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Guide for First-Time Visitors: What To Do in Lyon

June 23, 2018
Dancing Fountains Looking Towards Place Bellecour

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.

View of the Saone

View of the Saone

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.

Local asparagus at the Saint Antoine Market

Local asparagus at the Saint Antoine Market

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.

Puppet museum in Old Lyon

Puppet museum in Old Lyon

Iconic wall mural in Lyon

Iconic wall mural in Lyon

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!

Rainy night on Rue de Marrioniers

Rainy night on Rue de Marrioniers

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.

View of the Confluence from a window in the museum

View of the Confluence from a window in the museum



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 Collongesin 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.

Dessert at Paul Bocuse

Dessert at Paul Bocuse

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

The Flower Tree Sculpture

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.

Voisin display of green cushion candies

Voisin display of green cushion candies

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.

Dragees

Dragees

9.  Walk through the Hotel Dieux

Glass roof of the Confluence

Glass roof of the Confluence

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.

Photo of one of the old hospital wards

Photo of one of the old hospital wards

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.

Place Bellecour at night

Place Bellecour at night (Credit: Pixabay)


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.


Read more:

What To Eat in Lyon: 11 Essential Tips for Food Lovers

  • Reply
    Debbra Dunning Brouillette
    June 25, 2018 at 5:42 pm

    Lyon looks full of delights! I’d love to be sitting at one of the sidewalk cafes on Rue de Marrioniers, so lovely even on a rainy evening! That Flower Tree sculpture is amazing and the food photos always have me drooling in your posts. I’ve wanted to get to France and each of your posts adds to that desire!

  • Reply
    Carol
    June 25, 2018 at 6:40 pm

    We will be in Paris this October. I want to see Lyon and go to the bouchon places and take a picture of the Flower Tree!

  • Reply
    Irene S. Levine
    June 25, 2018 at 7:56 pm

    it’s an easy, comfortable ride from Paris on the high-speed train. Hope you get to Lyon in October!

  • Reply
    sheryl kraft
    June 26, 2018 at 1:36 pm

    I hope to get to Lyon soon…your post and your photos are very inspiring! (and mouthwatering 🙂

  • Reply
    sheryl
    June 26, 2018 at 1:37 pm

    PS. LOVE the look of your new site!

  • Reply
    Anne Woodyard (@MusicandMarkets)
    June 27, 2018 at 4:03 pm

    Great suggestions, Irene, even for those who’ve previously visited this fascinating city. You make me eager to return!

    • Irene S. Levine
      Reply
      Irene S. Levine
      June 27, 2018 at 4:31 pm

      I’m eager to return, too, Anne! My post just touched the surface of this amazing city!

  • Reply
    Kristin Henning
    June 29, 2018 at 12:23 pm

    I was taken with Lyon when we visited for the first time a couple years ago. Great museums, great vistas around the rivers, and fantastic food.

    • Irene S. Levine
      Reply
      Irene S. Levine
      June 29, 2018 at 2:19 pm

      Yes, after we first visited on a river cruise, I couldn’t wait to return.
      Best, Irene

  • Reply
    Sylvia Short
    June 29, 2018 at 2:24 pm

    Lovely article. We spent 2 days in Lyon during a river cruise. Wonderful little city.

    During our time, we visited the Resistance Museum and was so touched. It is sad and probably not for everyone, but it is also amazing. We learned so much and it started us on a quest to learn more about the resistance. We have since visited museum in many European cities.

  • Reply
    Lois Alter Mark
    July 2, 2018 at 10:46 am

    We spent just a short time in Lyon and now I really want to go back! We didn’t get to see a lot of this — yet!

    • Irene S. Levine
      Reply
      Irene S. Levine
      July 2, 2018 at 1:50 pm

      Our first visit to Lyon was on a cruise, so also brief. Each time we return, we find more we “should have done.”:-)

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