While Paris is the obvious first stop on a French holiday, there are other major cities that can be explored in a more zen-like manner.
Lyon is certainly one of them. France’s third largest city (after the capital and Marseille) is located east of central France in the Rhone-Alpes region. With a modest population of just under half a million, the city offers both a happening vibe and a relaxed and chilled-out feel. History lovers will be in their element here. The old town is one of the best preserved medieval centres in Europe.
The other delicious reason to visit Lyon is the cuisine. The city is renowned as Europe’s gastronomic capital, and also offers easy access to the renowned Rhône and Beaujolais wine regions. Bon appétit and santé!
Enjoy this Lyon travel guide.
Lyon for history lovers
Lyon was established by the Romans around 43 BC, but like much of France, it was occupied previously by the Celts.
With a strong political position due to its strategic location at the junction of the Rhône and Saône rivers, Lyon soon became the capital of Gaul. Extensive urban development followed, including a 4,500 seat amphitheatre — which was constructed around 15 BC, and later expanded to double its audience capacity. Today you can gaze over it during a visit to the fascinating Gallo-Roman Museum of Lyon-Fourvière.
Step back in time to the Middle Ages in Lyon’s UNESCO World Heritage-listed Veille Ville (old town), where sailors, potters and silk weavers were once part of the tapestry. Stroll the cobblestone streets of the Saint Jean, Saint Georges and Saint Paul quartiers. Attending a choral mass at the Cathédrale St-Jean (originally built between 1180 and 1480) is another way to be instantly transported to another era. Admire the 600 year old astronomical clock and gothic masonry.
You can bring all the threads together at Musées Gadagne — the city’s history museum, which documents life from the Middle Ages to the 19th century through archaeological artefacts, sculptures, furniture and paintings. At the same address you’ll find the puppet museum. The famous Guignol puppet character originated in Lyon and you don’t need to be a kid to enjoy the museum’s collection of 2,000 marionettes from Europe, Asia and Africa. There are occasional performances by local puppeteers.
Bookmaking and printing are also an important part of Lyon’s history. Bookworms, graphists and journalists will love the Musée de L’Imprimerie, which opened in 1964 and is housed in a 15th century building.
Many visitors to the city are keen to traverse Les Traboules — the network of covered alleyways and stairs that originally connected the Saône and the medieval homes in the Croix Rousse area. Here silk weavers worked and transported their goods to the river without having to step out in the rain. The passageways also helped foil Nazi occupation in WWII. Several passageways are freely open to the public to explore.
For those up for another stroll, there’s a series of extraordinary murals dotted around Lyon that reveal the stories of some the city’s most notable historical characters. Some of the best examples are those of the silk weavers in Boulevard des Canuts and Rue Denfert Rochereau. The Fresque des Lyonnais on Quai Saint-Vincent and Rue de la Martinière depict famous Lyon faces, including the Lumière brothers — the inventors of cinema, author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, and film director Bertrand Tavernier.
Top cultural experiences in Lyon
There’s certainly no lack of cultural diversions in Lyon, and the city stages a swag of festivals.
These include the Nuits Sonores electronic music festival in May, the Nuits de Fourvière music and theatre festival in June (held in the Roman amphitheatre!), La Biennale de Lyon (dance and art) in autumn and winter, and the Fête des Lumières light show in December.
Here’s a selection of the city’s premier cultural institutions, that should be on your to-do list:
Discover the origins of cinema at L’Institut Lumière. This intimate museum pays homage to the inventors of the moving image: brothers August and Louis Lumière, and is housed in their Art Nouveau mansion. Allow a few hours to enjoy the many displays, including magic shadow lanterns, kinetoscopes, screenings of the very first cinematic films (presented to the Paris public in 1895), and the first ever travel films, which incorporate footage from Latin America and Asia. There’s also a cinema where you can catch classics and retrospectives from names such as Vincente Minnelli.
Musée des Beaux Arts
Housed in a 17th century abbey, the Musée des Beaux Arts in Lyon boasts Monets, Rubens, Rodins, Rembrandts, Cézannes, Picassos and Braques in its holding of the great masters. There are seventy rooms to explore. It’s much quieter than most Paris museums, so you can travel at a leisurely pace without being crushed in the tourist frenzy.
