Who follows my Facebook page or my Instagram profile will already know that I spent last May Day weekend in Lyon with my best friend Stefano. Why in Lyon? Actually, the choice of the destination fell on Lyon only for a question of prices, having found the TGV return ticket for less than 60 euros for that weekend – we know that traveling during holidays is not really cheap. I was also excited about going to France, since I had never been there before. Sacrilege!!! How is it possible you hadn’t ever been to France? So, if you were in Lyon for your first time in France, does that mean you’ve never been to Paris? Yes, I’ve never been to Paris – so what? 😀 I still have time, sooner or later I’ll go. But now, no more talk and let’s talk about more interesting things.
Lyon: some general information
Lyon is the third most important city of France, after Paris and Marseille. It is a city of ancient origins, with more than two thousand years of history behind it. It is the capital of the Rhone-Alpes region of France, lies on two hills, called Fourvière and Croix-Rousse, and is crossed by two rivers, the Rhone and the Saône, which merge right in Lyon. It is also the gastronomic capital of French cuisine, good news for gourmets who want to visit the city (you can read the post dedicated to the Lyon cuisine).
The first day of the trip was dedicated to the visit of Lyon old town (Vieux Lyon) and the Confluence district. The tour in the old town started from the Fourvière hill. To get on the Fourvière hill, you need to get to the Vieux Lyon metro station and from there take the funicular. There are two funicular lines: the first goes up towards the Roman Theater, while the second towards the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière. On that day, however, the funicular to the Basilica was out of order. No problem, because the Roman Theater is just a few minutes walk from the Basilica.
The Roman theatre
The first stop of the morning was the Roman Theater.It was built by Emperor Augustus in 15 d.C. and subsequently enlarged by Hadrian. It is the main testimony of the two-thousand-year history of the city of Lyon. It is also one of the largest Roman theaters currently existing. You can get into the theatre for free – one of the few free things in Lyon! From the theatre, going up to its highest point, you can enjoy a fantastic view of the city. Little curiosity: Lyon inhabitants use the theatre for jogging. I’m not kidding, it’s true. So many joggers were there at that time running up and down the steps of the theatre. Of the series: running over two thousand years of history 😀 Next to the theater, stands the Musée de la Civilization Gallo-Romaine, the museum that collects many artifacts from the Roman period of the city.
Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière
Going a little further up the hill, you arrive at the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière. Its location is not accidental, because the Fourvière hill was dedicated to the Virgin Mary, to whom the city owed the exit of Lyon from the epidemic of the Bubonic plague that struck Europe in 1643. It was built in the second half of the XIX century.
Inside, the Basilica is very decorated with frescoes, mosaics, stained glass windows, very elaborate capitals. The crypt is also very beautiful, with images of the Virgin Mary from different parts of the world.
Going up to the roof of the Basilica, you can enjoy a unique landscape over the city. If you don’t want to spend money to climb the roof, you can settle for the landscape that can be seen from the panoramic terrace next to the Basilica. A few steps away is the Tour Métallique de Fourvière, a sort of Eiffel Tower used today as a television tower. You can only look at it from below, because it is not open to visitors.
Next stop of our tour in Lyon old town was Saint-Jean Cathedral, located in the same name square, a few steps from the Vieux Lyon metro station. It was built between the end of the 12h century and the end of the 15th century and has the title of “primitial” because the Christian Lyon community was the first in France.
It is a Gothic-style building with Romanesque elements. Very particular is its facade with a large rose window, on whose inside window St. John the Baptist’s life is depicted.
The interior of the cathedral is very simple, without the glitz seen inside the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière. A must-see inside the Cathedral is the astronomical clock, which dates back to 1598.
Among the alleys of Vieux Lyon
Leaving the Cathedral, we immersed in the alleys of the old town, where you can breathe the atmosphere of authentic Lyon. Actually, this is not entirely possible on weekends, when these alleys are full of tourists, but the “French” atmosphere can still be breathed. Among the alleys you can find many bouchons (restaurants offering typical Lyon cuisine), pastry shops, chocolate shops, shops of Marseille soaps… strangely there are not many souvenirs shops – or maybe I did not notice them – and the few I saw were quite expensive.
Other typically Lyonese things to see are the traboules. They are narrow walkways that connect two streets, two buildings or inner courtyards. There are many traboules scattered around the old town, but only a few can be crossed by tourists. However, it’s important to be silent when crossing the traboules, because the buildings the connect are inhabited – you can see it from the parked bikes or from the hanging clothes. To know the location of the traboules, it is possible to take a free map of the traboules at the tourist office located next to the Vieux Lyon metro stop, or by visiting the website www.lyontraboules.net.
The last stop of the tour of the old town was St. George’s church.
Leaving the church, we decided to reach the Confluence on foot. We walked along the Saône river, on the Presqu’île side. It was nice to see how the palaces and ancient buildings left room for more and more modern ones. Along the way we arrived at the Pôle de Commerces et de Loisirs Confluence, a very modern shopping center with anything and everything. This shopping center is surrounded by state-of-the-art buildings and the dock. Right there nearby I had the opportunity to photograph a swan female in her nest, intent on hatching her eggs.
Resumed the tour under the heatwave after having rested a little at the mall, we arrived at the Musée des Confluences. It is a futuristic building made of metal and glass, located at the point where the Rhone and the Saône rivers merge (hence the name of the district). Inside there is a museum that tells the story of humanity, from its origins to the present day.
The second trip day didn’t start in the best way. On Sunday mornings in Lyon everything is closed… if I say everything, I mean everything (not only in the morning actually, but from the afternoon the thing improves above all in the most tourist areas). We had difficulty finding a place to have breakfast. After an hour of vain attempts, we managed to find a Starbuck’s open in Rue de la République – God bless it! This fact slowed down our schedule.
