River barges docked along the Saone River // © 2015 iStock
Feature image (above): view of Avignon Bridge on the Rhone River with the Papal Palace in the distance // © 2015 iStock
Lyon, Avignon and Bordeaux are some of France’s most splendid cities for architecture, food and wine and are top destinations for travelers. All are located along rivers and are regular ports of call by cruise lines such as Viking River Cruises, Avalon Waterways, AmaWaterways, Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection and others, making visiting these historic cities easier than ever.
Lyon, France’s third largest city, situated on the confluence of the Rhone and Saone rivers, is not only a UNESCO World Heritage Site replete with Roman ruins, Renaissance palaces, a bustling Old City and a newly developed waterfront, but it is also considered the gastronomic center of France. It has more Michelin-starred restaurants than any other city in Europe, with the exception of Paris, London and Brussels; fine patisseries, chocolatiers and traiteurs; and perhaps the grandest food hall in all of France: Les Halles de Lyon - Paul Bocuse.
Food lovers can easily spend hours wandering through the indoor market’s aisles, as I have done, regretting only that there wasn’t enough time or stomach space to sample the multitudes of seafood, cheeses, cured meats (rosette de Lyon is a specialty, as is sausage stuffed in brioche) and pastries. Nevertheless, visitors should save room for a meal at a bouchon, the small, historic, often women-run bistros that specialize in hearty fare such as braised beef cheeks and pork belly and Lyon’s famous quenelle, a delicate dumpling classically made with pike fish.
Fortunately, Lyon is as good of a city for walking as it is for eating. A high point of a visit to Lyon is Fourviere Hill, which was inhabited for thousands of years and now crowned by Notre Dame de Fourviere Basilica, built on a 12th-century sanctuary that includes a steeple topped with a gold-plated bronze statue of the Virgin Mary.
Nearby is a spectacular archaeological park that contains a still-functioning Roman amphitheater built in 15 B.C. Visitors should walk down through the park on the steep, ancient steps of the amphitheater and then down the hill to the Renaissance district of Old Lyon and its narrow streets lined with shops.
Another area to explore on foot is the Croix Rousse hill, nicknamed the “Workers Hill” because the silk workers established themselves here in the mid-1800s. The Croix Rousse hill, like Fourviere, has been inhabited since ancient times. Explore the narrow passageways, shops and the daily market held on the streets of the plateau every day except Monday.
Not to be missed is Lyon-Confluence, the newly redeveloped former wasteland at the tip of the city where the Saone and Rhone rivers meet. More than 350 acres of avant-garde apartments, offices, shops, restaurants, open space and a stunning new science museum have been developed with a commitment to sustainability and green urban living. Known as La Confluence, the project is rapidly becoming an international showcase for 21st-century development.
Where to Eat in Lyon
Daniel et Denise: A small and very welcoming bouchon, with finely tuned dishes of Lyonnais specialties, such as quenelle and Ile Flottante, along with the chef’s award-winning foie gras en croute.
Les Salins: A contemporary brasserie-style restaurant on the banks of the Saone River in the newly developed Lyon-Confluence area. It's a perfect place for a relaxing riverside lunch after visiting the area.
Avignon, the “City of the Popes,” sits on the Rhone River, deep in the heart of Provence. For more than 75 years — beginning with Pope Clement V in 1309 — this city was the center of the Catholic Church. The Papal Palace, built to reflect the power and wealth of the pope and the papal court, dominates Avignon and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is considered to be the finest example of Gothic architecture in all of Europe. Built of local pale-yellow limestone, the huge, multitowered edifice — with its surrounding walls, vast inner courtyard and elaborate gilded and painted interior — makes palpable the power that was once vested here.
Just a two-minute walk from the Papal Palace, visitors can enter another building of soft yellow limestone, this one constructed in the 1600s. Once a cardinal’s palace, it is now La Mirande Hotel Restaurant. Hidden on a narrow ruelle, or alley, it is a perfect place to pause for an elegant lunch or dinner of Provencal specialties in the beautifully restored dining room. Tea is served daily on the glass-enclosed terrace or, depending on the weather, in the cozy bar. Cooking classes in the elegantly restored 19th-century downstairs kitchen are also available.
The city center of Avignon is small, and Pont d’Avignon, made famous by the children’s song of the same name, is only a short walk from the Papal Palace. Today the arched bridge spans less than halfway across the wide Rhone River.
Pont Saint-Benezet, the bridge’s official name, was built at the end of the 12th century because a young shepherd claimed he heard the voice of God telling him to build such a construction. The bridge was the only one between Lyon and the Mediterranean Sea, and for nearly 400 years it served pilgrims, merchants and the military alike, until finally the city no longer had money for the bridge’s upkeep. Starting in 1603, one by one, all but four arches gave way to the powerful surge of the river. Visitors can walk out onto the bridge and survey the mighty Rhone from a great vantage point.
