5 Reasons To Include Lyon On Your Next Trip To France
Maybe it’s because the lights of Paris burn so brightly, but travelers often forget there are other cities in France. I suspect smaller French cities get skipped over on the way to the countryside, where people seek life-affirming epiphanies in a quaint, Provençal setting or for suntans on the southern beaches.
I don’t blame these vacationers, really, but since moving to Lyon (sometimes called “Lyons” in English), I have had several friends miss a visit to my city because they simply just couldn’t squeeze it into their European itinerary. Quel dommage!
I understand that if you plan a week-long visit to New York City, that doesn’t mean you will scrap seeing the Statue of Liberty to jaunt over to Chicago for the Sears Tower, or that you wouldn’t avoid Rome’s Colosseum for Turin’s shroud. However, Lyon, now France’s second-largest city, is easily accessible by other European and international hubs, and is only two hours by train from Paris. And as the oldest city in France, and the reputed food capital of a nation renowned for its cuisine, you really are running out of excuses not to visit. Here are five reasons why Lyon needs to be included in your next trip to France.
1) Lyon Is Delicious
It’s no secret to foodies that Lyon is known for its culinary tradition — the city itself is home to an impressive 22 Michelin stars. Here you can wrap your lips around Lyonnaise specialties such as boudin noir (a dark blood sausage), quenelles (flour and seafood dumplings), tarte aux pralines (a sugary, electric pink dessert) or sip the many varieties of Rhône river valley wine.
Most of these dishes can be found in the traditional bouchons, or the vegetarian-unfriendly local restaurants known for their snout-to-tail style cuisine such as the Café Des Fédérations, Danielet Denise and Le Bouchon Des Filles, the latter of which offers slightly updated versions of the classics.
Personally, I prefer the lighter fair at the daily outdoor marchés, such as the Marché Saint Antoine, which offers an eye-popping array of seasonal produce, cheeses and flowers. Or I shop the Asian markets in the small Chinatown of the Guillotière quarter for curry paste, limes and cilantro.
The most famous specialty food market is Les Halles de Lyon Paul Bocuse. Paul Bocuse is one of France’s most celebrated chefs, a local hero and also namesake to a prestigious cooking school and the world culinary contest known as the Bocuse d’Or.
Finally, no French city is complete without its cafes, necessary for socializing over an apéro before dinner, or for, uh, socializing, over a tiny cup of espresso. For the best coffee in town, head straight for Cafe Mokxa, run by a Franco-New Zealand couple who are very passionate about how their coffee is grown, roasted and served. And for an apéro, try the Café de la Mairie, for the local color of the pétanque players launching their metal balls in the adjacent Place Sathonay.
2) Lyon Is For Lovers
Just one stroll down the narrow cobblestone streets of Vieux Lyon, aka the Renaissance-era “old town,” and you will be canoodling with your sweetie. I dare you to steal a kiss in one of the many hidden traboules, which are a network of secret, covered walkways throughout the city. Once used by silk workers to protect their delicate wares, they could inspire your next clandestine romantic meeting.
Vieux Lyon is best avoided on the weekends, though, when it gets clogged with tourists and panhandling street performers. Also, generally, the restaurants here are overpriced, and the pubs full of loud footballers.
Quieter spots for romantic moments can be found on the quais lining the Rhône and Saône. The center of Lyon is a peninsula, or presqu’ile, between two rivers. On the Rhône River side, a peaceful green space with bike lanes is good for people-watching and sunset views. You can also prendre un verre at any of the péniches, which are bars inside the boats floating on the river.
With next to no money and some imagination, lovers can have a memorable time. A fresh baguette, fromage and wine in the grand Parc de la Tête d’Or can make for a sweet picnic. Or they can take a spin on the 200-foot-tall Ferris wheel at Place Bellecour, the largest public square in Europe. If you’re lucky, you’ll be alone together at the top with a great view of the city.
3) Lyon Is For artists
Creative types will appreciate that the Lyon Biennale of Contemporary Art has gained increasing international attention in recent years, and the Ecole des Beaux Arts attracts ambitious art students from all over.
While the Musée des Beaux Arts hosts an impressive collection of pieces from ancient Egypt and European paintings and sculpture dating from the 14th Century, many of the galleries on Rue Burdeau showcase modern artists. One gallery that is a constant standout is néon, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to championing the work of younger unknowns.
Art in Lyon can even be found its rues, in its many trompe l’oeil murals and pervasive graffiti. Spacejunk is a gallery for graffers and street artists located on the slopes, or pentes of Croix-Rousse. Here you can buy spray paint bombes, limited prints and original art to a hip-hop soundtrack.
4) Lyon Is For History Buffs
Say this five times fast: Colonia Copia Claudia Augusta Lugdunum. This is Lyon’s original Roman name, and her history as a former colony of the empire is evident when you hike up the Fourvière hill for the Musée Gallo-Romain. The UNESCO world heritage site features ruins and two sizable Roman theaters, one of which has been renovated and has recently hosted concerts by Bjork and Bob Dylan.
One of Lyon’s most notable landmarks, the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière, is a very short walk from the ruins, and this impressively constructed church receives two million visitors annually. The most spectacular time to visit is during the Fête des Lumières, or the Festival of Lights, in early December.
It is then that Lyon pays tribute to the Virgin Mary for saving the city from a cholera epidemic that hit Europe in 1823. The Basilica hosts choir and organ concerts, and is illuminated by candles and lights inside and out. In fact, all of Lyon is aglow, as the Lyonnais put candles in their windows and the city organizes nightly light shows. Also, don’t tell Mary, but you can sip warm mulled wine on the streets with the other happy revelers.
5) Lyon Is Affordable
Unlike Paris, Lyon is not always crawling with tourists, therefore it’s harder to find the prices to match. In most places you can have a decent espresso for less than €2 and a demi pint of beer for €2.50. Lunch for two at a notable bouchon is €60, which includes aperitif, wine, appetizers, mains, and cheese or dessert. This is on the expensive end of things, but forgoing the libations will usually cut the price in half.
The metro, bus and tram lines are very easy to navigate, and €4.90 buys you a “Liberté 1 jour” ticket good for unlimited transfers for the day. You can also rent a Vélo’V city bicycle for €1.50 a day.
Accommodations range from ritzy to basic, depending on your budget. If you want a more personal experience, some nice canut-style apartments, which are 19th-Century silk worker ateliers converted into livable lofts can be rented directly from their owners on Airbnb.
The TGV high speed train from Paris starts at €25 euro one way and €30 EasyJet tickets make it easy to city hop from most places in continental Europe. Otherwise, there are several big airlines that operate international flights into Lyon Saint Exupéry airport year-round.
The official slogan for Lyon is “Only Lyon,” which is a way of extolling an alluring city with a 2,000-year history and a rich cultural and culinary heritage. I find Lyon to be very safe, scenic and easy to navigate. It has all the conveniences of any city, but definitely a French way of living, which means that many shops and businesses are closed on Sundays and Mondays, and during lunch hours. But trust me, you won’t mine, you’ll want to slow down and take your time here anyway.
By Anna Barie
About the Author
Anna Barie is a writer and musician from Brooklyn, expating it up in Europe. She could eat crêpes and pintxos every day. Her site is AnnaBarie.com