But it wasn’t over. The first stop of the day was a place outside the center of Lyon, reachable from Place Bellecour by bus 40. Arrived at the bus stop, we read – and it took us a little to understand French 😀 – that the route of the bus would have been diverted due to a demonstration. So we looked for an alternative route. By the C metro line, we arrived at the Cuire station. From there we went on foot in the outskirts, including a descent (which on the return would have been a climb) with a 40% slope – what a struggle! However, when we arrived at our destination, the beauty of the place compensated for exhaustion.
Île Barbe is a small island on the Saône river and is located about 8 km from the center of Lyon. As soon as we crossed the bridge that connects it with the bank of the Saone, we dove into another era. We suddenly found ourselves in the Middle Ages.
At that time, in fact, on the island stood the most powerful abbey in the region, of which only the Église de Notre-Dame remains (which, as seen in the first photo, unfortunately during our visit was closed for restoration). Today the island houses old buildings and remains of the abbey and is inhabited, which is why it is not always possible to visit it.
If you want to take a ride on this island, here are the opening hours:
Monday: 6 am – 6 pm, Tuesday – Friday: 6 am – 8 pm, Saturday closed, Sunday: 6 am – 1 pm.
The Croix-Rousse district
Back in Lyon, we took the subway to the Croix-Rousse stop to start the tour in the district of the same name. A few metres from the metro station, there’s the largest mural in Lyon (and also in Europe): the Mur des Canuts. In its 1,200 m 2, the mural tells the life of the Croix-Rousse district: you can see its buildings, the steps that go up the hill, the bank, the silk shop. The mural has been modified four times, according to the changes in the neighborhood, and its characters have been depicted aged in different versions.
From the mural we moved to Place de la Croix-Rousse, the main square of the district, with the statue of Joseph-Marie Jacquard, the inventor of the same name loom. Lyon has an ancient tradition in silk processing and the Croix-Rousse district was the beating heart of this industry. If you visit the neighborhood during the week, some ateliers offer guided tours explaining the processing of silk. Among these ateliers, the most famous is the Maison des Canuts.
After Place de la Croix-Rousse, we made a short stop at the Jardin de la Grande Côte, from where you can see a beautiful view of the Presqu’île and the old town (Vieux Lyon).
Going down the garden, we arrived at the Grande Côte, a descent of about 500 steps flanked by ancient buildings. At first, however, we went to the nearby Amphitheater of the Three Gauls, which could only be seen from the outside because it was closed.
After the Grande Côte, you arrive at the Presqu’île (peninsula), the tongue of land between the Rhone and the Saône, which then flow into the Confluence. The tour of the Presqu’île started at Place des Terraux, where you can admire the majestic Hôtel de Ville, the town hall of Lyon, the fountain of Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi (unfortunately closed for restoration) and the palace that houses the Museum of Fine Arts.
Behind the Hôtel de Ville, there is the Opera House.
The elegance of the Presqu’île
In the Presqu’île there are also the elegant Rue du Président Édouard Herriot and Rue de la République, two streets with nineteenth-century buildings, where many institutions, banks and administrative offices are located, as well as cafés, restaurants and shops of all the main international brands. Also to be seen are Place Bellecour and Place des Jacobins.
Place Bellecour is the main square of Lyon and is one of the largest in Europe. At the centre of it, you can see the equestrian statue of Louis XIV, while on the western end is the one of the Little Prince. You’ll often bump into the Little Prince while walking through Lyon, because its creator, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, was born in this city.
Last stop of the tour in the Presqu’île was the Fresque des Lyonnais, but first deserved a brief stop the Église de Saint-Nazier, a Gothic style church, sadly known for the massacre of the canuts during their revolt in 1831.
La Fresque des Lyonnais is another mural that covers the entire facade of a building, but it’s smaller than the Mur des Canuts. It recounts two thousand years of Lyon history with 25 historical (including Emperor Claudius, the Lumière brothers, the Little Prince) and 6 contemporary figures.
Musée Miniature et Cinéma
The last stop of our Lyon tour was the Musée Miniature et Cinéma (Museum of Miniatures and Cinema) in the old town. It was a nice way to end our trip and I recommend visiting this museum. The museum is housed in one of the most beautiful buildings in the old town, the Maison des Avocats.
Most of the collection is about cinema, with original objects from the sets of different movies and TV series, including the mask of Mrs. Doubtfire worn by Robin WIlliams, the mask of V for Vendetta, Alien Queen of Aliens Vs. Predator, the X-men Mystica suit, etc. The last two rooms are dedicated to miniatures, with more than 100 realistic mini-reconstructions of everyday living environments.
The trip ended with a delicious dinner based on Lyon specialties, inside one of the many bouchons in the old town.
Lyon is a city that can be visited for a weekend. My itinerary didn’t include the many museums the city offers, apart from the one of cinema that I highly recommend. In Lyon, all museums are charged and the city itself is not very cheap, so be prepared.
If you stay for several days or even for a weekend, but intend to visit many museums, I suggest that you buy the Lyon Card (if you’re interested in buying it, clich here), the card that includes the unlimited use of public transport and the entrance to the city’s museums for the number of days you buy. If, like me, you are interested in enjoying the city and neglecting the museums, you should buy a ticket for public transport for several days (in my case, the one for 48 hours costed 11 euros).
Would I recommend a visit to Lyon? Absolutely, so organize yourself even just for a weekend.
Here is the video of the trip taken from my YouTube channel: