In Metropolitan Lille, Villeneuve-d’Ascq is a new town that happens to have many of the top days out in the region. This place is rooted in the technology sector, and you could almost say it’s where Lille’s citizens come to learn.
There are museums for everything, from the exceptional LaM art museum to open-air attractions that send you back to the post-War period, medieval times or pre-history. Families with younger children will get the most out of Villeneuve-d’Ascq, but if you’re into top-level sport you can get a ticket for a Lille OSC match during the football season. Lille’s old centre is minutes from the town so the landmarks and nightlife of a big city will always be at hand.
Lets explore the best things to do in Villeneuve-d’Ascq:
Longhand this is called the Lille Métropole Museum of Modern, Contemporary and Outsider Art.
And it’s an extraordinary museum, presenting every important movement in art over the 20th and 21st centuries.
There are epochal pieces by artists like Picasso, Miró, Kandinsky, Modigliani, Fernand Léger and Georges Braque.
These are backed up by a sculpture garden and a wing for the Art Brut movement from the first decades of the 20th century: If you want to see some “out there” stuff, this section has pieces by self-taught painters and “visionary artists” who believed they could communicate with other worlds.
2. Parc du Héron
A generous 110-hectare natural space next to the LaM, the Parc du Héron has meadows beside a large lake.
If you’re wondering about the park’s name it’s because this is a regional nature reserves for herons, and you’ll have no trouble spotting this species on the shores of the lake.
Herons are also just one of 235 bird species in the park, among them European orioles, cuckoos, doves and chickadees.
There’s also an educational farm here, the Ferme du Héron, with donkeys, a handful of raptors and several flightless birds.
3. Château de Flers
Villeneuve-d’Ascq’s tourist office is housed in this delightful Flemish-style mansion built in 1661. It encapsulate the region’s architecture, right down to the crow-stepped gables.
Check out the coffered wooden ceilings in side and the lovely 18th-century arcaed gallery that opens out onto the gardens.
In all it’s a superb way to start your visit to Villeneuve-d’Ascq.
There are regular temporary shows about the town’s past, and on heritage days the entire building is opened up for tours.
4. Musée de Plein Air
A classic outdoor museum, this attraction has 23 traditional rural houses saved from demolition and transferred here in the 1990s to form a little hamlet.
These buildings came from several provinces in the north of France, like Artois, Picardy, French Flanders and Hainaut, and the oldest building goes back to the 1500s.
You’ll get up to speed the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region’s diverse rural heritage in a bucolic environment of thatched cottages, vegetable patches, animal enclosures and workshops for various village crafts.
There’s also a Flemish brasserie on the site cooking traditional stews.
5. Musée du Terroir
Another museum that puts you in touch with days of yore is this 18th-century farmhouse, listed as a French historic monument.
It’s a snapshot of domestic post-War life in the region, so there’s laundry, schoolroom, forge, dairy, kitchen and workshops for saddling and clog-making.
Like all the local museums the Musée du Terroir insists on children getting involved: They can try ironing with cast irons, hammering tools at the forge, taking an apprenticeship as a carpenter and making traditional Flemish waffles.
6. Musée des Moulins
In the Cousinerie district the Musée des Moulins has two 18th-century windmills.
One was for oil and the other for flour, and both were brought to this site in the 70s and 80s to be opened to visitors.
With modern exhibits you’ll be presented with all the technical aspects of flour milling and oil production.
You’ll also go on a little trip through the history of milling, from Neolithic grinding stones to modern wheels and rollers.
Kids will discover all the forces exploited to make flour, like manpower and animal-power in the early days, and later water, wind, steam and gas.
7. Forum Départemental des Sciences
This cultural centre, run by the Nord Department, is unusual as it deals with matters of science and technology rather than art.
The centre is aimed mainly at kids, and aims to fire their curiosity for the world around them.
There’s a gigantic exhibition space solely for temporary exhibitions that are updated every few months.
These are all cleverly curated and handle anything from police forensics to prehistoric mammoths and sustainability.
The galleries are complemented by a planetarium with the three shows on Saturdays and Sundays and two on Wednesdays.
Right on the Parc du Héron is another edifying outdoor museum.
This one is devoted to archaeology and has recreatred historic dwellings ranging from a Palaeolithic tent to a medieval farmstead.
