If you have a love of all things French then you will definitely want to put Lyon on your list of places to visit. The City offers a pastiche of experiences including history – both political and textile – fabulous food, architectural delights, and a vibrant bar scene.
Updated June 2020
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The Lyonnaise told us Lyon has everything Paris has but the people are nicer. They just might be right, and you should definitely visit Lyon; a City we have really fallen in love with.
Lyon is known as the ‘second City’ of France and has its third largest population, with just over half a million residents. Located in the region of Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes, Lyon is perhaps most famous for its cuisine, which is totally delicious, Lyon is also culturally rich and one of the most elegant Cities we have visited. There is a lot to see and do, and taste, in Lyon
We have twice visited this beautiful City and loved every minute of our stays; the history, the architecture, the rivers, the people and oh yes, the food.
The City is bisected by both the Rhone and the Saone Rivers, neatly dissected into 9 arrondisements. The central area is relatively flat and great for walking, and the steeper areas are accessed by the metro and, in two cases, the funicular. We found Lyon a really easy City to move around in and we delighted at coming across treasures as we wandered the streets and laneways. Beautiful squares, broad rivers, cobblestoned laneways, and murals, seemed to be at every turn.
Lyon was one of the most important Cities of the Roman Empire, with the City ostensibly founded in 43 BC. Lyon’s rich and chequered history makes for interesting reading. Lyon prospered over many years until the French Revolution saw the City revolt against the National Convention and be deemed too royalist. One of the visible reminders of this time is the row of headless statues on the façade of the Cathedrale St Jean Baptiste. After the French Revolution, religious symbols and icons were destroyed and church property seized as part of a de-Christianisation of France.
Modern Lyon is a thriving commercial City and ongoing beautification and development are obvious. On our most recent visit there were major works in the lovely square on which the Hotel de Ville is located. We also witnessed a lot of beautification of streets with planter boxes being installed.
Arriving in Lyon
If you arrive by air your destination will be Lyon Saint-Exupery Airport, approximately 32 kms from the city centre. There is an excellent tramway, the Rhone-Express, which links the airport to the Gare de Lyon Part-Dieu, the primary railway station for Lyon. The Gare is on the Paris-Lyon-Marseille route. From Part-Dieu to your accommodation you have the option of taking the Metro Line B or the tram, and the Gare is also well serviced by taxis. On your departure, we recommend you either book a taxi or Uber (although our Uber experience in Lyon has not been great), or – our preferred option- book a private transfer. Note you can also book a private transfer to and from the airport direct to and from your accommodation, rather than to and from the Gare. This may be your preference if you are arriving late or feeling disoriented after a long flight.
If you are arriving by train you will most likely arrive at Part-Dieu, but there are other stations which are serviced by the TGV and SNCF. These include Lyon-Perrache, Gare de Vaise, and Gare de Lyon-Jean Macé. Several of these Stations are also on the Paris-Lyon-Marseille line, and your final destination should be clarified at the time of booking, and with reference to your accommodation location. We have on several occasions used the services of RailEurope (formerly LOCO2) to make our bookings. This site offers an English language interface, the option to pay in a choice of currencies, and straightforward information, on what can often be complicated booking systems. We have also found their service and communications to be excellent when we have needed to change our bookings due to flooding on rail lines. So much easier than dealing with language challenges.
Where to stay in Lyon – main locations
Croix-Rousse and Centre Ville
Of course your choices are endless when selecting where to stay in Lyon. Our preference is the area known as Croix-Rousse, but at the lower part of this area where it abuts the Centre Ville. This area is flat, and sits between the two rivers, providing easy access to all parts of the City. You will find it a lively place to stay but still with a very local feel. We have twice stayed in an Airbnb apartment on Rue Rene Leynaud, but found that accommodation it a little tired on our last visit. Our choices would still be in this area though, check your Centre Ville accommodation options here .
This is the most touristic area of Lyon and features many of the famous Bouchons (restaurants serving typical Lyonnaise cuisine). We have greatly enjoyed wandering the cobblestoned laneways of the area, which is across the Saone River from the Centre Ville. If you love to be in the heart of things then this may be your choice of places to stay, we would just add a small warning that a local suggested we should take extra care when in that area, and we have certainly seen groups of armed police patrolling the area. You will find lots of interesting architecture in Vieux Lyon though, which of course makes for fun accommodation options.
This is the area uphill from Vieux Lyon and is largely a residential area. If you are arriving in Lyon by car this may be a great location to more easily find parking, but check with your choice of accommodation places.
In Fourviere our eyes were taken by the very stylish looking 4 star Fourviere Hotel, which is a favourite for couples, with excellent facilities on a spot overlooking the City. A great choice if an apartment is not your preference.
But if you are looking for an apartment in this area then you will of course also find Airbnb options on Fourviere Hill. We very much liked the look of this choice.
