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  • Writer's pictureKaryn Farrell

Four Days in Lyon: A Guide for First-time Visitors

Food, wine, nature, art and architecture: savouring the unexpected delights in its many lively neighbourhoods


Grand Hôtel-Dieu de Lyon, River Rhone


Vaulx-en-Velin La Soie was our introduction to Lyon. We stepped off the Rhône Express from the airport, bleary-eyed after a 6am flight, onto a sunlit platform. Plants and trees lined the forecourt, casting Ripley-esque shadows on the wall behind as a Gil Scott-Heron tune played over the tanoy. As train stations go, this one was pretty cool. So far, so good.


Vaulx-en-Velin La Soie


This sums up the essence of Lyon to me - a city where one should always expect the unexpected. Quirky, arty, bohemian and beautiful, there are a myriad of reasons why you should visit one of France's most underrated cities. Think Berlin meets Paris, where grand boulevards and squares sit comfortably alongside edgier, post-Industrial neighbourhoods. The people are warm and friendly and the city seems to vibrate with youthful energy. It's got a little something for everyone.


La Préfecture du Rhône


An alluringly understated city, Lyon is made up of a series of nine neighbourhoods or arrondissements, each with its own distinct characteristics and charms. It's a compact city and easily walkable, with ornate bridges crisscrossing the rivers at frequent points for ease of access. The public transport system is excellent too with multiple ways of getting around: take your pick from the tram, Métro, bus, Vélo-V (city bikes) and even a Vaporetto. Details and fare options here.


Les Berges du Rhône


City breaks are always an interesting experience as a traveller. It poses the question - what differentiates one great city from another, and how can you really find its soul in just a few short days? For me, it's a gradual process and it may take a day or two to really sink into it. I like to take time to drink it all in. To walk its streets. To wander off the tourist trail. To sit on a square with a drink and watch the evening unfold. To find a favourite 'local', even if only for a few days.


When it comes to Lyon, the standout moments for me were not found in the tick-the-box tourists sights, but entirely for free along the banks of its rivers, the secret underground passageways, the tiny hidden squares, the remarkable public art and the many lively bars and cafés, perfect for people-watching. Here's my Lyon guide for the first-time visitor with recommendations both on and off the beaten track...


First-time visitors: reasons to put Lyon on your travel wish list

Les Berges du Rhône



Life happens here in the Great Outdoors and its location is one of its greatest selling points. The rivers Rhône and Saône are the focal points of the city, meeting at the Confluence, its southernmost point. Sandwiched between the two, you'll find the Presqu'île, home to the magnificent Place des Terreaux and some of the city's most elaborately beautiful Neo-Classical buildings, the Opera House and the Musée des Beaux-Arts. Head north up some seriously steep inclines to explore the charming streets of the Croix-Rousse and to take in some of the best panoramic viewpoints of the city.

Hôtel de Ville, Place des Terreaux


The old town or Vieux Lyon is the beating heart of the city, and its most popular. Perched on the left bank of the Saône, this neighbourhood is overlooked by the ancient Roman ruins of Lugdunum and the iconic Basilica of Notre Dame of Fourvière. The Parc de la Tête d'Or lies to the northeast of the Rhône while La Confluence to the south has emerged as one of its most up-and-coming neighbourhoods.

City view from Basilica of Notre Dame of Fourvière


Major tourist attractions aside, there were so many things that made me fall in love with Lyon. It feels like a real living and breathing city, a little rough around the edges but softened by the hospitable inhabitants and a pride in its ancient roots.


Unexpected Delights

Art lovers will be bowled over by the extraordinary murals that decorate its walls and buildings - over 100 in total -turning the city into one large open-air public gallery. And best of all, it's entirely for free. The murals are the work of local group CitéCréation - check them out here

Le Mur des Canuts, 36 Bd des Canuts,


Le Mur des Canuts (Wall of the Silk Weavers), north of La Croix-Rousse in the 4th arrondissement, is one of the most remarkable examples, and one of the largest murals of its kind in Europe. Originally painted in 1987 in homage to its 19th century silk weaving history, the scene is a celebration of ordinary everyday life in this historic neighbourhood. Every inch of its surface (all 1200 sq metres...) is intricately and elaborately detailed with colourful buildings, shop facades and residents going about their lives.



