Sights of Lens, France

Once one of France's most important centres for coal mining, Lens is now economically somewhat off the beaten track. In the course of the 2016 European Football Championship, the former mining town was awakened from its slumber as a tourist destination.

Lens was once one of the country's most important areas for coal mining. Today, 200 km north of Paris and 35 km south of Lille, Lens is not only geographically off the beaten track. The town in the north of France is practically non-existent on the tourist map, and hardly any French holidaymakers have the former mining centre on their itinerary.


PICTURES: Lens town centre

Photo gallery: Lens city centre

Lens - a story of boom and bust

The dark cones of the coal mountains frame the town of Lens and remind us of its great past as one of the mining centres of France - © MarnixR CC BY-SA4.0/Wiki
© MarnixR CC BY-SA4.0/Wiki

Promising coal deposits were first discovered in the north of France in 1660. Targeted excavations from 1716 onwards uncovered further mines, which were mined on a large scale from the late 18th century under the umbrella of the Compagnie des mines d'Anzin, founded in 1757.

During the First World War, the town suffered severe damage and coal production temporarily came to a standstill. Reconstruction after the end of the war was thwarted by the Second World War, during which Lens again suffered heavily from Anglo-American bombing.

In the 1960s, coal mining experienced a new boom and the economy in Lens flourished once again. For three centuries, urban planning and working conditions in Lens were one hundred percent geared to mining.

In 1986, however, mining was over and the last coal mine was closed. This was a tragedy for the economy of Lens, because today the town of around 30,000 inhabitants is one of the poorest in France, plagued by unemployment and emigration.

Increasingly, attempts are being made to boost tourism in Lens. Among other things, the historic buildings of the coal industry are being used for this purpose.

The Stade Bollaert Delelis football stadium, one of the ten venues for the Euro 2016, and the Louvre-Lens, a branch of the famous Louvre in Paris, should also help to breathe life into the city, which hardly exists in terms of tourism.


Northern French coalfield as a World Heritage Site

The former coal mine 9 of the Northern French coalfield in Lens is now home to the Louvre-Lens Art Museum, France - © Jérémy Jännick GFDL-1.2/Wiki
© Jérémy Jännick GFDL-1.2/Wiki

The abandoned collieries and dark coal cones are still silent witnesses of a once flourishing mining town. The remains of coal mining in the Nord and Pas de Calais regions have been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2012 as the Northern French Coalfield.

On an area of around 120,000 hectares, more than 100 buildings document the past of the former economic miracle, which played an important role in the history of European industry.

In addition to abandoned collieries, the Northern French Coalfield also includes railway tracks, workers' housing estates, schools, hospitals, company buildings, former entrepreneurs' residences, town halls, sports facilities and churches.

Tour of the sights in Lens

The collieries of Lens, where coal was mined for over three centuries, are now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, France - © Jérémy Jännick CC BY-NC-ND 3.0/Wiki
© Jérémy Jännick CC BY-NC-ND 3.0/Wiki

Lens consists mainly of red-brick houses and social buildings whose crumbling substance betrays their age. Conveniently, the main sights of Lens are all within a good hour's walk and can easily be visited in a day.

The station in the centre of Lens is a good starting point. Right next to it, at the beginning of Rue de la Gare, is the tourist information centre.

Gare de Lens (Train Station)

The Lens railway station represents the shape of a locomotive and was designated a "monument historique" of France in 1984 - © Under CC BY-SA3.0/Wiki
© Under CC BY-SA3.0/Wiki

The station in the centre of Lens was built between 1926 and 1927 and is the perfect starting point for a tour of the city. Both the French high-speed train TGV and the regional transport provider Transport express régional (TER) serve the Gare de Lens.

Travellers arriving in Lens by train are also only a 30-minute walk from Lens' two most visited attractions:

  • The Stade Bollaert Delelis football stadium, which was one of the ten venues for the 2016 European Football Championship, is located less than 2 kilometres north-west of the station.
  • The Louvre-Lens art museum, which attracts around 400,000 visitors a year to the north of France, is half an hour's walk away

Train station in the shape of a locomotive

The speaking design of the Gare de Lens comes from the French architect Urbain Cassan, who designed the architecture of the station in the shape of a steam locomotive. Simplicity and low cost were the guiding principles of the design at the time.


The station buildings of different heights represent the engine room, which is closed off by a 23-metre-high tower as a smoke stack. In 1984, the station was designated a "monument historique", a historical national monument of France.

Église Saint-Léger

The majestic Église Saint-Léger in the centre of Lens is the main church of the town in the north of France - © Velvet CC BY-SA3.0/Wiki
© Velvet CC BY-SA3.0/Wiki

Via Rue Berthelot, you come to what is probably the prettiest sight in Lens, the Église Saint-Léger. Destroyed twice in the war, the current church dates from the 1920s, but its design is very similar to the earlier designs.

The Église Saint-Léger is entered through the entrance portal, over which the bell tower towers. In addition to the main portal, the vestibule behind it can also be entered through two side portals. The elongated nave, lined with columns and lancet windows, gives the place of worship an air of grandeur.

Tip: Take a look inside the chapel of the victims of the First World War. A 17th century statue of Our Lady is kept there, the only remnant of the destroyed porches.

History of the Église Saint-Léger de Lens

Today's Église Saint-Léger of Lens dates from the 1920s and has been rebuilt for the third time, France - © Velvet CC BY-SA3.0/Wiki
© Velvet CC BY-SA3.0/Wiki

Today's church is already the third to be built on this site. According to historical records, the first church was built as early as the 10th century, probably under Minister Eustachius. During the Thirty Years' War, the church suffered severe damage, which was only repaired in a makeshift fashion.

