WHAT TO DO
Lyon is the second most important city in France after Paris. It is located at the confluence of the rivers Rhone and Saone, to the northwest of the French Alps. Lyon was the capital of the Gauls during the Roman Empire (it was named Lugdunum in 43 BC) and it became a major economic hub during the Renaissance. It was also an important area for the production and weaving of silk. The city is recognized for its historical and architectural landmarks - the districts of Vieux Lyon (Old Lyon), the Fourviere hill, the Presquile and the slopes of the Croix Rousse are inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. During World War II, it was a major stronghold of the French Resistance against the Nazis. Secret passages known as traboules enabled people to escape Gestapo raids. Today, Lyon is most famous for its cuisine - the noted food critic Curnonsky referred to the city as 'the gastronomic capital of the world.' Authentic Lyonnais gastronomy can be enjoyed all over town at bouchons, small cozy bistros that serve traditional local specialties. With so much to offer, Lyon is sure to please.
Start your odyssey in the heart of Old Lyon. The atmospheric Saint Jean district is the place to discover the old world ambience of the Old Town. This medieval quarter is filled with narrow cobblestone lanes and quiet little courtyards. It is also home to the magnificent Cathedrale Saint Jean Baptiste. Lyon's mainly Romanesque cathedral was built between the late 11th and early 16th centuries. The portals of its Flamboyant Gothic facade, completed in 1480, are decorated with 280 square stone medallions. Inside, the highlights are the astronomical clock in the north transept and the stained glass rose window dating from 1392. A small but impressive collection of sacred artworks - including 17th century Flemish tapestries and a striking 10th century carved ivory chest from the Byzantine era - is housed in the adjoining treasury. Note: during the Fete des Lumieres (Festival of Lights), the cathedral plays a starring role, with vivid projections lighting up the main facade. This popular event takes place around the 8th of December every year.
From there, explore around Rue du Boeuf and the Place Neuve Saint Jean, a picturesque square filled with traditional bouchons. Then wander around the pedestrian streets of Rue Saint Jean and Rue des Trois Maries. There are many inviting shops, creperies and cafes along the way. Found at 37 Rue Saint Jean is La Maison du Chamarier. This classified Historical Monument, built between the 13th century and the early 16th century, shows the evolution from Flamboyant Gothic to Renaissance architecture. Also on Rue Saint Jean (numbers 27 and 54), are two traboules or secret passageways to discover. Continue strolling until reaching the Musees Gadagne at 1 Place du Petit College. Housed in a 16th century mansion built for two wealthy Florentine bankers, this twin themed exhibition space incorporates an excellent local history museum, Musee d'Histoire de Lyon, that chronicles the city’s layout as its silk weaving, cinema and transportation evolved, and an international puppet museum, Musee des Arts de la Marionnette, that pays homage to Lyon’s iconic puppet, Guignol.
La Fresque des Lyonnais (Mural of Lyon) can be found at the corner of 49 Quai Saint Vincent and 2 Rue de la Martiniere. This massive wall painting features 31 famous people from Lyon, with 25 historical figures and 6 contemporary figures. The mural was created by the Cite de la Creation organization in 1994-1995. Note: look for the Lumiere brothers (pioneers of cinema) and Paul Bocuse (the father of gastronomy). Nearby is Colline de la Croix Rousse. Built on the slopes of the Croix Rousse hillside, this historic neighborhood was an important center of silk weaving in the early 19th century. Because of the high gradient of the streets, there are many charming curves and staircases. The most unique aspect of the area is its collection of traboules, the covered passageways that run through courtyards, buildings (including private houses), and pedestrian staircases. In the 19th century, these special alleyways were used by silk workers to transport their fabrics out of the rain. There are passageways starting at 9 Place Colbert and continuing to 14 Bis Montee Saint Sebastien. Note: the traboules are open to the public, but visitors should be quiet, out of respect to the residents. The Maison des Canuts (House of Silk Workers) is located at 10 Rue d'Ivry. This small museum is dedicated to the art of creating silk. During a visit, you can discover the invention of the Jacquard loom and watch hand weaving demonstrations on traditional looms. Be sure to browse the silk boutique before you leave.