One of the other very lovely areas of Lyon is the area around the beautiful Place Bellecour and back towards the Centre Ville. If shopping, and eating, are on your mind, this might just be a great choice of places to stay. You can choose from some very well priced Bellecour apartments, or hotels like the Intercontinental, yes this is the very elegant part of Lyon.
Eating, drinking and shopping in Lyon.
Lyonnaise Cuisine and wine
The food of France is famous worldwide and perhaps none is more feted than the Lyonnaise cuisine. The City is after all the home of Paul Bocuse, and in an area surrounded by some of France’s most superb produce.
Foodwise it is the Bouchons which carry the culinary traditions, but don’t underestimate the more modern options in Lyon either. Traditional foods you might find in a bouchon include salade Lyonnaise, sausages, duck pate, roast pork and pike quenelles. This is not haute cuisine, the traditions are based on foods which were commonly eaten by silk workers visiting Lyon. On our first visit we ate at Aux 3 Maries in the Vieux-Lyon area and whilst we enjoyed the food, we found the service a little off hand, with the wait staff very focussed on a large group of what we can only imagine were well known locals. But on our more recent visit we enjoyed a delicious lunch at Bouchon Tupin.
We were also given local, and trusted, recommendations for the following bouchons. Sadly, it was too late in our stay to enjoy these, but they are definitely on our list for our next visit, and should be on yours as well:
Le Garet (no website but do book)
We highly recommend you book for any restaurant that you have a particular desire to eat at, as good ones do get booked out quickly. Having said that, we have also found it relatively easy to get a table at more casual bistros, particularly at lunch time. And if all else fails there is always a crepe or some cheese and a baguette to eat back at your accommodation – don’t forget the wine!
Your wine choices in Lyon are pretty much unlimited and you will find well stocked wine stores are readily accessible. The Rhone and the Beaujolais regions are both close to Lyon and a visit to Beaujolais is well worth adding to your Lyon to do list
Two of our favourite places in Lyon are in the central area where we have stayed, on Rue Rene Leynaud. Both casual eating places and with friendly service with a local feel.
The first of these Traboule Kitchen, owned and operated by the charming couple Sylvain and Maelle. Open from 10 am to 7 pm Monday to Saturday, the Traboule Kitchen offers great coffee, and healthy and always interesting Kitchen Bowls, reminiscent of poke bowls. But leave room for a slice or two of the incredibly delicious cakes, made onsite by Maelle. The Kitchen is also licenced. We have loved our visits here and our interactions with the delightful owners.
Across Rue Rene Leynaud from the Traboule Kitchen, is Odessa Comptoir, possibly the most interesting bar we have ever visited. With a retro décor matched by a diverse and interesting selection of wines, and some delicious food to go with them, this is such a friendly place with a lovely local feel, but very welcoming to international customers.
The food on offer can vary and may on any given night reflect international influences but you may also find traditional Lyonnaise cuisine. Provenance is really important to the owner of this bar, be it the wine or the food. We had pizza there one evening and they explained that they knew the farmer who had grown the wheat. This might not be the most posh place to go in Lyon, but it is certainly one of the more authentic, and if you are a wine lover you will not be disappointed.
Of course this is all just a snippet of the food options available in Lyon, you will find many delightful places to eat, and then there are the chocolatiers, the delicatessens, the fromageries and the boulangeries. If you are on Instagram follow @le_guide_du_prout for updates on the Lyon food scene.
Shopping in Lyon
You will find department stores as well as many major labels and chain stores in Lyon from UniQlo to Zara and H&M, as well as Lafayette and Primark, many of them in the Part-Dieu shopping centre. The Presquille is the place to be for international shopping, and there are lots of lovely eating options close by when you need to rest your feet. But there are also many interesting boutiques in the area as well, particularly in the passages (arcades).
Back in the 1st arrondisement there are loads of interesting shops, including many selling musical instruments. But my favourite is the tiny jewellery shop Concept Bresil, from which I now own a beautiful pair of ebony and silver earrings. Be sure to track down this and other unique stores in this area. Take time to wander and make your own discoveries. Include the shops near Traboule Kitchen in the The Village des Créateurs on your hit list.
And don’t forget to put Les Halles de Lyon Paul Bocuse on your list for gourmet treats, including some to take home with you.
Of course it wouldn’t be France without open air markets and one of our favourites is the La Croix Rousse Markets. These are up on the hill so be ready for lots of steps, or take the metro line C from the Hotel de Ville up to the markets and then maybe wander downhill via the Traboules (see things to do below). Find more on Lyon’s markets here.
Things to do in Lyon
Take a tour to familiarise yourself with the City.
Our first choice in every City we visit is to take the Hop On Hop Off Bus for a great orientation to the City. This advice was given to me years ago when I had a weekend in Washington DC and it has stayed with me as the best way to get a feel for a new location.
Another favourite way to get to know a City is to take a walking tour, and it wouldn’t be a visit to Lyon without familiarising yourself with the food scene; we recommend you take a food tour through old Lyon.
