Halfway between Paris and Provence and in close proximity to Switzerland, Italy and the commanding Alps, Lyon sits at the perfect crossroads. But with one of the highest concentrations of restaurants per mile in Europe, Lyon lives up to its name of culinary capital of France. With dining experiences to suit every taste, from bouchons (taverns) serving traditional workman’s fare to Michelin-star restaurants delighting patrons with sophisticated haute cuisine, the riverside city is the epitome of French fine living.
But it’s not just food that should bring you to Lyon. Winner of Europe’s Leading City Break Destination in 2016, Lyon’s assets further extend to architecture, both old and new; to moviemaking, as the birthplace of the cinématographe by the Lumière brothers; and to its long withstanding role in silk trade.
Start with a light French breakfast of gourmandise (pastries) and coffee at hip Slake Coffee House.
From the foot of the Croix Rousse hill to the confluence of the Rhône and Saône rivers, the Presqu’île (“peninsula” in French) is the core of Lyon and home to the 1st, 2nd and 4th arrondisements of the city. Begin your day around Place des Terreaux, where the ornate Hôtel de Ville (City Hall) and striking Bartholdi fountain—initially commissioned for the city of Bordeaux by the same maker as the Statue of Liberty—are some of the key monuments. Art lovers can take a peak inside the Musuem of Fine Arts housed inside the Palais Saint-Pierre on the site of an 18th century Benedictine abbey, although its tranquil garden cloister is the bigger attraction. Just around the corner, the Opera House, redesigned by the fêted Jean Nouvel, preserves the ancient neoclassical façade beneath a modern glass dome. Continue on South to Place Bellecour, Lyon’s largest square, universally referred to as the center of the city. For lunch, opt for a plate of fresh Fine de Claire oysters and grilled seafood at Les Halles de Lyon – Paul Bocuse, a covered market where top chefs stock their finest cheeses and charcuteries.
To follow, make your way into Vieux Lyon, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that plays an ode to the Renaissance architecture of yesteryear. To get a real feeling of Lyon’s medieval cobblestone streets, venture through the famous traboules on Rue du Boeuf, ancient narrow passageways weaving between vaulted corridors and interior courtyards. Stroll on the main thoroughfare of Rue Saint-Jean, oozing Italian charm and Gothic elements. Refuel in between the maze-like alleys with a scoop of mouth-watering lavender or velvety honey and rosemary ice cream at artisan glacier Terre Adélice, a local favorite selling 150 flavors of ingenious flavors. Avoid 5 p.m. when long lines take over Place Baleine.
To finish off, hop on Funicular F2 at Vieux-Lyon – Cathédrale Saint-Jean station, going up Fourviere Hill. Once on top, stunning panorama views of the city await, as well as the eclectic Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière cathedral (pictured above), imposing and sumptuous both inside and out.
Back in the center of town, look no further than Daniel et Denise for tonight’s dinner, one of Lyon’s best bouchons. With three locations across the city, chef Joseph Viola, recipient of the prestigious Meilleur Ouvrier de France title, weaves his magic into hearty local food. Amid checkered tablecloths and wood-paneled walls, you can’t go wrong with the 2009 World Champion winner pâté en croute, pastry encased pâté with foie gras and sweetbreads or a classic Lyonnais quenelle au brochet, creamy sausage made from river pike. Wash it down with a pot Lyonnais, the thick-bottomed bottle serving house wine. Drinking wise, Lyon is equally famed.
Amid Serge Gainsbourg’s old vinyl records playing in the retro theatre-like venue at Look Bar, go bold with a Nuage Noir cocktail, a special house recipe of coffee liquor, vodka and eau de vie.
For a calm yet curious breakfast, look no further than Le Comptoir du GentleCat, an atypical tearoom that promotes itself as a “cat bar.”
For those with a knack for finding unique gems, join other bargain hunters along the charming Quais de Saône, at the bookseller’s weekend market going strong for 20 years. If art is more to your fancy, not to worry, the art and artisan & crafts markets are just steps away, also on the quays. Following the flea market peruse, make your way up to Croix-Rousse district, known as “the hill that works,” home to artist workshops, boutiques and cafe-theatres. It exudes a strong personality of its own, with its long stairways, petite squares and ochre and pink facades. Check out Mur des Canuts (pictured above), the largest painted mural in Europe. Depicting Lyon’s hustling textile and silk industry historically linked to this area, this is where silk workers, les Canuts, flocked to the city during the 19th century to set up shop. Before you make your way down, have a look inside Village des Créateurs, a cluster of fashion and décor boutiques showcasing up-and-coming local designers. In keeping with the historical theme, stop for lunch at Café Comptoir Abel, about 400 years old, the most authentic bistro Lyonnais that is frequently Lyon’s most photographed location.
After lunch, head south on the vaporetto river shuttle from Vieux Lyon departing every 30 minutes. The Confluence district, whose name stems from the convergence of the Rhône and Saône rivers of its location, is home to Lyon’s largest urban renewal project. Channeling the city’s burgeoning modern side, focused on green transport modes and contemporary architecture, start off at Musée des Confluences (pictured above), a science and anthropology museum showing off a brilliant deconstructed design. On the left bank of the Rhône, the Garland district boasts the innovation of Halle Tony Garnier, a former slaughterhouse converted into a concert venue. Heading back toward the Saône, stroll alongside Quai Rambaud toward Place Nautique and its dock, where the audacious neon-green Euronews HQ and giant Schweizer-like Le Cube Orange, an architecture and design showroom, surprise and flabbergast.
Start your evening with an aperitif at Le Sucre, the rooftop site of La Sucrière, previously a sugar factory, now a happening cultural center with river views. For your last dinner in Lyon, pay homage to star chef Paul Bocuse, known for his pioneering Nouvelle Cuisine approach to cooking, at one of his many brasseries in town. Depending on your budget, the 19th century Belle Époque Brotteaux train station housing the L’Est is as fitting and moderately priced as its travel-themed menu. But the real gourmet aficionados—and those with heavier wallets—should revel in the legendary black-truffle soup in pastry crust at the three Michelin-starred Paul Bocuse, Auberge du Pont de Collonges, certainly the best farewell you could ever wish for.
Air Canada flies year-round from a number of U.S. cities (New York, Los Angeles, Boston and San Francisco) to Lyon-Saint-Exupéry Airport, via Montréal.
Where to Stay
Overlooking the banks of the Rhône River housed in the former Préfecture building of Lyon, OKKO Hotel brilliantly combines modern design with the classic look of Haussmann architecture. A great value for money, the new four-star chain hotel promotes the unique concept of The Club, a convenient living space serving complimentary breakfast, evening aperitif and round the clock snacks to its guests.
Conveniently located in Old Lyon, Collège Hôtel combines an unbeatable location with an original school themed hotel, with public spaces envisioned as libraries and classrooms. As soon as night falls, a light show illuminates all 130 windows in a splendid display of light, further enriching the unique atmosphere of the property.
Monica Suma is a Romanian-American freelance travel writer always on the hunt for art, good food and all things Cuba. Through storytelling and an insatiable pursuit for whimsy, she contributes to Lonely Planet, BBC Travel, Business Traveller and more.