Lyon has all the ingredients that make French cities so enticing: Gold-gilded buildings, suspension bridges crossing rivers lined with peniches (houseboats), galleries crammed with everything from classical sculptures to Impressionist masterpieces, wine bars, fine dining, bakeries and patisseries on every corner. Cram all of this into an area less than half the size of Paris and ring it with vineyards and mountains for good measure, and you’ve got France’s most underrated city.
Local expert Anna Richards has all the secrets about this gastronomic hotbed sandwiched between two major wine-growing regions, the soft green hills of Pilat Regional Park, and snowy peaks of the Alps.
After a visitor arrives in my city, I always recommend going straight to Place des Terreaux. Not only is it in the heart of the city, home to the Beaux-Arts Museum and lined with bars and restaurants, but the ornate 17th-century Hôtel de Ville (city hall) which backs the square is one of the prettiest buildings in Lyon.
The best time to be here is early summer, when Lyon’s music scene reverberates from former sugar factories and Roman amphitheatres alike. Les Nuits de Fourvière, a two-month-long festival, runs through June and July, hosting nightly concerts in the Gallo-Roman amphitheatre above the city.
I tell first-time travellers to hit the markets. Regular food markets line the banks of the twin rivers, the Rhône and Saône, and on Saturdays there’s a second-hand book market alongside the Saône. I also tell them to skip Les Halles de Lyon Paul Bocuse which are much more expensive than other food courts and food markets in the city.
People from here know better than to eat in the tourist trap bouchons (traditional restaurants) in Vieux Lyon. Le Vivarais, across the river in Lyon’s 2nd arrondissement, serves authentic cuisine made with ingredients that all come from the surrounding area.
The best museum to start your journey and get a good sense of this city is the Musée d’Art Contemporain (modern art museum) in fast-paced, ever-evolving La Confluence, an exciting, up-and-coming district where the two rivers meet.
Parents should take their kids to the Parc de la Tête d’Or, where children can see giraffes in the heart of the city in the free zoological park.
Food from the Heart
Among the dishes my city is most proud of (and there are many — Lyon is France’s gastronomic capital), pink praline brioche is an absolute must. There’s hot competition for the best, but for me, the original creators always win. Pralus has several outlets across the city.
Celebration or bog standard weekday, wine is the drink of choice in Lyon, which is little surprise when it’s sandwiched between two major wine-growing regions: the Rhône Valley and Beaujolais. I always take my friends to Les Assembleurs, which has wine quite literally on tap.
When I eat completely local, I will go to Les Fromagivores for cheese boards that have you loosening your belt just by looking at them. The wine selection is great too.
Another two classic, iconic restaurants include Food Traboule (a food court hidden in the old covered passageways of Vieux Lyon) and Les Marmottes, in Lyon’s 3rd arrondissement, which makes a spectacularly good Boletto mushroom fondue.
The part of town where locals come for traditional food is the Presqu’Île, which has fantastic restaurants serving cuisine from all corners of France. For fine dining, I recommend Regain or l’Établi, while Breizh Café serves excellent Breton crepes and cider.
My city is known for making silk, still available from many of the workshops in Lyon’s Croix-Rousse district. To find out how canuts (silk workers) wove the fabric in years gone by, visit the Maison des Canuts silk museum.
The best outdoor food market in Lyon is Marché Alimentaire Saint-Antoine-Céléstins, held daily except Mondays. It’s at its biggest and best on Sundays. The best outdoor market to buy other items is Les Puces du Canal, the enormous Sunday flea market which sells everything from socks to valuable antiques. (Leave the car at home, parking is always a nightmare.)
I always take visitors to the boutiques on the steps leading up to Croix-Rousse to buy real, local produce. Prints by local artists, ceramics, and jewellery handmade before your eyes are just some of the items available. The courtyard of artisan shops, Village des Créateurs, has some of the best locally made clothing. We know to avoid Vieux Lyon, where everything from fridge magnets to Lyon’s iconic rose praline comes with an inflated price tag.
Getting Deeper Into Lyon
The best book to read when you come to Lyon is “The Little Prince” by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, one of the city’s most famous alumni. Everything from the airport to city streets is named after him.
