Explore Lyon, France
Explore Lyon also written Lyons in English, is the third largest city in France and centre of the second largest metropolitan area in the country. It is the capital of the Rhone-Alpes region and the Rhône département. It is known as a gastronomic and historical city with a vibrant cultural scene. It is also the birthplace of cinema.
Explore Lyon, a city founded by the Romans, with many preserved historical areas, Lyon is the archetype of the heritage city, as recognized by UNESCO. Lyon is a vibrant metropolis which makes the most out of its unique architectural, cultural and gastronomic heritage, its dynamic demographics and economy and its strategic location between Northern and Southern Europe. It is more and more open to the world, with an increasing number of students and international events.
The city itself has about 480,000 inhabitants. However, the direct influence of the city extends well over its administrative borders, with the population of Greater Lyon (which includes 57 towns or communes): at about 2.1 million. Lyon and its metropolitan area are rapidly growing and getting younger, because of their economic attractiveness.
All periods of Lyon’s 2000-year history have left visible traces in the city’s architectural and cultural heritage, from Roman ruins to Renaissance palaces to contemporary skyscrapers. It never went through a major disaster (earthquake, fire, extensive bombing…) or a complete redesign by urban planners. Very few cities in the world boast such diversity in their urban structure and architecture.
Early traces of settlement date back to 12,000 BC but there is no evidence of continuous occupation prior to the Roman era. Lugdunum, the Roman name of the city, was officially founded in 43 BC by Lucius Munatius Plancus, then Governor of Gaul. The first Roman settlements were on Fourvière hill, and the first inhabitants were probably veterans of Caesar’s war campaigns. The development of the city was boosted by its strategic location and it was promoted Capital of Gauls in 27 BC by General Agrippa, Emperor Augustus’s son-in-law and minister. Large carriageways were then built, providing easy access from all parts of Gaul. Lugdunum became one of the most prominent administrative, economic and financial centers in Gaul, along with Narbonne. The main period of peace and prosperity of the Roman city was between 69 and 192 AD. The population at that time is estimated between 50,000 and 80,000. Lugdunum consisted of four populated areas: the top of Fourvière hill, the slopes of Croix-Rousse around the Amphithéâtre des Trois Gaules, the Canabae (around where Place Bellecour is today) and the right bank of the Saône River, mainly in what is today St George’s neighborhood.
Events The Festival of Lights (Fête des Lumières) is by far the most important event of the year. It lasts four days around the 8th of December. It was initially a traditional religious celebration: on December 8th, 1852, the people of Lyon spontaneously illuminated their windows with candles to celebrate the inauguration of the golden statue of the Virgin Mary (the Virgin had been the saint patron of Lyon since she allegedly saved the city from the plague in 1643). The same ritual was then repeated every year.
In the last decade or so, the celebration turned into an international event, with light shows by professional artists from all over the world. Those range from tiny installations in remote neighborhoods to massive sound-and-light shows, the largest one traditionally taking place on Place des Terreaux. The traditional celebration lives on, though: during the weeks preceding December 8th, the traditional candles and glasses are sold by shops all over town. This festival attracts around 4 million visitors every year; it now compares, in terms of attendance, to the Oktoberfest in Munich for example. Needless to say, accommodation for this period should be booked months in advance. You will also need good shoes (to avoid the crowd in the metro) and very warm clothes (it can be very cold at this time of year).
The city centre is not so big and most attractions can be reached from each other on foot. The walk from Place des Terreaux to Place Bellecour, for example, is about 20 min. The rule of thumb is that metro stations are generally about 10 min walk apart.
Lyon may not have world-famous monuments such as the Eiffel tower or the Statue of Liberty, but it offers very diverse neighborhoods which are interesting to walk around and hide architectural marvels. As time goes by, the city also becomes more and more welcoming for pedestrians and cyclists. So a good way to explore it may be to get lost somewhere and enjoy what comes up, and not to always follow the guide…
A good point for visitors is that most attractions will not cost you a cent: churches, traboules, parks, etc.
- The view from Fourvière basilica, and the basilica itself.
- Streets and traboules in Vieux Lyon, St Jean cathedral.
- Traboules in Croix-Rousse.
- Musées Gadagne.
- Parc de la Tête d’Or.
Off the beaten path:
- Musée urbain Tony Garnier and Etats-Unis neighbourhood.
- St Irénée church, Montée du Gourguillon, St Georges neighbourhood.
- A drink on Place Sathonay.
- St Bruno church.
- Parc de Gerland.
- Gratte-ciel neighbourhood in Villeurbanne.
The Old Lyon is a narrow strip along the right bank of the Saône, and a large Renaissance area. Its current organization, with narrow streets mainly parallel to the river, dates back to the middle Ages. The buildings were erected between the 15th and the 17th centuries, notably by wealthy Italian, Flemish and German merchants who settled in Lyon where four fairs were held each year. At that time, the buildings of Lyon were said to be the highest in Europe. The area was entirely refurbished in the 1980s and 1990s. It now offers the visitor colorful, narrow cobblestone streets; there are some interesting craftsmen’s shops but also many tourist traps.
