A taste of the world’s best gastronomic delights. The second largest aggrandizement of Renaissance architecture. Location of some of Europe’s oldest ruins. The birthplace of cinema. Home of France’s finest silk. These compose the bounty of reasons why Lyon should be part of your next French holiday. Add the fact that a large part of the city (Fourviere, Vieux-Lyon, Croix-Rousse and parts of Presqu’ile) is considered a UNESCO Heritage site.
Luckily, it’s just a two-hour train ride from Paris. Moreover, it’s a great escape from the French capital’s crowds. France’s third largest city, Lyon is typically off the tourist radar. Much less crowds mean more pleasant strolls and postcard-worthy shots.
France is the culinary capital of the world, yes, but did you know that Lyon is the gastronomic capital of France? This means that in Lyon, every meal has the makings of an unforgettable dining experience. When in Lyon, dine in a bouchon, the typical, traditional Lyonnaise brasserie where local specialties are served. These include tablier de sapeur (sapper’s apron), quenelles (fluffy fish dumplings), salade lyonnaise and cervelle de canut (it’s literally translated to “silk worker’s brain” but don’t fret, it is in fact just cottage cheese with herbs). A bouchon is said to be good if the atmosphere is welcoming, so there’s really more to the experience than just food.
For those headed to Lyon for the ultimate gustatory adventure, let the Michelin Guidebook lead you. With as many as 20-starred restaurants and 89 others listed, you’ll find the guide’s stickers proudly displayed in the doors of these elite establishments. On top of the food heap is L’Auberge du Pont de Collonges or simply known as Bocuse, which has been bestowed three Michelin stars since 1965. Its creator, Chef Paul, is considered the chef of the century and the pope of gastronomy.
Lyon is home to Europe’s largest Renaissance establishment second only to Venice. As early as the Gallo-Roman times, trade links with the East has always been important and for centuries since, the city has held a position of strategic importance in Europe. This has led to the arrival of merchants from all over the continent, who eventually led the city’s grand Renaissance ambitions.
Cinema as we know it today began in Lyon courtesy of the Lumiere brothers, Auguste and Louis. Before they invented the cinematograph projector in 1895, cinema fans could only watch short clips in individual viewing machines, not continually as we do now. If you’re a movie fan, the Lumiere Institute Museum is teeming with information and offers interactive visiting experiences.
Thanks to Louis XI’s passion for the arts, the development of silk was encouraged in Lyon to the point that it was held in such high esteem. The city was declared “sole depot for foreign silk entering France.” Today, the last of the canuts or silk workers only do custom work but you can still relive their lives at the Maison des Canuts museum in Croix-Rousse.
The best of Lyon on foot
You’ll be glad to know that the UNESCO Heritage parts of Lyon like Fourviere, Vieux-Lyon, Croix-Rousse and a large part of Presqu’ile, can be treaded on foot. Having said that, there are metro lines, trams, funiculars (practical for going uphill) and buses, should you want to rest your weary feet.
Presqu’ile: The Heart of Lyon
The heart of the city, Presqu’ile, is located between the Rhone and the Saone Rivers. It was bursting with so much dining and shopping establishments. The Place des Terreaux is a large square surrounded by breathtaking architecture. On its East side stood the City Hall (Hotel de Ville), which has an impressive façade highlighted by a sculpture of King Henri IV on horseback. On its North was the dramatic Bartholdi fountain, which was sculpted by Frederic-Auguste Bartholdi, the father of the Statue of Liberty. Opposite City Hall stood the Opera House, whose glass top is now considered a landmark.
Musee des Beaux Arts nearby is housed in Palais Saint Pierre, which a former 17th century Benedictine abbey often referred to as Le Petit Louvre. Lyon’s most important museum contains one of France’s largest art collections, which include notable works from Rembrandt and Monet.
From the plaza, I walked along the Saone River to Vieux-Lyon. But before crossing over, I made sure to stop at the tip of Passerelle du Palais de Justice to take snapshots of Lyon’s most iconic view, the image of the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourviere on top of Fourviere Hill. The basilica can practically be seen from anywhere in Lyon but this spot is said to offer the best perspective. I agree. My view was indeed so sublime, I probably took hundreds of shots from every possible angle.
