Don’t let the weak pound spoil your fun in France’s gastronomic capital
For the budget city-breaker who books the cheapie flight first and asks questions later, Lyon can be bewildering. Not one but two rivers flow through the city. There’s a much-loved old town, but in truth everything looks old. And what the nobbins is a traboule?
There’s only one way to find out: on foot. You can hire a Vélo'v bike but, happily for the Euro-pincher, walking is the finest way to uncover the elegance of this silk city. What you lose in steep hills and dogshit you make up for in spectacular views and happy discoveries. And, though it’s eminently possible to spend, spend, spend in grand boutiques or at Michelin’s pet restaurants, you can take a weekend here for a petit prix.
First, find your base. The Hôtel du Théâtre, with prices from €59, is as well-placed for exploration as you could wish, on the peninsula between the Saône and Rhone. This central district is where shops are shopped and business done. The distinguishing feature, the huge Place Bellecour, is likeable for its scale and pomp but often beset by the clatter and confusion of building work. The Hôtel du Théâtre is on a calmer square, the pretty Place des Célestins, and named for the Italianate theatre that dominates it. Inside, rooms are comfortable, service is sunny and breakfast is fine, but if you really want to eat, head to the end of the street.
Lyon is, famously, an eater’s city. Tables are dominated by the pig and its innards, and rows of quenelles, floaty-light dumplings of pike and eggs, line up in places you’d least expect it: they count as charcuterie. Two minutes from the Place des Célestins, all this and more is on sale at the Quai St-Antoine market, held hard by the Saône every day except Monday. Andouillette sausages might be a bit much in the morning, but fruit, bread and cheese will do nicely. Market junkies might also like to cross the Rhone and browse the samples at Les Halles de Lyon, the serious covered market that sells to the city’s best restaurants as well as picky housewives. It’s enough to make British foodies weep, but remember and take heart: we can do curry. They can’t.
A day’s walk continues from the Quai St-Antoine, across one of many bridges and into old Lyon. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it’s got all the cobbles and postcard-vendors a tourist could wish for. It also has traboules. Much-loved by guided tour groups – get stuck behind them and you’re in for an informative, if painfully slow, half-hour – these narrow, hidden passageways once allowed the city’s silk workers to cut quickly from street to street. They’re marked on maps but, because they run through residential property, you’ll feel like you’re trespassing. Carry boldly on to see Renaissance courtyards and spiral staircases along passageways polished with age.
Lyon’s best view is – unless you take the funicular – also its most hard-won. The steps that ascend from the old town keep on keeping on towards the top of Fourvière hill. From the 19th-century basilica, whose four octagonal towers are compared (not entirely convincingly) to the legs and feet of an upturned elephant, the city is spread satisfyingly before you. Fourvière is the ‘hill that prays’ and the Croix-Rousse, across the river, is the ‘hill that works’. Once silk-weaver central, it’s criss-crossed by more traboules and retains a working-class edge. Power up one of the sets of steep stairs, then, with shaking calves, enjoy the parade down the wide, dramatic Montée de la Grande Côte, lined with incense-smelling shops. You’ll be deposited back on the peninsula, not far from the opera house, which offers a handful of concerts for free or very little.
The walking is, of course, preparation for eating. The best-known of Lyon’s culinary traditions is also, happily, one of its cheapest. Snug, family-run and meaty, bouchons are traditional little restaurants that are bad for the body and extremely good for the soul. Café des Fédérations, tucked away not far from the shopping streets, is a wise choice, especially the wood-panelled second dining room. Menus, from €19.50, include vast quantities of charcuterie and salads, Lyonnais main courses (now’s your chance for the quenelles), cheese and dessert, including a tart made of the striking red praline that appears in many patisserie windows.
If you can’t bear to leave without a dalliance with one of the big-name chefs, take heart. Lunch at Paul Bocuse’s three-star L'Auberge du Pont de Collonges can easily top €150 each, but he also lends his name to four brasseries named after the points of the compass. At Le Nord, standards are high and the formule - oh look, more quenelles - is €20.50. When your pockets are empty, there are plenty of sensory experiences that come for nothing here. Sniff the air just once at chocolatier Bernachon, where they roast cacao beans in-house, and you’d happily pay to do it again.