Nestled between the Alps and the French Massif Central is the magnificent city of Lyon, at the confluence of the Rhone and Saône rivers. The third largest city in France, Lyon is a metropolis steeped in history and culturally rich: it encompasses ancient theatres and vestiges of the Gallo-Roman era, the Vieux-Lyon dating back to the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the Presqu’île and its Renaissance palaces, the Croix-Rousse of the industrial era and, finally, the Confluence with its ultra-modern contemporary buildings.
An ultra-dynamic city that will win over even the most sceptical.
Definitely off the beaten tourist track, Lyon is a pleasant discovery, thanks to its redeveloped historical centre, its lively social and cultural life, its extraordinary gastronomy and its young and relaxed atmosphere.
The city consists of three large metropolitan areas: la Fourvière, also called the hill that prays, due to the presence of the large basilica, la Croix- Rousse, or the hill that works, due to its working-class history in the textile industry, and la Presqu’Ile, the peninsula created by the intersection of the two rivers, Rhône and Saône, which also includes the Old Town . This is where most of the monuments, museums and tourist attractions are concentrated, as well as a labyrinth of narrow streets and picturesque alleyways, enlivened by the famous bouchons, the traditional trattorias offering inimitable cuisine.
Dating back partly to the medieval period and partly to the Renaissance, Vieux Lyon is one of the city’s historic districts. Listed as a UNESCO heritage site, this ancient network surprises with its small cobbled streets, its large cathedral and its atypical and original museums.
To visit the district, we advise you to stroll unhurriedly, admiring the old buildings whose architecture combines Gothic and Renaissance styles. In fact, Old Lyon, which extends 24 hectares at the foot of the Fourvière hill, is one of the largest Renaissance quarters in Europe, second only to Venice.
Don’t miss the courtyard of the House of Chamarier, the Chambre des Avocats with its magnificent arched façade with no fewer than 24 columns, and the Gadagne Museum: this museum complex is housed in a wonderful Renaissance building, which contains a museum dedicated to the history of Lyon, from the ancient period to the present day, and a puppet museum.
One of the architectural peculiarities of Old Lyon are the traboules: that is to say, shortcuts, hidden alleys, internal pedestrian passages that allow one to pass from one street to another, passing through one or more buildings. There are almost 300 of them in the city and they conceal architectural curiosities such as spiral staircases, façades or galleries, internal courtyards.
During the Renaissance, when the population of Lyons grew by leaps and bounds, new buildings were built in bulk on top of existing ones: this led to urban chaos, creating confusion between the medieval grid and the new streets. To avoid lengthy detours for pedestrians, who had to juggle this maze of buildings, traboules were created, fast shortcuts for citizens, especially to allow silk craftsmen to take textiles out of their workshops without getting them wet in the rain. Throughout history, the traboules have also played important strategic roles: as a refuge during wars and revolts, or as the operational headquarters of the Lyon resistance during the Second World War, since the Nazis were unaware of these secret passages.
We recommend that you take the time to discover the traboules, a sort of treasure hunt within the city. So as not to risk finding some of the passages closed, since they pass through residential buildings, we recommend you take a guided tour, which will tell you the most interesting history, anecdotes and curiosities.
Which are the most famous? Definitely Cour des Voraces2, one of the most photographed passages in Lyon. Also not to be missed is La Tour Rose3 with its pink arched tower. While the longest traboule in Lyon is at numero 54 di rue Saint-Jean4: think of it crossing 3 courtyards and 4 buildings.
Saint Jean Cathedral, built between the 12th and 15th centuries, is a pearl of Lyon architecture. This monument played a central role in certain French historical events, such as the marriage between King Henri IV and Catherine de Medici.
You can admire the period stained-glass windows, the central rose window that adorns the façade of the cathedral, but above all, inside, the astronomical clock, dating from the end of the 16th century, which preserves its original mechanisms: it accurately shows the date, the positions of the moon, the sun and the Earth for each year.
If you are a film buff, you cannot miss this original museum: inside you will find all the techniques and special effects used during the construction of a film, before the computer processing of the images.
