While most travellers may set their sights on the glamour of Paris, consider exploring the bon vivant city of Lyon. Here, you can spend an evening enjoying the soaring arias of the famed Lyon Opera, then walk into the night and slip into a traditional Lyonnaise bistro known as a bouchon for coq au vin and a tarte au praliné.
Stroll the UNESCO-listed areas of Vieux Lyon, Croix-Rousse, Fourvière and Presqu’île, and find evidence of Roman, Gallic and Celtic rule. Duck into any of the city’s restaurants and dig into the city’s countless unique dishes – it’s an easy indicator as to why Lyon is the gastronomic capital of the country.
Unlike its big sister Paris, the city isn’t overly packed with tourists, making it easy to hit a route of museums and tourist attractions without the crowds. This 48-hour guide weaves you through all the must-sees (and must-eats) in the city, from the Cité de la Gastronomie food museum to the best bouchons in town.
Marvel at architectural wonders at the Musée des Confluences
Pastries are the perfect way to start off your day. Snack on a French croissant, or for those with a sweet tooth, a praline brioche (pralines are a popular delicacy here).
Then hop on the metro to the Musée des Confluences (86 Quai Perrache – the metro stop bears the same name). Named for where the two rivers meet, it’s the city’s dedicated science and natural history museum, housed in an impressive, deconstructivist building. Exhibits rotate frequently and range from modern art to showcases of anthropological digs.
After you’ve explored the museum, hop on the metro and head to the Cordeliers station. Cross the bridge at the exit to the station and into the famed Vieux Lyon – Lyon’s old quarter. The Renaissance and medieval-era district is known for the cobblestoned streets lined with charming shops and restaurants. Off said charming streets are traboules – secret maze-like passages that were once used by silk workers in the 17th century. Feel free to duck down one to see the maze of staircases and serene courtyards hidden down below.
Indulge in an afternoon with traditional Lyonnaise dishes
Stop and refuel at Le Garet (7 Rue du Garet), a little bouchon in Vieux Lyon that serves up three-course lunch menus that spotlight local cuisine. Be sure to try the bugnes – little lemony donuts. They are sold in almost every shop in the city and are a staple of the city’s cuisine. Be sure to save room, as the next adventure involves more eating.
Head out of the bouchon and walk a few blocks to the Cité de la Gastronomie (4 Grand Cloître du Grand Hôtel-Dieu). Lyon is considered the French capital of gastronomy, and the museum details how it earned that title. The museum guides visitors through just why the country has an ‘intangible heritage’ status, according to UNESCO. For children, there are interactive culinary exhibits, and also exhibitions detailing the lives of the area’s biggest culinary icons. Don’t miss the cinematic apothecary exhibit and the tasting menus on the third floor. Try small dishes and drinks from some of the most beloved restaurants in the city, all without leaving the same room.
Unwind with a cocktail in a storied locale
The Cité de la Gastronomie is located in the Hôtel Dieu, Lyon’s newest hub for those wanting to learn more about the city. The commanding building was formerly an 800-year-old hospital, designed by architect Jacques-Germain Soufflot until the building was lovingly transformed into a hotel, luxury mall and museum a few years back.
Take a seat in the Le Dôme lobby bar and order a ‘Zombie Tiki’ or ‘Wasabi Peas’ from the cocktail menu. Be sure to look up; the detailed 32-metre (105ft) medieval stonework dome by Soufflot has been left virtually untouched. Notice the resemblance in the coffering to the Pantheon in Paris, which is also Soufflot’s handiwork.
Get cultured at the Lyon Opera House
In the evening, head to a show at the Opera House (1 Place de la Comédie). Try to get tickets ahead of time to avoid disappointment. Founded in 1831, the opera is now renowned as one of the best in the world and plays host to a spate of operas, ballets and visiting artists. The building itself is a revelation; in 1993, architect Jean Nouvel added a modern, all-glass dome to the top of the original 1800s-era building.
