France's third largest city, Lyon is a place where the very best of life is routine: stunning architecture, gourmet food, fine wines, great museums, music festivals, parks, elegant riverfronts, and high-quality public transportation are all in a day's work for the Lyonnais.
Situated at the coming together of two great French rivers, Lyon is a linchpin of French culture. It's the kind of place where you'll find celebrations to French heroes like the Lumière Brothers, halls filled with gorgeous artworks, and tables piled high with charcuterie, ready for the taking.
An intoxicating blend of urban sophistication and irresistible tastes, Lyon has everything visitors could desire from the French destination.
Lyon has been the commercial center of south-central France since, well, France existed. It remains immensely prosperous, and beautiful as well. Highlights are too numerous to list, but the cobbled lanes of the Quartier Saint-Jean, the covered traboule passageways of Croix-Rousse, and the magnificent Bartholdi Fountain are all unforgettable sights.
Lyon is a cultural powerhouse, only matched in France by Paris itself. From the Museum of Fine Arts (which houses works by masters like Rembrandt and Delacroix) and the Musée d'Histoire de Lyon to the extraordinary Puppets of the World Museum, Lyon's cultural institutions will captivate anyone's imagination.
Thanks to the Lumière brothers, Lyon was also one of the birthplaces of cinema, and you can see their original cameras at a dedicated museum. And, if that's not enough, there's the fascinating Musée Miniature et Cinéma, which explains various special effects techniques, and features an enthralling series of 100 models of great movie scenes.
Lyon is renowned for its gastronomy - quite an accolade in a country as crazy about fine food as France. Tuck into duck pâté, succulent roast pork, and other carnivorous delicacies at a traditional bouchon, or enjoy something lighter at vegetarian bistros like Tout les Couleurs. And wash everything down in the finest possible style with a tasting session at one of the city's many wine cellars.
Music completes Lyon's collection of cultural attractions, with a constant stream of events drawing artists from across the world. Rub shoulders with the indie crowd at May's Nuits Sonores music festival, watch concerts or operas in a real Roman amphitheater during the Nuits de Fourvière season, or just book tickets at the Opéra de Lyon.
The largest Renaissance district in the fifth arrondissement of Lyon, Vieux Lyon dates back to the Middle Ages and houses the Saint Jean, Saint Georges, and Saint Paul sections. At the foot of the Fourvière hill, the area is one of the largest Renaissance neighborhoods in Europe. Saint Jean, the former hub of political and religious power, features the Cathedral of St. Jean, a Gothic architecture masterpiece, as well as the Museum of Miniatures and Film Sets. Saint Georges is home to the neo-Gothic Church of St. Georges, and is known for its traboules, or corridors, that run through picturesque buildings and courtyards. St. Paul, a former banking and merchant borough, includes the Lyon Historical Museum and the International Puppet Museum, as well as the Romanesque Church of Saint Paul.
The Musée des Beaux Arts or Museum of Fine Arts, a municipal museum in Lyon is housed in a former Benedictine convent that dates back to the seventeenth century. Restored between 1988 and 1998, the museum features collections ranging from ancient Egyptian artifacts to modern art. Considered one of the most important museums in Europe, its exhibits range from the works of French, Italian, German, Dutch and Flemish masters, as well as ancient Egyptian, Greek and Roman sculptures and artifacts.
The Musée Gallo-Romain de Lyon revisits the Gallo-Roman civilization in Lyon. It was previously housed in the city center, but can now be found near the Fourvière hill. Designed by architect Bernard Zehrfuss, the museum opened in 1975. Consisting of a concrete spiral ramp that branches out into different exhibit areas, the museum displays permanent collections of Roman, Celtic and pre-Roman artifacts, such as inscriptions, statues and jewelry, as well as a scale model of the old town and its landmarks, including the theater and the Odeon. The museum also hosts multiple temporary exhibits.
La Place Bellecour, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is located in the center of Lyon. One of the most extensive open squares in Europe, the site features an equestrian statue of King Louis XIV, created by François-Frédéric Lemot in 1825, as well as a statue of the Petit Prince and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. The square contains two pavilions, the tourist information office of Lyon and an art gallery. Among the events held in the square each year, visitors can find a book fair, a pétanque competition, and a winter carnival with a 60-meter Ferris wheel.
The Centre d'histoire de la résistance et de la déportation or Center for the History of the Resistance and Deportation is located on the former site of the École de Santé Militaire, a military health school. Opened in 1992, the center pays tribute to the French Resistance, as well as the plight of the Jews who were deported during World War II. The original school was occupied by the Nazis in the spring of 1943 and was employed by Klaus Barbie, the Gestapo Chief of Lyon, to torture resistance members, including Jean Moulin. The school was demolished by Allied aircraft on May 26, 1944.