The attraction has been built using information discovered at the many archaeological sites in the region, one right in Villeneuve d’Ascq where a Gallo-Roman farm was unearthed.
The grandest of the buildings is the Roman Villa, but every one of them has something going on: Kids can try on armour, taste medieval food, have a go at archery and watch demonstrations of historic crafts.
9. Mémorial Ascq 1944
This museum recalls a dark episode towards the end of the German occupation in France.
After the railway line in Ascq had been sabotaged, the retribution by the SS was brutal, and 86 people were executed.
The displays in the museum chart the village of Ascq’s journey through the 20th century: You’ll begin with First World War, and then learn about reconstruction, the Second World War, the years under Occupation and finally the climate building up to the massacre April 1 1944. Near the railway track there’s a memorial completed in 1955 to commemorate the site of the massacre.
10. Lille OSC
The city’s football team is based in Villeneuve-d’Ascq at the new Stade Pierre-Mauroy.
This cathedral-like 50,186-capacity stadium was constructed in 2012 and hosted six matches during EURO 2016. Lille play in Ligue 1, the highest division in French football, and even won the championship in 2011. Since then the team has been up and down, and as matches rarely sell out you should have no trouble getting a ticket to see “Les Dogues” during the season from August to May.
In 2017 things should get even more unpredictable as the mercurial Argentine coach Marcelo Bielsa will take charge in June.
While you’re engrossed in Villeneuve-d’Ascq’s museums you can’t forget that the city of Lille has an outdoor museum of its own just moments away.
The old centre is a wonderland of cute shops, animated bars, enticing restaurants and exuberant architecture going back to before this city was French.
On the cobblestone streets you can gaze at Baroque 17th-century mansions with decorative mouldings on their facades and Flemish-style gables.
Place aux Oignons is one of many gorgeous little corners; this square is enclosed by noble, tall houses now containing fine restaurants, while the Rue des Arts is lined with cultured townhouses in all sorts of styles.
12. Palais des Beaux-Arts
Lille’s fine arts museum is a product of the Revolution, founded at the start of the 19th century mostly with painting and sculpture seized in the 1790s.
The aristocracy’s loss is our gain because there’s a stupendous amout of art here.
The museum excels in the Renaissance and Baroque, with pieces by Donatello, Veronese, Jacob Jordaens, van Dyck and Rubens to marvel at.
Later there’s Delacroix, Seurat, Goya and Courbet and sculpture by Bourdelle, Claudel and Houdon.
The museum also has an intriguing set of “plans-reliefs”, huge Flemish 3D military maps from the 17th and 18th century.
13. Grand Place
When you step onto this lively square in the centre of Lille you’ll be in no doubt that you’re in an important centre.
In the middle is a monument dedicated to the city’s resistance to Austrian forces during a siege in 1792, and on all sides there’s imposing architecture from the 1600s to the 1900s.
But if there’s one that needs a closer look it’s the Vielle Bourse, an astounding 17th-century Mannerist building with a central courtyard.
This was Lille’s stock exchange, and almost 400 years later merchants have been replaced by book stalls and people playing chess.
14. Other Ideas
In Metropolitan Lille you’ll have to be organised to fit every great experience in.
There’s a staggering choice of cultural venues and restaurants in the city, but also family days out and one-off experiences in the conurbation.
Cycling fans will know all about the mythical Paris-Roubaix race every mid-April, known as the Hell of the North.
Roubaix also has the La Piscine, a stunning museum made from a converted Art Deco swimming pool.
Back in Lille there’s the zoo, which as well as being humane and having lots of exotic inhabitants, is also completely free.
And if you like industrial brick architecture, there are tons of listed former factories across the conurbation, some of which have been turned into attractions like the Maison Folie Wazemmes and the Manufacture des Flandres.
15. Food and Drink
There are several Michelin-starred restaurants in Lille, but you don’t need to pay much to eat well in this part of France.
The cuisine is very similar to Belgium, and the big local dish is moules-frites: Mussels, usually in a white wine and shallot sauce with French fries.
And in this region beer is the normally the drink of choice, whether dark, white, amber or blonde, on draught or in bottles.
Beer even goes into the food, like the delicious beef stew carbonnade flamande, also served with fries, or Le Welsh, the local take on a Welsh rarebit.