The Presquile district is a piece of land, sort of like an island, within the river. This neighborhood is distinguished by its beautiful architecture and monumental town squares. The Place des Terreaux is worth visiting just to see the magnificent 19th century fountain sculpted by Frederic Auguste Bartholdi (he designed the Statue of Liberty). This grandiose work of art depicts the triumphal chariot of the river Garonne in southwest France. Notice the four marvelously sculpted horses that look very hardworking - they represent the four different rivers that flow into the ocean. Lyon's Hotel de Ville (Town Hall) is found on the east side of the square. Originally constructed between 1646 and 1672, it was rebuilt (after a fire) by Jules Hardouin Mansart in his signature Baroque style. Situated on the south side of the square is the stunning Musee des Beaux Arts (Museum of Fine Arts). Occupying the 17th century Abbaye Royale des Dames de Saint Pierre (Royal Abbey of the Sisters of Saint Pierre), it is considered the next best fine arts museum in France after the Louvre. The museum has one of Europe's largest collections of artwork, with an especially impressive assortment of paintings and sculptures from the 14th through the 20th centuries. The antiquities, ancient coins and graphic arts collections are also noteworthy. Take some time to enjoy the tranquil cloister garden. Note: the museum is open from 10a-6p and is closed on Tuesday.
Behind Place des Terreaux is the Opera National de Lyon. This neoclassical 1831 built opera house was modernized in 1993 by renowned French architect Jean Nouvel, who added the striking semi cylindrical glass domed roof. The city's finest square in the Presquile district is Place Bellecour, between the rivers Rhone and Saone. The square's centerpiece is an equestrian statue of Louis XIV created by the Lyon native sculptor Francois Frederic Lemot. Elegant 19th century buildings line the east and west sides of the square. From the north side of the square, there is a view of the Fourviere hill. To access the hill, take the super cool funicular (F2 from the Vieux Lyon - Cathedrale Saint Jean station). You will arrive in front of the majestic Basilique Notre Dame de Fourviere. Crowning the hill, with commanding city panoramas from its terrace, this remarkable church was built after the Franco Prussian War (between 1872 and 1884) when the people of Lyon had vowed to create a Marian sanctuary if their city was spared. The basilica is a blend of Gothic and Byzantine styles with a richly decorated interior. Spend time in the sanctuary to admire the sumptuous mosaics and paintings. After touring the basilica and crypt, climb the northeast tower to take in the sensational views of Lyon's cityscape and surrounding areas.
Lyon stands on the site of the ancient Roman city called Lugdunum, founded in 43 BC, which was the capital of Gaul. Located on the hillside of Fourviere at 17 Rue Cleberg, the Lugdunum Musee & Theatres Romains (Archaeology Museum) displays Gallo Roman era objects including vases, gravestones, mosaics, statues, coins and ceramics. The antiquities presented in the museum's exhibits are from onsite digs - highlights include a monumental Hercules sculpture, decorative marble work from ancient baths and a glorious floor mosaic depicting images related to the God of Oceans. The museum is located next to an archaeology site that boasts the oldest ancient ruins in France, including two Roman theaters. The Grand Theatre dating back to 15 BC was where tragedies and comedies were performed. It could seat an audience of 10000. The smaller, adjacent Odeon was for musical performances and poetry readings. Note: the museum is open from 10a-6p and is closed on Monday.
