Lyon in southern France is famous for its fabulous gastronomy, its architecture and winding little streets, its old town and its modern feel down at the Confluence, where the Rhône and Saône rivers converge. The city is a good choice for those seeking to enjoy, and discover the authentic French lifestyle, with a very laid-back atmosphere and pleasant year-round weather. There’s so much to see and enjoy but what if you only have four days in Lyon?
Back in February, I visited the city for short break and was keen to pack in as much as possible. By now, I’m sure you are all aware that I love my food and a bit of street-art, and with Lyon being a hot-spot for both, it’s safe to say I was very much looking forward to my visit.
Hopping on the Eurostar from London, we made it to Lyon (via Paris) in approximately 4 hours. Our journey was comfortable and our connection with the TGV from Gare du Lyon (the other side of the city from where the Eurostar arrives) was seamless and without delays or stress.
Arriving into Lyon at about 4pm, we hopped into a taxi and made our way across the city to the location of our hotel for the next few days. Our hotel was situated on Avenue Maréchal Foch, just 100m or so from the metro stop and was tucked away on the second floor of a typically French building. Although the rooms were no-frills, they were comfortable and staff were friendly, making our stay pleasant and enjoyable.
After settling in and treating ourselves to a nice cup of tea after a day on the train, we decided to head out and explore the surrounding area. Just a short walk from our hotel across the river to the Presqu’île peninsula, we arrived at the Hôtel de Ville (city hall). The evening was slowly drawing in and the lights coming on, illuminating the city with an array of warm, sparkling colours. For a Wednesday, we were also surprised at how busy the area was – the streets were alive with people and nearby cafés obviously conducting good business. We spent a good hour wandering around the streets, soaking up the lively atmosphere before we started looking for somewhere to have dinner.
Considering Lyon is the gastronomic capital of France, we had high expectations. We were particularly keen to experience dinner in a traditional ‘bouchon’, a type of restaurant found in the city which serves traditional Lyonnaise cuisine, such as sausages, duck pâté or roast pork. The tradition of these bouchons came from small inns, visited by silk workers passing through Lyon in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, with the name apparently deriving from the previous century’s expression for a bunch of twisted straw. A representation of such bundles began to appear on signs to designate these restaurants, and slowly the restaurants themselves became known as bouchons.
We eventually found a nice-looking place along the Rue Mercière, La Traboulerie, which offered a very reasonable fixed priced dinner menu at €17 . Needless to say, it was an offer we could not resist and so we entered the narrow but cosy restaurant ready to sample a selection of Lyonnaise cuisine.
Our first day soon came to an end, and we slowly made the return journey to our hotel. We were all in need of a good night’s sleep and the opportunity to recharge our batteries for more exploring the following day.
Our first full day in the city was set aside to explore Lyon and see the sights. We woke up to glorious sunshine and a balmy temperature of 16°C, practically exotic considering it was only mid-February.
After discovering the ticket machines in the Metro wouldn’t accept our bank notes, we set off on foot across Pont Morand to the Hôtel de Ville, and then continued down the rue de la République, past the Palais de la Bourse de Lyon, as far as Bellecour. Finally, we were able to exchange our notes for coins at a small tabac on the square – success!
The Place Bellecour, said to be one of the largest squares in Europe, provided us with a good vantage point for viewing the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière which sits majestically atop the hill overlooking the city. At the eastern end was a large Ferris wheel, which no doubt, provides great views across the city’s rooftops, and, at the heart of square is a statue of Louis XIV with allegorical statues at the base representing the Saône and the Rhône.
Leaving the square behind us, we headed across the Pont Bonaparte to the bottom of Fourvière hill. Here we found the entrance to the funicular railway which would transport us to the top of Fourvière hill, and the symbol of Lyon, the Basilica, dedicated to the Virgin Mary and a site for pilgrimage.
Once atop the hill, we stepped out into bright sunshine and were faced with the main entrance of the basilica directly in front, its white stone providing a brilliant contrast to the blue sky beyond. The Basilica actually consists of two churches, one on top of the other, and because of its shape has the local nickname ‘the upside-down elephant’ – so called because the body of the building looks like the body of an elephant and the four towers the legs.
Once inside, the decoration of the upper level is very ornate, and the stained-glass windows in the choir, the statues, marble reliefs and mosaics provide a feast for the eyes. The lower level, or crypt is of a much simpler design and is dedicated to Saint Joseph but now highlights ‘The Virgins of the World’, including the Black Madonna (of Częstochowa). After a good look around, we emerged back out into the sunshine and spent twenty minutes or so strolling around the immediate area and taking in the views from the various terraces either side of the church.
