When Lyon was recommended as a great place for foodies it went straight on my travel list. What I didn’t know is that it’s also really pretty with not one but two rivers, and lots to see and do. A perfect place for a fabulous weekend break.
Krakow was the original destination for our annual girls’ weekend, but after two years of not getting there because of Covid, this time Easyjet cancelled the flights and we realised it just wasn’t meant to be. So Lyon was a late substitute, but definitely not a poor one.
Lyon is France’s third largest city and sits on the confluence of the Rhone and Saone rivers. It’s been a commercial, industrial and banking hub for years which means there are plenty of regular flights, so it was only £150 return from London.
We stayed at Le Phenix Hotel which is on the bank of the Saone river and just a few minutes from the heart of Lyon’s old town Vieux Lyon. So after checking in we quickly reached its cobbled lanes and strolled into Place du Change, where there are plenty of places to eat. We opted for Basta and toasted Queen Elizabeth 11 with our first glass of French wine as she’d passed away the day before.
Rue Saint-Jean runs off Place du Change and is the main route through the old town, lined with a multitude of shops and restaurants. Le Petit Musee Fantastique de Guignol is a tiny two-room museum at the back of a shop that pays homage to Lyon’s iconic puppet Guignol. We had a browse around the shop but weren’t tempted by the museum as there were many more shops to visit!
Another interesting feature to look out for behind some of the old doors of Vieux Lyon are the traboules and miraboules, a network of secret passages that cut through apartment blocks, under streets and into courtyards. Traboules are the passages that cut through from one street to another, while those that fan out into a courtyard are miraboules.
Some of the passages date from Roman times, but silk weavers built most of them in the 19th century to transport silk around the city when the weather was bad. Unsurprisingly they were also used by Resistance fighters in World War II. There are interesting ones to look out for at 27 and 54 Rue Saint-Jean.
After a while, Rue Saint-Jean opens up into Place Saint-Jean, home to Lyon’s cathedral and on that occasion a market selling an interesting range of ceramics. The cathedral was built over a number of centuries and is partly Romanesque. The highlight inside is a 9m tall astronomical clock, beautifully made with figures of angels, the Virgin Mary and the Angel Gabriel amongst others.
From Vieux Lyon, there are footpaths up to Fourviere, known as Lyon’s Hill of Prayer. It’s quite a steep climb, but luckily there’s a funicular to take the strain which deposits you opposite the Basilique Notre Dame de Fourviere. Being perched on top of the hill, the basilica can be seen from all across Lyon and has become a symbol of the city.
Inside the basilica are stunning mosaics and paintings as well as some beautiful stained glass. It’s also effectively two churches as underneath the ornate interior which is dedicated to the Virgin Mary is a similar size crypt dedicated to St Joseph. The architect, Pierre Bossan, said the pilgrim had to “go to Mary through Joseph”, going from the darkness of the crypt to the light of the basilica.
Back outside the basilica and nearby is another very different type of structure that’s also highly visible across Lyon, the Tour Metallique. If it looks familiar that’s because the TV transmitter is a replica of the top part of the Eiffel Tower.
We decided to walk back down the hill because on route is Lyon’s beautifully restored Roman amphitheatre. It dates back to 15 BC and has the classic steeply tiered seating, a decorated floor and the foundations of a large stage. At one time there would have been 10,000 seats and while that’s not the case now it is still used for performances.
There are some excellent views of the city as you walk on down the hill and once at the bottom, we decided to leave Vieux Lyon and cross the River Saone via the Passerelle du Palais-du-Justice footbridge. As the name suggests it sits right in front of Lyon’s impressive courthouse. Also here is a beautiful sculpture, The Weight of Oneself, depicting one man carrying another, perhaps saving him from drowning.
We were headed for a late afternoon drink on a barge so walked straight through the Presqu’ile, the long peninsular between the two rivers, and crossed the Rhone at Pont Wilson. The bar barges are opposite on Quai Victor Augagneur going in both directions. We opted to turn left as it was the direction of the hotel and quickly found a table outside La Passagère. A very pleasant way to end our day of sightseeing.
That evening we were back in the old town eating at our first bouchon, Daniel et Denise in Rue Tramassac. Bouchon in Lyon means a small friendly bistro that cooks traditional cuisine using regional produce. They originated in the first half of the 20th century when many large bourgeois families had to let go of their in-house cooks. The out-of-work women promptly set up their own restaurants, sometimes in their homes.
There are lots of bouchons in the old town but I think Daniel et Denise is probably a cut above the more touristy places and serves modern variations of classic dishes. Bouchon specialities tend to be quite meaty, but I tried Quenelles de Brochet, pike dumplings served in a creamy crayfish sauce. It had a slightly strange texture but tasted good. And the chocolate mousse I had for dessert tasted even better.
After dinner, the old town was buzzing with plenty of people eating and drinking outside. We headed into Place del la Balaine as Bar Le Florian had been recommended as a good place for cocktails. I can confirm that is definitely the case and the wine is good too. It’s also a great spot to sit outside and soak up the lovely Lyonnaise atmosphere.
