Once one of the richest cities in France, Lyon’s innate charm is evident in its handsome buildings, chic eateries and the narrow cobbled streets of the old town
Grand and bourgeois, Lyon’s stunning Renaissance art collections, dramatic sloping hillsides and hearty cuisine make it a seductive city. Its two rivers snake down and unite at the end of the central peninsula, the Presqu’île, at the heart of the city. Plain façades hug the banks splashed in amber, gold and honey hues, while below the bateaux-mouches ply the waters.
Lyon was built on the silk industry, and the older historic quarters rise west of the Saône; to the east, the banks of the Rhône resonate with Lyon’s grand history. In the centre, chic eateries and cafés spill on to pavements, and water splashes from phenomenal fountains. At night the city is beautifully lit (there is a festival of light every December), and perched on its hilltop, the Notre Dame de Fourvière resembles a fairytale castle, visible from the narrow alleyways and wide boulevards below.
What to do
Start at the top with a hike up to the enchanting bright white Notre Dame de Fourvière church. From there gaze down at a perfect view of central Lyon and, on a clear day, enjoy uninterrupted views of Mont Blanc. Nearby, the city’s major Roman remains lie semi-hidden.
Back at the bottom you’ll find Vieux Lyon slotted snugly between Fourvière’s hillside and the Saône. Once home to the archbishops of Lyon, now its small streets and stunning squares are filled with tall mansions, restaurants and boutiques. Stroll down the narrow cobbled streets and make your way past the fruity coloured plain façades into the secretive traboules – passageways that lead to beautiful inner courtyards with soaring staircases and arched windows. Head for the longest at 54 Rue St-Jean, walking through five courtyards to pop out at 27 Rue du Boeuf. Nearby is the Place St-Jean, home to the impressive Cathédrale St-Jean, which oozes sober grandeur. Coast along the banks of the Saône and pick up some local produce at the daily food market on the Quai St-Antoine. Then while the afternoon away in one of the city’s many museums.
At night, head to the Opéra de Lyon (00 33 472 00 4545; www.opera-lyon.org) in the Place de la Comédie, housed in an 18th-century building with a dramatic modern glass roof extension. It has a reputation for staging daring productions. Or check out the lively bar scene on the slopes of the Croix-Rousse and the Rhône’s east bank.
Where to stay
Tucked away in the secretive streets of picturesque Vieux Lyon, the magnificent Cour des Loges is a mix of Renaissance architecture and modern design. And it has a superb restaurant to boot. The latest addition to Lyon’s hotel scene is the trendy College Hotel. Built in an old school, the downstairs look is all retro leather seats and overflowing bookshelves, while upstairs, the white rooms are edgy and unusual. For something a little more intimate try La Tour Rose, a former Renaissance-period convent set around a Florentine-style courtyard with a restaurant in what used to be the chapel. In the bedrooms, walls are swathed in the taffetas, plissés and velvets of local silk weavers, a great place for romance.
Where to eat and drink
Rich, hearty and meaty, Lyon is the gastronomic centre of the Rhône-Alpes region. A visit to a traditional bouchon is a must. These bistros are irresistible with their checked tablecloth cosiness and food that is hearty and flavoursome. Try the long-established Café des Fédérations (00 33 478 28 2600; www.lesfedeslyon.com), where the specialities of museau vinaigrette (pickled beef muzzle) and tête du veau (calf’s head) are only for the brave.
Local chefs do their shopping at the indoor market, Halles de Lyon, 102 cours Lafayette; join them and pick up something special for lunch. For something a little more truffles and lobster, head for L’Auberge du Pont de Collonges (00 33 472 42 9090; www.bocuse.fr), the Michelin-starred restaurant of legendary chef Paul Bocuse.
Le Passage (00 33 478 28 1116; www.le-passage.com), tucked away in a side street off Place des Terreaux and decked out in ruby-red boudoir chic, is the perfect intimate retreat. And the best place to devour classic French cuisine with a twist. For a sweet treat when you’re on the move, drop into Maison Perroudon (00 33 478 37 4919; www.perroudon.fr) and devour a white chocolate and almond coated tuile (sail-shaped biscuit).
Time running out?
Hire a bike from the city centre (00 33 472 41 6525) and explore the luscious grounds of the Parc de la Tête d’Or.
Invest in a Lyon city card (www.lyon-france.com). It gets you into all the right places, with free transport and river cruises.
Currency is the euro. Lyon is one hour ahead of GMT and a one-hour 40-minute flight from London.
EasyJet (0905 821 0905; www.easyjet.com) flies direct from Gatwick and Stansted; Air France (0871 66 33 777; www.airfrance.co.uk) flies to Lyon from London City and Heathrow, via Paris.
Lyon Tourist Office: 00 33 472 77 6969; www.lyon-france.com.
This guide first appeared in Food and Travel magazine.