Discovering Lyon [first published September 2013]

Lyon is probably not the first destination that comes to mind when planning a holiday in France. I don’t think N and I would ever have thought of going there if it weren’t for the IPC Athletics World Championships. I wanted a proper holiday and N wanted to watch sport so going to Lyon was a pretty good compromise.

Lyon is the capital of the Rhône-Alpes region of France, built around the confluence of the Rhone and Saone rivers, with the Alps to the west of the city. Before we went I was told that the area around Lyon is beautiful but the city itself, despite being the gastronomy capital of France, is not so great. As a result I was slightly dubious about whether I would like the city. Although we would be watching sport for 2 days that still left 3 days in Lyon.

Tired from the journey (involving a bus from Leeds to London, the tube to Heathrow and a flight to Lyon), I was not at my best when we arrived. It was sweltering hot and all I wanted was to get to the hotel, not spend ages at the airport having to pay what felt like an extortionate fee for the shuttle service. Once we got into Lyon proper it was slightly terrifying with the amount of trams and cars coming from seemingly all directions and I was glad to just get to our hotel and rest.

However, refreshed and revived we quickly started to enjoy exploring Lyon. The main part of the city is fairly small but it has plenty to explore. The network of subways, trams and trolley buses makes getting around easy and there are plenty of really accessible (i.e. English language) guides on things to do – including the amazing “Collector” which detailed all of the must visit places, restaurants and shops divided into each area of the city.

I was really surprised by how fantastic Lyon is.

On our main sightseeing day we bought a Lyon City Card which includes access to all public transport for the day as well as free or reduced admission to most of the museums and galleries. We bought our cards at the tourist information office where the staff were really helpful (and put up with my terrible French despite speaking English fluently) and booked us on to a walking tour and river tour of the city. Both were included in the card so this more than covered the cost of the card itself.

If you are thinking of visiting Lyon I would highly recommend the walking tour. We did it on our last full day in the city which was a shame as by the end of it I was brimming with enthusiasm to visit more things than we had time for.

The stunning Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourviere

Starting at Fourviere at the top of the “Praying Hill”, we met our guide in the square outside the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourviere. This beautiful white church was built by the people of Lyon from private funds. It completely dominates the skyline from the lower parts of the city. The views from the basilica are incredible and on a good day you can see Mont Blanc (apparently this also signals rain so perhaps it was a good thing we couldn’t see the Alps). Inside is utterly stunning, richly decorated with colourful mosaics of the history of the city. Our guide told us about the history of the basilica and we had time to wander around the church as well as the crypt below. From Fourviere we walked down the hill, stopping at the two Roman theatres which in the summer host a season of outdoor concerts (Woody Allen was playing the day we arrived in Lyon), through the rose garden and down into Vieux-Lyon – Old Lyon.

Designated as a world heritage site, Vieux-Lyon was almost competely flattened to make way for new buildings. Here the streets only run parallel – if you want to get between streets you have to go via the “traboules”, small alleyways that connect the courtyards of the old houses. Our guide took us through some of these secret passageways, explaining the history of the district. The narrow cobbled streets are packed with fascinating little shops (including one of the few remaining traditional silk workers who will happily show you around his workshop) and Bouchons, the traditional Lyonnaise restaurants, jostling for space for their tables.

We then hopped on a riverboat for a cruise up to Ile Barbe, an island in the middle of the Saone with a fifth century monastery. The tour included some English which meant we weren’t totally in the dark as to what to pay attention to. Cruising the rivers is a really good way to see the city, we got to see much more of Lyon’s other hill Croix-Rousse, the “working hill” where many of Lyon’s high building that once held silk factories are.

After a day of touring the city we spent our final morning visiting the fine art museum. This incredible building is housed in an old monastery and its collection includes works by Monet and Picasso as well as an amazing array of historical objects and artworks.

The gardens of Musee des Beaux Arts de Lyon is a peaceful spot to sit and chill

We completely fell in love with Lyon during our stay and will definitely be going back – particularly as it’s so easy to get there on the TGV (which we travelled on back to Paris). Here’s a short guide to what we got up to in Lyon:

Accommodation – We stayed at the Best Western Charlemagne on the edge of the Confluence district. The hotel was clean, had aircon (essential in Lyon in summer) and friendly English speaking staff.

Getting around – Lyon has fantastic public transport which makes getting around really easy. Free maps detailing the network are readily available at hotels and the ticket machines can be changed to English. Tickets can be bought for a single journey (to be used within the hour) for about €1.70 or an entire day for about €5. Just be warned that the ticket is only used on entry and not exit – I didn’t realise this and ended up throwing away my day ticket in what I thought was the ticket slot for an exit barrier!

Eating out – Although Lyon is famous for its Michelin-starred chefs, a visit to the more traditional (and affordable) Bouchons is a must. Our tour guide told us “you have to love the pig in Lyon” and she was right. The Bouchon we visited was in one of the little squares in Vieux Lyon (there are loads to choose from). We choose from a set menu of traditional Lyonnaise dishes – Lyonnaise salad (which includes bacon), andouilette (a sausage made from bits of the pig I’d rather not identify – it’s not ground up like you would normally expect in sausage meat but does taste like bacon) and a dessert called “brain of the silk worker” a sort of cheese and chives and bread combo. Ok so that doesn’t sound too appetising but it’s always worth trying new things right?!

I also really liked l’Epiaison, a boulangerie just next to the funicular station in Saint Georges which sells beautiful cakes and pastries as well as tasty sandwiches.

Souvenirs – Did you know Lyon is famous for silk and the home of the Hermes silk factory? You can buy beautiful silk scarves from almost anywhere in the city for a good price. I bought one from Soierie Saint-Georges where traditional equipment is used to make incredible bright patterned scarves.

I was impressed by the amount of designer shops in Lyon – the streets between Bellecour and Place des Terreaux are full of big names, proving you don’t have to go to Paris to get your designer fashion fix.

Have you been to Lyon and did you like it? Any recommendations for places to go and things to see within the city?

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