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Lyon – France far beyond the ordinary

Updated: Oct 17, 2020

To plan a trip to France and not include Paris seems like madness, doesn’t it? Not at all.

There is no doubt that Paris has many charms and is full of history, but, especially in times of Covid-19, there are several good reasons to forego the trendy urban centers for the charms of the smaller cities.

Strategically located between Paris (2-hour train ride), the South of France and the famous French Alps, the former capital of Gaul leaves nothing to be desired by even the most demanding travelers. It combines beauty, leisure and a lot of culture!

Boasting over 2000 years of history, the city brings together a vast cultural heritage that dates back to the Ancient and Middle Ages. Lyon is also home to one of the largest collections of Renaissance architecture in the world, second only to Venice, Italy.

Built on the banks of two rivers and between two hills, Lyon’s unique location turned the city into one of the main European centers of commerce and finance during the commercial expansion of the 15th and 16th centuries. Since then, Lyon has maintained its strategic importance in the culture and economy of France. The city’s architectural relevance, visible in the diversity of squares, monuments, churches, shops and museums, has led to its recognition as a world heritage site by UNESCO in 1998.

In addition to cultural and architectural diversity, the natural beauty is another reason to enjoy Lyon. It is difficult to cross the bridges or walk along the river and not be enchanted by the landscape.

In sum, whether you are a lover of art and history or of adventure and contact with nature; whether you’re travelling alone or with family and friends; whether you are fond of fancy cuisine or baguette-sandwich picnics, Lyon is a great choice. There is always something special to discover.

1. Fourvière - the praying hill

Lyon was founded by the Romans in 43 BC at the top of the Fourvière hill. At the time, the village received the name of Lugdunum. It was the capital of Gaul throughout the Roman Empire, hence the wealth and relevance of the city within the historical and political context of France.

Fourvière is a beautiful place to start exploring the city. The trip up the hill is an experience of its own. Take the funiculaire, the retro-style cable car that rides through the rocks and drops you at the feet of the huge basilica erected at the top of the hill, Notre-Dame de Fourvière.

The basilica is a must visit, regardless of religion. Not only is it beautiful, but the stories and legends about its construction tell a lot about the culture of Lyon.

Notre-Dame de Fourvière was built in the middle of the 19th century, next to an old chapel from the 12th century. The story told by the locals is that its construction began because of a promise made by the people to the Virgin Mary. At the time, Europe was plagued by a cholera epidemic and the Lyonnais appealed to the Virgin Mary to spare them. In return, they would build a large temple next to the existing chapel.

Its inauguration was scheduled for December 8, 1852, but a strong storm spoiled the fireworks that would light up the party. The population mobilized and lit lamps by the windows throughout the whole city, starting a tradition that lasts until today and that has become the biggest popular party in Lyon - the fête des lumières.

Today, the party of lights is the darling of the city. It lasts four days, always starting on the 8th of December, and attracts millions of tourists every year to Lyon. If you can't come in December, check this video that shows various parts of the city during the fête de lumière in 2017.

Since we're talking about lights in Lyon, it is interesting to note that it was in Lyon that the Lumière brothers were born. They are the creators of the cinematograph that was used in the first video projections in Paris in 1895. They are known worldwide as the parents of cinema and at Institut Lumière you can learn all about their cinema adventures and other curiosities of the seventh art.

The Roman ruins

Make sure to explore the area surrounding the Fourvière Basilica. The lookout right in front of the church boasts one of the most beautiful views of Lyon. From there, you will see the oldest part of the city with its medieval architecture, followed by Presqu´île, the commercial center of the city, and finally, modern Lyon in the background.

The real gem, however, are the Roman ruins from the time the city was founded. They are very well-preserved and include the Grand Theater (for tragedy and comedy shows), the Odeon (music and reading), the foundations of a temple to the goddess Cybele and the remains of a district of artisans. Wander around the ruins and travel through time. There is no entrance fee to visit the ruins.

Right next to the ruins is the Gallo Roman Museum, called Lugdunum. It’s a UNESCO world heritage site, and has an immense archaeological collection from France. If you are, like me, fascinated by history, especially that of the Roman Empire, a visit to the museum is a must.

Every European summer, the theaters are home to a gigantic music and dance show that appeals not only to tourists but is highly disputed by the local public. Find out more about the Nuits de Fourvière clicking here.

2. Be enchanted by the architectural beauty of the old town - Vieux Lyon

Vieux Lyon, or old Lyon, brings together the most charming buildings and alleys in the city. It’s located on the banks of the Saône River, where the city developed after the end of Roman domination and the destruction of buildings on top of the Fourvière hill.

The neighborhood dates back to the Middle Ages and was inhabited by the city's bourgeois class in the prosperous time of the Renaissance. Its architecture, well-preserved to this day, is strongly influenced by the pink and pastel colors typical of the Italian Renaissance.

Set aside a full day to stroll around and enjoy the shops, cafes, museums and the famous bouchons, typical Lyon restaurants I will describe in detail below.

At the heart of Vieux Lyon is the city's cathedral, the Cathédrale Saint-Jean-Baptiste, a mix of Gothic and classical architecture. Visit the cathedral and check the astronomical clock inside, one of the oldest in Europe. Follow the main street of Vieux Lyon, with the same name as the cathedral, and allow yourself to get lost in the mysteries and charms of this neighborhood.

