Is Lyon the most underrated city in France? C’est possible. She’s lived in the shadow of her big sister, Paris, for hundreds of years. They are the same age, over 2000 years old. Paris is crossed by a mighty river, la Seine, but Lyon has two, la Saône et le Rhône. Paris has two major islands, L’Ile de la Cité and l’Ile Saint Louis. Lyon has la Presqu’Ile, a peninsula located between le Rhône and la Saône. In Paris and in Lyon, it helps to know the difference between la Rive Droite, and la Rive Gauche. It helps to know where to find les bouquinistes. Both cities were Roman settlements, as Lutetia (Paris,) and Lugdunum (Lyon,) and have beautifully preserved Roman ruins to prove it, but Lugdunum (Lyon) was for a while, the Capital of Gaul. They boast uniquely appealing architecture, their older neighborhoods harboring Medieval and Renaissance buildings, streets, and churches, not to mention grandiose cathedrals. They both enjoy world-famous gastronomic reputations, with restaurants ranging from simple bistros (Lyon’s are known as les Bouchons,) to the most elegant and sought-after Michelin-starred establishments (Lyon’s most famous chef is Paul Bocuse, a local and French legend.) Paris is referred to as la Ville Lumière (the City of Light,) while Lyon’s nickname is la Ville des Lumières (the City of Lights.) Lyon’s moniker has something to do with lights: The most famous festival in town, La Fête des Lumières, (the Festival of Lights,) happens at the beginning of December. For four days, building façades are adorned with spectacular light patterns, often created with candles. Lyon, it is a well-known fact at least in France, has a lot to offer. Yet, many foreign visitors do not take the time to explore this splendid city, only breezing through her busy international airport, or leaving Paris, however briefly, for a weekend adventure in Normandy, or in the Champagne region instead. Lyon is only a two-hour TGV ride from the French capital: Quel dommage!
I lived in Lyon, France, over 30 years ago. I moved away to go to college in the United States for my Junior year. By the time I came home, my family had relocated to Paris. When I decided to return this summer, I had not seen Lyon since a quick visit back in the 1990s, and only had one weekend to get re-acquainted with her. I knew it would be too short, (I was on my way to Nice,) but I went anyway. A smart move. Lyon was determined to make an impression. She blew this French, Americanized tourist away! Had she changed, as I had, over the last 30 years? Had I forgotten how magnificent the city was? I do not know, but for two perfect, gloriously sunny days, I re-discovered the great French city I used to call “Home.”
When visiting cities, I tend to book an apartment or a hotel in the heart of the old town, wherever that may be. I like feeling surrounded by history, older buildings, and walkable, small streets. This often means staying in a touristy area. In Lyon, France, I lucked out: A friend had recommended the College Hotel, and I got a decent price on Booking.com. It is ideally located in the heart of le Vieux Lyon, a few minutes away from the Saône river, medieval streets with restaurants and shopping, and la Cathédrale St Jean. The theme: School. This is original, and really fun, especially if you have experienced the French education system. From the breakfast room evocative of an old-style réfectoire, or cafeteria, to the spacious and bright bedrooms furnished with old-style wood desks, and bathrooms decorated with accessories inspired by school supplies, this is a great place for visitors with an eye for detail.
My favorite parts of the hotel? My bedroom with a view, with a balcony overlooking the old town and Fourvière hill, and the elevated patio where guests can relax or enjoy breakfast. I could have spent hours there.
Time was in short supply. I only had two days to get a feel for Lyon, 30 years after my last visit. So I picked up my camera, a small guidebook I had highlighted during the 2-hour TGV ride from Paris; strapped on my comfy, cute sandals; and I walked. Le Vieux Lyon, the old town, kept me busy for the first day. From Medieval streets to beautiful Renaissance architecture and former Hôtels Particuliers turned into museums, the old town was a feast for the eyes. Dépaysement garanti, (change of scenery guaranteed,) as the French say.
Being a dutiful tourist, I had to experiment in Le Vieux Lyon, and walked through les traboules, those dark, covered passageways linking two parallel cobbled streets, namely rue du Boeuf and touristy rue St Jean. These streets are lined with Renaissance façades dating back to the 15th and 16th centuries, the buildings’ massive wooden doors identified by old signs and sculptures. Les traboules are so famous in Lyon, that their name has been turned into a verb: It is, therefore, recommended to trabouler while in the old town. I can trabouler if trabouler is required, and had a lot of fun! Note to Seattle: You would be well inspired to build a few traboules so those of us who wear glasses and spend fortunes on our hair don’t have to look like wet rats during Monsoon season.
I was determined to meet with an old friend, well-known by all French children for several generations. He is a local celebrity, and for a simple puppet born at the beginning of the 19th century, has done really well for himself. Meet Guignol, the most famous puppet in France.
To meet Guignol, and learn more about his career and his many friends, I had to leave the touristy medieval streets and Guignol’s look-alikes, to visit le Musée Gadagne, a beautifully preserved 16th century private mansion. The Museum of the History of Lyon, it also boasts a remarkable collection of puppets hailing from around the world. This is Guignol‘s true home.
The best part about le Musée Gadagne: The suspended gardens on the museum’s top floor, where visitors can lounge in the grass, or have a drink at the small outdoor restaurant. Peace above a busy section of town: Heaven.
However crowded, especially on weekends, le Vieux Lyon and its lifeline, rue St Jean, are a must-see. Many of Lyon’s traditional restaurants, les Bouchons, are located in the neighborhood. Not all Bouchons are created equal (more about this in a later post.) La Cathédrale St Jean, built between the 12th and the 15th century, and her magnificent gothic façade, tower over sections of the old town and sits by the Saône river.
The cathedral seems to be looking up at the other big church in town: Notre-Dame de Fourvière. Built in the late 19th century, the basilica sits high on a hill, above Lyon, and can be seen from almost every street corner.
Getting to the Fourvière basilica is an adventure in itself, and a trip back in time, when Lyon was still named Lugdunum and the Romans occupied the area. The trip involves riding in a funicular that has run for years (the original version was pulled by horses.)
When reaching the top of the hill, most visitors head to the Basilica. When you are named “Basilica,” you have to live up to your reputation, because you aren’t just – well – a church. There is no doubt la Basilique de Fourvière delivers, both inside, and out, with panoramic views of Lyon, the great city at her feet.
Avoiding the crowds, I took off promptly to explore the rest of Fourvière hill. I quickly found a scenic walk, then the cemetery, and ended up in a lovely park where families had gathered to play in the summer sun. There, locals were treated by the city of Lyon to a buvette (small outdoor bar,) games for children (and their parents) led by professional animateurs (counselors,) and even a cute caravane (the diminutive French version of an American RV) turned into a play room. I ordered a cup of lemonade for 1 Euro and sat down, enjoying the children’s laughter, and their parents’ conversations. It was a perfect summer scene, and I was privileged to watch it just two days after the Nice terror attack.
On my way down to le Vieux Lyon, I stopped at the area’s other major attraction: Lyon’s Théâtre Antique, Lugdunum‘s old Roman amphitheater, almost perfectly preserved. It seats over 6000 people. Every summer, locals and visitors are treated to outdoor concerts during les Nuits de Fourvière festival.
If you have not decided by now to add Lyon to your next French adventure, then the other two stories I wrote about Lyon on this trip might finish to convince you. In the meantime, look at these photos and ask yourself: “Why have I never seen the City of Lights?”
A mes amis, Gilda et “Red Teddy.”
Merci pour la musique, et tous les bons moments. Je n’ai pas oublié. – Véro (“Nounou.”)
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Bonus Video: Lyon as if you were there…