Embedded in the massive European Metropolis of Lille, Roubaix was an industrial boom town in the 19th century when it was boosted by a thriving textile trade.
By the end of the 20th century this industry had dwindled and the city had to find a new identity.
But a lot of the splendour from the glory days is waiting if you know where to look.
Exciting new cultural attractions have opened up and Roubaix’s huge outlet mall has become a cross-border shopping destination.
There’s much to keep you entertained in these parts, but you’re also never far from Lille and the neighbouring towns in the conurbation, which all deserve a visit.
Lets explore the best things to do in Roubaix:
1. La Piscine Museum
The city’s museum opened in 2000 and is nothing short of spectacular.
For starters the venue is a converted 1930s Art Deco swimming pool: The pool chamber, its galleries, tiled walls and fabulous stained window form the main exhibition hall, while a former textile factory next door provides further exhibition space.
It’s all a cultured backdrop for exhibits that chart Roubaix’s textile industry and its incredible archive of thousands of samples dating back to 1835. There are also fabrics from Ancient Egypt, a revolving fashion collection, fine ceramics and painting by the likes of Tsugouharu Foujita.
2. La Manufacture
It’s only right that you should pull on the cloth-making thread while you’re in Roubaix.
The city has maintained its textile heritage at La Manufacture, a museum in the former Craye factory.
The 19th-century building is gigantic, and when you enter you’re struck by a hall of machines from different periods.
There are hand-operated looms from medieval times and 21st-century computerised machines, as well as all of the equipment that was here when the factory shut down.
Textile workers put on demonstrations with this machinery, and the museum has also kept an emotive audio archive of accounts about the old times from foremen, weavers and spinners.
3. Villa Cavroix
You can see where a big chunk of the textile wealth was spent at this astonishing modernist house in Croix.
Villa Cavroix was built for Paul Cavrois, a textile industrialist and designed by the illustrious Robert Mallet-Stevens.
The residence was cutting-edge when it was finished in 1932, and has only recently been restored and opened to the public after decades of neglect.
But everything is as it was in the 1930s, although some rooms have been left clear of furniture to let you appreciate the mastery of Mallet-Stevens’ design, and the exceptional quality of the marble and wood used for panelling and floors.
4. Parc Barbieux
Found just to the south of the centre, Roubaix’ main park has an interesting origin story: The water channel that meanders through the centre of the park is the vestige on abortive attempt to link the centre of Roubaix with the Marque River.
That project began in 1840 but was abandoned half-way though, before the banks and mounds that the works left behind were turned into a flowing English garden at the turn of the 20th century.
Come here in summer if you’re stuck for things to do with the family as there’s a mini-golf course, pedalos, rowing boats, a pétanque court and a smattering of kiosks.
5. Église Saint-Martin
There has been a church on this spot for around a thousand years, and although nothing remains from the Romanesque building the nave has columns that were sculpted in the 1400s.
The rest was given a comprehensive neo-Gothic makeover in the middle of the 19th century.
The architect in charge was Charles Leroy, who had a prodigious output all across the North of France and especially in the Lille area.
Inside, take a peek at the polychrome altarpiece of St John the Baptist, dating to around 1540, as well as paintings by the vaunted 19th-century fresco artist Victor Mottez.
6. City Hall
Roubaix’s Hôtel de Ville is a wonderful document of when the city was at its peak.
Victor Laloux, the man who designed the Gare d’Orsay (now Musée) in Paris, was commissioned for the job with 1903. Together with the sculptor Alphonse-Amédée Cordonnier he created a Neo-Renaissance ode to the city’s textile industry.
Look for the frieze on the facade of the central pavilion, which has six 2.40-metre figures representing all of the activities that were the lifeblood of Roubaix: Cotton-harvesting, cotton-washing, spinning, weaving, dyeing and conditioning.
Roubaix Velodrome is the finish line for the legendary Paris-Roubaix cycle race.
On the UCI World Tour, this one-day event in mid-April is a “Monument” or classic.
Winning the Paris-Roubaix is a big achievement for pro-riders, but it doesn’t come easy as much of the course is on rough country tracks and cobblestones.
The surface is so hard-going that the race has been dubbed Hell on the North and a Sunday in Hell, and special gear has been designed specifically for the course.
Whether you’re watching along the gruelling route or at the finish line no cycle fanatic will want to miss this spectacle.
8. McArthurGlen Roubaix
A pillar of the city’s redevelopment program is this sizeable designer outlet, which opened a few years ago a couple of minutes south of the centre.