The windows are a hive of activity while greenery explodes from the balconies and droops over our heads down below. Or does it? From a distance, it's impossible to believe that this surface is completely flat. It's only when you get close you realise that it's all a trick of the eye and every single aspect has been painted - one of the best examples of Trompe l'Oeil I've seen in some time.



What's fascinating is that the mural has changed over time to reflect the changing nature and identity of the neighbourhood. What we see today is a totally different scene to the one painted in 1987. In fact, it's been completely transformed twice, again in 1997 and most recently in 2013. The information plaque tells us that during the most recent iteration, "they have updated the architecture, facades and shops, aged the characters fifteen years, added to families, given life to the squares, stairways and alleys, and given this new version a dimension of equity and sustainability". How utterly fantastic.


Getting there: Métro stop Henon on line C - it's visible almost immediately upon exiting the station


La Fresque des Lyonnais


Another iconic example of their work is La Fresque des Lyonnais, tucked away down a side street in the 1st arrondissement, just off the banks of the Saône. A celebration of 2000 years of Lyonnais history, this work gives a nod to 30 of Lyon's most celebrated figures, historic and contemporary, ranging from Emperor Claudius during ancient Roman rule to Antoine de St-Exupéry. author of Le Petit Prince; from Sainte Blandine, patron saint of Lyon, to Paul Bocuse, internationally-renowned restaurateur and local culinary hero.



The group have cleverly placed the modern day figures at street level and the depth of perspective is extraordinary - it's almost as if they've stepped out of their doors to greet you. The level of detail is fantastic - unsurprisingly, it took them nine months to complete it.

Look up, and it's hard to believe that those figures are not actually peering out of their windows and balconies to wave to you and the other residents down below. Easily a place to lose an hour. The information plaque at the bottom gives a good introduction to the featured celebs. It's worth noting that there are lots of smaller wall paintings dotted around the neighbourhood too so make sure to take a wander.


49 quai St Vincent and 2 rue de la Martinière



Droit dans le Mur

Droit dans le Mur - literally Straight into a Wall. Keep an eye out for these excellent public sculptures by street artist CAJ. It's a disconcerting experience to stumble upon a pair of disembodied limbs which appear to kick and thrash above your head, its upper body firmly wedged in the wall.


Pictured: Rue de l'Abbé Rozier Lyon 1er

*Two other examples can be found at Rue de Fargues, Lyon 1er, and Montée Saint Sébastien, Lyon1er



The secret passageways of Lyon

Everyone loves a secret passageway, right? Well there are hundreds to be found across the city, mainly in the historic Vieux Lyon and Pentes de la Croix-Rousse areas. Known as traboules, this network of secret alleyways and staircases was vital to the silk industry for the secure transportation of its wares to the markets. And apparently during WWII, they were also used by the French Résistance.


Today, only some of them are publicly accessible, like the famous one pictured above which runs between 54 Rue Saint-Jean and 27 Rue du Bœuf. Visitors are warned that this is still a residential building and to respect those who live there by keeping quiet while wandering through.


To see where they are located across the city, this site is a good introduction


On your bike

Take advantage of this cycling-friendly city by renting a bike. For just €4 per day, the Vélo-V City Bike Scheme is excellent and easy to use with stations dotted all over the city. It's a great way to get around, but also to get a slice of local life along the lively banks of the two rivers where everyone seems to hang out. The infrastructure is super and mostly off-road, with clearly marked pedestrian and cycle paths. What really stood out to me was how green this city is. There are trees everywhere - it's glorious.


