If your ideal break involves a relaxing spa treatment followed by a stroll through the markets and a delicious meal, visit Lille, where your hardest decision will be French wine or Belgian beer. AMY MACPHERSON reports.

Half naked and lying on a marble slab, I’m surrounded by the ambient sounds of running water and voices murmuring in Arabic as the hammam assistants go about their business. The air is heavy with fragrant steam and small groups of women wash each other’s backs, chat or just recline blissfully in the heat.

I’ve been smothered from head to toe in black soap, a richly moisturising olive-based substance, and now layers of my skin are being sloughed off by a determined woman armed with an exfoliating mitt. Afterwards, feeling smoother than the proverbial baby’s bum, I move into the relaxation room to flop on a comfy lounge and sip mint tea by candlelight. It’s a scene straight out of the bath houses of Marrakech, but this isn’t Morocco – it’s an authentic hammam in Wazemmes, a colourful multicultural quarter of the northern French city of Lille.

Wazemmes is just a short Metro ride from the city’s centre, yet it seems a world away from its grand public spaces and imposing facades. On Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday mornings, the famous Wazemmes market transforms the area into a bustling melting pot of cultures and commerce. Alight from the Metro, follow the crowds and you’ll soon be melting into the souk-like atmosphere of the market, where you can barter for some Moroccan tea glasses, pick up exotic spices or admire the bolts of shimmering fabric on display.

The market is divided into sections – the covered hall itself sells cheese, meat, olives and other edibles from France and further afield, while the streets outside are chocker with everything from vintage denim to deep-fried treats, mobile phone accessories, colourful lingerie and cut flowers.

With a palpably young vibe (it’s home to 100,000 students), Lille is a beguiling mix of long-standing Flemish traditions, immigrant influences and baroque French elegance. Historically, it was part of a region known as Flanders, along with the Flemish parts of Belgium and the Netherlands, and the area is still referred to ‘French Flanders’. It’s just a short hop to the Belgian border and a combined Flemish-French heritage (it’s been part of France since the late 17th century) gives Lille a distinct cultural identity.

Belgian beers challenge French wines in the popularity stakes, and signs welcome visitors in both French and Flemish. The estaminet is a fine example of a proudly upheld Flemish tradition. It’s essentially a pub or informal restaurant where people meet up, enjoy a tasty local beer and a bite to eat and play traditional pub games.

Classic estaminet meals include tarte au maroilles, an open tart made with an extremely strong-smelling (but sweet-tasting) local cheese. You could also try carbonnade flamande, a tender beef stew made with beer and brown sugar, then finish your meal with a beer tart, and wash the whole lot down with a local beer. Yep, beer’s pretty popular in these parts. And when it’s as fine as this, who’s complaining?

The pretty, cobbled streets of central Lille make an ideal setting for walking off (or working up an appetite for) a hearty Flemish-style pub lunch. It’s a compact, clean and extremely well-restored city centre, where gabled townhouses in warm shades of russet, peach and gold overlook quintessentially Gallic businesses like fashion boutiques, patisseries and chocolatiers. You might also come across the slightly unexpected sight of the Australian Bar, recommended by local students as a particularly raucous hangout (quelle surprise).

Stroll from Old Lille towards the pedestrianised civic centre and you’ll eventually wander into one of Lille’s spacious public squares lined with grand 17th century buildings, some decorated in the ‘Flemish Renaissance’ style.

Combining French vertical lines with fruit-filled horns of plenty and gurning gilt faces, this elaborate style is used to great effect on the Vieille Bourse or Old Stock Exchange. Divided into private apartments but with a public courtyard, it’s something of a Lille icon and the courtyard fills up with booksellers and chess players by day.

Walk through the courtyard into the vast Place du General de Gaulle (also known simply as Grand Place) and you’ll encounter a scene of civic grandeur reminscent of Paris. Named after locally born hero Charles de Gaulle, this impressive square with its central fountain is the meeting place of choice for Lille’s residents and its sides are lined with pavement cafés, perfect for a spot of people-watching and an aperitif. Which just leaves one crucial question: will you opt for a classic French tipple like kir royale or something Flemish like a Belgian Trappist beer?

• The hammam at Zein Oriental Spa (0033-(0)32-014 3434; www.zeinorientalspa.fr) is women only apart from men’s sessions on Tuesday and Friday evenings. Sunday is mixed. The ‘hammam santal’ (€37), which includes a black soap treatment and exfoliating scrub, should be booked in advance.