It is divided into three parts which are named after their respective churches:
- St Paul, north of place du Change, was the commercial area during the Renaissance;
- St Jean, between place du Change and St Jean cathedral, was home to most wealthy families: aristocrats, public officers, etc;
- St Georges, south of St Jean, was a craftsmen’s district.
The area is generally crowded in the afternoon, especially at weekends. To really enjoy its architectural beauties, the best time is therefore the morning. Around lunchtime, the streets somewhat disappear behind restaurant terraces, postcard racks and the crowd of tourists.
Guided tours in several languages, including English, are available from the tourist office.
- St Jean Cathedral,
- St Jean archaeological garden
- Renaissance courtyards
- Rue St Jean
- Rue du Boeuf
- Place du Change
- Rue Juiverie
- St Paul church
- St Georges neighborhood
- Montée du Gourguillon,
- Palais de Justice
Take the funicular up the hill from Vieux Lyon metro station, or if you are fit, walk up Montée des Chazeaux (starts at the southern end of Rue du Boeuf), Montée St Barthélémy (from St Paul station) or Montée du Gourguillon (from the northern end of Rue St Georges, behind Vieux Lyon metro station). This is a 150 m (500 ft) vertical ascent approximately.
Fourvière was the original location of the Roman Lugdunum. In the 19th century, it became the religious centre of the city, with the Basilica and the Archbishop’s offices.
- Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière
- Panoramic viewpoint
- Metal tower
- Roman theatres
- St Irénée church
The area, especially the traboules, may be worth taking a guided tour (available from the tourist office).
Croix-Rousse is known as the “working hill” but for centuries, it had been as much of a “praying hill” as Fourvière. On the slopes was the Roman Federal Sanctuary of the Three Gauls, which comprised the amphitheater and an altar. This sanctuary was abandoned at the end of the 2nd century. In the Middle Ages, the hill, then called Montagne St Sébastien, was not part of the free town of Lyon but of the Franc-Lyonnais province, which was independent and protected by the King. The slopes were then dedicated to agriculture, mostly vineyards. In 1512, a fortified wall was built at the top of the hill, approximately where Boulevard de la Croix-Rousse is today. The pentes (slopes) and the plateau were therefore separated. The slopes became then part of Lyon while the plateau was outside the borders of the city. Up to thirteen religious congregations then settled on the slopes and acquired vast pieces of land. Their possessions were seized and many buildings destroyed during the French Revolution.
Croix-Rousse is known as the main silk production area, but the industry did not exist on the hill until the early 19th century and the introduction of new weaving technology; at that time, silk had already been produced in Lyon for over 250 years.
- Amphithéâtre des Trois Gaules
- Montée de la Grande Côte
- Croix-Rousse traboules
- Mur des Canuts
- St Bruno church
- Jardin Rosa Mir
For the people of Lyon, Presqu’île is the place to go for shopping, dining or clubbing. It also represents a large part of the city’s economic activity.
This narrow peninsula between the Rhône and Saône rivers was largely shaped by man. When the first inhabitants settled on what was then called Canabae, the junction of the river was located near the current site of St Martin d’Ainay basilica. South of this point was an island. From 1772, titanic works led by engineer Antoine-Michel Perrache reunited the island to the mainland. The swamps which existed there were then dried out, which allowed the construction of Perrache station, opened in 1846. Northern Presqu’île was largely redesigned from 1848; the only remaining Renaissance part is around rue Mercière.
- Place des Terreaux
- Hôtel de Ville
- Opera house
- Mur des Lyonnais
- Place Sathonay
- St Nizier church
- Rue Mercière
- Place des Jacobins
- Théâtre des CélestinsPlace Bellecour
- Basilique St Martin d’Ainay
The area south of Perrache is turning from a mostly industrial area into one of the most interesting neighborhoods in the city. One of the largest development plans in Europe was put under way a few years ago with the construction of a new tram line and the opening of a cultural centre (La Sucrière). The Western side of the area now boasts a number of new buildings, most of which are interesting pieces of contemporary architecture. The new headquarters for the government of Rhône-Alpes region has been put into service a few years ago, and a new mall is opened since 2012. A new phase of the project is about to start with the demolition of the huge former wholesale market. As well, since 2015, the new Musée des Confluences has been opened; it has a very ship-like futuristic architecture all of glass and metal, and its main exposition is about the evolution of life on earth.
Even if except the mall and the museum there are not many attractions yet, it is interesting to take a walk or a bicycle ride there to see how Lyon can still be evolving after 2000 years of history.
