Viewed from the Autoroute du Soleil, the first impression of Lyon is of a major confluence of rivers and roads, around which only petrochemical industries thrive. In fact, from the sixteenth century right up until the postwar dominance of metalworks and chemicals, silk was the city’s main industry, generating the wealth that left behind a multitude of Renaissance buildings. But what has stamped its character most on Lyon is the commerce and banking that grew up with its industrial expansion. Today, with its eco-friendly tram system, high-tech industrial parks home to international companies, Lyon is a modern city par excellence.
Most French people find themselves here for business rather than for recreation: it’s a get-up-and-go place, with an almost Swiss sense of cleanliness, order and efficiency. But as a manageable slice of urban France, Lyon certainly has its charms. Foremost among these is gastronomy; there are more restaurants per Gothic and Renaissance square metre of the old town than anywhere else on earth, and the city could form a football team with its superstars of the international chef circuit.
The city offers superb cultural attractions, too, from a raft of fine churches, notably the mighty Basilica Notre Dame up on Fourvière, to half a dozen exceptional museums, chief amongst them the textile museum, the constantly absorbing Gallo-Roman museum, and the wonderful Gadagne museum, with its marvellous puppetry displays. Urban explorers, meanwhile, will enjoy staking out Lyon’s distinctive older quarters and its winding, secret traboules. As if that weren’t enough, Lyon’s nightlife, cinema and theatre, its antique markets, music and other cultural festivities might tempt you to stay just that little bit longer.
Lyon is organized into nine arrondissements. Of most interest to visitors is the Presqu’île (1er and 2e arrondissements), the tongue of land between the rivers Saône and Rhône, and Vieux Lyon (5e) on the west bank of the Saône, where the Romans built their capital of Gaul, Lugdunum. To the north of the Presqu’île is the old silk-weavers’ district of La Croix-Rousse (4e). Other well-touristed areas include modern Lyon on the east bank of the Rhône (3e), at the heart of which is the bustling commercial area around Part-Dieu, and, north of here, Parc de la Tête d’Or, the city’s main green space.