A city of proud pedigree with several envious claims to fame, it’s high time tourists stopped overlooking the regional capital of the Rhône-Alpes for Paris. Mandy Andritsi and Mateo Jaramillo Ortega spill the beans on Lyon…
Lights, camera… Lyon! This is the city where cinema was born, when brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière charged the world’s first ever film-goers to watch the 46 second documentary La Sortie de l’Usine Lumière à Lyon at the end of the 19th century. Today the lights continue with the world-famous Fête des Lumières, a four day extravaganza where the city itself becomes the canvas for hundreds of electromagnetic projections and installations, as well as the more recently inaugurated Festival Lumière, Lyon’s grand film festival.
Of course the city’s history started before celluloid: Lyon was founded as the Roman colony of Lugdunum in 43 B.C., later becoming the capital of Roman Gaul. Throughout the centuries the city never lost its importance, thriving as a centre of trade, and more recently of industry and banking. Walking around the old part of the city – Vieux Lyon – is like reading a French Renaissance history book, the highlight of this UNESCO-listed district being the remarkable Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière, known locally as the upside down elephant (you’ll work it out).
Aside from cinema and good looks, Lyon has one more major claim to fame. Its food. Once described as “the world capital of gastronomy”, the city has more than 4,000 restaurants and 14 Michelin stars – more per capita then anywhere else in France – making it a Mecca for gourmets, in a city otherwise largely overlooked by tourism.
Best of the Beaten Track
With everything in easy walking distance, the city center of Lyon can be explored in only two or three days on foot. Put on some comfortable clothes, a pair of running shoes and take the metro or tram all the way to the Perrache station. From there, you can start your tour of the city. Head north to the Rue Victor Hugo and walk up towards the square of Bellecour, one of the largest open squares in Europe, and the third biggest in France. Walk to the Saône River and once you find yourself by the riverbank, take the Passerelle Saint-Georges, a small red pedestrian bridge that will bring you before the prettiest, most colorful and ready-to-be-photographed scenery of the city: Vieux Lyon.
In Vieux Lyon there’s no right or wrong street. The best way to explore it is by getting lost in its cobbled labyrinth. Don’t hesitate to hop on the funicular to the Basilique of Notre Dame de Fourviere for a panoramic view of the whole city. For the less adventurous however, take the Quai Fulchiron, the street along the riverside and the Rue Saint-Jean. This way will lead you to the Saint-Jean-Baptiste Cathedral, the Palais de Justice and the Miniature & Cinema museum. Just next to it, at number 54 of Saint-Jean Street, you will find – hidden behind the heavy wooden door – the longest and most famous “Traboule” passageway of Lyon.
After exploring the quirks of the old district, head to Hotel de Ville with the Opera, and Place des Terreaux with the Museum of Fine Arts, which can take you a good two to three hours to visit. Once in Place des Terreaux, head up to the pedestrianised Montée de la Grande-Côte on the Croix-Rousse quarter, filled with small art galleries and picturesque cafés. From there you can climb up to the Amphithéâtre des Trois Gaules or walk back down.
Dubbed the new Guggenheim, the stunning new Musee des Confluences is the latest in a long list of interesting museums and galleries that can occupy your time.
Tip: If you plan on heading to more than one or two museums, and fancy a free cruise along the Rhone to boot, it’s worth investing in the Lyon City Card. For more ideas on livening up your city break check out these fun activities on offer via Get Your Guide.
The original Opera House of Lyon was built in 1831. What you can see now is the modernized version of 1993. If you are between 18-28 years old, you can buy a ticket for 10 euros, which also includes discounts for various other events and drinks. However if you are going to stay for a few days in the city and you want to go for free, then you can! With Amphimidi programme you can find out which days the artists practice and enjoy it for free. Just go at 12:30 and for the next 45 minutes you will have the opportunity to watch the artists as well as talk to them.
The Rhône river is born in the glaciers of Switzerland, divides the Alps from the Massif Central and is one of the four biggest rivers in France. In Lyon she has a sister, the Saône river, which she meets to become one movement of water. You can get on a boat and experience their force and at the same time witness the French architecture in Vieux Lyon, the castle in Île Barbe and the new projects in The Confluence.
The museums of Gadagne in the old part of the city are not only a place where you can discover the history of Lyon, the architecture of the Renaissance or the way the world’s famous puppets were created. You can also have a cup of coffee or tea at the Café Gadagne and, if the weather is fine you can spend your evening in the shaded terrace under the vines which offers a magnificent view of the gardens.
Talking about gardens, the Lyon Botanical Garden has completed their new development, in the spirit of Renaissance gardens. Ornamental, medicinal and carefully chosen plants are arranged to respect the spirit of past eras.
Experience & Events
The Fête des Lumières takes place every December. Originally organised to thank the Virgin Mary for saving the people of Lyon from a plague, the festivities last for four consecutive days. During these days the city of Lyon gets dressed in colourful lights and becomes the pole of attraction of every citizen, French and otherwise.
The first days of May heralds the arrival of the Nuits Sonores festival. More than 250 artists from the world of electro and independent music play concerts all over town, and 100,000 people celebrate the pleasure of music and visual installations each year.