Wander along the Traboules
We knew nothing of the traboules of Lyon when we first arrived, and were very lucky to find ourselves staying right next to one. The owners of the Comptoir told us a little about the history of the traboules and that we really must explore them.
There are thought to be over 400 traboules in Lyon, but only around 40 are now open to the public. The first examples are believed to have been built in the 4th Century and were designed to allow the residents to quickly transit from their homes to the riverside. Most famously perhaps, they were used by silk merchants to carry their heavy loads of fabric whilst sheltering from the weather.
We caught the metro line C up the hill to the station Croix-Rousse and wandered down through the traboules, ultimately finding ourselves back in the traboule that runs off Rue Rene Leynaud, right near our apartment. We got delightfully lost on a couple of occasions but enjoyed wandering through the residential areas with lovely views out over the City. More sensible persons might buy a map or take a guided tour 😉
There are two very good reasons to visit the Fourviere area of Lyon, one is the Basilica and the other the Roman Ruins. Add in the great views over the City and this really is a must do.
If you are fit you can walk up to the hill or you have the option of catching the funicular, which in itself is a fun experience. Our preference is to catch the funicular up and then enjoy the walk down from the Basilica, either through the Rosary Gardens, or taking in the Roman Ruins on the way down.
The Funicular runs from Vieux-Lyon – Cathédrale Saint-Jean station to Fourviere . You are looking for the F2 line to Fourviere.
Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière
You don’t need to be religious to enjoy a visit to the Basilica.
Built in the late 1800s, the Basilica has one of the most incredible interiors of any religious building we have visited. The 6 mosaics, each of 50 square metres, in the upper sanctuary are stunning, as are the 7 stained glass windows. The lower sanctuary is much plainer but also worth a visit, as is the small chapel accessed via the interior of the Basilica.
Little did I know when we visited that the site of this Basilica (but not the current building) is where the Society of Mary (Marists) was formed. An interesting coincidence as I went to a Marist boarding school in Sydney for the first 4 years of high school. In the Chapel there is a plaque noting this history
The Basilica building is to my eye much more beautiful from the outside than the more Gothic churches routinely found throughout France, sitting up white and bright with its four towers shining in the sun.
In the grounds of the Basilica it is possible to enjoy a drink or a light meal in the restaurant on the courtyard
Close by the Basilica is the Ancient Theatre of Fourvière, a Roman theatre, and the Museum of Gallo-Roman Civilisation. If visiting the Basilica is not to your taste you can catch the F1 Funicular Line towards St Just which has a stop right by the Ruins. This funicular also runs from the Vieux-Lyon – Cathédrale Saint-Jean station.
The Museum of Gallo-Roman Civilisation is in this complex and very well worth a visit with the exhibits telling the story of the era and the building itself offering great views over the ruins.
Explore the historic Saint-Jean area
Across the Saone from where we stayed, is the beautiful historic area of Saint-Jean. Whilst this isn’t our preferred area to stay in, it is a perfect place to spend hours wandering the cobblestoned streets and laneways, or to sit enjoying a crepe or a drink whilst watching the passing parade. We particularly like the less touristy area back towards Fourviere, but the main game is in the area towards the Saone.
For more on the Saint Jean area and and staying in the area see this post by Joanne Tracey.
We did this on our first visit and loved it as a way to get a feel for Lyon through the eyes of a local. The experience gave us a heap more ideas of things to do and of the history of the City. The tuk tuks are comfortable (heated seats even!) and leave from the area in front of St Jean Cathedrale, visiting the Presquille area of the City.
Explore the Montee de la Grande Cote and beyond on your own walking tour
Walk up the gently sloping steps along the World Heritage Montee de la Grande Cote in La Croix-Rousse Quarter, towards Plateau de la Croix Rousse. Poke into the many interesting boutiques along the way and enjoy a coffee or a beer or glass of wine with a snack at Aupres de mon Arbre. Then turn left at Rue Neyret and look downhill towards another Roman Ampitheatre. Head downhill to wander through the Jardin de Plantes and then turn left again out of the gardens and walk down Rue Fernand Rey. Turn right at the T intersection and then left down Place Saint Vincent to find yourself at the famous La Fresque des Lyonnaise – a mural of local historic figures. From there wander down to the Quai St Vincent and enjoy a walk along the banks of the Saone.
Other things to do in and around Lyon
These are just some of the option for exploring Lyon, but of course in two visits we have only just scratched the surface. Check these recommendations for many more ideas.
Would we visit Lyon again?
The answer is an overwhelming yes! Only 2 hours by train from Paris, Lyon is so easily accessible. We loved every minute of our stay and besides re-visiting our favourite Comptoir and having coffee at Traboule Kitchen, and eating at more bouchons, there is so much to see and do in Lyon and around. We love to wander in a City and next time we might explore the area across the Rhone River in 3e Maybe a winery tour will be on our list for our next visit. So many options to consider.
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Have you been to Lyon? If so did you enjoy it? If not is it now on your list? Where should we visit next in France?