For many people, France starts and ends with Paris… Or perhaps they’ll mention the Cannes film festival and summers in the French Riviera: Pastis, croissants and the accordion. Yet there’s a lesser-known city, one often overlooked by tourists. Ideally located between the sea and the slopes, it’s a stone’s throw from Switzerland and just two hours from the Eiffel Tower by high-speed train.
The destination? Lyon
Situated in the Rhône-Alpes region, southeast of the country’s capital, Lyon is made up of nine districts that each has its own unique flavour. With around 500,000 inhabitants, the city is small enough to feel welcoming, yet large enough that there is always something new to discover. The cultural calendar rivals that of any major city, and includes such well-known festivals as La Fête des Lumières (Festival of Lights) and Le Beaujolais Nouveau – a celebration of the latest vintage from local producers.
Located in the Presqu’Île, the geographic and touristic heart of the city, La Place Bellecour plays host to a variety of events throughout the year. The main square is also the site of the Office of Tourism. Not far from the northeast corner, is the popular pedestrian mall which is affectionately referred to as the ‘Rue de la Ré’ by the locals. The street spans just over a kilometre, connecting Place Bellecour to the city’s other grand square, Place des Terreaux, and the nearby Hôtel de Ville (City Hall), Musée de Beaux Arts and Opéra de Lyon. As with most popular places, the golden arches of McDonalds have managed to occupy prime position, but don’t be discouraged by the commercial feel of the street. Though it may be crowded with international stores such as H&M, Zara and The Body Shop, it’s also where you’ll find French department store Le Printemps.
Parallel to the main shopping strip are narrower side streets offering a more unique shopping experience as well as luxury boutiques. Louis Vuitton, Dior and Cartier, for example, can all be found along Rue Édouard-Herriot – a street that leads from Place Bellecour to Place des Jacobins and it’s magnificent fountain. In the city’s labyrinth of little lanes you needn’t go far to come across a theatre, church or photo-worthy monument.
You can’t visit the city without seeing Vieux Lyon, the UNESCO protected historic centre on the right bank of the Saône. The site is a remarkable example of Gothic and Renaissance architecture, complete with concealed courtyards and traboules (passageways). While you could easily spend a half-day simply taking pictures and wandering between the many boutiques and bouchons (restaurants serving traditional Lyonnaise working-class cuisine), buildings of particular interest include: La Cathédrale Saint-Jean and nearby Jardin Archéologique, Le Loge du Change, La Cour des Loges, Le Palais de Justice, Le Musée de Gadagne, La Maison des Avocats, La Maison du Chamarier and La Tour Rose.
Overlooking the rooftops of the medieval district, the majestic Notre-Dame de Fourvière dominates the city skyline and is accessible from Vieux Lyon via funicular or by one of several steep stairways. The hilltop basilica was constructed during the 19th century and is known for its ornate interior, impressive mosaics, and gilded statue of the Virgin Mary, which sits atop the belltower in the place of the steeple. For non-religious types, the climb is still worth the effort for the stunning views of Lyon that it affords and the proximity to the Roman amphitheatres and Gallo-Roman museum.
Les Pentes de la Croix-Rousse, Lyon’s other hillside district and UNESCO listed site, is also worth making time to visit. Once the hub of the city’s silk weaving trade, the tiers of sorbet-coloured buildings are now home to a vibrant young creative community. Be sure to check out the local talent at the Village de Créateurs in the Passage Thiaffait, stop by the Amphithéâtre des trois Gaules, and take in the views of Fourvière from the Montée de la Grand’Côte, a pedestrian street bordered by quirky shops.
The Plateau de la Croix-Rousse, the area at the top of the hill, has its own identity and is distinguished from the slopes leading up to it by its postcode. The main square, La Place de la Croix-Rousse, is on the boulevard bordering the 1st district and marks the beginning of the 4th district. This area has a distinctly village-like feel with many charming shops located along the Grande rue de la Croix-Rousse.
Getting around Lyon is easy thanks to an extensive public transport network that includes four metro lines (A to D), two funiculars, trams and buses. The relatively small scale of the city also means that it is particularly well suited to cycling and walking.
Both locals and tourists are encouraged to use the Velo’v bike-share system and weekends see crowds of people strolling, skating and riding along the banks of the city’s rivers. The Rhône tends to be more popular with tourists than the Saône because the left bank is dotted with péniches (barges converted into bars and restaurants) and leads to the impressive zoological and botanical gardens of the Parc de la Tête d’Or.
So as the official slogan suggests, if you’re travelling to France, why not come and visit the one and ONLY LYON.
Hi, I’m Miranda. I first came to Lyon in 2008, following in the footsteps of the many backpackers, exchange students and Francophiles who had already wandered the cobblestone streets of the city. Five years on and I have returned to my adoptive home, this time to pursue my career as a translator. This website is a record of moments, both memorable and mundane, spent far away from the laneway cafés and sundrenched suburbs of my beloved Melbourne.
For friends and family that I have left behind in the Land Down Under, I hope that reading about my latest (mis)adventures makes the distance dividing us seem a little less far.
For tourists, expatriates, Anglophiles and anyone else that has chanced up this website, it is a pleasure to share my journey with you.
During my travels I have benefited immensely from the online reviews and advice of other globetrotters, and I hope that writing about the places that I love will help you to discover the best of what the city has to offer. Most importantly however, I hope that my musings encourage you to get out there and experience it for yourself, because nobody’s opinion is more valid than your own.
And remember, as J.R.R. Tolkien wrote, “Not all those who wander are lost”.