Most people know about Fourvière Basilica, the 19th-century cathedral occupying an imposing spot on the hill above the city centre, and Saint-Jean Cathedral in Vieux Lyon, but don’t miss Saint-Paul Church, also in Vieux Lyon. It’s one of the oldest churches in the city, built in the sixth century AD.
In Lyon, people are attracted to the street art, and one of the best things to do is to walk around spotting the optical illusion wall murals that trick passers by in all areas of the city. There are more than 100 to find, and they’re known locally as trompe-l’œil.
My city is fantastic all year round, but to see Lyon at its best, avoid August, when temperatures soar and many business owners close up shop to holiday by the coast.
Most people think of my city as a place to experience the best of French cuisine, and they’re not wrong, but fusion cuisine is fantastic here too. I particularly recommend the North African and Asian restaurants in La Guillotière.
This is one of the best places in the world to experience city life with the mountains at your fingertips. Locals love to go for a day of skiing during the winter, before returning to the city in the evening to dance the night away in underground jazz bars.
Getting Around Lyon
One thing you should know about getting around my city is that two wheels are most efficient. Lyon has over 800 kilometres of bike lanes.
Cycling is the best low-impact way of getting around Lyon. On a bike, you can follow the riverside trails, which have the best views. The metro system is also comprehensive, easy to use, and costs €1.90 for a trip anywhere in the city.
Outside the Town
To get away and into the outdoors, I like to head to one of the mountainous national parks in the pre-Alps. My favourite is Chartreuse Regional Park, just over an hour away.
For a day trip just beyond my city, I like to visit the Beaujolais vineyards. The closest are only half an hour from Lyon, but for the best views (and wine!) I recommend Juliénas, an hour’s drive.
Many people will head to Pérouges, a fortified mediaeval town, but I prefer the golden stone buildings and relaxed village feel in the Monts d’Or, which is, in fact, closer to central Lyon and accessible with city transport.
The best view of my city is from Fourvière Basilica. On a clear day you can even see Mont Blanc.
Connecting with Locals
When I want to have fun and celebrate being out in my city, I hit the peniches, the boat bars which line the banks of the Rhône. The Star Ferry has a reliably good atmosphere.
To hang out with my friends and go to a real insider spot, I go to Hot Club, an underground jazz bar that has regular jam sessions open to amateurs and professionals alike.
The best resource for finding out what’s going on around town is Lyon CityCrunch, a free magazine and website that serves as my encyclopaedia for all the best plans.
When I want to enjoy my city without spending much (or any) money, I grab a bottle of Côtes du Rhône from a supermarket and uncork it on the banks of the Rhône River with friends. In good weather there’ll be plenty of people playing music, skateboarding, and even practising circus skills.
Le Transbordeur is my first choice for music because it has a consistently fantastic line-up of visiting French and international artists. And when I feel like dancing, I go to Cabana Café for Latino beats and dancing so well choreographed you’ll struggle to believe you’re not in a Rosalía music video.
Finding Solitude in Lyon
When I want to go somewhere to sit and escape the crowds in Lyon, I head to Grand Parc Miribel Jonage, a 2,200-hectare park with numerous lakes for wild swimming.
The place that makes me proudest when I’m showing friends Lyon is the seasonal rooftop bar at l’Opéra (open May through October). From here you can watch the sun set over Fourvière and look down into the courtyard of the Hôtel de Ville.
When the Seasons Change, Lyon Shines
Spring (March through May) is the best time to explore Lyon and the surrounding areas by bike. Temperatures are warming up, but it’s not too hot. Cycling downriver for a couple of hours takes you to the historic Roman city of Vienne (or take the train; it’s less than 30 minutes). Vienne has one of the largest markets in the country on Saturdays.
I always recommend visitors head to the Centre nautique Tony Bertrand in the summer (June through August). It’s an open-air pool with views over the river and Fourvière Basilica.
The fall (September through November) is the best time to drink wine. Each November, Beaujolais Nouveau, the newly harvested wine, is uncorked, with much merriment, wine tastings, wine-fuelled marathons, and music.
The winter (December through February) is when the city lights up with the Fête des Lumières (France’s largest lights festival) and Christmas markets.