Lyon doesn't rely on fine weather to satisfy visitors, so there's really no bad time to visit. If you want to enjoy open air concerts, then June and July make sense, but if you just want to wander the historic neighborhoods, see the museums, and dine at local bouchons, spring or fall are just as appealing.
Lyon-Saint-Exupéry Airport (LYS) has excellent connections with European aviation hubs like Paris and London, so it's easy to reach Lyon from North America. When you touch down, the best route into town is via the Rhônexpress train (30 minutes, EUR15.90). The cheapest option is to take bus number 1950 to La Verpillière station (which costs EUR4.80 for the bus, then EUR6.80 for the train into town). However, taxis are faster, and should cost about EUR50.
Lyon has superb train connections to Paris thanks to the high-speed TGV, which covers the journey in around two hours. Intercity trains get into Lyon Perrache station, which is centrally located, and very close to most major hotels.
Anyone who is driving from Paris simply needs to take the A6, which runs all the way to Lyon. The A7 runs directly from Marseille, while the A89 runs across the country from Bordeaux, via Clermont-Ferrand. If you are picking up a car at the airport, take the A432 southbound, then switch to the A43 into the center of town.
If you want to travel cheaply from Paris or Marseille, Eurolines provides numerous daily buses to Lyon Perrache station, a handy drop-off point in the center of town.
As you would expect from such a stately, sophisticated city, Lyon doesn't lack for high-class hotels. Options in Vieux Lyon (the old town) include the Cour des Loges and the Villa Florentine, both of which offer 5-star accommodation with spa facilities and excellent restaurants. Options on Presqu'île include the well-appointed Hotel Carlton and the 5-star Hotel Sofitel Lyon Bellecour - but in truth there are many fabulous hotels in town.
Presqu'île - located on a spit of land between the Rhône and the Saône rivers as they merge, Presqu'île is the commercial heart of Lyon. Almost flawlessly tidy and full of neoclassical splendor, the area is packed with luxury boutiques, fine restaurants, and sights like the Hôtel de Ville and the Bartholdi Fountain.
Vieux Lyon - literally "Old Lyon", Vieux Lyon is located on the west bank of the Saône, at the foot of the Fourvière hill. It's a magical neighborhood full of Renaissance architecture (not least the Cathédral Saint-Jean), but the real charm of Vieux Lyon is the historical atmosphere. It's a wonderful place to see on foot.
La Croix-Rousse - situated north of the city center on a bend in the Rhône, Croix-Rousse was the center of Lyon's medieval silk-weaving industry. Built on a steep hillside, it is characterized by unusual covered passageways (traboules) that helped to keep silk dry as it was taken to the docks below. Nowadays, it's an enchanting historic neighborhood.
Getting around Lyon is hardly ever a problem. Run by TCL, the public transportation network is reliable and extensive, and tourists rarely need to look beyond the four subway (metro) lines. Single fares cost EUR1.80 and day passes are EUR5.50. Buses, trams, and even a couple of hillside funiculars are also available on the same tickets.
Traveling around Lyon by taxi can be very convenient, but it's rarely cheap. Expect to pay a meter drop of EUR2 and then around EUR2 per mile after that, with a minimum fare of EUR7.
Whether you want to zoom around the outskirts of town, cruise down the Rhone Valley, or make a trip to the medieval village of Pérouges, having a car makes perfect sense in Lyon. Rental branches in the city include familiar names like Enterprise, Thrifty, and Hertz, and rates can dip as low as EUR13 per day.
Lyon has always been a commercial center, and it remains a fabulous shopping destination. If you want to shop for the latest French fashion accessories, dresses, lingerie, or jewelry, Presqu'île is the place to start. Check out streets like Rue du Président Édouard Herriot or Rue Victor-Hugo, where well-known brands like Louis Vuitton jostle with boutiques like Cyrillus or Moreteau. If you want to shop for luxury food or drink, there's no better place than the Halles de Lyon Paul Bocuse, a huge gastronomic marketplace that foodies will adore.
Lyon has plenty of standard supermarkets alongside delicatessens and markets. If you need cheap eats or grocery essentials, head to Carrefour, E.Leclerc, or Monoprix, which should have anything you need. Don't expect rock-bottom prices. A gallon of milk will come to around EUR3, and 12 eggs about EUR2.75.
You could write a book about where to eat in Lyon (and many do), and few cities have such an incredible dining scene. If you are after traditional Lyonnais meat dishes, the charcuterie and entrées at bouchons like Le Musée, La Mère Jean, Chabert et Fils, or L'Auberge du Pont de Collonges (created by legendary chef Paul Bocuse) will fit the bill. For something lighter, try Momento Sapori E Vini or the Korean-Japanese fusion dishes at Gang Nam. But wherever you stay, there will be delectable aromas wafting onto the street, so don't be afraid to explore. Meals tend to be reasonably priced. Expect a good bouchon to charge around EUR20-25 for their à la carte menu.