Sightseeing High and Low in Hilly Lyon
Lyon is France's best-kept secret. Its urban scene is enjoyably elegant without a hint of crass tourism.
For the people who live in the city — sandwiched between the Burgundy and Provence regions — dining out is a passion. Here, great chefs are more famous than professional soccer players. Plan for a full day of sightseeing and then kick back in the evening just as the locals do, at a characteristic café or restaurant.
Lyon (pronounced "lee-ohn") has been among France's leading cities since the Romans ruled. In spite of its workaday, business-first facade, Lyon is the most historic and culturally important city in France after Paris. Here, you'll experience ancient Roman sights, Old World cobbled alleys, Renaissance mansions, a broad range of worthwhile museums, and the classy, Parisian-feeling shopping streets of the Presqu'île district.
A funicular brings you up Fourvière Hill to some of the city's best sights. Here, the Gallo-Roman Museum makes it clear how important Lyon was in ancient times. Wonderfully explained in English, it takes you on a chronological stroll using local artifacts. A model of Roman Lyon shows a town of 50,000 in its second-century A.D. glory days. A mosaic shows a Ben Hur-type chariot race. Windows from the Gallo-Roman Museum overlook the two adjacent Roman Theaters (free to enter). Today, the city uses the theaters as a venue for concerts, theater, dance, and film.
From atop the hill, enjoy the grand view of the city — with two major rivers running through it — the Rhône and Saône. On the funicular descent back into the Old Town (Vieux Lyon), you fast-forward through history to the 16th century and France's best concentration of well-preserved Renaissance buildings, built when the city grew rich from trade fairs and banking.
The traffic-free street named Rue St. Jean is the main drag, flanked by other pedestrian-only lanes. The city's trademark serpentine passageways (traboules) were essentially shortcuts linking the Old Town's three main streets. Traboules provided shelter from rain when reams of silk — a key industry in Lyon — were moved from one place to the next. Lyon's traboules give visitors a hide-and-seek opportunity to discover pastel courtyards, lovely loggias, and delicate arches.
Getting around is a joy in Lyon. Electric buses have replaced diesel buses in the historic core, and bike lanes run everywhere. Bikers enjoy the new bike path/walkway along the east side of the Rhône River. A good destination is the vast Golden Head Park, with rowboat rentals and a miniature golf course.
Museum-goers head to the Fine Arts Museum (second in France only to the Louvre), the Silk Workshop (demonstrating handmade silk printing), the Museums of Textiles and Decorative Arts (one tracing the development of textile weaving over 2,000 years, the other featuring 18th-century decor in a mansion), and the Puppets of the World Museum, celebrating Guignol puppetry, the still-vibrant tradition first created in Lyon by an unemployed silk worker.
For many, Lyon's most gripping sight is the newly renovated Resistance and Deportation History Center, with well-organized displays and videos telling the inspirational story of the French Resistance.
Film fans will find it illuminating to visit the Lumière Museum, which tells the story of film-making. Antoine Lumière and his family ran a huge factory in Lyon in the 1880s, producing several million glass photographic plates a day. In 1895, they made what is considered the very first motion picture — it features workers piling out of the Lumière factory at the end of a workday. People attended movies at first not for the plot or the action, but rather to be mesmerized by the technology that allowed them to see moving images. After their initial success, the Lumières sent cameramen to capture scenes from around the world, connecting diverse cultures and people in a way that had never been done before. In a wonderful coincidence, lumière is the French word for "light."
Lyon is famous for its state-of-the-art floodlighting, and the city hosts conventions on the topic, as well as an annual Festival of Lights in December (after the November shootings in Paris, the 2015 festival program was cancelled; instead, light displays honored victims of the attacks). Year-round, more than 200 buildings, sites, and public spaces are gloriously floodlit every night. Go for an evening stroll and enjoy the view from Bonaparte Bridge and stop for a drink at a riverfront café.
For dinner, head to either the Old Town or the Presqu'île, which each have thriving pedestrian avenues. Join the parade of restaurant shoppers and peruste the bouchons — characteristic bistros that are especially fun in the evening. Lyon's restaurants and accommodations are more affordable than you'll find in Paris.
Lyon feels relaxed, welcoming, and surprisingly untouristy. It seems everyone's enjoying the place — and they're all French.
In Lyon's Old Town, cafés and bistros await around every corner. (photo: Rick Steves)
State-of-the-art floodlighting enhances Lyon's architecture. (photo: Rick Steves)