Picture the scene: it's a sunny Sunday morning on the Berges du Rhône. The quayside is alive with joggers, walkers and cyclists. The less actively inclined line its banks, sipping coffee and chatting with friends. The water is a glorious turquoise blue, reflecting the fluffy white clouds above. But best of all - the air is alive with the sound of birdsong.

Birdsong is an understatement. It's like a noisy choir singing in multiple harmonies, and the sweet sound follows you as you walk along the river bank. And then we saw them. Hundreds of tiny birds hidden in the bushes that line the quayside. Further investigation led us to a mini nature reserve, right in the heart of the city, which supports a vast range of biodiversity including frogs, beavers, insects, ducks and herons. The most common bird-types to be found here are wagtails and kingfishers. Sadly we weren't lucky enough to see the latter but my heart was filled with joy at this most unexpected of discoveries.

The nature reserve is located between the Pont de la Guillotière and the iconic Berge Karen Blixen with its outdoor swimming pool and strange extraterrestrial lighting system. Click here for more details on this eco-project


Cyling on Les Berges du Rhône


Lyon was actually the first city in France to introduce a shared city bike scheme, all the way back in 2005, and today is ranked as one of the best cities to cycle in France. The tracks along the two rivers are safe and family-friendly, and people of all ages make use of them every day. We made our way from Confluence in the south all the way to Parc de la Tête d'Or in the north, cycling under its many beautiful bridges and admiring the fabulous buildings lining its banks, none more so than the salubrious Grand Hôtel-Dieu de Lyon on the left bank of the Rhône

View of Grand Hôtel-Dieu de Lyon from Les Berges du Rhône


The section closest to the park is tree-lined, providing a welcome reprieve from the scorching afternoon sun. In the evenings, as apéro hour kicks in, the quaysides are heaving with people and there are countless places to stop off for a refreshing Spritz or two. As you might expect, it's a little pricier down here than in some parts of the city but with views like this, it's worth it.


Les Berges du Rhône



Parc de la Tête d'Or

Main gates: Parc de la Tête d'Or


The elaborately ornate gates above signaled the entrance to the Parc de la Tête d'Or. An popular green space in the northern 6th arrondissement, this is the largest urban park in France, sprawled across an enormous 17 hectares. On a searingly hot Saturday afternoon, the place was unsurprisingly heaving with people. A word to the wise - bring water and buy your ice-cream before entering - the queues were pretty lengthy.

Boating: Parc de la Tête d'Or


After hours of cycling, our legs had given up so we ditched our bikes at the entrance and made our way to the boat hire hut at the pier. There's no option to book online at present so you'll most likely need to queue, especially if the weather is warm. Opt for a rowboat, slider (pedal boat) or an electric boat - rates here - and enjoy a relaxing half hour or so on the lake. NB: one piece of ID is required per rental.


We went for the electric Batelec option, which took chilled-out to a whole new level. Let's just say we were overtaken by a duck and that's all you need to know. It's a relaxing way to cover a lot of ground in a short space of time, and being out on the open water, surrounded by a lush green landscape is pretty idyllic.


The park is also home to a rose garden and a Botanic Garden, not to mention a zoo, and has oodles of cool facilities for kids. Click here to find out more.

 

Back on the beaten track: Lyon guide for first time visitors


Musée des Beaux Arts

Sculpture Garden, Musée des Beaux Arts


An entranceway off the busy Place de Terreaux leads to an unexpected oasis of tranquility - the sculpture garden of the Fine Art museum. On a deliciously balmy morning, the sunlight dappled through the trees and as my eyes adjusted, I noticed figures dotted throughout the courtyard, under the trees. But not just any figures - here you'll find two exceptional works by Rodin, just a taster of more to come inside the museum, alongside Delorme's fantastic Flute Player and a terrific collection of other 19th century French sculptures.