The building extends over 5 floors and boasts 2000m² of permanent exhibition space. On the one hand, you can discover everything about special effects with a roundup of films from the 1960s to the present day, with a total of 12 rooms: film sets, mask exhibits, costumes, ‘stop motion’ and many other tricks of the silver screen.
On the other hand, you can visit the miniaturist museum: more than 100 hyper-realistic miniature scenes will deceive your senses through real visual mirages, so perfect as to be almost disturbing.
Built in 1870 on the Fourvière hill, the Basilica of Fourvière is a symbol of the city of Lyon and attracts more than 2.5 million visitors and pilgrims every year.
A building of Byzantine, Gothic and Romanesque inspiration, the structure incorporates two overlapping churches. Overlooking the city, it contains a rich interior and exterior decoration, in particular a cycle of mosaics depicting the history of the Virgin in the history of France and the Church. There is a panoramic view of the city from the basilica’s forecourt.
From the church of Saint-Jean, a grand staircase leads to the top of the Fourvière hill, one of the most touristy places in Lyon: for those who do not want to face the long and tiring climb, there is also the possibility of reaching it by funicular, the ficelle, which leaves from the Vieux-Lyon metro station.
Once at the top of the esplanade, you will enjoy a panorama of the entire city with the Alpine chain and Mont Blanc in the background.
The city of Lyon holds a valuable heritage of Roman civilisation, two Gallo-Roman theatres dating back 2000 years. The first, the Grand Théâtre, built in 15 B.C. by Emperor Augustus, is the oldest theatre in France. Later enlarged by Emperor Hadrian, its capacity grew to 10,000 seats. Comedies and tragedies, particularly popular with the plebs, could be seen here.
The second theatre, the Odeon, is smaller, with only 3,000 seats: it was only used by orators, politicians, poets and musicians, a meeting place for the city’s intellectual elite.
La Presqu’ile is a small strip of land at the confluence of the Rhone and Saône rivers, a peninsula wrested from the fury of the waters and made into a much-loved and characteristic district today.
The heart of the district is the Place des Terraux with the Town Hall, the Bartholdi Fountain and the Museum of Fine Arts, with a collection covering from antiquity to Modern Art. Also not to be missed is Rue Mercière, where you will find many small restaurants and bars, perfect for a culinary weekend in Lyon. In particular, the Hôtel-Dieu, recently renovated to welcome the city of gastronomy in 2019, is one of the largest buildings on the peninsula. It now houses many shops, hotels and restaurants to discover.
Also not to be missed are the Rue de la République, the main shopping street, the Place des Jacobins, one of the most beautiful squares in Lyon, the Victor Hugo pedestrian street and its many shops, the Place des Célestins where the theatre of the same name is located, the Palais de la Bourse, classified as a historical monument, and the Lyon Opera House.
Inspired by a similar fresco in Barcelona, this trompe-l’oeil located in the 1st arrondissement highlights a selection of 30 historical figures who contributed, each in their own way, to the development of Lyon.
Thus you will find Saint Exupéry, Edouard Herriot, Paul Bocuse, the Lumière brothers and many other figures posing, each on their respective balconies.
This immense square is the most popular meeting place for the people of Lyon : it can be said to be the nerve centre of the city, from where people set off for a stroll through the city centre, go shopping, go to the cinema or simply meet for a coffee.
It is the largest pedestrian square in Europe, with at its centre the statue of Louis XIV on horseback (built in 1713 in honour of the Sun King) and further on the statue of the Little Prince and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. There is a breathtaking view of Fourvière from this huge esplanade. In winter it is partly occupied by a large Ferris wheel from which you can admire the entire illuminated city, while at Christmas you will also find an ice skating rink.
Nicknamed the working hill, in reference to the canuts, i.e. the workers in the silk industries, the Croix-Rousse district has always been in contrast to Fourvière, also known as the praying hill. As its name suggests, this district is deeply marked by its past, linked to the silk industry, but over the years it has been renewed and transformed into a place of rich and varied culture.
The district occupies a plateau in the hills of the city and has retained the size and identity of a village, thanks to its working-class heritage. The hill can be reached by the funicular railway that departs from the Saint Jean Cathedral or tackle the climb from one of the streets starting from Place de Terreaux on the Presqu’Ile. The most scenic street is the Montèè de la Grande Cote, inhabited for centuries by the Canuts, the silk workers who started the first workers’ revolt in history in 1831.
