Three days, top things to do in Lyon
Lights, sights, and tastes of Lyon
Since our latest trip to France, Mr. TWS and I have thought fondly of France’s third largest city — Lyon. We were enchanted by the traditional foods, friendly people, charming old town, and beautiful setting along two rivers, the Saône and the Rhône. There was also much history that captured our attention, too.
Unfortunately, we arrived in Lyon just a few days too early for the Fêtes des Lumières — the annual four-night festival beginning on December 8th with light projections and installations throughout the city. The origin of the event goes back to 1852 when Lyon’s residents lit candles to light up the city in honor the Virgin Mary.
But Lyon’s alluring character and culture shines brightly at any time.
Top things to do — Lyon highlights
Come along for some of the highlights we enjoyed in Lyon, the first stop on our 2021 trip to France. Based on our three days in the city, we’ve got these recommendations for top things to do in Lyon.
Oh, the food! It’s no wonder that Lyon is considered to be the “gastronomic capital of France” even though that might be disputed by many Parisians. From traditional fare at bouchons to inspired adaptations of Lyonnais dishes and Mediterranean influences, we savored each meal in Lyon. We learned very quickly that there is no such thing as “light” traditional Lyonnais cuisine. Bring your appetite when you come here!
When we entered Comptoir Chabert, a bouchon in Vieux Lyon along the Quai Rolland, we really didn’t know what to expect. On this cold wintry day, we were pleased with the restaurant’s warm and cozy atmosphere and couldn’t wait to sample a few traditional dishes. When the waiter brought the first of three courses to our table (shown above) I actually thought that he would serve us from the bowls and then move on to other tables to do the same. Mais non! The bowls were left for us to serve ourselves as much we wished. Other side dishes and desserts were served in the same manner.
In bouchons like Comptoir Chabet, you’ll find offerings such as charcuterie platters, cheese specialities like Cervelle de canut (silk worker’s brain), sausages, potato and lentil salads, herring, and poultry entrees along with more unusual items like tripe, calves feet, pigs feet, and other local delicacies.
At Les Lyonnais, we were delighted to try the latest vintage of Nouveau Beaujolais, just released for sale less than two weeks before our arrival. This is the famous fruity wine of the Gamay grape produced in the Beaujolais region just to the north of Lyon.
The photo above is just a sampling of our food experiences in Lyon. On the right is Quenelle, a delicious regional dish that we each devoured on multiple occasions. I enjoyed a chicken version, while Mr. TWS had pike in lobster sauce. A rich traditional dessert is Tarte à la Praline which we had for dessert at Vivarais restaurant. At Le Sud, a Paul Bocuse restaurant, I had something a little different from the typical Lyonnais faire, Pastilla de Volaille Fermière, a North African meat pie with Moroccan spices (shown bottom left above).
We crossed the Saône each day to spend time in Vieux Lyon, the old city also designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We wandered along the streets and through the small squares, admired architecture, visited landmarks, and dined in the St-Paul, St-Jean, and St-Georges quarters of the area. It’s a perfect area for wandering and feeling the romantic ambiance of the city.
Cathédrale St-Jean (Lyon Cathedral)
This 12th century cathedral on Place St-Jean is notable for its astronomical clock and is a beautiful landmark of Old Lyon built between the 11th and 16th centuries. Besides its historical and architectural significance, it’s a lovely visual landmark that can help you keep your bearings as you walk around the city, whether seen from across the Saône (below) or from the top of Fourvière Hill .
Look for these hidden passageways originally built during the silk trading days of Lyon when workers used them to protect their fabrics from the elements and more easily transport their goods to the river Saône. Generally, they were covered hallways connecting residences to the adjoining streets. About 40 of 400 traboules are sometimes open to the public. Look for shield-shaped bronze plaques that mark the traboule. Key streets to explore are rue Saint-Jean and rue du Boeuf. They’re mostly private entrances to apartments today and can be an interesting treasure hunt. It was cold and rainy and it took a while to find those we actually could enter, since some were locked. Generally they were covered hallways connecting residences to the adjoining streets.
Musée Cinéma & Miniature by Dan Ohlmann
You might think that the photo below was taken in a charming Lyonnais market, but it is just one example of the impressive detailed miniature scenes created by the founder of Musée Cinéma & Miniature, Dan Ohlmann (who you might see by chance while visiting, as we did). We were also surprised by the extensive collection of movie memorabilia, costumes, props, and other articles in the cinema part of the museum. If you are a film buff, the museum is definitely worth the time. Even if you have no interest in movies, the the exquisite miniatures deserve a visit.