Sculpture Garden, Musée des Beaux Arts


The permanent collection inside is no less impressive, featuring works by Rubens, Délacroix, Picasso, Matisse, Monet, Gauguin and many more. I was taken with the works of the Lyonnais painters of the 19th century, particularly those of Louis Janmot and Hippolyte Flandrin (I noticed later that day that there was a street named after the latter), and the collection of Manet's is second to none. Also, the portrait of painter Paul Chenevard by Courbet is a showstopper.


Ticket prices: €8 per adult (you can come and go as often as you like in one day) All other ticket options here

Musée des Beaux Arts 20 Pl. des Terreaux, 69001 Lyon, France



Lugdunum: the Roman Amphitheatres

The large theatre, Hill of Fourvière


Lyon has a rich history dating back to 43 BC when it was founded by the Romans, hence the not-at-all French sounding name of Lugdunum. Overlooking the city on Fourvière Hill, you'll find two extraordinarily well preserved amphitheatres, the Large Theatre and the Odeon, dating to the 1st century BC and 2nd century AD respectively.


The large theatre, Hill of Fourvière


Set into the slope of a hill, the Large Theatre is a magnificent sight to behold with uninterrupted views of the rooftops of the city and of the Alps in the far distance. In its heyday under Hadrian, it was extended to seat over 10,000 spectators. And yes, the acoustics today are still terrific.


The Odeon, Hill of Fourvière


The Odeon is the smaller of the two, and could seat up approximately 2,500 spectators. Today, the two amphitheatres are used to host concerts, festivals and other events, including the renowned multidisciplinary festival Les Nuits de Fourvière which kicks off this year on 30th May. As you can see above, the extensive rigging system is currently being set up. What a wonderful experience that would be. Another reason to come back I guess.


Free to visit - open access.

6 rue de l'Antiquaille - 69005 Lyon 5ème



Getting to Fourvière Hill:


If you feel like bringing on an early cardiac arrest, then you could of course walk up to Fourvière Hill. A mere 798 steps on one side, or a steep 228 on the other - take your pick. The day before we visited Lugdunum, we foolishly decided to walk up to the Basilica of Notre Dame - see pics below. It's steep as hell and, in the full heat of the day, a tough climb.



So my advice would be - save your legs and take the funicular. Believe me, you'll easily clock up your steps every day in this city so take the easy option when you can. We were averaging 15kms walking per day, and we also used bikes and public transport. Don't be a martyr.



There are two funicular lines: F1 - Saint-Juste (for access to Lugdunum) and F2- Fourvière (for access to the Basilica), both of which depart from the Vieux Lyon Métro station. Bear in mind the funiculars are tiny and can only take a limited amount of people on one trip so you'll most likely have to wait.


Tip: the F2 line for Fourvière is usually far longer than the one going to Lugdunum (F1). But the reality is that it's only a short walk from the F1 stop to the Basilica so save time queuing and take that one instead.


Musée des Confluences

This museum of natural history, science and anthropology is worth visiting for the building alone. As the name suggests, it's located at the meeting point of the two rivers in this newly regenerated area of Lyon in the 2nd arrondissement. The architecture is striking - like something dropped to earth from space - all sharp geometric angles with multiple facades. Make sure to visit the roof terrace to take in the fantastic city views.


The permanent collections are fascinating, focused on the origin of the species and the evolution of man. I particularly loved the natural history rooms and kids will absolutely adore it. The curation is excellent too.



 

We also managed to squeeze in visits to the two other main sites in the city: Cathédrale Saint-Jean-Baptiste and the Basilica of Notre Dame of Fourvière. Both have been written about to death so there's no need for me to go into any great details about either of them. But what you may not know is that the Basilica on the hill, which has become the unofficial emblem of the city, is actually only 152 years old. The interior is a feast of gold and elaborate décor on every square inch of wall and ceiling which led my beloved husband to wonder if this is what a church decorated by a Kardashian would look like.... And once that was said, I couldn't unsee it. The views from the terrace are spectacular though.