In May 1776, the construction of a new church began, but it soon functioned only as a powder and storage depot and was again razed to the ground during the First World War.

Today's Saint-Léger church is made of sturdy reinforced concrete. The decision to build was taken in 1921, the foundation stone was laid on 8 June 1924 and the church was consecrated by the Bishop of Arras just under two years later, on 24 May 1926.

The church survived the Second World War largely unscathed, so that the building did not undergo its next extensive renovation until 1996.


Église Saint-Edouard

The pretty Église Saint-Edouard in Lens has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2012 as part of the Northern French Coalfield - © Jérémy-Günther-Heinz Jähnick PD/Wiki
© Jérémy-Günther-Heinz Jähnick PD/Wiki

The next church on the tour of Lens is northwest of the Église Saint-Léger on Avenue Saint-Edouard. The pretty red church with the pointed bell tower dates from the first quarter of the 20th century and was also declared a "monument historique" in 2009.

As part of the Northern French Coalfield, it has also been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2012.

On the way to the Église Saint-Edouard, you also pass the Mosque of Lens and Avenue de la fossé 12 with its historic mining buildings.


The University of Artois, here the main university building in Lens, was only founded in 1992 as one of the youngest universities in France - © Mikaël Restoux CC BY-SA3.0/Wiki
© Mikaël Restoux CC BY-SA3.0/Wiki

Towering from the Église Saint-Edouard on the other side of the Route de Béthune is the Lens University building, which teaches geology, geography and natural sciences. It belongs to the University of Artois, one of the youngest universities in France, founded only in 1992.

In addition to Arras as its headquarters and Lens, the University of Artois can also be found in the northern French towns of Béthune, Douai and Liévin, all of which cover specific subject areas.

Louvre-Lens Art Museum

The sprawling museum buildings of the Louvre-Lens form a modern branch of the famous art museum in Paris, France - © Julien Lanoo CC BY2.0/Wiki
© Julien Lanoo CC BY2.0/Wiki

Via the Avenue des Lilas, we head south again to the Église Saint-Théodore. Next to it, Rue de la Rochefoucauld leads to the Louvre-Lens Art Museum, Lens' most famous and most visited attraction.

The Louvre-Lens is a branch of the world-famous art museum in Paris, but with the latest technology and an open-minded approach, it shows itself to be more modern, lively and relaxed than its conservative - and more expensive - counterpart in the French capital.


The light-flooded museum shows exhibits from the Louvre in Paris in changing exhibitions, but is much cheaper and less crowded.

Visit to the Louvre-Lens

As is hardly possible in the coal town of Lens, coal was once mined in the Louvre-Lens building. The so-called "No. 9 Colliery" is located about 2km west of the centre of Lens and was in operation from 1886 to 1980.

Entry to the Louvre-Lens is through a 68m by 55m entrance hall located in the centre of 5 buildings. To the left are the temporary exhibitions and a 300-seat auditorium; to the right is the 130m-long main exhibition building with the "Gallery of Time" and the complex for permanent exhibitions.

The art museum houses around 200 exhibits that come from various departments of the Louvre in Paris and from other museums in the surrounding area. The spectrum of exhibits ranges from the 3rd millennium BC to the year 1850.

The works in the Louvre-Lens are not separated according to region as in most museums, but can be marvelled at according to era due to the unique structural conditions. Greek sculptures from antiquity thus enter into direct dialogue with art from the Egyptian Pharaonic Empire.

What is special about the Louvre Lens is that it also offers a look behind the scenes of an art museum. Visitors can explore the archives and craft areas in the museum, follow the restoration of a work and learn details about the operation of a museum.

The new Louvre - why in Lens?

In 2003, the idea of setting up a branch of the Louvre in Paris was born. The president of the Nord-Pas de Calais region, Daniel Percheron, showed immediate interest in this project and was able to assert his city among 5 other alternatives.


The good transport links via the motorway and the TGV, the central location of Lens between Lille and Arras and the generous plot of land that was available, as well as 8,000 signatures from the local population, contributed significantly to this decision. In 2005, an architectural competition was announced for the construction of the museum in Lens.

The ensemble of five museum buildings was designed by the architectural firm SANAA. Out of 120 architects from all over the world, the competition was won by the Japanese architectural team Kazuyo Sejima and Uyüe Nishizawa. The landscape garden in which the museum buildings are embedded was designed by Catherine Mosbach.

Minister of Culture Frédéric Mitterrand laid the foundation stone for the Louvre-Lens on 4 December 2009. The costs for the conversion and installation of the museum on the approximately 20-hectare site amounted to around 150 million euros.

The opening of the Louvre-Lens took place exactly three years after the laying of the foundation stone, on 4 December 2012. François Hollande, the French President at the time, ceremoniously cut the ribbon. Eight days later, the art museum welcomed its first visitors.

In the first year, admission was free of charge, which was used by 330,000 art lovers. In this respect, the idea of boosting the economy of the coal-mining town, which is hardly worth mentioning in terms of tourism, was a success, similar to the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain.

Stade Bollaert Delelis

Via the Allée Marc-Vivien Foe, which branches off Rue Paul Bert in a northerly direction, the path leads to the Stade Bollaert Delelis. After the European Football Championship in 1984 and the World Cup in 1998, the stadium in Lens also served as the venue for the European Championship in 2016.

The stadium was opened in 1933 and was modernised for the Euro 2016 at a cost of 78 million euros by the end of 2015. In its latest form, the 41,000-seat arena has more seats than Lens' population and is one of our top 10 football stadiums in France.

Related links:

Official website of the Lens train station with departure and arrival times
Official website of the Louvre Lens