Many buildings in the district were built specifically to house the huge weaving machines, with high ceilings and huge windows.
It is the largest mural in Europe. Created in 1987, the fresco, which depicts daily life in the district, is regularly updated to correspond to changes in both the buildings and the characters depicted. For example, the young father you see on the fresco today will certainly be depicted in 30 years’ time with white hair. To document the changes over the years, there have been three versions of the tromp l’oeil, and in all three, the Carbonare family is present.
The striking aspect of this mural is the central staircase that provides a real sense of depth, especially from a distance.
The Parc de la Tête d’Or is the largest public park in France. Inaugurated in 1857, it is the city’s green lung and covers almost 117 hectares within Lyon. It is a wonderful place to relax, meet with friends and have a picnic.
Because of its size, it can be visited in many different ways: either by water using small motor boats or pedal boats, by hiring a bicycle, on foot along the many paths or by small train.
In the heart of the park is also a spectacular botanical garden, one of the largest open-air museums in Europe, spread over 8 hectares: you can admire 15,000 different species exhibited outdoors or in greenhouses.
You can also visit the Zoological Garden of Lyon , which is home to many species, 400 animals in semi-freedom over an area of more than 8 hectares, including giraffes, flamingos, red pandas, zebras and a hundred Californian tortoises. There is also the deer park, a reserved space where a herd of deer can live comfortably, just a stone’s throw from civilisation.
And to top it all off, the park has a range of activities for the little ones (aged 2 to 13), from the 1895 merry-go-round to playgrounds, from pedal-powered quads to mini-boats, from pony rides to horse-drawn carriages and a mini kart circuit for driving fun.
Along the city’s two rivers, all the way to the Confluence, there are long pedestrian quays, sometimes green, sometimes paved, offering a pleasant walk and above all. many places to relax, unwind and chat. The banks have been developed by the municipality to offer a walk of several dozen kilometres. It is from the banks of the Saône that the most beautiful views of the Fourvière hill can be found.
In some places, several barges are permanently installed and transformed into bars, discotheques or bistros. In addition, these natural waterways also make it possible to take a boat cruise to discover Lyon from a different angle. Different types of boats are available depending on the duration and route: barge, tourist boat or even boat rental without a licence.
Completely renovated, the Confluences is the ultra-modern district of Lyon, located at the confluence of the Rhône and Saône rivers. A former industrial district with many factories, it has been completely redeveloped into an eco-district with shops, offices and designer housing.
One of the musts when visiting Lyon is definitely the Musée des Confluences with its futuristic architecture: located on the banks of the Rhône, it offers permanent exhibitions on the origins of life, the world, relations between man and other living beings, representations of death and man-made civilisations.
A Mecca for taste buds, a representative institution of good food, a crossroads of tastes and flavours and an international reference point for gourmets, the Halles Paul Bocuse represents the cuisine of Lyon and the excellence of French gastronomy.
It is a unique covered market, where you can feel the gourmet heart of a city that has made cuisine the centrepiece of its culture, its history and its future. Les Halles de Lyon- Paul Bocuse is made up of 56 traders, including cheesemakers, bakers, chocolatiers, confectioners, charcutiers, vegetable growers, butchers, fishmongers, restaurateurs, wine merchants and restaurateurs, who defend the region’s memory of taste, using the best local products and cultivating excellence. By tasting, experimenting, smelling and sampling, you can easily understand why Lyon is often referred to as the Capital of Gastronomy.
Situated in the middle of the Saoona River, Barbe Island, meaning the wild island, is a perfect place for a peaceful walk in the green. A land of many legends, it is now divided into two parts: private and public, offering walking trails, children’s playgrounds and a bocce court.
History buffs will be delighted to visit the remains of the Notre-Dame church, the city’s oldest bridge and the abbey, the first monastic establishment in all of Lyon and also one of the oldest in Gaul, while gourmets will try the Auberge de l’Île, a mecca of Lyon gastronomy.
For cinema fans, it is a must-see in the city. Le Cinématographe was born in rue du Premier-Film, in the centre of Lyon’s Monplaisir district, where today only the factory hangar and the Villa Lumière, with its imposing silhouette, remain.