So if I had a choice of visiting just one, Cathédrale Saint-Jean would win every time. Dating from the 12th to the 16th century, it has an extraordinary history which includes the crowning of Pope John XXII and the marriage of Henry IV to Marie de Médicis. The facade is absolutely stunning too.



 

Lyon illuminated by night


Cathédrale Saint-Jean-Baptiste, Basilica of Notre Dame of Fourvière and Palais Justice 24 Colonnes


Key buildings like Opera, Place de la Bourse and Hôtel de Ville are undoubtedly impressive by day but it's at night when they really come into their own and the city is transformed. In fact, all of the major architectural features in the city are beautifully illuminated when night falls. A walk along the river at night is recommended to get the full effect as the buildings are reflected beautifully in the water.


Look out for the striking The Weight of Oneself sculpture on the waterfront opposite the Palais de Justice.



 

Eating and Drinking

Grive Epicier Bistrotier


If you've done some research, you'll already know that Lyon is the gastronomic capital of France, boasting a whopping 4000 restaurants. Let's just say you won't go hungry. You will also have the opportunity to enjoy some of the finest wines in the world here. Sandwiched between the Burgundy region to the north, and the Rhône to the south, this is a wine lovers paradise with superb glasses of Beaujolais, Brouilly and Côtes du Rhône served as standard in every establishment. Let's just say, I was very happy to carry out some research on this - purely for my readers' benefit, bien sûr.


Vieux Lyon, Quartier St Georges


So here's a rundown of the places we enjoyed. Just a note to say that we opted not to eat in any of the traditional bouchons as I find those heavy dishes quite oppressive in hot weather, no matter how delicious. Instead, we tried out some of the newer, more casual spots offering French dishes with an innovative twist, and wine bars offering a shared- plates style menu.


Odessa Comptoir, 14 Rue René Leynaud, 1er

Lured in by the inviting facade, we sat at the bar, chatted to the staff and scoffed shared plates of tapas-style dishes like Patatas Bravas and chargrilled vegetables with feta, washed down with a delicious bottle of Brouilly.


Tip: order the Chorizo Buns - they come warm from the oven & are pretty inspired


Les Assembleurs Préfecture, 12 Rue Mazenod, 3er

We enjoyed the relaxed, chatty vibes in this rustic wine bar, and the friendly staff. Their USP is a huge selection of wine on tap. But fear not - this is France of course and they take their wine very seriously - each one is carefully chosen and comes at a very reasonable price point. Wines come by the glass, carafe and litre. Glasses start from €4, carafes from €14 and a litre from €24. Santé!


To note: Their cheese board is seriously good and huge, so beware of over-ordering. We ordered five shared plates and couldn't finish them. Good value for money.



Hopstore, 27 Rue de la Martinière

One of our favourite places in Lyon. Hugely popular (forget about getting an outdoor table in the evenings), the Hopstore serves refreshing craft beers and some top-notch pub grub. Arrive hungry.



Staff are warm and friendly, service is great, the tunes are on the money and the beer goes down too easily. A hard place to leave...



HEAT, 70 Quai Perrache, 2er

It's party-time at HEAT all day long... This hipster food hall in the Confluence area offers a number of different street-food options, a bar and an ongoing programme of events. Order your food at the machine, collect at the food truck, grab a beer, find an outdoor table and enjoy some banging tunes at 3 in the afternoon, courtesy of the onsite DJ. PS the halloumi burgers are delicious.




Copper Roots, 1 Rue Dumont d'Urville, 4er

This was the most upmarket of all the restaurants we visited. Located to the north of La Croix-Rousse in the 4th arrondissement, it's a little off the beaten track but worth the trip. The interior décor is slick and cool - all stripped brick and low lighting - but you'll want to sit in the outdoor terrace at the back.