After dinner, stroll down the road, parallel to the river, to La Mère Brazier (12 Rue Royale). The award-winning, Michelin-star French institution is famous for their seafood dishes, and was founded by famed female escoffier Eugenie Brazier, or, La Mère Brazier. Sidle up to the bar for a few post-show bites and a glass of wine to top off your night.
Get a bird’s-eye view of the city from the Fourvière
In the morning, make your way up to the Fourvière, the hill that crowns the city. A Lyon Day Card includes a ride to the top on the funicular, or, if you’re feeling particularly athletic, hike the winding staircase to the summit. Visit the Basilica Notre-Dame de Fourvière, an 18th-century basilica and a beloved part of Lyon’s skyline. Beyond it is La Tour Métallique, Lyon’s version of the Eiffel Tower, built in 1892.
Also on the hill is the ancient Roman amphitheatre, a landmark from when the city was the Roman capital of Lugdunum. Every summer, the 10,000-seat theatre plays host to musicians like Elton John and more. History buffs should pay a visit to the Fourvière Museum that chronicles Roman rule, located just beyond the amphitheatre.
On your way down the hill, stop at the Fresque des Lyonnais (2 Rue de la Martinière) in Arrondissement 1. Be sure to see the massive trompe l’oeil fresco painted on the side of a soaring building. It details luminaries of the city’s history, including culinary icon Paul Bocuse, the Ancient Roman Emperor Claudius, Le Petit Prince, and the Lumière brothers. For movie buffs, be sure to visit the Institut Lumière (Rue du Premier Film), which is a fifteen-minute metro ride away and highlights the best of French film history, from original cinematographies to historic French films.
Wander through the canon of French classics at the Musée des Beaux-Arts
After your packed morning, stop in for a late lunch of Lyonnaise cuisine at Le Bouchon des Filles (20 Rue Sergent Blandan Ancienne Voie du Rhin). The women-owned and run bouchon offers fresh and filling riffs on the city’s classic dishes. Don’t miss the seafood quenelle in saffron cream sauce, or, for dessert, the praline tarts.
After you feel refilled and restored from lunch, wander over to the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon (20 Place des Terreaux). It’s a must-visit for any visitor to the city because of its expanse of French art, the largest outside the Louvre. Wander into the 17th-century palace and weave your way through Egyptian antiquities and paintings by Rubens, Rembrandt and Pablo Picasso.
Next, it’s time to see the city from the water. Each Lyon Day Card includes a complimentary boat tour that floats passengers through the two rivers that wind through the city, past many of the city’s best sights and under the city’s many iconic bridges.
Dig into Michelin-star delights at La Sommelière
After your cruise, sit down for a Michelin-star meal – the city has over 20 starred spots, after all. La Sommelière (6 Rue Mourguet) is one of the newest additions to the city’s dining scene. It combines French culinary techniques with Japanese hospitality, in part thanks to owner Shoko Hasegawa, a Japanese sommelier. She settled in the city after falling in love with the region’s vineyards, with her husband, chef Takafumi Kikuchi. Expect a focus on regional cuisine, a dabbling of luxury Japanese ingredients and, of course, expert wine pairings.
Bid goodbye to Lyon with a traditional French digestif
After dinner, bid au revoir to the city with a nightcap. Stroll up the river to the first arrondissement, as the city lights up come nightfall. If you’re there in the summer months, sit on the patio of L’Antiquaire (20 Rue Hippolyte Flandrin). You can peek at the Fresque des Lyonnais from there, though a seat inside the elegant speakeasy is intimate and cosy. Test out the ‘Breakfast at Noemie’s’ cocktail, which includes traditional French flavours, like vodka, Licor 43 (a local menthe liqueur), coffee liqueur and vanilla, or a “Byrrh and Stormy,” a Dark ‘N Stormy riff that uses a local wine-based apéritif, cognac, lemon and sparkling water.