Every food enthusiast hopes to someday get to Lyon, the city voted as the gastronomic capital of France. It’s also been called the “stomach” of the country—a moniker especially notable since France is one of the most food-centric countries in the world.
The culinary riches of Lyon
Located at the confluence of the Rhône and Saône Rivers in the fertile Rhônes-Alpes region of France, Lyon is the birthplace of legendary Chef Paul Bocuse, affectionately called Monsieur Paul. Twice named “Chef of the Century” by the Culinary Institute of America, Bocuse (who died earlier this year at the age of 92) is credited with popularizing nouvelle cuisine. His namesake restaurant at Collonges-au-Mont-d’Or (about 20 minutes from the center of Lyon, by Uber or taxi) has held three Michelin stars since 1965.
The numerous culinary and catering schools found in and around Lyon serve as training grounds for young chefs and restaurateurs around the world. Its indoor and outdoor markets, nestled throughout the city, showcase the poultry, wine, fruits, vegetables and cheeses enjoyed both by visitors and Lyonnais locals.
With more than 4000 eateries (including bistros, brasseries, bouchons and restaurants) and well as other food experiences, navigating this culinary mecca can be daunting. Although we have yet to experience a bad meal in Lyon, we are always frustrated because we’re only able to get a small “taste” of what Lyon has to offer each time we visit.
11 Tips for eating your way through Lyon
Here are 11 tips we’ve learned to help travelers eat their way through the city:
1) Be sure to do some research before you go. With so many restaurants to choose from and only a finite number of meals in your itinerary, you want to select a mix of culinary experiences that will fit your budget and satiate your palate. Lyon offers classic menus, contemporary ones and a range of ethnic cuisines. At the time this post was written, 15 restaurants in Lyon held Michelin stars! It’s essential to read magazine articles, guidebooks, blogs and restaurant reviews on sites like TripAdvisor to make informed choices.
2) Check out “The Fork “and download the app on your smartphone. Now owned by TripAdvisor, it’s the European equivalent of OpenTable.com, the popular online reservation system. It allows you to find restaurants in major cities throughout Europe, to read their reviews, to pinpoint their location on a map, and to make reservations. (Making online reservations can be helpful if your French conversational skills are limited.) There is also a way to collect discounts (called Yum points) for making reservations.
3) Bear in mind that opening hours of eateries tend to be more “fixed” in Lyon than they are in the U.S. Many restaurants are closed on Sundays and Mondays as well as the hours between lunch and dinner. Most restaurants open for dinner after 7:30 PM.
4) Download Google Translate on your phone to help you translate unfamiliar food words or phrases from menus. (Some restaurants also provide English menus but it’s more interesting to learn about French dishes in the mother tongue).
5) Be sure to try as many specialty foods from the region as you can. These foods for which Lyon is known worldwide, to name a few, include:
- Saint-Marcellin cheese (a soft, delicate, goat milk cheese),
- Bresse chicken (considered the best, these chickens have an “appellation d’origine controlee” status,
- Lyonnaise salad (frisée lettuce topped with a poached egg, thick bacon and a warm vinaigrette dressing),
- Saucisson brioche (sausage baked in pastry dough)
- Quenelles (pike dumplings with a Béchamel and crayfish sauce), and
- Tarte Lyonnaise (a characteristic red praline tart)
If you like any form of organ meats, including liver, you will be in heaven because here, because they are common on menus in Lyon, including foie gras.
6) Pair your meals with the very affordable local wines (usually Beaujolais or Côtes-du-Rhône). In many casual restaurants, if you order “Le Pot Lyonnais,” your wine will be served in a 46 cl. carafe (roughly one-pint bottle) with a weighted glass bottom. It’s a bit more wine than a half-carafe in the States and for those who have trouble finishing an entire bottle, it’s totally right-sized.
7) Be sure to eat in at least one bouchon. These rustic eateries, usually family-owned, are only found in Lyon. Steeped in history, silk traders once stopped at bouchons to groom their horses and get a bite to eat. The Chamber of Commerce certifies those that are authentic by placing a seal in their windows with the emblem Les Buchan’s Lyonnais. Dishes are delicious but very hearty, akin to comfort foods.
8) Have a sweet tooth? Step into one of the Voisin Chocolate stores scattered throughout the city. These artisanal chocolates have been made in Lyon since 1897. The most famous Voisin confectionary is the Coussin de Lyon, beautifully displayed in green velvet wrapping in many shop windows. The candy is also green with a chocolate ganache center (laced with a touch of curaçao liqueur) and a thin coating of almond paste.
9) Make sure you visit several markets and arrive there with an appetite. Vendors usually hand out samples and you’ll certainly be tempted to purchase a snack. Saint Antoine Market is one of the biggest and most impressive, and it’s open every day except Monday. Located along one bank of the Saône River, only a short walk from Place Bellecour (the public square), it offers incredible views of the Basilica on Fourvière Hill. You’ll find the finest fresh and cooked foods (including rotisserie chickens, sausages, cheeses, fruits, vegetables, pastries and fresh flowers) beautifully displayed. As a kid, Chef Daniel Boulud used to shop at this market with his father.
10) If your visit is brief, taking a food tour of the city offers a great primer for learning about Lyonnais history and traditions as well as the chance to sample various foods. Lyon Food Tour offers small group tours of Vieux Lyon (Old Lyon) and of the Halles de Lyon market. All the tours are led by personable locals who introduce participants to food artisans and iconic food emporiums. The tours can be booked at the Lyon Tourist Office. Our tour of Old Lyon included 10 memorable stops.
11) Although there are five brasseries and two restaurants in the city that bear the Bocuse name, for the meal of a lifetime don’t miss the opportunity to dine at Collonges-au-Mont-d’Or. The food, service and setting are unbeatable.
And one last suggestion:
Pace yourself. In addition to the wonderful gastronomy, take time to enjoy all the art, history and culture that’s also so abundant in Lyon.
All photo credits: Jerome Levine
- On OnlyLyon: The Cuisine of Lyon