Why Lyon, France Should Be On Your Travel Bucket List

Lyon’s magnificent cathedral rises above the city’s historic old town. Photo/Getty Images

An easily accessible city with two millennia of history, Lyon is a fascinating blend of tradition and innovation, writes Brett Atkinson.

What to see

Amidst a maze dating back to medieval and Renaissance times, the highlight of Vieux Lyon, the old town listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is the Romanesque and Gothic splendor of the Saint-Jean Baptiste Cathedral.

Another ecclesiastical must-see is the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière, crowning the town from where the Romans established the colony of Lugdunum in 43 BC and offering great views of Lyon’s location on a Rhône peninsula. A convenient funicular climbs Fourvière hill from the Vieux Lyon metro station.

The Notre-Dame de Fourvière basilica offers superb views of the Rhône.  Photo/Getty Images
The Notre-Dame de Fourvière basilica offers superb views of the Rhône. Photo/Getty Images

Among the museums to discover are the Gallo-Roman Museum of Fourvière, which sheds light on the Roman genesis of the city, and the works of art world superstars Rodin, Monet and Picasso at the Museum of Fine Arts. The origins of cinema are presented at the Lumière Museum in Lyon, housed in the glorious Art Nouveau villa of Antoine Lumière. In 1895, Lumière’s sons Auguste and Louis trained their newly invented Cinematograph camera on workers leaving a Lyon factory for lunch and filmed what is considered the world’s first motion picture.

What to do

Originally built in the 19th century to transport goods from a booming silk industry in the city, Lyon’s 50km-long network of traboules (secret passageways) winds through buildings and buildings, makes underground detours and crosses compact courtyards in the middle of the old town. To negotiate the confusing urban collage of tunnels and zigzags, download the free iPhone app from traboules-lyon.fr, or join a guided tour with Visiter Lyon.

Where to eat

The classic Lyon restaurant experience is to dine at bouches, small family-run bistros that serve value-for-money multi-course menus of local classics. Lunch is usually more economical, and four-course menus may include quenelles (egg and cream dumplings with meat or fish) or marinated chicken (chicken cooked in vinegar). Appetizers and main courses are often accompanied by a Communard cocktail – a mixture of crème de cassis and Beaujolais wine – and a cheese platter and dessert. Service is informal, red-and-white checkered tablecloths are practically mandatory, and you might find yourself sharing a table with locals from Lyon at old-school venues like Café des Fédérations and Le Musée.

Lyon has a lively mix of Michelin star restaurants and small family bistros.  Photo/Getty Images
Lyon has a lively mix of Michelin star restaurants and small family bistros. Photo/Getty Images

Lyon’s other traditional destination for traveling foodies is Les Halles de Lyon Paul Bocuse, named after the legendary French chef who made Lyon his home until his death in 2018. Over 50 different stalls are present in the open market first introduced in 1971. Pick up local cheeses, charcuterie, and bread for a riverside picnic, or dine at Maison Rousseau for the freshest seafood. Beat the crowds by visiting the market on a weekday or join a guided tour with Lyon Food Tour to meet some of the vendors.

Beyond Lyon’s culinary traditions, the city is also considered a center for innovative dining. More than 20 restaurants are Michelin-starred, including L’Agastache, a few blocks east of the river on Lyon’s Left Bank. Opened in 2020 by two young chefs from Lyon, highlights of an ever-changing menu informed by local suppliers could include cocoa-mint-crusted lamb or lobster bisque risotto.

where to drink

Lyon is a gateway to the age-old vineyards of the northern Rhône valley, particularly to the south around the city of Vienne for the Condrieu and Côte Rôtie appellations. Try local varietals, including excellent Viognier and Syrah at Lyon wine bars including Odessa Comptoir and Le Vitis. Both spots also serve wines from the Beaujolais sub-region north of Lyon. Students with a passion for the local wine scene should book a private tasting session with Caroline Conner of Lyon Wine Tastings (@lyonwinetastings on Instagram). Tastings include plates overflowing with local cheeses and charcuterie.

Students from over 30 universities help Lyon be one of the best cities in France for craft beer, too. Local brewers Ninkasi, named after the ancient Sumerian goddess of beer and brewing, have nine locations in the city. Most popular is their Guillotiere Riverside location, a good place to also try their gourmet burgers and craft whiskey. Just north of Ninkasi, along Quai Victor Augagneur, there is a chain of barges (floating bars). It’s a great place to grab a late afternoon aperitif – the French equivalent of the Italian pre-dinner aperitif ritual – and later at night it turns into lively nightclubs with DJs and international rhythms.

The river paths of the city are ideal for strolling.  Photo/Getty Images
The river paths of the city are ideal for strolling. Photo/Getty Images

Where to stay

French hotel chain OKKO has 13 different locations across the country, and its Pont Lafayette outpost in Lyon offers stylish, value-for-money rooms with views of the Rhône. The buffet breakfasts consist of local and organic products. Complimentary aperitifs and snacks are served in the late afternoon.

Getting There

For New Zealand travelers, Lyon is accessible by direct flights from Dubai with Emirates. The city is connected to Paris Gare de Lyon by the French TGV network (two hours), as well as by direct trains from Paris Charles de Gaulle airport (also two hours). Incorporating a change of trains in Paris, Eurostar departures from London St Pancras take around six hours.

To learn more, see visitlyon.com.

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