Next, make your way to the Musee Lumiere at 25 Rue du Premier Film. Cinema's illustrious beginnings are showcased at the art nouveau home of Antoine Lumiere, who moved to Lyon with sons Auguste and Louis in 1870. The brothers shot the first reels of the world's first motion picture, La Sortie de l'Usine Lumiere a Lyon (Workers Leaving the Lumiere Factory in Lyon) here in March of 1895. Note: the museum is open from 10a-6p and is closed on Monday. Another must visit museum is the Centre d'Histoire de la Resistance et de la Deportation (French Resistance Museum), found at 14 Avenue Berthelot. During the Second World War, Lyon was known as the 'Capital of the Resistance' because of the strength of its struggle against the Nazi regime. The Resistance and Deportation History Centre is housed in the building that was the headquarters of the Gestapo commander in Lyon. This building is now dedicated to the remembrance of the victims who were held in the building's cellars. The museum includes sound recordings of deportees and Resistance fighters, plus a varied collection of everyday objects associated with the Resistance (including the parachute Jean Moulin used to re enter France in 1942). The center also screens a documentary film about the trial of Klaus Barbie, the SS officer who was the head of the Gestapo in Lyon. The film features eyewitness accounts and extracts from the court trial of Barbie. Note: the museum is open from 10a-6p and is closed on Monday.
Conclude your tour of Lyon by exploring the Confluence sector. The city's race toward the future is personified in this reborn industrial district near the southern tip of the Presquile. Once a landscape of empty warehouses and urban blight, the newly dubbed Confluence is a 400 acre district of cutting edge architecture and innovative redesign. After years of construction and millions of euros in investment, the urban renewal project has brought new shops, restaurants, high end lodging and one groundbreaking new museum to a formerly abandoned part of town. The first phase of the project focused on the Saone riverbanks, with the creation of architecturally daring buildings, including Le Cube Orange - a striking iridescent orange office building designed by Jakob & Macfarlane architects. Also in the area is the sleek, modern Pole de Commerces et de Loisirs Confluence, which reinvents the shopping experience with a huge transparent roof that allows light to filter through the complex. The crown jewel of the district is the science and humanities museum, Musee des Confluences. It's set in a jaw dropping architectural work of geometric forms in glass and steel, right at the meeting of the rivers Rhone and Saone. The museum displays collections of natural science, natural history, archaeology and anthropology. The natural science department includes minerals, shells, zoology and entomology sections. The archaeology department covers paleontology and Egyptology. Note: the museum is open from 10a-6p and is closed on Monday.
WHERE TO EAT
Lyon is widely considered the capital of French gastronomy. To date, it has more than 20 Michelin starred restaurants, a remarkable feat for a small city. The best places to visit in town for authentic cuisine are the bouchons Lyonnais, friendly family run bistros that offer simple yet delicious meals. Generally bouchons serve classic regional specialties. The most unique culinary delicacy (and my favorite dish in Lyon) is something known as quenelle - a type of dumpling made with ground pike in a rich cream sauce. And of course, all traditional bouchons serve a carafe of Beaujolais or Cotes du Rhone, the regional wines of Lyon. The city has several renowned restaurants created by iconic French chef Paul Bocuse in addition to the Michelin two starred Restaurant Paul Bocuse outside Lyon. More on this later, but first.
Start your day at La Boite a Cafe, located at 3 Rue de l'Abbe Rozier. A favorite hangout of Lyonnais caffeine fiends and students, this laid back spot on the Croix Rousse slopes roasts its own beans and serves superb pastries. The cafe also does a lovely weekend brunch. Antoinette Pain & Brioche can be found at 15 Rue Hippolyte Flandrin. Wherever you are in Lyon, you're never far away from a boulangerie. This bakery has the best baguettes in town and their pastries, especially the eclairs, are quite tasty. For some yummy cheese, head to Fromagerie Tete d'Or at 51 Rue Tete d'Or. At this excellent shop, cheeses are lined up in neat little rows which feature fine chevres in many varieties as well as others like alsatian munster and a sweet beaufort. Each cheese is perfectly ripened and ready to be enjoyed with a bottle of wine.