September is the month for food. La Fête de la Gastronomie is a national event that unfolds throughout the country in a series of events involving leaders, businesses, craftsmen and different associations. Popular banquets, picnics, wine tastings, visits to companies or farms, exhibitions, conferences and street entertainment all form part of the fiesta.
The Quais du Polar is a festival of crime fiction films and books, held annually in Lyon since 2005. During the three days over a hundred renowned authors and artists from all around the world will attend with conferences, film screenings, games, theater plays, concerts, thematic tours and exhibitions all organised.
Les Biennales à Lyon is a biannual large-scale international exhibitions of contemporary art, dance and music.
The hostel scene is not terribly well developed in Lyon, and the best bet for budget travellers is Slo Living, although prepare to pay €25-30 even for a dorm. Some of the less expensive hotel rooms in the center of the city would be around €50 in the highly rated Hotel Ibis la Part Dieu, or around €60 in the Hotel Victoria, near the Perrache train station. For those who seek further comfort however, the Best Western Hotel in Saint Antoine and the Sofitel Lyon Bellecour, both in plain center of the Presqu’île and between the two rivers of the city, offer rooms for €86 and €150 per night respectively.
Lyon is a culinary capital whose bouchons (restaurants serving traditional Lyonnaise cuisine), usually attract meat-lovers, with a menu that typically includes andouillette (pork offal sausage), quenelles (fish dumplings), mussels and the famous Lyonnaise salad. Offering fine dining in prices varying from €15-30 per person, the bouchons are scattered throughout the city in no particular manner. Rue Mercière and Rue des Marronniers have more than enough restaurants for all tastes, but if you’re looking for something less touristy, you’re bound to stumble on various-sized restaurants, dressed with wood paneling and red curtains hanging from golden rods upon a stroll around any cobbled street of the city. The restaurant Notre Maison in the area of Vieux Lyon and the Le Canut et les Gones in Croix-Rousse, are two great examples of excellent traditional feasting. For reviews and more details of the city’s celebrated Michelin starred restaurants, go straight to the source.
Fancy some help deciphering the city’s culinary secrets? There are a few promising gastronomical tours worth investigating.
In the region of Rhône Alps you can find some of the best wines in France. In its capital you can taste them, but you can have a good time around good music and a cold beer as well. In O’Gills Pub you can get the student mood of the city: beer pong, live music, nights to dress up or just meet new people. Now, if you love football, go to the Smoking Dog in the Old Lyon, where you get rock and beer all night long. For some Mexican cuisine, a menu of a huge variety that will make you want to taste everything under the sounds of live music, and reasonable prices, head to the Cactus Cafe near the Saint-Paul station. In the main boulevard of the Croix-Rousse hill lies the Dog’s Bollocks pub. Don’t get discouraged by its name. The €4 pints, the cheap burgers and fries, its welcoming atmosphere and its terrace bathed in sunlight won’t disappoint. For something more cutting edge and late night try electro clubs Le Sucre and Transbo.
Even though Lyon is the second or third (depending on who you ask!) largest city of France, finding direct flights from anywhere in the world can be a bit tricky. For the lucky ones, Saint-Exupery airport offers a 30-minute-long shuttle train, Rhone-Express, which takes you to the city center for the price of 14€. However, for the unfortunate, there are a few other options: connecting flights, trains, buses and covoiturage. The connecting flights through Paris can be a bit more expensive but for those who seek a cheap alternative, train tickets (TGV-SNCF-TER) range from €27 to 90 and the buses (Flixbus, Megabus, Eurolines) from €5 to 30, depending on the time of the day etc. A different and faster route would be that of Geneva to Lyon. The trains and buses from Switzerland to the Rhone-Alps capital are faster, cheaper and take you directly from Geneva’s airport to Lyon’s city center in two hours. Finally, covoiturage or BlablaCar is an eco-friendly and inexpensive way to travel around many European cities including Lyon, by simply sharing one car and some time with the other passengers. Once in the city, leave it up to TCL to give you the exact schedule of trams, buses and metro running throughout the city.
The city’s official websites – www.lyon.fr and www.onlylyon.com – should be your first stop. They offer information for locals as well as tourists about various events throughout the year, news about the city and ways to explore it. For a local view of the best places, the best offers available and the best everyday suggestions lyon.citycrunch.fr is the website to consult.
Lyon is included in many of Lonely Planet’s guidebooks such as the France’s Best Trips, the Mediterranean Europe and the Western Europe ones. However, as these guides are not concentrated only on this one city, the information found in these isn’t as specific as one might hope. For that, there is Brendan Kavanagh’s guide Lyon & French Alps.
Thanks to the Lumière brothers, the city of Lyon has played a significant role in the cinematographic history. Auguste and Louis Lumière released in 1895 the Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory, a 46-second film which is considered to be the first motion picture. In more recent years, with a big production and a remarkable education in arts de la scène, the capital of Rhone-Alps has been the filming set of various other movies such as The Clockmaker and The Verdict in 1974, Les Lyonnais (“A Gang Story”) in 2011 and the 11.6 in 2013.