Lyon as a travel destination in France is still relatively undiscovered—the stunning city center remains a hidden treasure. Although Lyon's vitality is perceptible in ancient streets with restored buildings, there are still many pockets where renewal has yet to penetrate. These backstreets and courtyards may seem daunting to visitors, but the history embodied in so many of them makes even the most crooked staircases fascinating.
Lyon is France's culinary capital, but the city is also known for its luminosity. Buildings and fountains are beautifully lit at night, giving Lyon a magical atmosphere. Cross the River Saone by one of its passerelle bridges on a summer evening at sunset, and you'll see the city of Lyon glow with a hazy, burnt-orange light.
Lyon is located in southeastern France, about a three-hour drive from the southern coast and less than 90 minutes from the borders with Switzerland and Italy, with the Alps to the east. It's a hilly city with two rivers: The Saone and the Rhone wind their way from north to south, joining just south of the city center. Between the two rivers lies the city center, which is almost surrounded by water and hence is known as the Presqu'ile, or peninsula.
At the northern end of the Presqu'ile, the broad shopping streets narrow into little passages that rise sharply uphill toward Lyon's northernmost district, the Croix Rousse. (The slopes rising up to Croix Rousse are known as the Croix Rousse Pentes.) To the west of the Presqu'ile is Lyon's old town, Vieux Lyon. This cluster of medieval streets and squares sits at the foot of Fourviere Hill, which is easily recognized by the white basilica and Lyon's equivalent of the Eiffel Tower, La Tour Metallique, perched side by side on the hilltop.
Around 500 BC, some of the Rhone Valley's earliest Celtic settlers made their home on a hill overlooking modern-day Lyon. But the city didn't take shape until about 43 BC, when the Romans turned the hilltop site into the city of Lugdunum. This settlement on Fourviere Hill developed into one of the most important centers of trade within the Roman Empire, but by the beginning of the fourth century AD, the inhabitants of Lugdunum had moved downhill to the banks of the Saone.
Between the fifth and 12th centuries, Lyon was a powerful Catholic bishopric. A succession of ambitious bishops and rulers brought prosperity to the city, ordering the construction of churches, hospitals and bridges, as well as contributing to a strong economy governed by the church. In 1240, locals set up the first town council, and less than 100 years later, Lyon had become part of the Kingdom of France.
Italian silk producers, fleeing civil war, brought the silk trade to Lyon in the early 1400s. Along with the silk trade, the intellectual and artistic movements of the Renaissance flourished in Lyon. By the turn of the 16th century, Lyon was one of the most prosperous towns in the French kingdom. In 1804, Joseph Marie Jacquard constructed his first mechanical silk-weaving looms, and the district of Croix Rousse was established as the new center of Lyon's silk-weaving trade. The industry continued to flourish through the mid-1800s. However, an outbreak of silkworm disease and increased demand for imported silk eventually led to the decline of this centuries-old manufacturing tradition.
Lyon was the capital of the French Resistance movement and played a central role in France's struggle against the Nazis during World War II. The postwar period was a time of massive expansion in the city, with the construction of many commercial centers, the extension of highways and the high-speed railway, the development of industrial plants and scientific institutes, and the construction of the metro system. In the late 1990s, the majority of Lyon's downtown area was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site, thanks to the rare juxtaposition of several neighborhoods covering a 2,000-year period of history.
Over the past decade, the city has embarked on several urban redevelopment projects in former industrial or working-class neighborhoods such as Vaise and Gerland. Cleansed of industrial grime, the areas are now home to universities and corporate headquarters. The next neighborhood slated for redevelopment is the lower half of the downtown peninsula known as the Confluence. It will be one of the most ambitious urban-development projects in the country. The cornerstone of the development will be the Musee des Confluences, a Frank Gehry-style science and civilization museum that will loom above the symbolic meeting point of the town's two rivers. A leisure center will entertain visitors around a newly dug marina, and there will also be a walkway along the banks of the Saone—from Perrache Station to the peninsula's tip. The entire Confluence development project is slated for completion in 2020.
To start your exploration of Lyon, get your bearings in the breezy expanse of Place Bellecour, at the center of the Presqu'ile. Locate the statue of Louis XIV on horseback, stand and face the direction he's heading and you'll be looking north. The Saone is on your left, and on its opposite bank is the historic old town, Vieux Lyon, a maze of cobblestoned Renaissance streets and interconnecting alleyways. The Rhone lies to the right. Off to the north—and uphill—lies the district of Croix Rousse.
Once you're oriented, seeing the city and its sights is easy. Head to Croix Rousse and explore the district's traboules (covered passageways) and stop in at the Maison des Canuts. Then amble back downhill, toward the Rhone. Winding paths with seemingly random flights of steps pass along the remains of Lyon's ancient city walls and offer tantalizing glimpses of the river. If you cross the Winston Churchill Bridge, you'll arrive at the gates of the Parc de la Tete d'Or. We like renting a rowboat on the lake there, but the park's zoo and rose garden are enjoyable, too.
