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See a different side of Lyon with Culture Trip’s guide to its 10 best secrets, from hidden Roman ruins to unmissable cheese shops.
Straddling the rivers Rhône and Saône, France’s third-largest city is renowned for its exceptional cuisine, beaujolais wine and enchanting Old Town. The Romans founded Lyon in 43 BCE, and it now has over half a million residents.
The city is home to world-class museums, perfectly preserved historic buildings and a buzzing nightlife scene. Yet, there are still hidden corners and lesser-known spots of this popular French destination to explore away from the most-visited tourist sites. Here are 10 of the city’s best-kept secrets loved by the Lyonnais themselves.
If you need a little corner of the city to call your own, Sofffa is an innovative venue that fits the bill perfectly. With bookshelves, china teacups, mismatched cushions and a jumble of well-worn armchairs, the space is whatever you need it to be: a café, work spot, meeting point or hub of inspiration. There are no waiters or menus. Just collect an alarm clock when you arrive, find a space to curl up in and help yourself to free tea, coffee and snacks. You only pay for the time you’re there (€5 or £4.50 for the first hour, €2 or £1.80 for every subsequent half hour). There are also regular art exhibitions, pop-up shops and even drop-in experts, including lawyers and accountants, who will answer any burning questions you may have for free.
After starting life as a collective of Lyonnais squatters who waged war with the authorities for over a decade, Grrrnd Zero finally opened its permanent home in Vaulx-en-Velin in late 2019. Set in a dilapidated office building and factory, the space was created entirely by volunteers and took four years to complete. It now hosts a packed schedule of events, from underground club nights and live music to cinema screenings and exhibitions. The space remains committed to low-priced tickets and drinks. Providing workspaces for activists, artists and writers, it has become the unofficial centre of alternative culture in Lyon.
Though Lyon is famous for its gourmet offerings, HEAT is a taste of something a little different. Set in the city’s newest neighbourhood, La Confluence, by the Musée des Confluences, this laid-back food hall opened in July 2019. It features a gaggle of communal tables, an open-air dining hangar, bar and shipping containers filled with ever-changing street-food kitchens. From ice cream to Asian food, pancakes to pizza, it’s a great place to meet friends, grab a drink (or two) and graze on some of the city’s best food.
Hidden from sight in Lyon’s Old Town are the unmissable traboules, a network of passages that cut through the city via secret courtyards, through buildings and up secluded staircases. Though some date back to Roman times, most are likely from the 19th century when silk weavers transported their precious materials across town. The traboules were later used by the Resistance during World War II. Wander the streets of the Old Town to try and find them (start on rue Saint-Jean) or pick up a map from the tourist office for clues. There are also guided tours held every Saturday if you want to learn more – or avoid getting lost.
No need to kill time in the waiting room if you find yourself stuck at the Lyon Perrache station. Instead, head up to the fourth floor, and look for the “jardins de Perrache” signs; here, discover the station’s unexpected rooftop gardens, maintained by a group of local volunteers. Usually, there is a gardener on duty to answer any questions you might have about the plants, flowers and vegetables growing here. Alternatively, find a quiet corner and gaze at the panoramic views of the city below. It beats nursing a coffee on the platform any day.
There is no shortage of great bars in Lyon, but you need insider knowledge to find Bar du Passage. Look for the sign for Le Passage restaurant on Rue du Plâtre, and then walk to the end of the alley and ring the bell once to be admitted. Inside, this intimate dimly lit bar feels like a relic from another era, complete with traditional leather armchairs, vintage mirrors and murmuring jazz. It’s open until 3am on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, and while drinks don’t come cheap, you still won’t want to leave.
There is no shortage of green spaces to take time out from the hustle and bustle of Lyon, but few are as tranquil as the Jardin du Palais Saint-Pierre. In the very heart of the city near the Place des Terreaux, the garden is tucked within the walls of the Museum of Fine Arts and was once an old abbey cloister. It’s now a peaceful spot shaded by lime and birch trees, complete with plenty of benches and a handful of sculptures, including a small statue of Apollo, the god of arts.
Lyon is famous for its silk-weaving industry, and this workshop is a rare chance to see behind the scenes of the last family weaving workshop in the Croix-Rousse region. In operation since the 19th century, the workshop houses a production and living area, with looms, a kitchen and a tiny bedroom frozen in time. It can now only be seen on a guided tour where visitors can learn about Lyon’s silk-weaving past and watch a weaving demonstration on a 19th-century handloom.
Skip over-priced restaurants and indulge Lyonnaise-style with a feast of glorious cheese and a large glass of red wine instead. Though it doesn’t look like much from the outside, this tiny cheese shop is one of the best places to get your fill of French fromage in the city. Ask for advice from owners and cheesemakers Sophie and Julien, and buy a stash for a picnic. Alternatively, visit in the summer and eat a cheese platter with local wine on the shop’s small street-facing terrace.