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; moreover, with the new Eurostar link to London, Lyon is more accessible than ever.
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.
Lyon 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 among them the stunning new Musèe des Confluences, the constantly absorbing MuséeGallo-Romain, and the wonderful MuséeGadagne, 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.
Lyon has an abundance of accommodation, with a liberal sprinkling of terrific hotels throughout the city, though the greatest concentration is in the Presqu’île and Vieux Lyon. You’ll find, too, an increasing number of chambres d’hôtes.
No visit to Lyon is complete without a visit to a bouchon, the traditional Lyonnais eating establishment. Its provenance most likely comes from the time when inns serving wine would attach small bundles of straw to their signs, indicating that horses could be cared for (bouchonnés) while the coachmen went inside to have a drink. The food may not be to everyone’s taste – andouillette (hot cooked tripe sausage) and pieds de veau (calves’ feet) are typical staples – but the dishes are usually beautifully cooked and they’re wonderfully convivial places. While many bouchons claim to be authentic, only 22 are certified, the best of which are found in the Presqu’ile.
Few cities anywhere in Europe, let alone France, can rival Lyon for the quality of its food, and at any given time there are typically more than a dozen restaurants with one or more Michelin stars. However, while these temples of gastronomy continue to raise standards, the humble bouchon remains as popular as ever, and really is an experience not to be missed – note that some of the more upscale restaurants are closed on Saturdays and Sundays, with others closing on Mondays. While decent coffee remains hard to source, Lyon’s café culture is slowly improving, and it’s now possible to find some terrific spots to sip an espresso (or tea), particularly up in the Croix-Rousse district. Otherwise, you can join the masses on place des Terreaux and the streets of Vieux Lyon.
La Croix-Rousse is the old silk-weavers’ district and spreads up the steep slopes of the hill above the northern end of the Presqu’île. Although increasingly gentrified, it’s still predominantly a working-class area, but barely a couple of dozen people operate the modern high-speed computerized looms that are kept in business by the restoration and maintenance of France’s palaces and châteaux.
Along with Vieux Lyon, it was in this district that the traboules flourished. Officially the traboules are public thoroughfares during daylight hours, but you may find some closed for security reasons. The long climb up the part-pedestrianized Montée de la Grande Côte, however, still gives an idea of what the quartier was like in the sixteenth century, when the traboules were first built. One of the original traboules, Passage Thiaffait on rue Réné-Leynaud, has been refurbished to provide premises for young couturiers.
Though the introduction of the Jacquard loom of 1804 made it possible for one person to produce 25cm of silk in a day instead of taking four people four days, silk workers, or canuts – whether masters or apprentices, and especially women and child workers – were badly paid whatever their output. As the price paid for a length of silk fell by over fifty percent, attempts to regulate the price were ignored by the dealers, even though hundreds of skilled workers were languishing in debtors’ jails.
On November 21, 1831, the canuts called an all-out strike. As they processed down the Montée de la Grande Côte with their black flags and the slogan “Live working or die fighting”, they were shot at and three people died. After a rapid retreat uphill they built barricades, assisted by half the National Guard, who refused to fire cannon at their “comrades of Croix-Rousse”. Following three days of battle, and with the bourgeoisie running scared, the canuts’ employers called upon outside aid, and 30,000 extra troops arrived to quash the rebellion. Some 600 people were killed or wounded, and in the end the silk industrialists were free to pay whatever pitiful fee they chose, but the uprising was one of the first instances of organized labour taking to the streets during the most revolutionary fifty years of French history.
Lyon’s fascination with mural art can be traced back to the 1970s, when a group of students thought it a good idea to introduce some colour to the city’s grimescape, while simultaneously bringing art to the masses. The easiest ones to track down are the Mur des Canuts in Croix-Rousse, a brilliant, illusory piece depicting everyday life of the district’s inhabitants, including, of course, the old silk-weavers; La Fresque des Lyonnais on the corner of rue de la Martinière and Quai St Vincent, which honours Lyon’s most famous citizens, such as the Lumiére brothers, Garnier and Bocuse; and La bibliothéque (The City Library), just down the road on the corner of rue de la Platiére and Quai de la Pecherie. Check out cite-creation.com for more information.
On the skyline from Fourvière, you can’t miss the gleaming pencil-like skyscraper that belongs to Lyon’s home-grown Crédit Lyonnais bank. This is the centrepiece of Part-Dieu, a business-culture-commerce hub which includes one of the biggest public libraries outside Paris, a mammoth concert hall and a busy shopping centre. While it’s not the most aesthetically pleasing area, you don’t have to go far to enjoy some culture.
