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Just two hours from Paris via the TGV, but with less of the pretension, Lyon offers both Francophiles and first-timers a glimpse of the good life in France. While not packed to the rafters with must-see attractions and lengthy queues for art, France’s second city manages to combine all the charm of an ancient capital with the vibrancy of a youthful, engaging metropolis. Here are the 10 main reasons why you need to visit.
Although a relatively small city, Lyon is packed with great old structures including several famous churches such as Saint-Nizier, Saint-Jean and the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière. This old-world wonder is mixed with a remarkable post-modern style, which emphasises the city’s regeneration. La Confluence, the convergence of Lyon’s two rivers (Saône and Rhône) used to be a spit of unloved land before becoming Europe’s largest regeneration project. Now the home of the incredible Musée des Confluences, which was designed by Coop Himmelblau, it is also where some other fascinating buildings, such as the Orange Cube and Euronews buildings by Jakob + MacFarlane, are located.
Bordeaux may be more famous for wine and Normandy for cheese, but Lyon wouldn’t be the country’s culinary capital without access to a brilliant selection of local producers. Despite a series of scandals in the 2000s, Beaujolais wine has made a serious comeback alongside the ubiquitous Côtes du Rhône wines and Mâcon, Burgundy and Condrieu are all within an hour or so’s drive from the city. Similarly, local cheese makes up the vast majority of market stalls and supermarket shelves showcasing regional specialities. The same goes for the meat selection – many of the most famous Lyonnais must-eats come from the surrounding area.
What would cinema be without the Lumière brothers? Luckily, that question needn’t be answered, but it’s fair to say that the pioneering duo put modern film on the agenda. Lyon’s heritage as the birthplace of film is clear in the emphasis on film across the city’s many cinemas and, of course, the excellent Institut Lumière. The latter offers a fascinating look at the birth of film and also – unsurprisingly – has its own cinema, which hosts Lyon’s film festival in October.
Once the seat of Gallic culture, Lyon’s history as a city is a multifaceted masterpiece. High above the city sits the Roman amphitheatre of Fourvière, which is an architectural wonder and a great place to sit and relish the predilections of the city’s predecessors. It’s also not a bad spot for a picnic while you envision the goings-on of more than 2,000 years ago. France contains the second-most Roman amphitheatres in Europe, after Italy (quelle surprise), but Lyon’s well-preserved majesty is a must-see.
Perhaps a surprise to many, Lyon has more restaurants per capita than any other city in France. Lyon is globally renowned for its gastronomy and its ranks are swollen with famous chefs, with the standout name being Paul Bocuse, the ‘pope’ of French cooking. The city has been lauded for the high quality of its produce and the prestige of its cuisine for decades.
The strides made by top chefs have remained ingrained in Lyonnais culture, with bouchons (traditional local restaurants) particularly abundant on Presqu’île. These hearty, predominantly meat-based, meals were formerly designed to fill the stomachs of famished factory workers after long shifts. While specific restaurants in France might garner greater attention, Lyon’s impressive culinary record makes it stand high above other towns and cities in an already notoriously expectant food community.
Previously serving as abandoned docklands at the foot of Lyon’s rivers, La Confluence has changed immeasurably into a destination in its own right. Hosting international businesses and impressive architecture, the redevelopment is a template for successful regeneration. The streets around La Confluence are filled with dining options, cafes and bars, meaning all your shopping needs – and fantastic views – are within walking distance of Lyon’s Perrache station.
One of Lyon’s truly unique delights is the plethora of murals and other visual beauties that adorn the city. From the Fresque des Canuts in Croix-Rousse to the Fresque des Lyonnais on the banks of the Saône, these delights of the eye are among many such examples dotted around the city with each one worthy of greater appreciation.
If eating, drinking, snapping pictures and soaking up the city isn’t your thing, then Lyon offers escapism, too. One-fifth of France’s national parks are found in Lyon’s region, the Rhône-Alpes, while several regional parks are dotted around as well. Both summer and winter offer a flurry of outdoor activities for which Lyon is conveniently located, with hiking, mountain climbing, biking, canoeing, rafting and, of course, skiing, all on the agenda.
Every December, the Fête des Lumières illuminates the entire city of Lyon with efforts from leading artists from around the world. The festival celebrates the Virgin Mary and dates back to 1643. Spread over three or four days, the festival draws millions of captivated onlookers annually.
While the Fête des Lumières might point to a staid city bound to tradition, Lyon’s nightlife has become renowned for its electronic music scene and spectacular summer festivals. The city is now stocked with great experiences for your ears to enjoy with each summer’s Nuits de Fourvière bringing in top international talent. Meanwhile, nightclubs, including the rooftop party at Le Sucre and Terminal, provide the best clubbing experiences in the region.