Vieux-Lyon (Old Town): Europe’s second largest Renaissance area
As I crossed the bridge, I felt like I entered a time machine back to the Middle Ages. Treading the Old Town through its traboules (hidden, narrow passageways and tunnels linking corridors built in the 4th century), I felt like a merchant moving around incognito to do my business. It was truly a step back in time. The whole time I was here, I kept my camera handy because, no exaggeration, every cobbled rue (street) and place (park) was snap-worthy. The store and restaurant fronts were vibrant, melancholic and distinctive yet remained cohesive with the town’s medieval character.
To make sure I didn’t miss out on any significant structures in Vieux-Lyon, I followed the walking itinerary recommended by local guides. Of course, I added several stopovers along its cobbled alleyways to buy souvenirs and dine in a bouchon.
The solemn Church of Saint-Georges was my first stop. Built on what was once a monastery, which housed the relics of Saint Eulalia, the church is dedicated to Saint George and wasn’t used for public worship until 1803.
From there, I took one of the oldest streets of Lyon, the Montee Du Gourguillon, to walk towards Saint-Jean Cathedral (Lyon Cathedral). Constructed between 1180 and 1440, the flamboyant Gothic cathedral has an astronomical clock worthy of several snapshots. Next to it is the Archaeological Gardens, where remnants of the early Christian ruins of the Churches of Saint Stephen and the True Cross, remain to this day.
Moving on, I strolled along Rue Saint-Jean, Place Du Change, the Loge Du Change and Rue Lainerie, and had a delightful overload of Renaissance architecture. I made my way to the endearing Saint-Paul’s Church, a monastery built in 549 and rebuilt in the 12th century to accommodate more canonical buildings.
I strutted further along Rue Juiverie (Street of the Jewish Quarter) and Rue De Gadagne until I reached Hotel De Gadagne. Built in the 16th century, the former hotel is now considered a symbol of the city and is home to two prestigious museums. The Museum for the History of Lyon traces back the city’s 2,000 year-old legacy while the International Puppet Museum, with over 2,000 puppets sourced worldwide, is the only museum dedicated to puppetry in Europe.
Taking Rue Du Boeuf (Street of the Cow), I worked my way towards the majestic Palais De Justice. Completed in 1844, I found the French neo-classical courthouse with 24 fluted columns and an entablature of 28 lion heads, perfectly proportioned.
Fourviere Hill: Roman settlement also known as “The Hill that Prays”
After my degustation of Renaissance architecture in the Old Town, I opted for the funicular from Vieux-Lyon metro station to get to the top of the hill. Fourviere, once known as the Lugdunum, was the center of the Roman occupation and power. Now, it’s Lyon’s religious center with the main Basilica and a bounty of churches among its attractions.
Built in 1872, the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourviere, a white marble church dedicated to the Virgin Mary, Lyon’s patron saint, is just as beautiful up close as it was from across the Saone River. Personally, I found its Byzantine interiors as having the right amount of opulence, though many others consider it too extravagant. Right next to the Basilica is a viewpoint, which has the best Lyonnaise views.
Just a stone’s throw away from the basilica, I hiked to the two Ancient Roman Ruins. The well-preserved Grand Theater and the Odeon are some of the most important remnants of the Roman times. The Grand Theater, built in 15 BC is the oldest in France and is still being used for open-air performances during summers. The adjacent Gallo-Roman Museum, houses artifacts like mosaics, sculptures, jewelry and ceramics salvaged in the vicinity, and has great views of the ruins from inside.
After my full day of Renaissance indulgence, I decided it was the perfect time to go back to Presqu’ile and indulge myself in a bouchon. Le Jean Moulin, which was listed in the Michelin Guide, was welcoming. Luckily, it had a slot to accommodate me for late supper. With time to kill, I scoured around for Lyonnaise souvenirs. Silk, wine, champagne, cheese and pates were all great takeaways, but I found the shoes and accessories just as enticing. And yes, as Lyon promised, my late supper in Le Jean Moulin as a gastronomic experience was celestial.
Getting there. With three main national and regional train stations, Lyon is very accessible. It’s just a two-hour train ride from Paris. Trains are frequent so it will be easy to fit it into any European itinerary. Check out the schedules at eurail.com
Weather. Lyon is best visited on September to October, just as summer ends and fall starts. May is also a good time though a bit rainy. June to August brings swarms of tourists as well as sweltering heat, while November to April may be a bit cold for strolling along the Rhone and Saone Rivers.
Visa. You need a Schengen visa, the same document that allows you to explore most of Europe. The rule is, get your visa where you’re staying the longest.
Currency. The Euro is the official currency ($1 = one euro). You can use your credit card for most transactions. If you’d rather use cash, ATMs are not hard to find.