Lyon has a number of food markets and my 2 favorites are Les Halles de Lyon Paul Bocuse and Les Halles de la Martiniere. Les Halles de Lyon Paul Bocuse is located at 102 Cours Lafayette. This covered marketplace has more than 50 different shops and restaurants that offer regional products including charcuterie, locally made cheese, fresh bread, truffles, oysters, fruits, vegetables, patisserie and last but not least, chocolate. Do not miss Seve, it has heavenly pastries and lots of chocolate. Note: the market is open from 7a and is closed on Monday. Les Halles de la Martiniere is at 23 Rue de la Martiniere. This hipster haunt is situated in a building from 1836 that originally housed the city's first indoor market. Today, it has a modern food court where crowds convene to eat, drink and be merry. Note: the market is open daily from 8a. For the chocoholic like myself, there are 2 additional chocolate shops that are not to be missed. Found at 2 Rue du Colonel Chambonnet is Palomas, an acclaimed chocolatier in Lyon since 1917. The other is Voisin, a prestigious chocolate shop founded in 1897. It can be found at 28 Rue de la Republique and other locations around town.
Chez Hugon is located at 12 Rue Pizay. Established in 1937 and one of Lyon's most celebrated bouchons, it serves the earthiest of Lyonnais specialties - such as blood sausage with apples, lentils in creamy sauce and veal brains. Cheerful red and white checked tables are complemented by pictures of old Lyon on the walls. Restaurant Le Musee is at 2 Rue des Forces. Housed in the stables of the city's former Town Hall, this delightful bouchon serves a splendid array of meat heavy Lyonnais classics, including a divine poulet au vinaigre (chicken cooked in vinegar). The daily changing menu features ten starters and ten main dishes, plus five scrumptious desserts. One of Old Lyon's most dependable bistros, Daniel et Denise is run by award winning chef Joseph Viola. Come here for elaborate variations on traditional Lyonnais themes - sausage made from pork intestine, pepper, wine, onions and seasoning. Note: the restaurant is located at 36 Rue Tramassac. There is another location across the Rhone at 156 Rue de Crequi.
Restaurant Cafe du Soleil can be found at 2 Rue Saint Georges in the Old Town. This rustic spot is a great place to enjoy an authentic Lyonnais meal at lunchtime. I enjoyed the tasty quenelle (fish dumpling) and creme brulee. Located at 2 Place Bertone in the Croix Rousse neighborhood is O Vins d'Anges. This friendly wineshop and bar has an excellent selection of small plates. Tasty burrata cheese with olive oil and smoked eel are complemented by reasonably priced wines by the glass. Note: the restaurant does tastings that draw a chill neighborhood crowd. One place that should not be missed is Cafe Comptoir Abel, found at 25 Rue Guynemer. In business since 1726, this centuries old spot with vintage decor reached legendary status after the late great Anthony Bourdain ate here while filming Parts Unknown in 2014. Do try the Salade Lyonnaise (lettuce, thick bacon, crispy croutons and a soft boiled egg), along with the house specialty - Quenelle de Brochet (oven cooked pike dumpling) with rice.
The finest dining experience in Lyon is at the world famous Restaurant Paul Bocuse, aka L'Auberge du Pont de Collonges. Located on the banks of the river Saone at 40 Rue de la Plage, this colorfully decorated building is a few miles north of the city center. Previously mentioned, Paul Bocuse was a renowned French chef who pioneered his nouvelle cuisine approach, which favors light and fresh foods. Although he passed away in 2018 at the age of 91, his legacy lives on at the restaurant, which boasts two Michelin stars (until recently, it held the coveted three star trifecta for a record fifty five years). Some of the signature dishes include black truffle soup and Bresse chicken. While dining here certainly won’t be inexpensive, it is well worth it for a memorable French gourmet experience. Note: the restaurant is open Wednesday to Sunday and reservations should be made well in advance.
La Sommeliere holds one Michelin star and can be found at 6 Rue Mourguet in the Old Town. The dishes are original, refined and beautifully plated. The cuisine is more on the modern side, as is the restaurant’s interior. The seven course tasting menu with wine pairing is impressive. Note: the restaurant is open Wednesday to Sunday and reservations are recommended. Nearby at 29 Rue du Boeuf is Restaurant Le Boeuf d'Argent. It is run by the marvelous husband and wife team, Henri and Odile Balland. When you arrive at this cellar eatery, a cozy and charming ambiance welcomes you. I enjoyed the five course tasting menu, hand picked and personalized by chef Henri. Note: the restaurant is open Tuesday to Saturday and reservations are suggested.
