Since visiting Lyon, the phrase “Only in Lyon” has imprinted in my head. Lyon is indeed one of its kind and there are several things that you can only do in this wonderful city. From strolling the Vieux Lyon, visiting the Basilique Notre-Dame de Fouvière to dining at a Bouchon, each activity is an extraordinary experience.
Boasting a strategic location at the junction of the Rhône and Saône Rivers, Lyon has been a major city since the Roman Age. Its 2000 years of history and culture are reflected through the Roman trace on the Fouvière Hill, the medieval and Renaissance architecture in the Vieux Lyon to the modern Confluence district. Today, it is France’s third-largest metropole; and a center for banking, chemical, pharmaceutical, and software industries.
1. Vieux Lyon
With its winding narrow streets and medieval buildings, Vieux Lyon, or the Old Town of Lyon was listed as a UNESCO Heritage Site in 1998. The district is divided into three quarters: Saint Jean, Saint Paul, and Saint Georges. While Saint-Jean was Lyon’s religious and political power during the Middle Ages, Saint Paul was predominantly occupied by wealthy bankers from Italy.
The poor silk weavers, on the other hand, lived in Saint Georges before moving to Croix Rousse in the 19th century. It was in this quarter that the first traboules – hidden corridors that run through buildings and connect one street directly with another – were built.
2. Notre-Dame de Fourvière
More than 2000 years ago, the Romans built the military colony of Lugdunum (Lyon) on the slopes of Fourvière on Saône’s western bank. Although the Roman city no longer existed, its trace can still be found at the Théâtres Romains. Today, the focal point of Fourvière Hill is the spectacular Basilique Notre-Dame de Fourvière (in short: Fourvière) crowning at the top. Thus, it is known in Lyon as “the hill that prays”.
Constructed in the 19th century, between 1872 and 1884, Fourvière is dedicated to the Virgin Maria, who saved the city of Lyon on various occasions, including the Black Death that swept across Europe in 1643 and the advance of the Prussian during the Franco-Prussian war. The basilica’s construction was privately funded and its design draws inspiration from Romanesque and Byzantine architecture. Thanks to its location, Fourvière can be seen from many places in the city center, and thus it has become the symbol of Lyon.
The heart of Lyon is Presqu’île (Peninsula) which extends from the foot of the Croix Rousse hill to the confluence of the two rivers. Filled with picturesque streets, this district was an essential counterpoint to the Vieux Lyon in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.
Today, Presqu’île is known for its magnificent squares, in many cases decorated with fountains, and the abundance of cáfes, restaurants, luxury shops, museums, banks, and government buildings. Noteworthy attractions in the area are Place Bellecour, Place des Jacobins, Place des Terreaux with its Bartholdi fountain, Italian-inspired Théâtre des Célestins, as well as the beautiful Hôtel de Ville (Town Hall).
4. La Confluence
At the southern end of Presqu’île, you will find yourself in the newest neighborhood of Lyon – La Confluence. The former industrial wasteland was transformed into a modern district with cutting-edge, environmental-friendly buildings.
Most noteworthy is the futuristic-looking Musée des Confluences which houses over 5000m² of permanent and temporary exhibitions. The museum tells the story of mankind and the history of life in a very interactive way. Visitors are even encouraged to touch some exhibited objects.
5. Dining at a Bouchon
Somewhere else in France, a bouchon is understood as a “plug” or a “traffic jam”. But in Lyon, a bouchon is a sort of bistro that cooks up traditional cuisine using regional products. Bouchon’s menu is limited, its decor is very modest and you usually sit elbow-to-elbow with strangers.
However, the down-to-earth food and the good ambiance can warm the heart of any visitor. Unlike classical French dishes, Lyon’s signature dishes specialized in various parts of the pig, including intestine and trotter, as well as crayfish.
Tips for visiting Lyon
- Lyon has an excellent public transport system. Most places are easily accessible by metros, trams, and buses, as well as the funicular. A day ticket allows you to use all of these transport vehicles.
- Lyon’s international airport is connected to the city center by the Rhone Express. It takes around 20-30 minutes and costs 9.90€. Please note the ticket machines only accept coins, but you can still buy the ticket on board.
- The hidden passages are relatively difficult to recognize. But we found one way to see them is by taking the funicular. From the funicular, you can see some passages crisscrossing between buildings.
- Authentic bouchon can be found around Hôtel de Ville and Ampère-Victor Hugo and can be realized by the metal plate on their façade depicting the traditional puppet Gnafron with his wine glass.