Our next stop was to be the Gallo Roman amphitheatre, which turned out to be just a ten-minute walk away. We arrived at the top of the site and were greeted by an impressive panorama; the multi-tiered arena sweeping around the hillside. The site was huge and made up of two main areas; the Amphitheater des Trois Gaules and the Odeon Theater. Having admired the view from the top it was then decided we should make our way down to the arena at the base, so as to gain a new perspective of this archaeological masterpiece.
After a good stroll around the site, we wandered off in search of the nearest métro, and once located, we hopped on to the train and made our way back down the hill to Vieux Lyon (Old Town). It was here that we began our search for the famous Traboules – a network of covered alleyways and stairways linking courtyards across the Old Town. The narrow and picturesque streets of the quarter conveyed a real sense of history, and with help from our handy little guide, we began our exploration.
We started by walking along the rue du Doyenne in the direction of the Eglise Saint-Georges before branching off to find one of the oldest streets in Lyon, the Montée du Gourguillon. This narrow, cobbled street provided a steady climb up the hill and offered the chance to see a number of 16th century houses along the way.
Fifty or so metres along the street was a small cul-de-sac, Impasse Turquet, where several of the houses retained their timber-framed ‘Piedmont’ galleries. Not particularly well preserved, but interesting all the same!
Our walk took us further up the hill to Place Beauregard where we decided to head back down to the flat via the steps of Montée des Epies to the Eglise Saint-Georges (almost back to where we had started!). The path then took us along the rue Saint-Georges, past the métro, to the Place Saint-Jean and the cathedral of the same name, which offered a glimpse of 14th century architectural skill.
Soon our stomachs (and legs) were telling us it was time to stop, and with it approaching lunchtime we started the search for a restaurant offering a traditional-style, not too expensive, Plat du Jour. The rue Saint-Jean provided plenty of choice, with restaurants on both sides competing for trade. We settled on ‘La Gargouille’ on the corner of Place Saint-Jean, which offered a basic three course meal for €13.90 each; nothing special but tasty all the same.
Having filled our stomachs, rested our legs and reflected on the morning’s adventures it was time to move on and see what other delights this old part of the city had to offer. So, leaving the cathedral behind we set off along the rue Saint-Jean intent on finding at least a few of the famous traboules and hidden courtyards, as we went.
The adventure really started once we had passed the Palais de Justice, but before that, and a short walk up the rue de la Bombarde, we had a glimpse of what to expect. The Jardin de la Basoche houses the Maison des Avocats which today is the home of the Musée Miniature et Cinéma. The pastel-pink exterior with its arched balconies, and the small garden, complete with lion, offer the visitor one of the best images of old Lyon, and a hint of what the area must have been like at the height of the silk trade.
There was plenty to admire as we strolled along, the craftsmanship of the facades, spanning the centuries, the various, darkened, entries of the traboules with the mystery of what lay behind them – beautiful courtyards, staircases spiralling upwards, landings with galleries, carved mullions, a turret or tower? Each one beckoned the visitor to come inside and discover these hidden gems.
Having walked the length of the rue Saint-Jean we decided to hop on the métro and explore the area of Croix-Russe. This district sits atop another of the hills that wrap around Lyon, and is best reached by métro. In a matter of minutes, you arrive and upon exit are greeted with space, a fresher feel and something of a ‘buzz’. It seems as if you have arrived in another city, which perhaps is not that surprising as the ‘village’ was designated as a ‘free zone’ in the past, only being incorporated into the city in 1852.
La Croix-Rousse is nicknamed “la colline qui travaille” (the hill that works) as opposed to Fourvière, which is known as “la colline qui prie” (the hill that prays), based on the historical impact of the silk industry and its workers. A very pleasant area in which to relax over a beer, take in the view from each side and explore the neighbourhood. Unfortunately, the twilight was beginning to fall, and the wind was picking up, so we decided to head back down the hill and once again into the hustle and bustle of the city itself. This time we took the bus and were rewarded with a fifteen-minute ride along the Boulevard de la Croix-Rousse and then followed the Cours Général Giraud as it followed the contours of the hillside, taking in, as we went, the views across the Saône, towards Fourvière and Vieux Lyon.
Once back at the Hôtel de Ville, it was the now familiar walk across the Rhône to the Place du Maréchal Lyautey where we all decided it was time for a ‘night-cap’. The only lights we could see, were directly in front of us, on the square, so we made a bee-line for Le Café du Pond to ‘wet our whistles’. From there, it was but a short walk back to the hotel, for some ‘supper’ and a quiet night.
Part 2 coming soon…..