Some visitors call Lyon, France a “Little Paris.” It offers a rich sense of history, world-class gastronomy, incredible art and culture, and stunning architecture. The city is an artful blend of old and new.
Its scenic beauty can’t be understated either. The city is set on two rivers with four river banks, many pedestrian-friendly bridges, and even has its own replica Eiffel Tower. It’s an easy two-hour ride on the high-speed train from Paris and once you arrive, there are fewer queues and less crowds; it’s easier to make restaurant and hotel reservations; prices are more moderate; and there are fewer hassles navigating the city by public transportation or on foot.
What To Do In Lyon
Lyon is a place to which you’ll want to return many times because once there, you can truly experience the French “art de vivre.” If you are a first-timer, here are ten not-to-be missed experiences that are unique to Lyon:
1. Take a boat trip on the Saône
The heart of Lyon, called the Presqu’ile, is surrounded by two beautiful rivers with four riverbanks. A one-hour narrated sightseeing trip (available in multiple languages) along the Saône River allows passengers the opportunity to view the stunning architectural landscape from the water. Operated by Les Bateaux Lyonnais, the round-trip boat ride leaves from the Quai des Célestines as it wends its way to the confluence of the Saône and Rhône Rivers.
2. Visit the Saint Antoine Market
Set against the dramatic backdrop of the Basilica on Fourvière Hill and La Tour Métallique (Lyon’s own replica Eiffel Tower), Saint Antoine Market extends for many blocks along the Saône River. One of the most beautiful markets in Europe, vendors sell fruits, vegetables, fish, breads, desserts (including the iconic Tarte Lyonnaise), cooked foods, cheeses, sausages, flowers, chickens roasting on the spit—and more. It’s a chance to taste local specialties such as saucisson brioche (sausage baked in pastry dough) and to mingle with locals. Legendary Chef Daniel Boulud says he was inspired to become a chef when shopping here as a kid with his Dad.
3. Meander through Vieux Lyon, the Old Town
Join an English-speaking tour guide on a free walking tour of Old Lyon. The narrow cobblestone streets are lined with charming boutiques, food shops and restaurants. Walk through the secret pathways connecting different streets, called traboules, once used by silk workers during the Renaissance to protect their goods from inclement weather when Lyon was the center of the silk industry. Step into the Saint-Jean Cathedral, an excellent example of Gothic architecture and pay a visit to the International Puppet Museum. In 1998, Lyon was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site, acknowledging the many historic buildings and neighborhoods preserved here.
4. Eat at a bouchon
Bouchons are a type of rustic, family-run eatery, found only to Lyon. Located mostly in the older parts of the city, many can be found along the streets of Vieux Lyon and also on the Rue des Marronniers on the Presqu’ile (peninsula). They date back to the time when silk traders used to stop at these inns to groom their horses and get a bite to eat. With somewhat limited menus, they all emphasize very delicious but hearty fare, especially organ meats. Those bouchons certified as authentic by the Chamber of Commerce bear an emblem in their windows noting them as, Les Bouchons Lyonnais.” One of our favorites is Café Comptoir Abel. The foie gras and quenelles were so amazing that we returned for dinner twice in one week!
5. Visit the Confluence Museum
Located south of the city center, where the Rhône and Sôane Rivers converge, this contemporary museum that opened in 2014 houses permanent and temporary exhibits on science and civilization (with English translations), all beautifully lit and displayed. The architecture and siting is breathtaking: The building almost “floats” on the water with 180-degree views from the upper floor windows. Though far smaller in size and scope, the holdings of the museum are reminiscent of the Museum of Natural History in New York and make for a great rainy day destination that will appeal to adults as well as children. Don’t miss a stop at the rooftop café.
