Straddling the mighty Rhone and Saone rivers between Burgundy and Provence, Lyon has been among France’s leading cities since Roman times. With cobbled alleys, pastel Renaissance mansions, Paris-like shopping streets, evocative museums and renowned cuisine, it’s relaxed, welcoming and surprisingly untouristy. Just two hours from Paris by train, Lyon makes an easy one- or two-night stopover.
Regarded by many as France’s foodie mecca, Lyon’s sights are concentrated in three areas: historic Vieux Lyon (the old town, on the bank of the Saone River); the Presqu’ile (the peninsula between the two rivers) and Fourviere Hill, with its white Notre-Dame Basilica glimmering above the city.
I like to start my Lyon sightseeing day with a funicular ride up Fourviere Hill where the city was founded as Lugdunum by the Romans in 43 BC. From the Fourviere terrace, there’s a commanding view of Lyon’s old town, with its Renaissance roofs sporting uniform chimneys, and the Presqu’ile’s elegant 19th-century architecture.
The hill’s landmark is the gleaming Notre-Dame Basilica, built in the late 1800s. Inside this ornate building, everything is covered with elaborate mosaics that tell stories of the Virgin Mary. Next to the basilica, a chapel that predates the church by 500 years is capped by a glorious gold statue of Mary overlooking the city.
A short walk from the basilica is the fine Lugdunum Gallo-Roman Museum, built on the hillside, with views of two Roman theaters. You’ll hear the term “Gallo-Roman” a lot in Lyon: The Romans conquered the Gauls (the dominant proto-French tribe) and incorporated them into their culture as they established their vast empire. For several centuries, this substantial part of the Roman Empire was a Gaulish, or Gallo-Roman, civilization. In the museum you’ll see Roman artifacts, including coins, tools, amphora (jugs) and a tablet inscribed with a speech given by Emperor Claudius in AD 48. Outside the museum are a big theater — built under the reign of Emperor Augustus and still used today for concerts — and a smaller theater, acoustically designed for speeches and songs.
Back down the hill, Vieux Lyon offers the best concentration of well-preserved Renaissance buildings in France — vestiges of Lyon’s Golden Age when it was the center of Europe’s silk industry. Pedestrian-friendly lanes — punctuated with picturesque squares and courtyards — are made for ambling, window-shopping and cafe lingering. You’ll still find local silk here: On Rue du Boeuf, silk purveyor Brochier Soieries displays a binary “computerized” weaving loom and silkworm exhibit.
The many traboules (covered passageways) in Vieux Lyon once protected unfinished silk goods from the elements; they also worked as shortcuts, connecting the old town’s three main north-south streets. Today, traboules provide a hide-and-seek opportunity to discover pastel courtyards, lovely loggias and delicate arches.
After an exploration of Vieux Lyon, there’s a fun assortment of museums to choose from. In a Renaissance mansion named for a wealthy merchant family, the Gadagne Museums offer two exhibits for one ticket price: a serious city history museum and a puppetry museum. The Museum of Fine Arts, in a former abbey on the Presqu’ile, has an impressive collection, ranging from Egyptian antiquities to Impressionist paintings, and its inner courtyard is a pleasant place to take a peaceful break from city streets. Also on the Presqu’ile are the Museums of Textiles and Decorative Arts, filling two buildings and sharing a courtyard.
On the east bank of the Rhone, the Resistance and Deportation History Center explains the clever strategies Lyon’s Resistance members used to fight the Nazis during World War II and the Lumiere Museum is dedicated to the Lumiere brothers’ pivotal contribution to film. Nearby, Les Halles food market is a food festival — crammed with butchers, fishmongers, pastry specialists, cheese shops and colorful produce stands, with food stands and mini restaurants mixed in.
Dining is one of the premier attractions in Lyon and, compared to Paris, the value is good. Here, great chefs are more famous than professional soccer players. Lyon’s characteristic bouchons are small bistros that evolved from the time when Mama would feed the silk workers after a long day. The lively pedestrian streets of Vieux Lyon and Rue Merciere on the Presqu’ile are bouchon bazaars, worth strolling even if you dine elsewhere. Though food quality may be better away from these popular restaurant rows, you can’t beat the atmosphere.
After dinner, I like to go for a stroll to savor the city’s famous illuminations. While Paris may call itself the “City of Light,” Lyon is a leader in urban lighting design and hosts conventions on the topic. Each night, more than 200 buildings, sites and public spaces are gloriously floodlit.
When I travel outside of Paris, I’m struck by all the wonders there are to enjoy in France. Lyon provides an elegant French urban scene — all with no hint of crass tourism.