By Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore
By Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore
With Eurostar now offering a direct service from London to Lyon for the first time (taking just over four and a half hours door to door) the ancient city is experiencing a revival in its own right. It is now considered by many as the capital of French culture and food.
Nestled half way between the mountain and the sea, Lyon was founded in the first century BC and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The city came to prominence in the Renaissance era as a silk-weaving centre, and today is a hub for the pharmaceutical and biotech industries.
Travellers new to Lyon should head straight to the old town with its Roman ruins, Renaissance architecture and sweeping hills. In the winter, when Lyon is bitingly cold, brighten up a trip with the traditional Fête des Lumières or festival of lights. Artists project their installations onto Lyon’s most majestic monuments and thousands of candles are placed in apartment windows, illuminating the city.
Summer, which is probably the best time to visit, sees Lyon celebrate the arts with a two-month long Les Nuits de Fourvière festival, during June and July. Held in the great Roman amphitheatres that overlook the city on Fourvière hill, and several other venues spread across town, the festival pushes boundaries with new work as well as showing trusted favourites. See jaw-dropping equestrian theatre and circus, Shakespearean plays, and world-famous pop acts. Past appearances have included Björk, Tim Robbins, of The Shawshank Redemption fame, and French ballerina legend Sylvie Guillem.
Start any trip with a stroll around Vieux Lyon, the old Renaissance quarter that sits seductively at the bottom of Fourvière hill. Myriad quaint coffee and ice cream shops mark good places to have a rest. For a Lyon speciality try the brightly coloured tarte aux pralines or brioche aux pralines – both sweets are made from praline, a concoction of almonds wrapped in cooked sugar and coloured in garish pink.
Vieux Lyon is also home to the traboules or hidden passageways that act as shortcuts through buildings to the streets beyond. Once used as escape routes from the Germans in World War Two, today residents still pass through the secret walkways to save time. Look out for those discreetly marked for visitors outside doorways – you too can sneak through them.
Next, take the funicular to Fourvière hill to visit the gleaming white Basilique Notre-Dame de Fourvière (8 Place de Fourvière) which was built in the late 19th century; its bell tower is topped with a gilded gold statue of the Virgin Mary, to whom the building is dedicated. The basilica, and the Roman ampitheatres which also sit on Fourvière, have extraordinary views over the city.
For a dose of traditional art, visit the Musee des Beaux-Arts (20 Place Bellecour) across the river from Vieux Lyon. Less overwhelming than the great art museums in Paris, it none the less has some beautiful pieces as well as a rooftop terrace restaurant to relax in afterwards. If you prefer something more modern, take a cab to the Musée d’Art Contemporain (81 Quai Charles de Gaulle). Exhibitions, including some from Asia, often showcase exciting new works. Afterwards take a stroll around the vast Parc de la Tête d’Or (“the park of the golden head”) where the museum is located. There’s a lake where you can hire boats, a free zoo, and endless pretty wooded paths.
Edgier architecture is found in Lyon’s former industrial hub, Les Confluences, which is now undergoing a multi-billion dollar rejuvenation. This is home to the brand new Musée Des Confluences (86 quai Perrache), a natural history museum that sits where the Rhône and the Saône rivers meet. Kids will love the dinosaurs on display as well as the pieces of moon rock and stardust that you can touch. For adults it is worth visiting for the architecture alone, designed by Coop Himmelb(l)au and made from steel and glass to invoke both “cloud” and “crystal”. The museum brasserie, Brewery Confluence, has two Michelin stars and a lunch here is one of the best ways to appreciate the building’s awe-inducing design.
Once in Les Confluences do a spot of shopping at the mall Centre Commercial Confluence (112 Cours Charlemagne) – it has all the big chains including Zara and Apple. Then have a drink at the former sugar factory Le Sucre (50 Quai Rambaud), which turns into a nightclub in the evening, hosting top international DJs, or have lunch at one of the restaurants that sit along the river. Try Le Selcius (43 Quai Rambaud) for a French vibe with a modern twist, in a picturesque spot right on the water. Afterwards hop on the Navette or Vaporetto boats down the river back to the Renaissance quarter – they run every day from just outside the mall and cost just 2 €.
For shopping that is less commercial go to Croix-Rousse, the old silk district that sits on slopes stretching down to the river. This is where the young and funky hang out and the area is stuffed with vintage and ethnic shops, cool cafes, and leather goods stalls. Keep an eye out for the hundreds of murals painted around the city by the CitéCréation cooperative – Croix-Rousse has the very first, and one of the best murals. It depicts the Canuts, or the silk weavers, found on the Boulevard des Canuts and Rue Denfert Rochereau.
Lyon pitches itself as the gastronomic capital of France, with two of the country’s most well known wine-growing regions, the Beaujolias and the Côtes du Rhône, nearby, and is home to the bouchon – traditional restaurants that famously serve nose to tail dining. If you’re feeling daring make sure to try poached veal head, pike quenelle, and cervelle de canut or “silk worker’s brain”, a dip made from fromage blanc mixed with herbs, shallots, and vinegar.
Bouchons are everywhere but it is best to avoid the more touristy ones in the old town. Instead go to Daniel et Denise (36 rue Tramassae) where traditional dishes are served up with finesse, in an old-fashioned dining room, right in the heart of Vieux Lyon – just make sure to book ahead. Nearby, there are also charming tables under the shade of a tree on the relaxing terrace of Le Café-Épicerie (2 Rue du Boeuf). It is well known for its pates and terrines served in jars, and at lunch there is a reasonably priced set menu.
Lyonnaise locals tend to eat in Rue Mercière, a buzzy food street that offers everything from crepe houses to hotdog bars and French brasseries. Delve into a vast array of seafood platters and fresh fish on offer at seafood specialist restaurant, Chez Moss (2 Rue Ferrandière). It has a beautiful dining room with green lined leather booths as well as a large terrace on a street corner where you can watch the world go by. For something a little more modern, try Pléthore & Balthazar (72 Rue Mercière), which mixes quintessential French dishes with a selection of moreish, in vogue tapas and small plates – perfect, washed down with a cocktail.
Don’t go home without taking a morning to walk around Les Halles de Lyon – Paul Bocuse (102 Cours Lafayette), Lyon’s extensive covered market. This is where you can load up your suitcases with French delicacies from macaroons to cakes, salami and French cheeses. Just make sure to bring a big enough suitcase.