My 2 favorite restaurants in Lyon are Bouchon Thomas and Le Garet. Located at 3 Rue Laurencin, Bouchon Thomas is one of several Rue Laurencin eateries operated by chef Thomas Ponson. All of the classic bouchon elements are present at Bouchon Thomas including checkerboard tablecloths and a menu featuring traditional favorites. I destroyed the escargot in garlic and parsley butter, the quenelle de brochet and for dessert the pain perdu (similar to French toast) with vanilla ice cream. Note: the restaurant is open Monday to Friday and bookings are essential. Le Garet is at 7 Rue du Garet, not far from Place des Terreaux in the Presquile district. Holding court in Lyon since 1920, this authentic bouchon is well known among both locals and aficionados of Lyonnais cuisine. The comfort food menu includes saucisson (dry cured sausage) with potatoes and butter, fluffy quenelle and wine stewed beef with potatoes. And, of course, French wine from nearby Beaujolais washes it all down like a dream. Do not skip the delectable desserts, many of which are served with a shot of brandy. Note: the restaurant is open Monday to Friday and bookings are a must.
End your evening in Lyon with a drink or two. Bar Le Passage is located at 8 Rue de Platre in the Presquile district. Like a relic from bygone times, this low lit speakeasy impresses with its fine cocktails, mural covered ceiling, stuffed leather armchairs and vintage jazz soundtrack. Note: to get here, look for the Restaurant Le Passage sign, walk to the back of the alley and ring the buzzer. L'Antiquaire can be found at 20 Rue Hippolyte Flandrin. Old time jazz, flickering candles and friendly suspenders wearing barkeeps set the mood in this atmospheric speakeasy. The painstakingly prepared cocktails are top notch - I enjoyed the Penicillin (scotch, ginger, honey, lemon and peat whisky). Note: the bar is open daily from 6p. Soda Bar is across the street from the Mural of Lyon at 7 Rue de la Martiniere. This stylish, vintage inspired bar draws a hip but easy going crowd. Choose from a delightful list of cocktails or ask the bar staff to surprise you with their own concoctions. Note: the bar is open from 7p and is closed on Sunday and Monday. For a taste of Germany in France, head to Black Forest Society at 29 Rue de l'Arbre Sec. This joint has a great vibe, friendly staff and dynamite adult beverages - I went with the Black Forest Fashionned (rye whisky, bitters, simple syrup and chocolate). Note: the bar is open from 6p and is closed on Sunday. Conclude with a visit to Hot Club Jazz Lyon, located at 26 Rue Lanterne. This jazz club has talented musicians and a super cool atmosphere. Note: the club is open Wednesday to Saturday from 8p.
WHERE TO STAY
Lyon offers a number of places to call home during your stay and there are 2 that I especially enjoyed. Both are in prime locations and provide exceptional service, modern amenities and comfort. The first is Hotel Carlton, located at 4 Rue Jussieu. Overlooking Place de la Republique, this elegant hotel occupies a grand 19th century building topped with a cupola. It is a short walk from the Old Town and not far from Place des Terreaux. Stylish rooms feature tea and coffeemaking facilities, plus minibars, flat screen TVs and free WiFi. Upgraded quarters offer additional living spaces and views over the square. Amenities include a sophisticated bar with plush seating, a hammam and massage services.
A second option is the Intercontinental Lyon Hotel Dieu, located at 20 Quai Jules Courmont. Set in a palatial, domed building on the banks of the river Rhone, this grand hotel is near Place Bellecour and a brief walk from Cathedrale Saint Jean Baptiste. Refined rooms have flat screen TVs, complimentary WiFi and glass enclosed showers. Upgrades add river views and separate living areas. Other perks include a chic restaurant with a terrace, a dapper bar and a lovely courtyard in a former cloister.
Lyon is loaded with history, culture, art, architecture and fantastic food. It treated me well and I look forward to returning.