6. Dine at the Bocuse Restaurant in Collonges
With more than 4000 restaurants in the city, there’s never a problem finding a good meal in Lyon. The dilemma is being there long enough to even get a “taste” of all that’s available. If you want to experience the meal of a lifetime at a 3-star Michelin restaurant that is near-perfect—in terms of food, service and setting—catch an Uber and head about 20 minutes away from the city to the suburb of Collonges. Here, you can dine at L’Auberge du Pont de Collonges—in the same magnificent country house where legendary French chef Paul Bocuse was born; where he cooked for most of his life; where he trained a generation of culinary students; and where he rose to international prominence.
Bocuse was the first chef who came out of the kitchen and popularized nouvelle cuisine, paving the way for the generation of celebrity chefs we worship today. We recommend lunch so you can see the beautiful greenery along the way and have enough time to digest before bedtime after swooning over a very delicious tasting menu.
7. Take a photo at the Flower Tree Sculpture
Lyon is filled with monumental statues, graceful fountains, and world-class street art but our favorite piece of public art is the colorful Flower Tree Sculpture that sits between the Rhône River and the dancing fountains on Place Antonin Poncet. The bouquet holds 85 flowers and is almost 20-feet tall so it can be seen from quite far away. Those visitors who first arrive at Lyon by riverboat, like we did, will smile at its sheer whimsy. Originally created by a Korean pop artist for the Lyon Biennial Contemporary Art Festival in 2003, it was so beloved by residents that it became a permanent fixture. It makes a perfect backdrop for a “selfie” to be shared on Instagram.
8. Buy some Voisin Chocolates
These delicious artisanal chocolates, made locally in a factory in Lyon since 1897, are available in 30 jewel-box-like retail shops throughout the city. Although Voisin makes a variety of chocolates, the most famous, perhaps, is the Coussin de Lyon, a cushion-shaped green confection with a chocolate ganache center coated with a thin layer of almond paste laced with a touch of curaçao liqueur. Its Kelly green velvet wrapping is eye-catching.
My preference is the Voisin dragées, almond-shaped, bite-sized, coated chocolates that melt in your mouth rather than your hands. Traditionally thrown at the bride and groom (like rice) at French weddings, they’re also great as a snack. World-famous Bernachon Chocolates is another iconic French chocolatier in Lyon. If you have the time, stop for a cup of hot chocolate at the Bernachon Tea House.
9. Walk through the Hotel Dieux
Founded in 1443, the Hôtel-Dieux was one of the oldest hospitals in Lyon until it closed in 2010, replaced by more modern facilities. The first medical use of x-rays took place here. With a history dating back to medieval times, one local told us that everyone knows someone who was born in the maternity wards of the hospital. Designed by the same architect who designed the Pantheon in Paris, the building’s very long, dramatic and recognizable façade wraps around five interior courtyards.
For the past five years, developers have been repurposing the historical building as a modern shopping complex with more than 30 boutiques and restaurants, and will be creating a City of Gastronomy. The $13 billion dollar private investment in the Hôtel Dieux is the largest of its kind to-date in Europe. Still incomplete, this project also represents one of the most anticipated hotel openings in Lyon, with the planned construction of a 5-star Intercontinental Hotel scheduled to open in 2019. It’s fascinating to witness to this transformation of this landmarked building and learn about its history.
10. Relax on the Place Bellecour
Located close to the heart of the city, Place Bellecour is one of the largest open public squares in Europe. Although imposing in size, it is a “people place” that serves as the city’s virtual living room with benches, walking paths, small cafes, and a flower stall (as well as the site of the OnlyLyon Tourism Office, a must first-stop for any visitor to the city.) A majestic statue of Louis XIV by François Fréderic Lemot sits at its center. Depending on the season, the square may house a skating rink, Ferris wheel, concert stage or site for a political demonstration. When distances are measured in the city, the square is considered ground zero. The boutique Hotel Le Royal (part of the MGallery brand by Sofitel, part of AccorHotels) is conveniently located near the Place Bellecour, offering guests a unique hotel stay with a classic Lyonnais ambiance. The hotel was the first to be built in the city.
IF YOU GO
The Route from Paris to Lyon (about five hours by car and two hours by high-speed train)
All photo credits: Jerome Levine, unless otherwise noted.