In Roman times, Lyon was known as Lugdunum. On the hillside of Fourvière Hill is the Théâtres Romains, a key part of Lyon’s UNESCO World Heritage Site designation. The ruins were a bit surprising in that they are larger and quite more intact than we expected. It was fun (and good exercise) to climb the stairs of the seats of the amphitheater. It was built in 2 stages, in 15 BC and then about 100 years later. There is also a museum next to the site — Gallo-Roman Museum of Lyon — for an in-depth perspective of the history.
Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière
Go inside the basilica to admire the late 19th century mosaics, stained glass windows, chapels and statues. Also, don’t miss the lower church entered via a separate outside entrance on the right side when facing the front. There are various depictions of the Virgin Mary from many different countries, part of the reason the basilica is called “the Marian soul of Lyon”. The six mosaics and the stairway leading to the lower church are part of the basilica’s remarkable architecture.
Go outside the basilica to see expansive views of the city, including the Croix Rousse quarter and modern Lyon (below). You also can’t miss getting a look at Tour métallique de Fourvière (Metallic tower of Fourvière), Lyon’s Eiffel Tower lookalike.
The Presqu‘île (Peninsula)
Stay and spend time on the peninsula between the Rhône and Saône rivers. This is the city center where there are hotels, restaurants, shops, and public squares.
Every evening after dinner, we crossed the Rhône to walk along its banks and admire the buildings on the peninsula, including the impressive Hôtel-Dieu de Lyon. A striking feature of the area is the Grand Hôtel-Dieu (a former hospital transformed into a fashion center with lovely courtyards and gardens) next to the Rhône. Even if you don’t have time to go inside, be sure to see it at night.
Place Bellecour is the third largest square in France. Our hotel was right across from the square and we passed by and through it several times a day. The tourist office is also located here.
A few Lyon trip tips
Places to eat tip: It’s always a good idea to talk to the locals (whether the hotel staff or others you might run into along the way) about where to experience the best of a city’s restaurants. We enjoyed each of the hotel staff recommendations listed below.
- Les Lyonnais at 19, rue de la Bombard — warm and welcoming bouchon in a perfect location for lunch after while exploring the old city
- Le Comptoir des Marronniers at 8, rue des Marronniers — Our first night’s dinner on this street popular for its bars and restaurants set the tone for the next few days of delicious meals near Place Bellecour.
- Comptoir Chabert at 14, Quai Romain Rolland — certainly the most filling of our lunches in Lyon with three courses of large bowls and platters filled with local specialties
- Le Vivarais at 1, place Gailleton — modern decor with traditional dishes near the Rhône
- Le Sud at 11, place Antonin Poncet — vibrant Chef Paul Bocuse brasserie specializing in Mediterranean cuisine
Getting around tip: Walk, walk, walk! If you stay in Vieux Lyon or near Place Bellecour, it will be easy to get around on foot to the places mentioned in this article. We didn’t ride the Metro, but check out this option if you’ll be going greater distances in the city.
Food indulgence tip: As I mentioned in a previous post, skip breakfast in Lyon, at least on the days that you want to indulge in the hearty traditional dishes of the area for lunch and dinner.
Fourvière Hill tip: The fastest and easiest way up Fourvière Hill to see the Roman ruins and basilica is to take the funicular from the Saint-Jean Metro station. Exit at the Minimes (Théâtres Romains) exit for the ruins. From there, you can walk up to the basilica. When you’re ready to head back down the hill, there is a winding path through the woods to the old city below that is very enjoyable. The path begins behind the basilica.
Fun and view tip: If the Ferris wheel is installed in place Bellecour when you visit, take a ride to enjoy the great views as you go around.
Accommodations tip: We think that Place Bellecour was a perfect location for a first-time visitor to Lyon. We often stay at Accor Group hotels in Europe (especially in France) and were very pleased with the accommodations and our room choice (a Superior Room with a view of place Bellecour) at Hôtel Le Royal Lyon – MGallery. And the staff was great!
Next visit tips: Lyon is a city that warrants a second visit. We would love to return and visit the numerous museums (such as Musée des Beaux-Arts, Musées Gadagne, Musée des Marionettes) and the silk workshops of the Croix-Rousse quarter north of the city center on the peninsula. And, of course, there will be food involved.
On to Dijon!