- Cité Internationale
- Etats-Unis neighbourhood
- Ile Barbe
- Museums and Galleries
- Palais Saint-Pierre / Musée des Beaux Arts
- Musée Des Confluences
- Institut Lumière – Musée vivant du Cinéma
- Musées Gadagne: Historical museum of Lyon and International puppet museum
- Musée urbain Tony Garnier
- Centre d’Histoire de la Résistance et de la Déportation
- Musée des Arts Décoratifs / Musée des Tissus
- Musée gallo-romain de Fourvière
- Musée de la Miniature et des Décors de cinéma
- Musée des Hospices civils de Lyon
- Musée de l’Imprimerie
Parks and Gardens
- Parc de la Tête d’Or
- Rhône banks
- Parc de Gerland
- Parc des Hauteurs
- Jardin des Curiosités
Cultural events are listed by two weekly magazines: Le Petit Bulletin (free, available in cinemas, theatres, some bars, etc. and online) and Lyon Poche (from newsagents or online). There also exists a new map of Lyon called “La Ville Nue” which lists bars, theaters, libraries, cinemas, music stores and concerts.
Early booking is often necessary for the major institutions (Auditorium, opera house, Célestins and Croix-Rousse theatres). The big names sell out months in advance. Unlike London or New York, there is no place in Lyon where you can buy reduced-price tickets for same day shows.
Music, dancing and opera
- Opera house
- Maison de la Danse
Lyon has a large number of theatres ranging from tiny “cafés-théâtres” to big municipal institutions. You can enjoy any type of show from comedy to classical drama to avant-garde productions.
- Théâtre des Célestins
- Théâtre de la Croix-Rousse
- Théâtre Tête d’Or
- Théâtre le Guignol de Lyon
- Véritable Guignol du Vieux Lyon et du Parc
The usual hours for downtown shopping are 10AM-7PM, Monday to Saturday. Some larger places close a bit later (7:30PM). Shops are closed on Sundays, except in December and in Vieux Lyon where Sunday is the busiest day of the week!
- La Part-Dieu
- Rue de la République
- Rue du Président Edouard Herriot, rue Gasparin, rue Emile Zola, rue des Archers, rue du Plat
- Rue Victor Hugo
- Rue Auguste Comte
- Carré de Soie
Restaurants have their menus with prices displayed outside. As everywhere in France, the prices always include service, bread and tap water (ask for a carafe of water). Tipping is rare and only expected if you are particularly satisfied with the service.
Meal times are generally 12PM-2PM for lunch and 7:30PM-10PM for dinner. Places offering all-day service are located in tourist areas, and are unlikely to serve quality fresh food. Late-night service is quite rare in quality restaurants, but you can always get the usual fast-food or kebab.
The traditional restaurants in Lyon are called bouchons; the origin of the word is unclear (it literally means “cork”). They appeared at the end of the 19th century and flourished in the 1930s, when the economic crisis forced wealthy families to fire their cooks, who opened their own restaurants for a working-class clientele. These women are referred to as mères (mothers); the most famous of them, Eugénie Brazier, became one of the first chefs to be awarded three stars (the highest ranking) by the famous Michelin gastronomic guide. She also had a young apprentice called Paul Bocuse. Eating in a good bouchon is certainly a must-do. They serve the typical local dishes:
- salade lyonnaise(Lyon salad): green salad with bacon cubes, croutons and a poached egg;
- saucisson chaud: a hot, boiled sausage; can be cooked with red wine (saucisson beaujolais) or in a bun (saucisson brioché);
- quenelle de brochet: dumpling made of flour and egg with pike fish and a crayfish sauce (Nantua sauce);
- tablier de sapeur: marinated tripes coated with breadcrumbs then fried, even locals often hesitate before trying it;
- andouillette: sausage made with chopped tripes, usually served with a mustard sauce;
- gratin dauphinois: the traditional side dish, oven-cooked sliced potatoes with cream;
- cervelle de canut(cervelle’ = ‘ brain): fresh cheese with garlic and herbs.
- rognons de veau à la moutarde: veal kidneys in a mustard sauce. Delicious and textural experience.
These dishes are very tasty. They were originally workers’ food, so they are generally fat and the portions are usually quite big. The quality is very variable since the bouchons are one of the main tourist attractions of the city.
Lyon was named “capital of gastronomy” by the great gastronomic writer Curnonsky in 1935; at that time there were no exotic restaurants, no diets and nobody was talking about fusion cuisine or bistronomy. Fortunately, the local gastronomy has considerably evolved since then and there is now far more to dining in Lyon than the bouchons. Kebab shops, Asian food, bistros, and three-star restaurants: Lyon has them all.
The locals are generally fond of eating out and the best places get known quickly by word of mouth. Moreover, the restaurants are quite small on average. It is strongly advised to book a table, especially for dinner. Since many good local chefs seem to enjoy a good family weekend, there are a lot more interesting options on weekdays.