France’s “second city” – located a high-speed train trip from France and equally long slow train from Geneva, Lyon is easy to do on a weekend away. In many ways, however, Lyon could be France’s first. Frequently overlooked, a trip here is one of Roman ruins, quintessential French haute cuisine, an old town, and fancy shops. Lyon is an old standby for us on any trip to France.
Beginning way back with the the Romans who founded a strategic metropolis “Lugdunum” here. This was the intersection of many trading routes. So it grew into one of the greatest cities of Gaul; it was visited by Emperor Augustus on at least three occasions, Caligula once, and was the birthplace of Claudius. Fast-forward through the centuries to the 19th when Lyon became a center for Catholic missionary activities and a dominant source of silk processing and its associated trade. Then in the 20th century Lyon became the center of the French Resistance against Nazi occupiers in World War II. A visit to this city let us experience this history: climbing its Roman ruins and touring a very fine museum, marveling at the exquisite interiors of the Catholic Basilique Notre Dame de Fourvière and Cathédrale Saint-Jean-Baptiste, and, like spies, ducking through the covered passageways to move across the city covered from the elements as if we were protecting very fine silk, and embracing Lyonnaise eating, Lyon is worthy of a standalone visit to France.
Arriving at Lyon’s central train station (Lyon Part Dieu) drops you into the heart of modern Lyon. The train station is built for commuters and the buildings the cast shadows upon it show you the gleaming business center of the city. The taxi stand is well marked and that exit also provides access to city busses and light rail.
The heart of Lyon is on a peninsula between the Rhône and the Saône rivers and much of it is car free, making Lyon eminently walkable. There are all kinds of restaurants, coffee places, and shops and cars are an after thought. Here we find the Place Bellacour, which is a vast open space and the third largest plaza in France. Nearby is the Place des Jacobins with its intricate fountain and stunning architectural gems.
Far south on the peninsula is the Confluence, which is a reclaimed and redeveloped dock lands, where you can find museums, office buildings, and mixed use facilities. The central part of Lyon is worth putting on your walking shoes to take in as much stunning baroque and neoclassical architecture as possible, One thing a visitor may not realize is just how much time and money Lyon spends on lighting. Different than Paris though, Lyon highlights what it wants to highlight and lets the rest fade into the inky shadows.
Vieux Lyon is across the Saône. The primarily pedestrian-only cobbled streets and tight lanes are nestled up against Fourviere hill and provide some of the most fun opportunities in Lyon to wander around and get lost. This is the section of Lyon were the silk weavers settled in the 16th century and where Lyon’s famous traboules (trans-ambulare covered crossings) can be found. The layout of old Lyon was such that there are very few connecting streets to easily get to the river. So these passageways were built to allow for easy transportation of silk and other goods out of the weather and direct to the river.
One of the joys in wandering the Vieux Lyon is stumbling upon these secret covered passageways with many now used to access apartment buildings while others are a quite courtyard respite from the bustle of the streets. Also in Vieux Lyon is the Gothic-style Lyon Cathedral, which dates to 1476. Inside is Lyon’s Astronomical Clock.
The Fourviere hill is where the Romans settled Lugdunum in 43 BC. From Vieux Lyon there are many passageways that lead to steep stairs to climb to the top of the hill or there is the option to ride the funicular. There is not a bad choice here since the top of Fourviere contains some of Lyon’s best sites.
Our first stop was the ancient Roman theatre, which are two exceptionally rebuilt theaters on their original location. The two amphitheaters are still in use and are “living monuments.” Sit in the tiered seats and watch the play unfold in front of you, or if you’re brave, get up on the stage and regale other tourists with your best Shakespearean sonnet. Built into the hillside and as such, nearly invisible from the outside, Lyon’s Lugdunum Museum tells a very simple and straightforward history of Roman Lyon. The museum starts at the top floor and winds its way down a large spiral ramp through various archeological finds.
Just up the hill further is the Basilica of Notre Dame de Fourviere. Dedicated to the Virgin Mary, it may be one of the most beautifully situated churches on the hillside of Fourviere overlooking Vieux Lyon, its two rivers, and modern Lyon sprawling in the distance. Stark white marble, the basilica has acquired the local nickname of “the upside-down elephant,” because the building looks like the body of an elephant and the four towers look like its leg. But the real joy of this visit is the basilica’s interior, which draws from both Romanesque and Byzantine styles. The bright mosaics and stained glass are masterful and worth a visit.
The walk down through the Parc des Hauteurs provides beautiful views of Lyon and the Escalier Basilique de Fourviere is a passage down to Vieux Lyon and worth seeing. Beyond these sites, Lyon has a vibrant dining scene and its home to the granddaddy of haute cuisine at Restaurant Paul Bocuse, which are the subjects of other posts. The city is a joy to meander at night to see how Lyon lights its city by casting bright lights onto its quintessential sights.
Lyon is well worth a weekend away and we’ll be back to experience even more of it next time.