The Lumière Museum pays tribute to Louis and Augustus and presents their best exhibits in the elegant décor of the family home, amidst ornate ceilings, a monumental staircase and the glass roof of the winter garden. The museum, of course, focuses on the Cinematograph, theLumière brothers’ most famous invention. Thanks to the collection of old cameras assembled by Dr. Paul Génard and acquired in 2003, the exhibition presents essential technical masterpieces such as Edison’s kinetoscope, the Demenÿ chronophotograph or the Cinematograph Lumière ‘No. 1’ that projected the first ten films in history.
The Part Dieu district is essentially the business district, known to tourists for housing a large shopping centre.
Here you will find the largest buildings in Lyon such as the In City tower, the Oxygene tower and the Crayon , with a panoramic restaurant offering a 360° view of the entire city, on the 32nd floor of the building.
Football fans will not miss the opportunity to visit the OL Stadium, where Olympique Lyonnais, the Lyon team, plays.
Depending on the monthly calendar, the stadium offers different types of guided tours that will allow you to visit the tunnel that leads the players onto the pitch, the press room and the benches. Please note that tours are only available on specific days, so please consult the website for more details.
On the other hand, the stadium museum, decorated in the team colours, is accessible every day and exhibits, to the delight of the fans, team memorabilia, photographs of great victories and jerseys signed by the players.
The Croix-Rousse district is one of the richest in urban art. Beginning with the frescoes by the collective Association Mur 6923 that, since 2016, have been appearing on the 120 m2 wall that dominates the Place des Rugs.
The art of murals has undergone a major development since 1968, when a generation of graffiti artists was formed on the premises of the School of Fine Arts, then located on the slopes of the Croix Rousse, combining the experiences of printing and silk with the revolutionary tradition.
Today, most of the works are concentrated on the slopes of the Croix-Rousse between the northern part of the Place des Tereaux and the southern part of the Boulevard de la Croix-Rousse: don’t miss Escalier Mermet24 and Escaliers Prunelle25, radically transformed by colour and paintings.
We recommend you take a guided tour as the works often change, are replaced or simply erased.
In the following map you can see the location of the main places of interest mentioned in this article
To discover Lyon and visit it without stress, you might consider purchasing the Lyon Card, a card designed for tourists.
By choosing the 1, 2, 3 or 4-day option, you will have a number of interesting benefits:
Every year since 1852, one of the city’s oldest traditional festivals has been held in Lyon: the Festival of Lights, an unmissable event that attracts millions of visitors. Originally, the festival was created to celebrate the Virgin Mary who, according to legend, saved the Lyonnais from the plague epidemic. Since 1852, every 8 December, the people of Lyons have placed a lamp (a candle) on their window sills and then taken to the streets to enjoy the visual spectacle that is created.
Over the centuries, the festival has evolved and now takes place over four evenings: from 5 to 8 December, you can stroll through the streets of the Presqu’île and Old Lyon to discover an enchanting and magical atmosphere. Extraordinary artistic shows of light and music await you, skilfully projected onto the façades of Lyon’s historical buildings.
One of the most popular activities in Lyon is a boat cruise on the Saône River, from which you get a completely different perspective of the city. Both simple one-hour tours and tours including dinner on board are available.
The city of Lyon has the 4th largest airport in France: Lyon Saint-Exupéry Airport.
Once you have landed in Lyon, you can reach the city centre in less than 30 minutes using the Rhônexpress, a special tram that will drop you off at the Lyon-Saint Exupéry TGV station. Rides run 7 days a week (even on public holidays), every 15 minutes (from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m.) and every 30 minutes (from 4.25 a.m. to 6 a.m. and from 9 p.m. to midnight).
There is a concessionary fare if purchased at least 1 month in advance: otherwise, the price is €16.30 for those over 25 and €13.60 for those 12-25. The trip is free for children under 12 years of age.
Lyon is connected by the TGV, France’s high-speed train line, and has three TGV stations: Perrache, Part-Dieu and one at Saint-Exupery airport 25 km from the centre.
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Lyon is located in the historical region of Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes and lies at the confluence of the Rhone and Saône rivers.
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