Lyon is the third largest city in France and lies at the junction of the Rhône and the Saône rivers. The city has traditionally been a stopping ground for travelers from the north headed south for the beaches or ski slopes of the Alps and, alternatively, travelers from the south headed for Paris. But this central location is not the sole reason it is the second most popular tourist destination in France. Rather, Lyon’s claim to fame is spread between its magnificent historical architecture, gourmet haute-cuisine, breathtaking riverside landscape beneath imposing hills, world-renowned silk, and charming one-of-a-kind traboule passageways that lead under and through the city’s town houses – routes that were originally used by silk weavers to deliver their goods more conveniently.
Lyon started out as a Roman colony in 43 BC under the original name of Lugdunum. Its strategic location halfway between the Mediterranean and Paris and close to the Alps in the east made it a natural communication hub and highway – the starting point for the many Roman roads dispersed throughout ancient Gaul. And situated at the convergence of two major rivers, Lyon easily became the capital and main city of Gaul in those early days. In fact, Lyon was the second largest Roman city after Rome. Many spectacular ruins such as the Roman theatre and the Odéon music hall are still around for visitors to see.
After the fall of Rome, Lyon was settled by refugees from Burgundy after the Huns destroyed Worms in the early 5th century. The displaced Burgundians took up residence in Lyon and made it their new, if not unofficial, capital of the Burgundian kingdom.
In the Middle Ages, Lyon served as the banking center of all of Europe and then subsequently the banking center of just France. During the Renaissance in the 15th century, the city became an important trade centre as the silk capital of Europe. Its status as a major silk producer led to its prominent role and participation in France’s industrial revolution.
In WWII, Lyon was the center of the Nazi-German occupation and simultaneously the focal point of the French resistance movement. The traboules were famously used to escape German street patrols.
Today, the city is still known the world over for its silk, textiles, and fashion and continues to play the role as a major center of business and industry in France.
The historic center of Lyon is at Presqu’île, a fingerlike peninsula between the Rhône and the Saône where you’ll find hosts of restaurants, shops, cinemas, theaters, museums, and even a modern opera house – Jean Nouvel’s Opéra de Lyon. Presqu’île is overlooked by a hill in the west and another hill in the north neighborhood of La Croix Rousse where the silk weavers used to operate. Situated west of the Saône River is the Renaissance-like Vieux Lyon, a charming and peaceful scenery of traboules, cobbled streets, and sidewalk patios. Immediately above Vieux Lyon is Fourvière, which is the old district where the Romans settled. Across the Rhône to the east is Les Halles de Lyon market, the Part Dieu business district, and an older residential area.
Lyon has some of the most magnificent displays of renaissance-style architecture in Europe, many of them found in Vieux Lyon (Old Lyon). The great ensemble of buildings in Vieux Lyon – from churches, to mansions, to town houses – date back to the 15th century when Lyon was an important trade center and silk capital of Europe. A visit to Rue du Boeuf and Rue St Jean will most certainly reveal this, and offer an exploration experience that will take you back to that historical period. The traboules of these streets are a “must-see”, as they are not found anywhere else in the world. These passages run from town house to town house and were used in the past to transport weaved silks.
While Vieux Lyon takes you back to Renaissance Europe, Fourvière and its hills take you back to the days of the Roman Empire. This district is famed for its hilltop basilica but topped by ruins of ancient Roman theaters nearby that are still used today.
For a more contemporary experience, you should visit the Presqu’île and Part Dieu quarters. Both are hotbeds of shops, restaurants, and lively squares, and you’ll even find your fair share of historical and art museums. The Musée des Beaux Arts, in particular, should not be missed, as it is the second largest art museum in France after the Louvre in Paris.
With all the sights and attractions found in Lyon’s many districts, lost in the shuffle is Lyon’s gourmet and internationally acclaimed food – considered by many to be the finest in France. The country’s best restaurants are found in Lyon, including the famous Paul Bocuse. The city has the second largest number of Michelin-starred restaurants and renowned chefs in France. There are several local specialties such as the Lyon sausages, quenelles, Bresse poultry, and the world-famous tripe Lyonnais that is typically served in small cozy restaurants called bouchons. So, be sure to take some time out to sit back and enjoy a sumptuous meal in the midst of all the sight-seeing.
Rue du Boeuf
Rue St Jean
Maison du Crible
Loge du Change
Cathédrale St Jean
Musée Historique du Lyon
Basilique de Notre Dame de Fourvière
Musée de la Civilisation Gallo-Romaine
Place des Terreaux
Musée des Arts Décoratifs
Musée Historique des Tissus
Basilique de Saint Martin d’Ainay
Musée des Beaux-Arts
Hôtel de Ville
Opéra de Lyon
Jardin des Plantes
Jardin des Chartreux
Maison des Canuts
Les Halles de Lyon
Centre d’Histoire de la Résistance et de la Déportation
Musée Urbain Tony Garnier
Parc de la Tête d’Or
Lyon is the best place to shop for silk and textiles in France. Most of the traditional and luxury shops are in Presqu’île around Place Bellecour and between Rue de la République and Rue du Président Édouard Herriot. For more eccentric designer clothes, the Passage Thiaffait in Croix Rousse’s Creators’ Village is the place to go. An interesting visit is the workshop of Monsieur Georges Mattelon who runs the oldest silk-weaving shop in Lyon.
The biggest shopping mall in Lyon (and France for that matter) is the Part Dieu Shopping Center. You’ll find dozens of movie theatres and hundreds of shop, including major department stores.
Antique-shopping should be done in Vieux Lyon and La Maison des Canuts in Croix Rousse. Vieux Lyon is also great for arts and crafts shopping, as you can find both the Artists’ Market (Marché des Artistes) and the Crafts Market (Marché des Artisans) there.
The best place to buy food and produce is Les Halles de Lyon on Cours Lafayette in Part Dieu. You can also find chocolate shops, tea shops, and wine venues all over the Presqu’île district.
Lyon has one of the liveliest nightlife in France. You’ll find saloons, chic pubs, tapas, discos, Caribbean cocktail cafés, and elite wine bars. Most of the joints are at Presqu’île with a few in Vieux Lyon. For more sophisticated entertainment, the Opéra de Lyon offers concerts, plays, ballets, and operas from October to June. The highlight of nightlife fun takes place in September when Lyon holds the Biennale de la Dance (or Dance Blowout). During this event, hundreds of performances are scheduled at the confluence of the Saône and Rhône Rivers as well as at the city’s best venues like the Opéra de Lyon and the Théâtre des Célestins. Dance galas and dance classes of various themes – salsa, tango, swing – are also held at various venues. The highlight of the event is a 4,500-dancer street parade held at the left bank of the Rhône River on the opening Sunday.