The mall pulls in shoppers from Lille and across the border in Belgium, and has 75 stores for a catalogue of premium and designer brands: Calvin Klein, Guess, Lacoste, Desigual.
..you name it, they’re here.
Dotted among the stores are a few places to rest your weary legs and get lunch or a cup of coffee, plus you’ve got free Wi-Fi, a children’s play area and helpful staff that are trained in several languages.
9. Usine Motte-Bossut
None of Roubaix’s other industrial behemoths come close to this old cotton mill for whimsy and grandeur.
The Usine Motte-Bossut looks like a giant castle, with an entrance like a gatehouse and a chimney stack shaped like a turret.
There’s no missing it, as the factory was built next to the Roubaix Canal, right in the middle of the city on Rue du Général-Leclerc.
The bulk of the building is from the 1840s but extensions were made up to the 1920s.
It all closed down in the 80s but was soon renovated and now holds the National Archives of the World of Work, part of the French Ministry of Culture.
10. Verlaine Message Museum
Under ten minutes from Roubaix, in Tourcoing, is a museum in a huge Nazi bunker at the former headquarters of the 15th German Army.
Radio Londres was the French Resistance station broadcasting from London during the war.
On 5 June 1944, the night before the Normandy Invasions, it sent out coded messages in the form of snippets of poetry by the likes of Paul Verlaine to warn the Resistance to mobilise.
This is the German bunker that first intercepted those messages, and you have a lot to pore over down here: There’s communications equipment, a generator, signal detectors and all kinds of military paraphernalia.
11. Brasserie Cambier
On the way to Lille in the town of Croix there’s a craft brewery putting on tours every Saturday afternoon.
Cambier is a throwback to the breweries that used to be a mainstay of cities in the Nord region in the 19th and 20th centuries.
On the tour you’ll be guided around the brewhouse for an accessible step-by-step explanation of how Cambier make their “Mongy” craft beer, which comes in several varieties including blonde, IPA and triple.
It all ends with a tasting session and the chance to buy a bottle or two.
Make sure you pick up one of the brewery’s stylish glasses to take home.
Lille’s Modern Art Museum is in Villeneuve-d’Ascq, under 15 minutes from Roubaix if the traffic is kind.
The institution has a lofty status in Europe because its collections bridge all of the 20th and 21st century’s big movements.
It’s also one of the world’s top museums for Outsider Art or Art Brut: This movement celebrated self-taught recluses and psychiatric ward patients, and their paintings still hold the power to fascinate and shock.
For contemporary art you have the likes of Pierre Soulages and Daniel Buren, while the20th-century galleries are sensational packed with works by Picasso, Modigliani, Braque, Paul Klee and Joan Miró.
13. Old Lille
You can’t say no to a a sightseeing trip to Lille’s venerable centre as it’s only a few minutes down the road.
The entre core of the city is protected, and you’ll know why when you walk its cobblestone streets.
Lille’s Flemish influence is obvious in graceful monuments like the Mannerist 17th-century Vieille Bourse, where the city’s merchants would thrash out deals.
On the neighbouring Grand Place with its stately gabled buildings you’ll be in no doubt that you’re in a major urban centre.
Tick off the world-class Palais des Beaux-Arts, the Renaissance Lbirairie Furet du Nort, Lille’s UNESCO-listed belfry and return to Roubaix exhausted but satisfied!
14. Parc Zoologique
For a low-cost day of family fun look no further than Lille’s Parc de la Citadelle: Beside the bastions of Vauban’s 17th-century military base is the city’s zoo, open from spring to autumn.
Youngsters will be thrilled to see zebras, panthers, rhinos, monkeys and all kinds of tropical birds.
The best thing for parents is that the zoo is run by the municipality and is absolutely free.
The entire park is ringed by the Deûle Canal, which affords gentle walks on its leafy banks, and the park’s lawns are dotted with exotic tree species, like the giant sequoia planted in the 1800s,.
15. Food and Drink
So close to the border, and in a region of France that was Flemish for much of its past, the cuisine is a comforting blend of French and Belgian.
In cosy traditional “brasseries” many of the specialities will be cooked with beer, and this goes for the “Welsh”, the local name for a Welsh rarebit: Cheese melted with beer, mustard and spices and slathered on toast.
Beer is also the base for carbonade flamande, a braised beef stew, and goes into the batter for beignets (traditional donuts) and even crêpes!