The next morning we were keen to get onto one of Lyon’s rivers and walked along the Saone to Lyon City Boat. They operate from Quai des Celestines just next to the Passerelle du Palais-du-Justice footbridge. There are different tours that go in either direction along the river, but the best time for us was the one to Confluence. We were happy with that as Confluence is modern with some very different and quite striking buildings.
It’s Lyon’s newest neighbourhood and runs down to the tip of the Presqu’ile peninsula. Musee des Confluences, the city’s science and humanities museum is right at the point where the Rhone and Saone rivers meet and is an uber-modern design of steel and glass.
Back on dry land and there was a market running along the riverbank going in both directions from the footbridge. There were all sorts of things to browse and buy including old maps and books, but it was also where locals went shopping for their fruit, veg and of course bags of large garlic bulbs.
From here we headed further across the Presqu’ile peninsular which is effectively Lyon’s city centre. We walked through the vast Place Bellecour where you’ll find the Only Lyon tourist information office and on to Rue des Marronniers, a pedestrianised cobbled street lined with bouchons.
It was Sunday so as we’d found the old town was very busy at lunchtime on the previous day we’d booked ahead at Le Comptoir des Marronniers. We had to sit inside as they don’t tend to reserve outside tables but it was a great choice with lots of atmosphere and really nice food.
After lunch we decided to venture onto the metro for the first time to go to Croix-Rousse, a district that sits on a hill like Fourviere. But while the latter is the hill of prayer Croix-Rousse is known as the working hill as it was once home to 30,000 canuts, Lyon’s silk workers. As a result, you’ll find more traboules here, including Cour des Voraces which was built by silk weavers in 1840. You enter at 9 Place Colbert to see a huge open-air seven-storey staircase and eventually emerge lower down the hill in Rue Imbert Colomes.
Croix-Rousse was originally an independent hilltop before becoming part of Lyon in 1852 and the silk workshops housed canuts working in pretty awful conditions. There’s a museum Maison des Canuts where you can learn more about that and it’s an interesting area to wander around with leafy streets, some striking murals and excellent views down to Lyon centre.
We walked on downhill and found Opera de Lyon, which was built in 1831 but modernised in 1993 to add an impressive glass-domed roof. Then close by is Hotel de Ville, Lyon’s town hall which sits in a large square with lots of cafes with alfresco seating. Seemed rude not to pause for a drink and a spot of people watching.
Our final Lyonnaise dinner that evening was at Bouchon des Filles, which in keeping with tradition is a female-only operation. It’s a small place but makes a big impact. The set menu had excellent options including veggie ones and there were little extras between courses as well as a cheese course and delicious desserts.
Bouchons aren’t the only choice in Lyon though as on the first evening we ate at a classic French cafe-brasserie Grand Café de Négociants. Its decor of chandeliers and mirror-lined walls and great food have made it a Lyonnaise institution since the late 1800s.
There are bars a plenty too of course and after dinner at Bouchon des Filles, we went to nearby L’Antiquaire in Rue Hippolyte Flandrin. It’s also small but the bar is exceptionally well stocked and I couldn’t fault the Manhattan that the smartly dressed bartender mixed for me.
On our final day there were still other areas of Lyon to explore and we hopped on a bus to Gallerie Lafayette which is in the very modern La Part-Dieu shopping centre. Also nearby is Les Halles de Lyon Paul Bocuse, an indoor food market with around 60 stalls. Not all were open on a Monday morning which I’ve found is fairly typical in France, but there was plenty of cheese, chocolate and cake to be had.
We walked back towards the Rhone along Cours Lafayette which is a wide street with tram lines overhead. It’s a more commercial area of Lyon, with lots of shops. But they are housed in some lovely buildings and ahead in the distance and across both rivers, you can see the mini Effiel Tower up on Fourviere hill.
We were headed to our last Lyon sightseeing stop, the Grand Hotel-Dieu on the banks of the Rhone near Pont Wilson. Dating from the 12th century the dome-topped former hospital is one of Lyon’s most iconic buildings and has recently been fully restored. Now it’s home to boutique shops and a 5-star hotel, but it’s been designed around the original courtyards and historic gardens so it’s a place to relax too. Despite the gastronomic offerings available, there were plenty of people perched on the courtyard walls just eating sandwiches.
We decided to have lunch back in the old town which was a fair bit quieter than over the weekend so we had plenty of cafes and bouchon to choose from. We opted for Le Petit Bouchon de la Place in Place Neuve Saint-Jean, a pretty pedestrianised street with plenty of outside tables
Like everywhere we went in Lyon the service was friendly and the food was good. So add to that great weather, a relaxed atmosphere and a beautiful setting and why wouldn’t your next weekend away be Only Lyon?
Click on the image below to scroll through more photos in the gallery and visit the Europe section of my blog for more great weekend break ideas.