Film buffs won’t want to miss the enlightening Institut Lumière, housed within the grandiose Art Nouveau villa that was, for a period, the home of Antoine Lumière, father of Auguste and Louis, two of the earliest pioneers of film. The emphasis here is very much on the earliest forms of photographic techniques, which subsequently paved the way for film. Prize exhibits include early magic lanterns, the first cinematograph (1885), and the first ever autochromes, or colour plates, one of which is a picture of Antoine’s third daughter relaxing in the Winter Garden.
Housed within the former military medical school used by the Gestapo during World War II, the Centre d’Histoire de la Résistance et de la Déportation makes for a sobering but worthwhile visit. In addition to a library of books, videos, memoirs and other documents recording experiences of resistance, occupation and deportation to the camps, there’s an exhibition space housed over the very cellars and cells in which Klaus Barbie, the Gestapo boss of Lyon, tortured and murdered his victims. After living in Bolivia for years under a false identity, Barbie was extradited to France in 1987, aged 74, and tried in Lyon for crimes against humanity, for which he was sentenced to life imprisonment; the centrepiece of the exhibition is a moving and unsettling 45-minute video of the trial in which some of his victims recount their terrible ordeal – it’s in French but ask to have it subtitled.
Lyon packs a pretty mean punch when it comes to nightlife and entertainment, with a wide range of bars and clubs, alongside some great live music, opera and theatre. The best places to wander if you are looking for a bar are rue Mercière, the area around place des Terreaux and the Opéra and the streets of Vieux Lyon, though the riverboat bars along the banks of the Rhône are popular too.
Lyon’s cinematic history is also extremely rich, thanks largely to the pioneering work of the Lumière brothers. For avant-garde, classic and obscure films, usually in their original language, check the listings for the cinemas CNP Terreaux, Bellecour, Fourmi Lafayette, Opéra and Ambiance.
Thirty-four kilometres northeast of Lyon, on the N84 is Pérouges, a lovely village of cobbled alleyways and ancient houses. Its charm has not gone unnoticed by the French film industry either – historical dramas such as The Three Musketeers were filmed within its fortifications – nor by some of the residents, who have fought long and hard for preservation orders on its most interesting buildings. The result is an immaculate work of conservation. Local traditional life is also thriving in the hands of a hundred or so workers who still weave locally grown hemp
Lyon’s standing as one of the world’s finest gastronomic destinations is in no small part down to the Mères Lyonnaises, or “Mothers of Lyon”. Originally house cooks for the middle and upper classes, many of these women ultimately became surplus to requirements, so instead opened up their own businesses, serving food that combined grand bourgeoisie cuisine with more humble fare of the kind you might find in a bouchon, hence dishes such as pullet hen with black truffles, and pike quenelle casserole. Leading the way were women like Mère Fillioux and Mère Eugene Brazier, the latter establishing her eponymous restaurant (see The Mères Lyonnaises) on rue Royale, which is also where Paul Bocuse completed his apprenticeship.
The Presqu’île, or peninsula, is most visitors’ first port of call. Its dominant feature is place Bellecour, whose pink gravelly acres were first laid out in 1617, and which offer fabulous views up to the looming bulk of Notre-Dame de Fourvière. The southern portion of the peninsula starts around Perrache station, beyond which lies the Confluence district, whose regeneration continues apace.
To the north of place Bellecour at the top of quai St-Antoine is the quartier Mercière, the old commercial centre of the town, with sixteenth- and seventeenth-century houses lining rue Mercière, and the church of St-Nizier, whose bells used to announce the nightly closing of the city’s gates. In the silk-weavers’ uprising of 1831, workers fleeing the soldiers took refuge in the church, only to be massacred. Today, traces of this working-class life are almost gone, edged out by bars, restaurants and designer shops, the latter along rue du Président Edouard-Herriot and the long pedestrian rue de la République in particular.
Occupying the thinnest wedge of land at the confluence of the Saône and Rhône rivers, the sparkling new Musée des Confluences is an extraordinary glass-and-steel structure that could have been plucked from the set of the newest Star Wars film. Its permanent exhibition is arranged thematically into four sections, the first of which, “Eternity”, gets to grips with life and death; the most notable, and spooky, exhibit is a Peruvian mummy, in the seated position with arms and legs clasped to its chest. In Egyptian society, animals were mummified too (being considered incarnations of gods), as evidenced by the crocodiles, rams, eagles and suchlike on display in the “Species” exhibition, which also contains a stunning collection of butterflies and bugs. “Societies”, meanwhile, ponders upon man’s ability to create – look out for the superb Berliet motor car from 1908 and Cockcroft and Walton’s particle accelerator – while, finally, “Origins” traces the various theories of evolution; the (literally) unmissable highlight here is a skeleton of the Camarasaurus, which roamed North America in the late Jurassic period.