Musée d’Art Contemporain de Lyon (MAC)
The Musée d’Art Contemporain de Lyon occupies a spacious Art Deco building, which was renovated by Renzo Piano (who designed the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris and London’s Shard). The museum houses collections of street and pop art from both French and international artists. It’s home to the Lyon Biennale.
You’ll also find live music in bars, and various theatre offerings across the city. If you don’t speak French, attend a dance performance instead. Check out what’s on at Maison de la Danse.
Great places to eat in Lyon
Michelin stars shine all over the city of Lyon — the gastronomic capital of Europe.
However, top-notch nosh isn’t restricted to starred establishments. The culinary principles and pride filter down to smaller establishments, bistros, cafes and onto the kitchen tables of the Lyonnais. The city is a gourmand’s delight at every level, and a food tour with a local guide is a great way to discover its best kept culinary secrets — which the average visitor would have no hope of finding on their own!
Legendary chef Paul Bocuse, who passed away in early 2018, established a chain of brasseries across town that will give you the classic bistro experience with high quality produce and often innovative twists.
Shopping at Les Halles de Lyon Paul Bocuse — the covered market that bears Paul Bocuse’s name — is also a mouth-watering experience. It’s a little pricey but worth it for the amazing cheeses, the dramatic displays of hanging saussison, the truffles, foie gras, and macaroons, and the shiny fresh berries. The complex includes bars and restaurants. Pull up a pew at the market bar and enjoy fresh oysters and a glass of crisp white. Alternatively, try the gratin dauphinois served at la Mère Richard.
There are many other lovely local markets in Lyon where you can pick up fresh fruit, veggies and flowers — including the St-Antoine quay or boulevard de la Croix-Rousse (Tuesday to Sunday mornings).
Lyon also does great chocolate. Get yourself on a cocoa high or buy gifts to take home at Bernachon.
Lyon sits between the famous wine regions of Beaujolais and Côtes du Rhône. Wine tours from the city are super popular.
Where to shop in Lyon
Hit rue du Président Herriot for luxury fashion boutiques that occupy classic 19th century buildings.
The main shopping drag in Rue de la République is worth a retail splurge, as is La Part-Dieu shopping complex — home to the chic Galeries Lafayette department store and many other retailers. There’s also the Confluence centre to browse.
You’ll find fine antiques and old books on rue Auguste Comte and Quai de la Pêcherie.
For preloved bargains and collectibles, visit the famous Les Puces du Canal flea market at Villeurbanne (just outside the city centre). You’ll find antiques, second-hand goods and a lively ambience on offer. The market operates on Sundays from 6am to 1pm.
Ways to relax in Lyon
Relaxation in Lyon often revolves around long lunches with friends and family.
La Bicyclette Bleue is a lovely rustic lunch option. It’s located a short drive out of town. You can have a delicious meal in the garden, and then take one of their bikes for a spin through the fields to digest.
As they eat so well, the Lyonnais like to stroll, cycle and occasionally run along the banks of the Rhône and the Saône. The Vélo’v public bike share scheme has stations scattered around the city and a riverside ride is very refreshing.
Gorgeous Parc de la Tête d’Or is located opposite the MAC. Here you can chill out by the lake, visit the zoo or try your hand at a game of boules.
Le Café du Rhône is a cool spot to chill in the afternoon over a drink or bite. Boogie on down later to soul, disco and house in the industrial chic surroundings of Le Docks 40.
For more information, please visit www.lyon-france.com.
Do you have any tips to add to our Lyon travel guide? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Additional images: Bigstock
About the writer
Ruby Boukabou is a travel, culture and lifestyle reporter. She has written for dozens of publications, including Qantas in-flight magazine, The Age, The Australian, The Diplomat, Paris Voice, Get Lost and France Magazine. She has produced and presented culture and travel stories for the ABC, SBS and Screen Australia. Ruby is author of The Art Lover’s Guide to Paris and Sense in the City, Paris. When she’s not exploring, you’ll probably find her tap dancing.