On the western bank of the Saone, Vieux Lyon has more traboules leading to magnificent, secluded Renaissance courtyards and multistoried galleries that most tourists miss. Be sure to take the funicular train to the top of Fourviere Hill. As well as spectacular views, you'll find the
Basilica of Notre Dame and its neo-Byzantine art, ancient Roman amphitheaters and the must-see Musee de la Civilisation Gallo-Romaine. When you've had enough of the Romans, stroll through Vieux Lyon.
The Presqu'ile is home to many of the city's museums, including the Musee des Tissus et des Arts Decoratifs and the Musee des Beaux Arts, with its collection of French masters and its lovely interior garden. But the best time to see the Presqu'ile is at night, when its buildings and fountains are all lit up.
Before you start experiencing Lyon, stop at the main tourist office on Place Bellecour (on the southeast side of the square), where you can buy the Lyon City Card. The cost is 18.90 euros for a one-day card, 28 euros for two days or 37 euros for three days. You'll get unlimited use of public transport within the city, entry into 21 major museums and galleries, a variety of guided tours and a river cruise.
Lyon is full of bars and restaurants that have tables set outside on terraces. On balmy nights during July and August, people-watching over a late meal or drinks may be all the entertainment you need after a hot day exploring the city. But there is no shortage of stimulating nightlife throughout the year if you're in the mood. Clubs, jazz cafes and piano bars can be found in every quarter of the city, with new hot spots constantly springing up. Door policies can be strict, though, so if you haven't got a Ferrari to park in front of the bouncer, dress up.
At night, the city center hums with a vibrant variety of inviting bars and late-night cafes. Try the narrow streets of the Croix Rousse Pentes district for some alternative, unconventional all-night bars. There are lots of nightclubs along the banks of the Saone, skirting the old town and inviting night owls into their booming basements. Rue Lanterne, known for its adult bookshops, is also home to the famous jazz cellar Hot Club de Lyon (innocuous despite its name and location). Across the Presqu'ile, moored on the opposite bank of the Rhone, you'll find the floating dance club La Marquise.
Bars generally start humming with an after-work drinks crowd that thins out around 8 pm. The action builds back up 10:30 pm-midnight as revelers head to the local clubs, but don't count on places reaching critical mass for dancing before 1 am. Most clubs are open until 4 or 5 am.
Lyon is renowned throughout France and the world as a center of gastronomic excellence. This enviable reputation draws millions of visitors, and restaurants in Lyon are busy year-round.
Many restaurants carry the title bouchon ("cork-sized" restaurant), offering home-cooked dishes from the Lyon area. Typical dishes include salade Lyonnaise (a simple combination of salad leaves, poached egg, chunks of fried bacon and croutons), andouillette (a strongly flavored tripe sausage) and quenelle de brochet (a large fish dumpling usually baked in a rich seafood sauce).
A popular way to conclude a meal in a bouchon is with a portion of Saint Marcellin (a strongly flavored soft cheese) or with creme brulee. Look for the sign Authentique Bouchon Lyonnaise near the entrance, a restaurant's official recognition as offering the traditional Lyon culinary experience.
Although Beaujolais is the most famous local wine, it's certainly not the first choice of the Lyonnaise, who traditionally have chosen a more serious Cote du Rhone when dining out. Try a St. Joseph or a Croze Hermitage with a typical Lyonnaise bavette (lyonnaise-cut steak) and potatoes au gratin.
Although many foreigners (and Parisians) are put off by some of the more unusual local specialties, such as tablier de sapeur (tripe), andouillette or gratons (greasy, fried snacks), you can always find traditional French cuisine, as well as a variety of regional and international fare, prepared to perfection by Lyon's master chefs.
When dining in Lyon, you'll always get the best deal by ordering a formule, which is a set meal at a fixed price, with the possibility of some individual variation or choice. Most restaurants will offer more than one set menu.
Restaurants are scattered all over Lyon, and many are well worth a walk out of the city center. The greatest concentration of restaurants is on either side of the Saone, in Lyon's old town along Rue Saint Jean and Rue du Boeuf, and in the Presqu'ile along Rue Merciere (but beware of tourist traps). Although reservations are highly recommended in the best-known establishments and on weekends, you'll always be able to find a table without compromising on choice. Also, try the slightly less populous streets leading off Place Bellecour (Rue du Colonel Chambonnet, Place Antonin Poncet and particularly Rue des Marronniers), which offer slightly more tranquil options.
Expect to pay within these general guidelines for a dinner for one, excluding tip or drinks: $ = less than 20 euros; $$ = 20 euros-35 euros; $$$ = 36 euros-50 euros; and $$$$ = more than 50 euros.
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