Lyon’s secret passageways

Speaking of mysteries, the traboules are a well-known attraction among tourists and locals and a source of pride for the lyonnais. They are secret passages and hidden pathways that connect several streets through private property corridors that are open to the public. The passageways, an exclusive heritage of the city of Lyon, were built in different periods of history. The oldest ones date from the 4th and 5th centuries and were used by the inhabitants of the then Lugdunum to reach the Saône river more quickly. Most of these passages, however, were built in the 9th century, when Lyon was home to the country's largest silk production. The silk workers of the time, known as canuts, used the pathways to transport goods between factories and ports, protecting the cargo from adverse weather and possible looters. The traboules would play an important role again during World War II, when Lyon became known as the capital of the French resistance. Members of the resistance would use the passageways to carry messages and goods without being noticed by the Gestapo.

It is difficult to recognize doors and entrances without a map, but if you know where they are, feel free to push them and explore the traboules until you find the exit. This is a well-liked attraction for children as well. To learn more about the history of traboules, and to view a map, click here. The passageways are so popular, the verb “trabouler” was created and is used in Lyon to indicate traveling through the hidden pathways. Allons-y! Nous allons trabouler par ici! 😊

Among the museums located in Vieux Lyon, check out the unusual Museum of Cinema and Miniature and the Gadagne Museum. The latter tells the story of the city of Lyon on one side of its building and includes the museum of arts and puppets, which tells the story of Guignol, the famous French puppet created in Lyon in 1808 by Laurent Mourguet.

To finish your visit to Vieux Lyon on a high note, there is nothing like enjoying the varied French and lyonnaise cuisine. In addition to the cafes, crêperies and pâtisseries found on every corner, the neighborhood has numerous bouchons (local cuisine restaurants) and other traditional restaurant options. It’s also in Vieux Lyon that you will find the famous Rue du Boeuf, known as the most "starred" street (with the most Michelin stars) in France since 2017. It is a cobbled alley, typical of the old city, but with no less than three Michelin-starred restaurants. With varied menus and prices, it's an experience worth every penny.

For those looking to enjoy sophisticated dining without breaking the bank, Food Traboule (kudos to the suggestive name 😊) was opened in 2020 on the same Rue du Boeuf. Built in a beautiful Renaissance building, the place has a very interesting and innovative proposal by French standards. It works as a food court that brings together local chefs and different restaurants. Totally worth it!!!

3. The Presqu´île - the bustling and bright quartier of Lyon

After the 15th century, the neighborhood now called Vieux Lyon became too small for the city's merchants and bourgeoisie. The city begins to grow into what is now called Presqu´île (or almost an island, because it lays on a strip of land between the two rivers). It is the 2nd arrondissement, or second district of Lyon, the commercial center of the city, where pubs, restaurants and luxury boutiques mix with parks and splendorous buildings. The narrow alleys of Vieux Lyon give way to wide, well-lit streets, and the medieval buildings are replaced by more modern and sophisticated architecture.

A good example is the huge property that used to house the old Hôtel-Dieu in the city, and which today bears the same name, but houses an incredible complex of shops, restaurants and one of the most luxurious hotels in the city, the Intercontinental Hotel. To get a glimpse of the place's size, and of its many attractions, click here.

Even if you are just passing by or can't get a booking on any of its restaurants, it is worth visiting the hotel bar called Le Dome, which is open to the public and is located directly below the main dome of the building. Take a moment to have some tea, a cup of coffee or a drink, and enjoy the place's beauty and sophistication.

Walking along Rue de la République takes us to the famous Place de Bellecour, the city's ground zero. It is considered the largest pedestrian-only square in Europe and hosts the city's most diverse events throughout the year. In the center of it, lays a huge statue of King Louis XIV on his horse, inaugurated by the king himself in the early 18th century, and replaced in the following century, after having been destroyed during the French Revolution.

Another statue, much less imposing, but no less interesting, is right next to the public square, and can go unnoticed if you don't look carefully. It is the statue that depicts Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and the Little Prince, in a marble column. Born in Lyon, Exupéry wrote the famous tale that became known worldwide. The statue was built in 2000 to celebrate the birth date of the Lyonnais writer.

Among the museums located in Presqu´île, I recommend the Museum of Fine Arts. At about 7,000 square meters, it is the second largest museum in France, after the Louvre. Don't miss this opportunity to see sculptures and paintings covering several centuries of history, as well as collections of renowned artists, without being surrounded by a crowd.

In this area, make sure to also visit two other squares that are eye-catching: Place des Jacobins and Place des Terreaux, where the Hôtel de Ville and the Opéra de Lyon buildings are located. It is difficult to decide which one is the most beautiful and majestic.

Place des Terreaux with Hôtel de Ville in the background

Place des Jacobins

Place des Jacobins

4. Croix-Rousse - the hill that works

The other hill that borders Lyon is Croix-Rousse. It takes its name from the hill that works - as opposed to the one that prays - because it was there that the silk weavers, called canuts, used to live. These workers were of great importance to the development of Lyon at the time it exported silk to the vast majority of European courts.

Visiting the Croix-Rousse is not as essential as visiting the Fourvière hill, but the place is also home to a lot of Lyon's rich history and to a huge range of bars, markets and restaurants.

The silk metier is surrounded by several curious facts and myths. To find out more, visit the Maison de canuts and the weaving museum.