Around every corner in Lyon, the 2,000-year-old capital of the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region, is a story. A stroll through the city will unveil that, from the ruins of Roman rule on the Fourviere to the striking modernist architecture of the Confluence district. The medieval and Renaissance topography of the old town feels pulled from a storybook, as do the secret passageways, once used by silk merchants, that weave and wind through the city.
But no telling of Lyon’s stories would be complete without mentioning food. The city is known as the gastronomic heart of France, and you’ll find a rich culinary scene to prove it. Famous chefs flock to Lyon every year to compete in the Bocuse d’Or culinary competition, or to pay homage to Paul Bocuse, the legendary chef who hailed from here. Market stalls throughout the city proudly show off the region’s bounty and recipes perfected by monsieur Bocuse.
That said, Lyon is best explored on foot through the windy streets, peeking around corners and stopping frequently. Use the second arrondissement as your base. Hotel de l’Abbaye, located just outside the Ainay Basilica and near the Ampére-Victor Hugo metro station, is a good and central option. End the day marvelling at the landscape from the top of the Fourviére district’s hill, and then tuck in to a traditional Lyonnaise dish of tête de veau (calf’s head), or a sausage wrapped in brioche known as saucisson de Lyon brioché.
Start your day with fresh pastries
Start your morning in Lyon as the French do – with fresh pastries and a cup of coffee. Use Au Pain des Traboules (9 Rue Lanterne) as your taking off point. The bakery opens at 6.30am daily, so early risers will be greeted by baguettes, pretzels wrapped in jamon, and flaky chocolate croissants, fresh out of the oven. Those with a sweet tooth should tuck into a praline eclair or a raspberry pistachio flan (a custard-like cake topped with shavings of nuts and fruit).
Whatever you choose, you mustn’t skip the bugnes. The traditional Lyonnaise pastries are fluffy, lemony donuts topped with powdered sugar. Pair them with a café (an Americano), or a café noisette (coffee with a dollop of steamed milk).
Pro Tip: Pick up a Lyon City Card for €24.90 (£21.80) in the morning. The card covers all metro and funicular transportation, as well as entry to most museums and a boat cruise of the city.
Stroll the Presqu’ile District
After breakfast, you’ll find yourself in the Presqu’ile area, a small peninsula in the middle of the city flanked by the Saône and the Rhône rivers on either side. The area is part of 1,235 acres (500 hectares) of the city designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Stroll up the Rue de la République (known as Rue de la Re among Lyon’s residents), which will take you up past the Opera House (1 Place de la Comédie). Be sure to look up – the stunning modern glass dome was designed by Jean Nouvel in 1993.
Continue down the street to the Museum of Fine Arts (Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon, 20 Place des Terreaux), the largest French museum outside Paris. The collection spans centuries of French painting and sculpture (everything from Delacroix to Pablo Picasso, and sculptures by Auguste Rodin), but one of the most popular exhibits lies outside the doors. The famed Bartholdi Fountain features four lead horses leaping out of the water, complete with steam billowing out their nostrils.
Marvel at the Fresque des Lyonnais
After exploring the Presqu’ile, it’s a short walk to the Fresque des Lyonnais (2 Rue de la Martinière). The massive Trompe-l’œil fresco soars eight stories high, and depicts centuries of life in Lyon. Spy 30 famous Lyonnais from throughout the canon of the city’s histories peering out of shop windows and chatting on faux balconies. Everyone from Roman Emperor Claudius (he was born in the city when it was called Lugdunum) to culinary icon Paul Bocuse can be found in the fresco. Try and spot Le Petit Prince waving, and August and Louis Lumière, inventors of the motion-picture camera, filming a movie.
Dive into Lyonnais cuisine at Le Potager des Halles
Around the corner from the fresco and nestled on the side of the Sâone River beside a picturesque footbridge, Le Potager (3 Rue de la Martinière) is constantly filled with residents dining on plates of quail or quince. The air is always convivial and energetic, and dishes include plenty of fresh vegetables and seafood. Expect razor clams grilled and tossed in light pesto, mussels topped with breadcrumbs and parsley butter (moules gratinées), and fresh salads, from colourful carrots to pistachio fruit medleys. Le Potager des Halles is located a stone’s throw from the oldest covered market in Lyon – Les Halles de la Martinière – which is well worth a walk through after lunch. Be sure to pick up saucisson – dried sweet sausages – and a snack of fresh fruit while you’re at it.
Explore hidden passageways in the Old Town
After sampling local produce, head into the Old Town (Vieux Lyon), the Medieval and Renaissance-era district in the centre of the fifth arrondissement. At the heart of the neighbourhood is Saint Jean, a quaint cobblestoned maze of streets lined with flower stores, souvenir shops and charming cafés. Off the main streets are traboules – hidden passageways and tiny paths once used by silk workers to haul their wares around the city that open up to reveal sprawling courtyards with wells and spiral staircase towers. The longest one runs between 54 Rue Saint Jean and 27 Rue du Boeuf.
Wind through the streets window shopping until you get to Cathédrale Saint-Jean-Baptiste de Lyon, a grand Gothic basilica built on the ruins of a 6th-century church. Marvel at the 14th-century facade from the plaza out front, then go inside to view the Cathedral’s incredible astronomical clock.
Hike up Fourvière Hill
One can either hike – although note that the narrow stairs winding up the hill are not for the faint of heart – or ride the funicular (called la ficelle by locals) to the top of Fourvière Hill. Perched atop the city, the viewpoint provides sweeping scenes of the city below – you can even spot the Alps in the distance. Besides the view, at the top of the hill find the Basilica Notre Dame de Fourvière and La Tour Metallique, Lyon’s answer to the Eiffel Tower.
Nearby the tower, you’ll find an ancient Roman amphitheatre, evidence of when the city was the Roman capital of Lugdunum. The 10,000 seat theatre, dating back to 15 BC, was lovingly restored in the 20th century, and now plays host to shows and concerts.
Behind the amphitheatre lies the ruins of a Roman temple. History buffs can visit the museum built into the hillside that details the ancient times in Lyon. The price is included in the Lyon City Card.
On your way back down the hill, be sure to spot the golden statue of the Virgin Mary that sits on top of the hill, and has done so since 8 December 1852. The city’s annual light festival, Fête des Lumières, held in December is dedicated to her.
Have a Michelin-Starred meal
No trip to the gastronomical capital of France is complete without a Michelin-star meal. There are more than 20 spots with stars in the city, so there’s plenty of choice. If you’re looking for a meal with a bit of history, try L’Auberge du Pont de Collonges (40 Quai de la Plage), Paul Bocuse’s iconic restaurant just a fifteen minute drive to the north of the old town. The menu features the best of classic French cuisine, and there is a small museum and gift shop honouring the famed chef in the rear of the restaurant.
If you’d like to dine closer to the city, pop into Daniel & Denise (36 Rue Tramassac), an upscale take on a bouchon – traditionally where French labourers would dine for a hearty meal – located on the edge of the old town. Opt for the set menu which will guide you through a spate of Lyonnaise and French dishes like pâté en croûte (a traditional charcuterie of terrine wrapped in puff pastry), a pistachio sausage wrapped in brioche, and pike quenelle in a Nantua sauce.
After dinner, stroll through the old town – at night, the cobblestone streets light up – and like many of Lyon’s residents, top off your day with a nightcap. The nearby L’Antiquaire is one of the best spots in the city: try their riff on a Blue Blazer (Scotch, sugar and lemon peel, lit aflame) or order their popular rum-based cocktail, ‘Milk Punch’.