In a valley where the Rhône and the Saône rivers meet, Lyon not only has great shopping and fascinating sights, it’s the culinary capital of France. Sue Dobson introduces the highlights…
An elegant city built along river banks and coating two steep hills – the Fourvière and Croix Rousse – France’s gastronomic capital has some famous vineyards on its doorstep. Indeed, three rivers are said to run through Lyon – the Rhône, the Saône and the Beaujolais!
In Lyon, cooking is an art. Whether you eat in cheerful little bouchons with their red and white checked tablecloths and traditional recipes, or one of the prestigious restaurants with Michelin stars, you’ll have an unforgettable experience. And with over 200 buildings floodlit, by night the city looks beautiful – the perfect backdrop to a noted nightlife.
The old town, Vieux Lyon, has narrow lanes and hidden courtyards. A stunning basilica overlooks the city from high on its hill, there are brilliant trompe l’oeil paintings on buildings and as a break from city sightseeing there are quays, riverbanks and bridges to stroll on and the Parc de la Tête d’Or has a lake, roses and botanical gardens.
Museums span fine and contemporary arts, puppets and automatons, the cinema (the first film was made in Lyon by the Lumière brothers) and the Résistance. The silk industry that made Lyon famous from the 16th century may almost have disappeared, but its legacy lingers on. Exploring the riverbank markets is a great way to spend a Sunday morning, and an hour’s cruise on the River Saône gives you a different angle on the city’s architectural charms.
Its centre a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Lyon has superb food, excellent shopping, an interesting history and plenty to do and see.
Old Lyon is a maze of narrow streets and traboules, the short-cut passages that link streets and thread a route through tall houses. Originally created so that silk could be carried from the weavers’ homes under cover through the town, they came in useful as secret passageways for the Résistance during the Second World War. A vibrant area of homes, shops, bars and restaurants, spiral staircases and mullioned windows, it is one of France’s best restored areas of Renaissance architecture.
Cathédrale St Jean Baptiste
Built between the 12th and 15th centuries, two popes were elected and Henri IV was married in this cathedral with its superb stained glass windows and a fascinating astronomical clock from the 16th century.
Place St Jean. Open 8am-12noon and 2-7pm (5pm Saturday and Sunday).
Musée des Beaux Arts (Fine Arts Museum)
A rich collection in an impressive setting, considered second only to the Louvre in Paris. In its 70 rooms are artefacts from Egypt and Ancient Greece to paintings by Rembrandt and Rubens, Monet, Renoir, Picasso and Francis Bacon, plus major exhibitions. Palais Saint-Pierre, place des Terreaux. Open 10am-6pm (10.30am-8pm on Friday). Closed on Tuesdays and public holidays. Tel: +33 (0)4 7210 1740.
A vision of soft blue and gold, the stunning late 19th-century basilica of Notre Dame is layered with Byzantine-style mosaics, marble statues and beautiful stained glass windows. High on a hill, and reached by a funicular railway, on a clear day you can see for miles. 8 place de Fourvière. Open 8am-7pm.
Lyon (Lugdunum), founded by the Romans in 43BC, was capital of the Gauls. Two Roman theatres remain on the Fourvière hillside, the large one, still used, is the oldest in France. The Gallo-Roman museum reveals archaeological treasures found in the city.
Place des Terraux
Surrounded by streets of shops, restaurants, bars and cafés, and with the exciting Opera House nearby, this elegant square is lined with the impressive façades of the 17th-century Hôtel de Ville and the Museum of Fine Arts in a former Benedictine monastery inspired by Italian palaces. Its grand fountain looks particularly beautiful at night when floodlit.
Musée des Tissus (Textile Museum)
Set in the stylish 18th-century buildings of the Hôtel de Villeroy, a marvellous collection of fabrics down the centuries, from ancient Egyptian to 20th-century couturier creations via rare Persian rugs, with the emphasis on silk. It leads into the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, a house furnished with 18th-century fabrics, furniture, paintings and ornaments. The area around the museums, especially the parallel rue Auguste Compte, is full of antiques shops and galleries. 34 rue de la Charité. Open 10am-5.30pm. Closed on Mondays and public holidays. Tel: +33 (0)4 7838 4200.
Soierie Vivante (Silk workshops)
At the bottom of the hill-hugging Croix Rousse district where, in the 19th century, blocks of high-ceilinged silk workers’ houses were built to contain the Jacquard loom that transformed the silk industry. See how panne velvet is painted by hand and watch silk-screening being demonstrated. Beautiful silk scarves, ties and materials printed in the workshop are available to purchase.
21 rue Richan. Open Tuesday 2-6.30pm; Wednesday-Saturday 9am-12noon and 2-6.30pm. Closed Sunday, Monday, Tuesday morning and public holidays. Tel: +33 (0)4 7827 1713.
Vast trompe l’oeil paintings on the façades of tall buildings tell of Lyon’s history – there are about 150 of them, but the biggest and most impressive is close to the Croix-Rousse métro station. From there, walk up to the Boulevard de la Croix-Rousse for a terrific local food market, held every morning except on Mondays. To see how the silk workers lived and worked, visit the nearby Maison des Canuts on rue d’Ivry.
Find fresh produce and foody treats on the banks of the Saône River, at the Quais Saint-Antoine and Célestins, every morning from Tuesday to Sunday, also paintings and crafts on the opposite Quai Romain Rolland on Sundays. La Halle de Lyon, the huge covered market in the city’s financial district, is a must for food market fanatics. Flea market fiends should take the bus to the Puces du Canal where 400 stands are open from 6am to 1pm on Sundays. Secondhand booksellers set up stalls on the left bank of the Saône under a bookish wall mural on Saturdays and Sundays.
Eurostar from London St Pancras, Ebbsfleet or Ashford to Lille, connecting to the TGV service to Lyon. Journey time from London about five hours.
A one-day ticket lets you hop on and off the smart, clean and modern Métro, buses and trams that cover the city and its hills, also the Fourvière funicular.
Lyon City Card
Giving free entry to museums, on guided and audio tours, river cruises (April to October) and all public transport, the City Card is convenient and good value if you plan to do a lot of sightseeing.
Office du Tourisme de Lyon, Place Bellecour, tel: 00 33 (0)4 7277 6969, www.lyon-france.com
Where to stay
Relais & Chateau Villa Florentine
Offering a relaxing and comfortable atmosphere in the heart of the city, this hotel has a sumptuous Florentine with its elegant facade that makes you feel more relaxed when you are in Lyon. Located in the city centre, Relais and Chateau Villa Florentine Hotel Lyon is situated on the hill leading to the basilique Fourviere.
Hôtel Lyon Metropole
A delightful setting on the banks of the Saône, close to the city centre, the Hotel Lyon Metropole is the ideal place to combine work, sport and relaxation. Hotel Lyon Métropole has the biggest urban spa in France.
Grand Hotel Boscolo Lyon
Discover a luminous world of class and luxury as well as appreciate the elegant decor, modern comforts and excellent service with a delightful French touch while at at Grand Hotel Boscolo Lyon.
La Cour Des Loges Hotel offers elegant accommodation and modern facilities to make your stay in Lyon a pleasant one.