From the river, it is easy to set out and explore Les Halles — the bustling morning market with its living wall of plants in the center of town — the nearby Roman baths and the boutiques and shops that line the streets of the old quarter, many with names referencing the type of work performed, such as Rue des Teinturiers, or Dyer’s Street. This street, which dates back to the Middle Ages, is paved with stones from the nearby Durance River and borders a canal that carries water from Fontaine de Vaucluse in the mountains. You can still see remnants of the water wheels that once lined it. Nearby, Traiteur Restaurant des Teinturiers, open for lunch and dinner, specializes in fresh, local fare in a simple setting.
Avignon is also a cultural center, hosting the monthlong Festival of Avignon in July, an international showcase for dance, music and theater of all kinds, from Shakespeare to avant garde. Performances are held all over the city, including the courtyard of the Papal Palace.
Where to Eat in Avignon
La Mirande Hotel Restaurant: A great spot for lunch, tea or dinner.
Restaurant des Teinturiers: A local favorite for lunch or dinner located at 5 Rue des Teinturiers.
Bordeaux, located on the Garonne River in the Aquitaine region of Southwestern France, only 60 miles from the Atlantic Ocean, is considered one of the most beautiful cities in France. It is second only to Paris in the number of buildings that have historical monument status in France, and most of these were built in the 18th century. The buildings, once black and sooty like those of Paris, are now clean and gleaming, and their resplendent arches, towers and facades are interspersed with carefully designed open spaces.
The area around the city center and along the river — including Place de la Bourse, a magnificent square framed by graceful 18th-century buildings — has UNESCO World Heritage status. Across the road and bordering the river is the vast, shimmering Mirror d’Eau, a thin sheet of reflecting water built in 2006. On a calm day with no wind, the mirror perfectly reflects the buildings. The area around the square, part of Port de la Lune, is extremely pedestrian-friendly, with cafes, shops, bridges and open river vistas.
Among the top sites for visitors is the ancient Cathedrale Saint-Andre, which was consecrated by the pope at the end of the 11th century. The edifice reflects different centuries of architecture, from Romanesque to Baroque. The iconic Saint Pierre Bridge, the stone bridge that stretches across the Garonne, is another strong feature of the city. Although built in the 19th century, it blends seamlessly with Bordeaux’s historic buildings. For shopping, don’t miss Rue Sainte Catherine, a long street of busy shops that was once a Roman road.
Bordeaux is known worldwide for its wine. In the time of Julius Caesar, when Rome ruled the city, Bordeaux wines were shipped all over the Roman Empire. During the time of the English rule of Aquitaine, brought about by the marriage of Eleanor of Aquitaine to a count who would become Henry II of England, Bordeaux enjoyed 300 years of prosperity, primarily by shipping wine to England. Bordeaux wines are still considered some of the finest in the world, and the University of Bordeaux is one of the top viticulture and enology centers of learning.
Visitors have an opportunities to sample Bordeaux’s wines at every turn — in cafes, wine bars and restaurants, as well as on specialized wine tours. For the traveler who has just a day or two to visit the city, a good way to begin the wine adventure is at Bar a Vin, located at Ecole du Vin. The school and bar are set in one of the city’s historic buildings, and guests can taste more than 60 wines by the glass, at very reasonable prices.
With wine, cheese naturally comes to mind, and Bordeaux is home to one of France’s foremost — and my personal favorite — cheese purveyors, Jean d’Alos. His caves and shop are located at 4 Rue Montesquieu. As an affineur, d’Alos buys his product, mostly raw milk farmstead cheeses, directly from the makers, and then stores and ripens them in his caves to the peak of perfection before selling them.
The small shop is at street level, but the several layers of caves, which once stored barrels of wine, go deep into the stone along the river. Not only can visitors buy cheese, but with a group of five or more they can also prearrange a visit to the caves.
Bordeaux has a strong food culture, as well. Restaurants are abundant, and the narrow streets of the old St. Pierre district, located behind the must-see Place de la Bourse, are packed with restaurants, bistros and fine-dining options. Look for specialties such as duck, foie gras, oysters from Arcachon Bay, crispy-fried baby eels and the famous canneles. Canneles, which can be found in local pastry shops, are little ridged cakes with a distinctive caramelized exterior and a creamy soft interior.
One of the top restaurants for authentic Southwestern France country fare is La Tupina. There, local lamb and beef roasts on spits, potatoes are cooked in duck fat and, not surprisingly, reservations are essential.
Travelers along France’s rivers have the opportunity to experience some of the finest the country has to offer. As in most of Europe, civilization grew along the banks of the continent’s waterways, and these areas are still at the heart of what makes it a great destination to explore.
Where to Eat in Bordeaux
La Tupina: An institution for lunch or dinner. Reservations are essential.
Brasserie d’Orleans: A great spot for lunch or dinner. Reservations are recommended.