Rembrandt, Picasso, Goya, Manet, Seurat, El Greco, van Dyck, Courbet and Delacroix to name a few.
The sculpture collection is also astounding, with pieces by Antoine Bourdelle, Camille Claudel and Carolus-Duran.
There’s also a set of plans-reliefs, 3D military maps from the 17th and 18th centuries that you won’t find anywhere else.
These are massive and in astonishing detail, depicting cities like Lille, Ypres and Calais as they were 300 years ago.
10. Zoo de Lille
The closest of Lille’s days out to Armentières, the Zoo de Lille has the bonus of being free for children under five.
The location helps too, as the attraction is at the foot of Vauban’s star-shaped citadel.
There are 450 inhabitants from 70 species, among which are gibbons, tapirs, rhinos, zebras, alpacas, capybaras and red pandas.
In the Maison Tropicale there’s a variety of reptiles like boas, turtles and iguanas, as well as jungle primates like tamarins and marmosets.
The aviary is also a joy, with parrots and snowy owls, and the added fun of meerkats scurrying around.
This likeable town is 15 minutes up the road on the French side of the border.
If you’re on the UNESCO belfry trail there’s another listed example here.
Like the one in Armentières it was restored after the war, but kept the same style it had before 1914. You can clamber up the stairs to the top, 63 metres above the town, and every 15 minutes will hear the chime of the 35-bell carillon in the campanile.
If you need another reason stop by Bailleul, there’s the Musée Benoît-De-Puydt founded by a wealthy art lover who amassed a small trove of Renaissance and Baroque painting by artists like Pieter Brueghel the Younger, Gerard David and Henri met de Bles.
This city radiates history and is still encircled by a ring of ramparts.
There’s a World Heritage belfry here too, but this one is attached to another kind of medieval wonder.
The Gothic Cloth Hall was completed at the start of the 14th century as a place of commerce.
As one of the largest medieval buildings in the world it represented Ypres’ status as a centre of trade.
The building was almost completely destroyed in the war, but was reconstructed stone-by-stone in a meticulous 30-year restoration, finished in 1967. Also see the majestic cathedral, dating to the 14th century and with a spire more than a hundred metres high.
13. Last Post Ceremony in Ypres
The Menin Gate in Ypres is the scene for this daily ceremony, in which buglers from the town’s fire brigade sound the Last Post.
The ceremony is usually held at 20:00 and has taken place every evening since 1927, apart from the five-year interruption during the Second World War.
The ritual is a show of thanks towards people who gave their lives in defence of Belgium’s freedom.
The gate itself was inaugurated in 1927 in memory of missing fighters from the First World War, and has a significant location, marking the beginning of the route soldiers would take from the town to the front line.
14. Lys River Cruise
L’Armentières 2000 is a 100-seater vessel with a glass roof, operated by the town’s tourist office in the summer.
It glides along the Lys, serving the activity centre at Les Prés du Hem.
The river has the best perspective of the local industrial heritage that would otherwise be off limits.
On the banks are old brick mills and warehouses for the spinning and weaving industry from the 1800s, as well as the splendid Brasserie Motte Cordonnier.
This is a defunct 19th-century brewery that is protected as a historic monument, but lies empty while plans are being drawn up for a possible museum inside.
15. Regional Food and Drink
We’ve seen already that beer is almost a way of life in this part of France.
And not far across the border in Watou is the St Bernardus brewery, which makes some of the most praised beers in the world.
On the French side there are 20 breweries in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region, which place it with Alsace as the biggest producer in France.
Beer seeps into the local diet too and is the cornerstone of dishes like coq à la bière, the Welsch (which is a welsh rarebit) and the much-loved carbonade flamande, a stew made with beef and normally served with fries.