Housed in a former Benedictine abbey on place des Terreaux, the collections of the Musée des Beaux-Arts are second in France only to those in the Louvre. The museum is organized roughly by genre, with nineteenth- and twentieth-century sculpture in the ex-chapel on the ground floor. The first floor houses a particularly interesting collection of Egyptian artefacts including coffins, amulets and stone tablets, in addition to a selection of medieval French, Dutch, German and Italian woodcarving and antiquities, coins and objets d’art. Upstairs, twentieth-century painting is represented by Picasso and Matisse, and there are also works by Braques, a brace of Bonnards and a gory Francis Bacon. The nineteenth century is covered by the Impressionists and their forerunners, Corot and Courbet; there are works by the Lyonnais artists Antoine Berjon and Fleury Richard, and from there you can work your way back through Rubens, Zurbarán, El Greco, Tintoretto and more. Keep an eye out for Rembrant’s earliest known work from 1625, The Stoning of St Steven.
All around Lyon lurk traboules, alleyways and tunnelled passages originally built to provide shelter from the weather for the silk-weavers as they moved their delicate pieces of work from one part of the manufacturing process to another. The streets running down from boulevard de la Croix-Rousse, as well as many in Vieux Lyon, are intersected by these traboules. Usually hidden by plain doors, they are impossible to distinguish from normal entryways, proving an indispensable escape network for prewar gangsters and wartime Resistance fighters. Keep a look out for subtle signs on the walls indicating the presence of a traboule.
In Vieux Lyon there's the aptly named longue traboule, a dark winding passage connecting 27 rue de Boeuf with 54 rue St-Jean. Also in Vieux Lyon, a traboule lies behind the door of 28 rue St-Jean, leading to the serene courtyard of a fifteenth-century palace. In La Croix-Rousse, go up rue Réné-Leynaud, passing St-Polycarpe on your right, then take rue Pouteau via a passage. Turn right into rue des Tables Claudiennes, and enter no. 55 emerging opposite 29 rue Imbert-Colomes. Climb the stairs into 14bis, cross three courtyards and climb the steps, where you finally arrive at place Colbert.
Reached by one of the three passerelles (footbridges) crossing the Saône from Terreaux and the Presqu’île, Vieux Lyon is made up of the three villages of St-Jean, St-Georges and St-Paul at the base of the hill overlooking the Presqu’île. South of place St-Paul, the cobbled streets of Vieux Lyon, pressed close together beneath the hill of Fourvière, form a backdrop of Renaissance and medieval facades, bright night-time illumination and a swelling chorus of well-dressed Lyonnais in search of supper or a midday splurge.
Housed in a splendid fifteenth-century Renaissance mansion on place du Petit Collège, the Musée Gadagne comprises two very fine museums. Two floors are given over to the Musée d’Histoire de Lyon, which offers a comprehensive chronological overview of the city’s development, from antiquity to the modern day. Better still is the Musée des Marionnettes du Monde, showcasing the many different forms of puppetry from both France and around the world, including Venetian glove puppets, Javanese rod puppets, and Chinese shadow puppets.
Well worth the short trek up to Fourvière, the underground Musée Gallo-Romain showcases exhibits from prehistoric times to 7 AD, the sheer number and splendour of which serve to underline Roman Lyon’s importance. Among the many highlights is a fragment of the so-called “Claudian Table”, a fine bronze engraving of a speech by the Lyon-born Emperor Claudius, discovered in 1528 by a Lyonnais cloth-maker. Elsewhere look out for a superb Bronze Age processional chariot, and some remarkably well-preserved mosaics – “In The Circus”, for example, recalls the city’s standing as one of Roman Gaul’s most popular centres of entertainment. Alongside the museum, dug into the hillside, stand the substantial remains of two ruined theatres – the larger of which was built by Augustus in 15 BC and extended in the second century by Hadrian to seat 10,000 spectators. Nowadays, they are the focal point for the Nuits de Fourvière music and film festival each summer.
A hulking, incredibly ornate wedding cake of a church, the Basilique Notre-Dame de Fourvière was built, like the Sacré-Coeur in Paris, in the aftermath of the 1871 Commune to emphasize the defeat of the godless socialists. And like the Sacré-Coeur, its hilltop position has become a defining element in the city’s skyline. Overblown it may be, but the interior is utterly dazzling, from the marble statues and stained glass to the gold and turquoise mosaic wall panels, depicting events such as Joan of Arc in Orleans and The Battle of Lepanto. Take a look, too, down in the crypt, where there’s some beautifully executed stonework, plus an ornate turquoise mosaic ceiling in the apse.