They pride themselves on their excellent cocktails (we concur) and their creative dishes - French with an Asian twist. The pan fried bar (a firm, meatier version of seabass) was exceptional, served on a bed of coconut-infused rice & crispy vegetables. The menus are very good value: €39 for three-courses, €48 for a five-course tasting menu and €74 for the tasting menu with cocktail pairing.


Grive Epicier Bistrotier, 1 rue du Viel Renversé Croisement, Pl. Benoît Crepu, 5er

The biggest selling point here is the terrific location on the banks of the river Saône, its expansive outdoor terrace offering fantastic city views, surrounded by trees and attractive buildings. Located on the outskirts of Vieux Lyon, away from the mad raucous energy of its inner streets, this part of town has a much more chilled-out vibe and the terrace is somewhere you will definitely want to linger. The golden light at sunset is a sight to behold.



Menus are seasonal and written on a chalkboard with a selection of vegetable, fish and meat dishes - small plates designed for sharing. They're pricier than average but the location is worth it.

Tip: let the sommelier choose your wine for you. Lose any notions of a snooty, pretentious figure with an attitude -

he's a cool character with a ponytail and trainers with a huge passion for good and affordable wines. He was entirely on the money with our Côtes du Roussillon


Bars

We loved the relaxed atmosphere in Le Traquenard, a solid recommendation from our server in Les Assembleurs. With a wide selection of beers, wines and cocktails, they also serve food. Located off the eastern banks of the Rhône, this area around Cours de la Liberté has a much more local vibe, and more pocket-friendly prices.

39 Cr de la Liberté, 3er



We also liked La Pompette, a small but atmospheric bar which is a perfect spot to round off an evening. Staff are friendly, and you can get an excellent glass of wine for €6. They're also known for their cocktails, if you're so inclined. You can't miss it - the neon-pink sign is a giveaway. It's close to the Cordeliers Métro stop.

12 Rue Palais Grillet, 2er


The streets of Vieux Lyon and the bottom of La Croix-Rousse are lined with bars, with tables sprawled out onto the pavements. You'll be spoiled for choice, though we preferred the bars on the quieter side streets.

 

Where we stayed:


Hotel Charlemagne


Looking for a reasonably priced hotel but don't want to compromise on comfort or location? Hotel Charlemagne ticked a lot of boxes for us. First up, can I pay homage to their beds? We both said it was the best bed we'd ever slept in: huge and comfortable - like sleeping on a cloud. And then there was the breakfast... How about waking every morning to the smell of freshly baked bread and croissants? The selection is my idea of heaven: crusty bread, a vast selection of excellent cheeses and meats, fresh fruit, yoghurt, honey and warm-from-the-oven pastries. Divine!


The location was great too, close to Perrache train station with a tram stop and two Vélo-V bike stations across the road. It's located in the newer neighbourhoods to the south of the city, close to the Confluence, but the main hubs are easily accessibly on foot or on public transport. Métro Line A is a five-minute walk.



We woke every morning to the sound of church bells from Sainte-Blandine across the park, and had a little balcony to sit out and enjoy the evening sun after a day's adventuring. Oh, and we also had a bath. Staff were really friendly and helpful, and it's terrific value for money. The focus on sustainability was impressive too. One of my favourite things was the water station, with refillable sparkling and still water on tap available for free to to all guests 24/7. I really wish more hotels would follow suit.


Hotel Charlemagne, 23 Cr Charlemagne, 2er


 

Getting there



Fly direct with Aer Lingus from Dublin to Lyon-Saint Exupéry Airport. The easiest way to get to the city centre is the Rhône Express stopping at either Lyon Part-Dieu or Vaulx-en-Velin - La Soie. Both will give you access to the Métro network in less than 30 mins. It's not cheap but it's the quickest way to get into town. It's €26 return if you buy online and €29 if you buy at the station.


If you're planning on using public transport, get a Lyon Transport Card - they're convenient, reasonably priced and cover Métro, tram and bus.


Bon voyage!


Karyn xx

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