Lyon's Ancient Roots and Modern Highlights

Lyon's Ancient Roots and Modern Highlights

Visitors will find renowned cuisine and rich culture in France’s often overlooked Lyon By: Molly Montgomery
The Basilica Notre Dame at Fourviere is one of Lyon’s many highlights. // © Molly Montgomery
The Basilica Notre Dame at Fourviere is one of Lyon’s many highlights. // © Molly Montgomery

Francophiles who have already seen all the monuments in Paris can turn to another, often overlooked city in France with just as rich a history and culture: Lyon. Situated in the central-eastern part of France, this city ranks as the second-largest urban area in the country following Paris, and has ancient roots extending back to Roman Times. Only two hours by train from Paris, Lyon is just as accessible with its efficient metro system, as well as more affordable and less crowded since it tends to draw fewer tourists. It’s easy to add Lyon as a day-trip to an itinerary in France, but visitors can also benefit from an in-depth exploration of the city over a few days.

Capital of Gastronomy

Lyon is considered by many to be the gastronomic capital of France. Visitors should be sure to try its culinary delights by eating at a bouchon, a regional name for a small restaurant serving local fare. Some of Lyon’s culinary specialties include andouillette (tripe sausage), quenelle (creamed and poached pike) and salade lyonnaise (lettuce with bacon, croutons and a poached egg). For dessert, visitors can try another Lyon original: pink praline tart. A great place to find high-quality gastronomy in the city, whether you wish try out local cuisine or more exotic dishes, is the Halls of Lyon, a large market containing butchers, cheese-sellers and restaurants.

Lyon’s Living History

Situated at the confluence of two rivers, the Rhone and the Saone, Lyon has a fascinating history preserved through its monuments, neighborhoods and museums. Founded nearly 2,000 years ago by one of Julius Caesar’s lieutenants, the city — which at the time was known as Lugdunum — became the capital of Gaul under the Roman Empire.

Explore the city’s Roman roots by visiting the Roman amphitheaters on the western side of the Saone. Visitors can sit in the restored seats of the theaters, which are occasionally used as outdoor seating venues for modern performances. Next to the amphitheaters is the Gallo-Roman museum, which is filled with artifacts from the city’s Roman era.

During medieval times, Lyon was the bustling hub of the textile industry in France. Visitors can explore its two intact medieval neighborhoods, Vieux Lyon (Old Lyon) and Croix Rousse. These quarters maintain medieval-style architecture and cobblestone streets and also contain a phenomenon unique to Lyon — hidden passageways between buildings called traboules. These traboules, which are open to the public, were built to protect silk reams being carried down to the market from the silk weavers’ workshops, keeping them safe from exposure to the elements.

Lyon was the center of the French Resistance during World War II, but also the headquarters of the infamous local Gestapo leader, Klaus Barbie. His headquarters have now been converted into the Center of the History of the Resistance and Deportation, a museum dedicated to honoring the brave French Resistance members of the Nazi Occupation and to condemning the horrors of the Jewish deportation and commemorating its victims.

Visitors taking a stroll through Lyon’s Presqu’ile (this term, meaning “almost island” in French, refers to the narrow strip of land between the city’s two rivers) will also experience the city’s Napoleonic era through its 19th century architecture. Check out the majestic 17th century City Hall, which faces the city’s modern looking Opera building, originally constructed in 1831. Both of these buildings are not usually open to the public except for occasional culture days put on by the city.

Just around the corner, in the Place des Terreaux — one of Lyon’s several open squares — is a large fountain depicting France as a woman on a chariot pulled by four horses which represent the country’s main rivers. This sculpture was designed by Frederic-Auguste Bartholdi, the same artist who created the Statue of Liberty.

Lyon Landmarks and Highlights

Parc de la Tete D’Or
A great place for a picnic is Lyon’s Parc de la Tete D’Or (Park of the Golden Head), the largest urban park in France. It contains botanical gardens, a zoo, a lake and picnic areas. 

The best vantage point to gain a holistic view of this city and appreciate its eclectic mix of architecture is by taking a funicular to the top of the hill of Fourviere, located to the west of the Saone. At the top, visitors will find the gothic cathedral that dominates the western horizon of the city, Notre Dame de Fourviere. They will also be able to look out at the city spread before them. On clear days, visitors can even spot the Alps on the horizon beyond the city. 

Lumiere Institute and the Lumiere Museum
Lyon is the hometown of Auguste and Louis Lumiere, the inventors of film, and the city maintains its connection to this heritage through the Lumiere Institute and the Lumiere Museum. The Lumiere Institute holds showings of silent films as well as premieres of contemporary French films. The museum, which is the renovated home of the Lumiere family, contains records of the brothers’ lives, collections of their inventions and exhibits on the early history of film and color photography. 

Shopping Districts
Lyon’s fashion district can be found on the Presqu’ile surrounding the main square, Place Bellecour. To the north of this square is Rue de la Republique, a street lined with designer brand clothing and cosmetic stores, as well as bookstores and other chains. To the south is the more affordable Rue Victor Hugo, which has plenty of boutiques with marked down prices on clothing and accessories. 

Festival of Lights
Every year, Lyon welcomes 4 million tourists to the city for its largest event of the year, the Festival of Lights. The festival, which takes place every year around Dec. 8, started with the tradition of residents lighting candles in their window to honor the Virgin Mary, who, according to legend, saved the city from the plague back in the 17th century. In modern years, it has expanded into a series of dazzling light shows and light displays in public squares and streets around the city. 

Cheap Eats in Lyon

Here a few eateries that will appeal to visitors looking for a break from expensive French dining:

This quaint cafe sells cupcakes, tea and coffee and has a bright and friendly atmosphere that visitors will enjoy.

This bagel chain will be sure to remind visitors of home, with its signed posters of American movie stars and bizarre news clippings displayed on the wall that bring to mind a diner back in the States. The bagel sandwiches are unique and delicious and include options such as salmon and cream cheese, mozzarella and sundried tomatoes and pastrami and cream cheese.

Visitors beware — the world “kebab” in France does not mean meat and vegetables on a stick. Instead, this common dish served at numerous Middle Eastern restaurants around the city consists of a hot sandwich of pita bread stuffed with meat, lettuce, tomatoes, sauce and fries. Visitors will soon discover what an asset fries are to these sandwiches, making them a cheap and filling option for visitors on a budget.

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